November 04, 2010
If a little calling is good, a whole lot of calling might be a whole lot better.
The sun was just kissing the eastern horizon to start a new day when I heard the nearly imperceptible sounds of a fawn bleat. With the wind calm and a heavy frost covering the Kansas countryside, I knew the deer was still far up a heavily timbered ridge. Still, I trained my binoculars in the direction of the sound to see what might be headed my way.
A decoy used in conjunction with calling can be the final step needed to pull a buck in close.
Before long I heard the steady, measured crunching of a large animal walking through dry leaves in the saddle above me, and moments later I caught sight of a forlorn-looking button buck as he plodded in my direction. As he trudged down the gentle slope, emitting a soft, nasal bleat with nearly every step, he looked as if he'd just lost his last friend. Without pausing, he crossed the bench that held my treestand and dropped down into the valley beyond, where I eventually lost sight of him in the thick cover bordering the creek below me.
Not long afterward, more deer music reached my ears, and I turned to scan the ridge once more. A doe was coming at a much quicker pace than the button buck, and as leaves crunched loudly under her hooves, she sent plaintive bleats echoing off the surrounding hillsides. With the chasing phase of the rut at hand on this early November morning, I didn't hesitate to ease my bow from its resting place and prepare for what might follow.
Reaching the bench, the big doe stopped, scanned the valley before her, and then glanced nervously toward her back trail. Predictably, the tending grunts of an amorous buck drifted down the ridge, and as the buck marched into view with his nose to the ground, I pressed myself against the trunk of the gnarly, old oak to blend into the bark. As he came up behind the doe, I tried to calm my pounding heart while judging the buck's antlers.
With four long points per beam and an inside spread of perhaps 18 inches, this buck was tempting. But I knew far bigger bucks cruised these woods, so I held my fire as the doe and buck continued on and disappeared into the valley.
Shortly after that, things got really crazy. Crashing sounds like a bulldozer tearing up the woods rose from the valley, along with grunting, bleating, bawling, and a couple of violent snort-wheezes followed by the clashing of antlers as two or more bucks parried for the services of the big doe.
The ruckus went on for many minutes before a pair of combatants, apparently having had enough, came marching up the ridge; first the same 8-pointer I'd passed earlier, followed by a dandy 10. Although the 10-pointer had four broken points and a broken main beam, he was a mature deer with a lot of character. As he slipped across the ridge above me, I stopped him with a sharp grunt and sent a heavy arrow through his vitals, ending perhaps the most exciting morning of deer hunting I've experienced in more than 30 years of bowhunting whitetails.
It's no secret that deer calling works, but many hunters rely only on grunt calls and rattling. Sure, start with those basics, but don't stop there. As I witnessed during that one morning in Kansas, whitetails produce a broad range of sounds, and every sound has value in pulling deer within bow range. To enjoy maximum deer-calling success, learn to mimic the whole herd.
Deer bleats are most often associated with fawns, but does regularly bleat too. A bleat is a contact call saying, "Here I am, where are you?" Bleats are often very subtle, as in the opening story, but they can also be urgent, as when a fawn is hurt or in trouble.
By rattling on the ground, you can add realism by pounding the butts of the antlers on the ground to simulate hoof beats.
I clearly remember the first deer I ever called into bow range, a huge North Dakota doe that nearly bowled me over after I'd completed a loud, panicked series on an old Burnham Brothers bleat call. Bleats -- especially the softer variety -- can work throughout the season. But urgent bleats have worked best for me early in the season when fawns are still with their mothers.
GruntsMost people associate grunt calls only with mature bucks, but all deer make grunting noises, including does and fawns. Again, most grunts are contact calls made throughout the year, but as the rut approaches, bucks turn up the grunting and get louder and more aggressive.
When a big buck gets angry or frustrated, his grunts can turn into a virtual growl lasting several seconds, or he can run a series of staccato-like grunts together, ascending in force and volume, usually after he takes off after an unwilling doe. I have grunted-in whitetails every month of the year, both while hunting during the fall and while scouting during the off-season. The grunt call may be the most versatile of all.
My preference is for the aggressive grunting that comes with the approaching rut, because bucks often react quickly and violently. I once grunted in a P&Y deer in Missouri in conjunction with a decoy, and by the time he'd stalked into range, the buck was so angry that he charged the decoy without hesitation and literally blew it to pieces!
A bawl is a long, drawn-out doe sound, very nasal and plaintive, and based on my experience, I believe does make this sound when they're actually ready to breed. I witnessed an amazing whitetail encounter on a Nebraska ridge a few years ago as a big buck bred a yearling doe five times within 50 yards of my stand.
The doe's bawling played a key role in the encounter. The initial breeding was short lived, after which the buck began walking away. But the doe had other plans! Squatting down, she dragged her derriere through the dry forest clutter while emitting the most plaintive bawl I have ever heard. Immediately the buck charged over and mounted her again. The pair repeated this scenario three more times before they headed off to parts unknown, but the doe's bawling was like a switch to turn on that particular buck's libido, and it definitely worked. Since then, I have used a similar bawl to call bucks within range. It seems to work when all else fails.
The snort-wheeze must be like one buck insulting another's mother or heritage or manhood because it very often ends up in a nasty fight. Bucks create the snort-wheeze by expelling air, and if you've seen it performed up close, you know it involves a fair amount of saliva. Rarely does a snort-wheeze scare another buck, and most of the ti
me bucks will come all the way in, or at least come closer for a better look.
This past year in Kansas, I was watching a picked cornfield full of does early one morning when a 170-class buck stepped from the dense cover on the other side of the field. My doe bleats, grunts, and even a seductive bawl brought no response from the buck. So I shot him an in-your-face snort-wheeze.
Immediately he crossed the field, came down through a wooded creek bottom, and trotted up the ridge right in front of me. Unfortunately, the wind swirled before I could get a shot, but this vignette left little doubt about the drawing power of the snort-wheeze.
I rattled-in this 200-pound Manitoba buck on a cold October morning.
Rubbing obviously is not a vocalization, but it is a sound that whitetails make, and it can bring deer within range. Rubbing is simply the sound bucks make as they rub their antlers on brush and trees, and you can easily duplicate it by rubbing your rattling antlers on limbs or brush around your treestand or ground blind.
On cold, calm mornings, I've heard bucks rubbing from quite a distance, and many times this sound attracts other bucks to the area. I've even called-in bucks unintentionally by breaking sticks and limbs while clearing shooting lanes, presumably because the approaching deer thought another buck was creating the ruckus.
Similar in nature would be making crunching sounds in the dry leaves or pounding sounds to simulate a running deer (see "Jigging for Bucks," by Curt Wells). Again, these are not vocalizations, but they're natural deer sounds that can draw deer near your stand.
When I first started bowhunting, rattling was thought of as a Texas tactic because it first gained popularity in Texas. In fact, some outdoor writers went so far as to say that rattling didn't work elsewhere because you couldn't rattle-in bucks in areas with low buck-to-doe ratios -- which describes a lot of whitetail country across North America.
Well, I can tell you that rattling -- the simulation of two bucks fighting -- can and does work anywhere. I've bowhunted whitetails in more than a dozen states and provinces and have rattled deer into bow range everywhere. Personally, I like to rattle aggressively, but a soft, tickling of rattling antlers is sometimes even more effective, especially early in the season before the rut heats up.
Don't worry about making too much noise. Most bowhunters, by nature, think in terms of stealth and are afraid they might scare deer with aggressive rattling. But I'm here to tell you that no matter how hard you rattle, you cannot duplicate the volume of two angry whitetails going at it.
Several years ago, I was rattling on the ground in North Dakota with my good friend and hunting partner Larry Benke. At our last setup of the day, we were having no results with mild calling and rattling. So, in desperation, I beat the horns together and kicked the ground with so much force that my hands stung and my legs ached.
Immediately an 8-point buck, with ears laid back and hackles at attention, charged in and skidded to a halt at a distance of 10 feet! We were both caught off-guard so badly that we never even got a shot. But we certainly witnessed the power of aggressive rattling.
Calling deer is far from an exact science, and what works today may not work tomorrow. Still, in my opinion, nothing matches the excitement of calling deer within range, and few techniques will put venison in the freezer and trophies on the wall as consistently as calling. Just remember: Don't get stuck in a rut with one or two calls. To gain the full reward, simulate the whole herd.
Author's Notes: To learn the specifics of deer vocalizations, contact the numerous call manufacturers who sell instructional materials. Commercial calls work very well, but don't overlook your own vocal cords. I have learned to call deer with my voice, and you probably can too.
The author is a regular Bowhunter Contributor from Parkers Prairie, Minnesota.