December 06, 2023
For many bowhunters across North America, the craziness of the 2023 whitetail breeding season is about to take a 180-degree turn as the beauty of autumn and its glorious rut turns into the stillness of late season.
And as Christmastime approaches, that’s a good thing, right, because isn’t deer hunting a pastime that's best spent by a bowhunter endeavoring to be as quiet as a church mouse, something that seems entirely appropriate during December’s season of peace and good will?
Not always, and certainly not for the late Bob Ramsey, especially when there was a big buck to be rattled in. Because for Ramsey, who passed away in Kerrville, Texas back in December 2009 at the age of 91 and is generally considered the grandfather of the modern-day rattling technique, there never really was a bad time to shake those headbones together.
While other hunters in different parts of the country engaged in the practice of antler rattling in times gone by, the modern era of rattling traces much of its rich past back to Ramsey. When I was privileged to interview him a few years before his death, the then 86-year-old deer-hunting veteran from Hunt, Texas — yeah, that was the actual name of the town he lived in — believed that early or late in the season, any day spent outdoors chasing whitetails was time to make plenty of noise.
While Ramsey wasn’t much of a bowhunter, his techniques work for any deer hunter, even those with a late season tag sitting unfilled in the back pocket. Ramsey would have smiled at that thought, since he rarely, if ever, went afield without a set of rattling antlers, or horns as many Texas hunters call them, on the ground that he hunted. In fact, Ramsey, who managed his family's whitetail-rich 5,000-acre Hill Country spread for nearly a half century, became the grandfather of the antler-rattling technique thanks to a small masterpiece he wrote on the subject in 1946, not long after his post-World War II discharge from the U.S. Air Force.
That booklet, titled "How to Rattle Up a Buck," was reportedly published by Texas call-making legend Johnny Stewart in 1952. It explained to curious hunters all across the Lone Star State the concept of violently clashing deer antlers together to simulate a pair of bucks fighting over courtship rights for an estrous doe.
While Ramsey certainly credited Native Americans and Hispanic vaqueros with antler rattling in the 1800s, he first tried the technique himself in 1932 after a lesson from a neighboring Uvalde County rancher named Sam Barkley.
After Barkley showed the youthful Ramsey how to clash a pair of antlers together, the youngster crossed a natural dam onto the western flanks of the Nueces River into a bottom filled with pecan trees to try out antler rattling first hand. He wouldn't have to wonder long about the technique's effectiveness.
"I started rattling and heard some clattering," Ramsey recalled in our interview. "A deer came running down the hill looking all around him for the fight. When he was about 40 yards away, I shot him with a Winchester Model 95 30.06 lever-action rifle."
Modern bowhunting might have been in its infancy back in 1932, but that’s only a few steps away from being in bow range, right?
Whatever the weapon being utilized, that buck was the first of many for Ramsey and for others that he taught antler rattling to via personal instruction and through deer-hunting seminars. And one of those pupils who credited Ramsey for teaching him the antler-rattling technique was the late American novelist James A. Michener.
"In 'Texas' by James Michener, you will see on the first printed page under the acknowledgments on the middle of the page where I taught him how to rattle up a buck and how to knap an arrow caveman style," said Ramsey.
That last statement gives even more insight into the grandfather of antler rattling. Born on July 25, 1918 on Shortly after my visit with Ramsey, I continued the antler rattling discussion with David Blanton, longtime Outdoor Sportsman Group television personality and producer of “Realtree Outdoors.” Down through the years since Blanton met Bill Jordan and the pair made camouflage history, the Georgia deer hunter has found that the technique not only works in the warmth of the Brush Country in South Texas, but also in the snow and bitter cold of the northern Great Plains.
On a frigid hunt in South Dakota once upon a time, Blanton rattled in a 140-inch, 10-point buck a buck that took a starring role in Realtree’s weekly television show as well as in the "Monster Bucks" video series they once produced.
Keep in mind, however, that as with many other things in life, there can be too much of a good thing with antler rattling according to Blanton.
"Hit the horns together for a good 30- to 40-second rattling sequence and then hang them up and resist the urge to hit them again," said Blanton, who has had quite the fall season in 2023 with great bow bucks taken in both Iowa and Illinois.
"That works to the hunter's advantage,” he continued. “Because if a buck has heard it, he may have been 300 or 400 yards away and he comes in and he's not exactly sure where it came from."
Ramsey certainly knew how to rattle successfully himself, having years and years of real-world rattling experience in the Lone Star State. Something of a legend between the Red River and the Rio Grande, he was born on Kent Creek in Texas' Real County, Ramsey attended Uvalde High School and was an all-state football running back prior to getting a biology degree at Texas A&M University.
Reported to be an excellent flint knapper and also a collector of Native American artifacts, Ramsey spent a good portion of his life traveling about, speaking to schools and organizations on wildlife, hunting, and Native American lore.
Sounds like he was pretty close to being an antler rattling bowhunter if you ask me. Anyway, back to Ramsey’s recollections about visiting with Michener.
"We got to be big friends when he was writing the book 'Texas,’” said Ramsey. “He came out here four or five times. He never took notes, never used a tape recorder; he had a photographic memory."
As I recall, so did Ramsey.
Since he tagged that first rattled-up 8-point buck with a 20-inch spread more than three-quarters of a century ago, Ramsey's records and personal recollections at the time of our interview indicated that he had "rattled in" a mind-boggling 2,006 whitetails for himself and other hunters all across Texas and other parts of North America.
For the record, "rattled in" by Ramsey's definition was a buck that comes close enough for the deer's antler points to be counted. And if you’re sitting in a deer stand with a compound bow or trad bow in your hand, that’s not far away from being close enough.
While the former Texas Game and Fish Commission and Y.O. Ranch wildlife biologist admitted that he had used everything from rattling bags, synthetic antlers, a hunting knife knocked against his rifle stock and even a pair of cedar sticks beaten together to rattle up whitetails, Ramsey always preferred to use actual head bones.
In fact, he recommended to me that deer hunters use a solid set of natural antlers or recent sheds from a 10-point buck.
In addition to drilling a hole through the base of each antler through which he would tie an 18-inch piece of cord, Ramsey protected his hands, wrists and watch by removing the brow tines, sanding down any rough burr points and "dubbing off" the antler tips.
Then it was time for the Lone Star State’s Rattle Master to make some whitetail music and deer-hunting melodies, and with any luck, put some venison in the freezer and another set of antlers on the wall.
According to Ramsey, such hopes centered upon conducting a woodsy symphony, and one that involved more than just making a little noise from a deer stand.
"I'll jerk 'em apart and paw on the ground or fight a bush with them," said Ramsey. "I try to make a lot of noise, because when two deer are fighting they don't pay a lot of attention to where they're going (or how much noise they're making).
"In fact, they make more noise on the ground than they do with their antlers, since they're breaking brush, pawing rocks and running into prickly pear."
After a sequence that lasts from a minute to 90 seconds, Ramsey would wait several minutes before beginning another rattling session.
When it finally was time for a hunter to rattle again, Ramsey would then throw a slight change-up into his previous routine.
"The second time, I don't rattle as loud," he told me. "I figure the deer is coming and all I want to do is let him know the fight is still on. If I'm too loud and he's too close, he might locate me."
Since he discovered that nearly every buck that responds to the technique will circle downwind to check for the sound's point of origin, Ramsey would urge deer hunters to make sure that they set up with a long, unobstructed view downwind of their rattling position.
As the author of the PhD course in antler rattling, there were other tine-tickling guidelines from Ramsey, many that would help a bowhunter seal the deal. Those included using the shade of a tree or brush to help break-up a hunter's outline; employing a grunt call and deer decoys to help convince an approaching buck that he's heard a real antler fight; keying in on the first and last hour of daylight; rattling on clear, frosty dawns or cloudy, and drizzly mornings when the overall wind speed is less than 12 mph.
While he agreed that the technique worked better in the days leading up to the peak of the rut, Ramsey also noted that the post-rut phase wasn’t a bad time to rattle either. And true to form, a story in Bowhunter Magazine by Dr. Dave Samuel and Texas wildlife biologist Bob Zaiglin a few years back gives ample proof to that late-season idea too (Link: https://www.bowhunter.com/editorial/feature_articles_bw_rattling_1208/183679 ).
That’s especially true when any young does are coming into estrous for the first time, even after the main autumn breeding circus has wound down.
While Ramsey may have helped to birth the modern-version of the antler-rattling technique in Texas decades ago, before his passing, he had lived to see the technique become widespread elsewhere.
In fact, one fire fighter from Kansas City, Mo. became quite adept at using Ramsey's technique to kill a big Midwestern buck for several years running, and the Rattle Master took great pride in that.
"I sent him that book in 1982 and he said, 'Boy that little book just changed my life,'" Ramsey chuckled towards the end of our interview. "He said, 'I hunt with friends and now I always kill the biggest buck, but I'll never tell them how I'm doing it.'"
Fortunately for the rest of us out there — from firemen to Pulitzer Prize-winning novelists to outdoor writers dreaming of late season bowhunting success — Ramsey lived his life more than willing to come clean with the secrets he had learned about of rattling up big whitetails.
As I write this, there are a couple of books on the shelf behind me in my study, both by Ramsey. One was dubbed “As Texas As It Gets” and the other was titled “Texas Tales,” and you can be sure there’s some discussion about Ramsey’s antler rattling technique contained in those two volumes.
So as November prepares to turn into December, and the craziness of the 2023 rut prepares to wind down, you’ll forgive me if I take a few moments today to refresh myself on the technique that Bob Ramsey helped to popularize.
And who knows, maybe I can even slip out the backdoor this afternoon and head for a late season bow stand with the Midwestern sheds that serve as my set of rattling horns riding shotgun on my hunting pack.
Because even heading into the post-rut, there can be some late season whitetail magic when those antlers are rattled together. Whether smashed about or tickled quietly, antler rattling is a hunting technique that can work early and late for those willing to give it the old college try.
And in many ways, we can thank the late Bob Ramsey for that.