How to Understand Whitetail Deer Sounds
October 24, 2013
It was a typical late-November Minnesota afternoon, replete with steel-grey skies and gusty northwest winds carrying hinted promise of an encounter with a brawny, rutting whitetail buck. Clad in soft insulating woolens, I was comfortably lounging 15 feet up a hackberry tree, scanning for deer movement down the many deer trails that intersected 20 yards from the tree's base.
The trails in front of my stand coursed through the wide floor of a deep ravine, and one of those trails skewed off and dropped over a steep embankment behind me. It continued through a swiftly flowing creek and back up another abrupt hill before it joined several other paths in a broad patch of tangled hardwoods and buck brush. From my standing position, I could efficiently scan the entire area with just a measured turn of my head.
After a short two-hour vigil, I spotted a doe cantering in my direction from about 80 yards up the drainage on the other side of the stream. Every few seconds she would stop, run a zigzag pattern, and then continue on. She was definitely in a hurry, and obviously somewhat harried. I immediately grasped my recurve's handle a bit tighter as I knew only one thing would have her sprinting so erratically.
Then, there he was, a nice fat 4x4, neck outstretched and nose up, following the doe down the trail. To my eye she didn't seem to be in estrus, and this was confirmed when she veered off the trail and took a precipitous route right up the sheer ravine wall! The buck halted, looked the situation over, and instead of continuing a fruitless chase, he resumed his quest down the trail for a possible late-rut interlude.
The buck was out of bow range, and he was on the other side of some pretty rough topography. But, he was in the rutting mood, so I pulled one of my favorite rut tools — a sound-adjustable deer call — from my pocket and put it to my lips. I gave out a staccato series of sharp, tending young buck grunts, and was pleased to see the deer slam on the brakes and bring his senses to bear on me.
I let him stand for a bit until he began twitching his tail and rotating his head, looking for the nonexistent neophyte intruder. I shot him another chorus of high-pitched grunts and then quickly jammed the call into my pocket when he dove into the creek bottom and hastily crested the bank on my side. Once there, he raised his sensitive snout and curled his lip as he hit the scent trail I had previously laid on my trek into the stand.
The combination of calls and steamy estrous scent sent him not to a hot doe but right to a hanging scent rag soaked in fresh doe urine 20 yards from my stand. When he glanced away, I snapped off a shot with my 55-pound recurve and bisected his heart with a four-blade broadhead. The stricken buck vaulted high in the air and then took three remarkable leaps before coming to rest a mere five yards from my tree!
I tell you this story because it illustrates just how quickly a well thought out calling strategy can turn the tables in your favor, even in a seemingly hopeless situation. As a wildlife photographer, I need to get close to my subjects, and calling has lured many whitetails to within range of both my camera and my bow.
I spend hundreds of hours each year on deer photography assignments, through which I have gleaned mountains of firsthand information on deer vocalizations. The first thing I learned is that calling works, and it can work extremely well if carried out properly. However, before attempting to call bucks and does into bow range, you'll need to familiarize yourself with the five most applicable sounds that deer make in the fall and winter.
Waterfowl hunters practice their calling craft with zeal because it's a necessary foundation to that sport. I suggest you do the same and ardently practice until your calls closely mimic real deer utterances. I also advise doing some research on various calls and choosing a call that sounds right to you.
Adjustable calls are excellent choices because you can further tune them to your liking. Spending time learning to call with just your own vocal chords is a bonus, as it allows you to keep a watchful eye on the deer and it keeps your hands free to handle your bow. It's a good idea to record your calls while practicing and then play them back to wholly measure their accuracy.
Calling game of any kind is exciting, but drawing in an edgy whitetail with your favorite call and then sealing the deal at ultra-close bow range is immensely rewarding. I would never hit the field without my calls, and I'll bet my best bow that after honing your calling skills and luring deer that would have otherwise passed by out of range, you'll feel the same way!
Mark Morrison has penned many articles for BOWHUNTER. He is also a prolific wildlife photographer who spends hundreds of hours afield each year capturing behavioral whitetail deer images. His work can be viewed at MercuryOutdoorCommunications.com.