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!
The tending grunt is a series of short grunts that a buck emits when actively chasing an estrous (ready to breed) doe, and it is effective from the beginning to the end of the rut. The manner in which you perform this call will depend on your bowhunting goals. For instance, if you're a trophy hunter, you can keep those grunts fairly deep to high in pitch while mimicking the sound of a lovesick intruder, because a mature whitetail is confident enough that he will come and investigate any challengers he believes are harassing does in his territory.
Conversely, if you are like me and love to eat deer, and you have your eye on a tasty medium-sized buck, keep those calls a little higher in pitch and not so pronounced. After all, a smaller buck isn't going to rocket right in if he thinks a monster buck is waiting to thrash him.
How do you know exactly what a tending grunt sounds like to accurately imitate it? The best way is to spend time in the field, listening to actual deer communication. Another way is to research the subject online and search out sites featuring genuine deer audio clips. The tending grunt is generally carried out by blowing a series of four to eight short buck grunts, and then repeating it as the situation warrants. Personally, I don't employ this call unless I have visual contact with the buck, because I want to see his reaction and call accordingly. Still, blowing the occasional tending series every 20 minutes while on stand to draw out unseen rutting bucks isn't a bad idea.
My next preferred deer call is one I've nicknamed the 'œantlerless tag filler.' Its more common moniker is the fawn bleat. This call copies the high-pitched fawn mew, and it works wonders at drawing in adult whitetail does. This call is a snap to duplicate as several call manufacturers have produced easy to master 'œcan calls' that precisely replicate the fawn bleat. This call is best used in very short series of one to three bleats. You can also produce realistic fawn bleats from an adjustable-reed mouth call. The great thing about this sound is that it can be used to successfully call in does throughout the entire bow season. However, in my experience, it is especially effective in the early season when cover is thickest and deer are more apt to feel separated. As with the tending call, a few well-placed bleats spaced 20 minutes apart can work well at drawing a curious doe from the brush and into bow range.
Another excellent doe lure is the social grunt. Does use this sound when coming into contact with other does and fawns. Many times does emit this single, medium-length, low-pitched grunt when they are contentedly browsing. This call has the added benefit of being an all-season tool, and it can lure bucks in as well, making it a great pre-rut call. The social grunt is also best used in thick cover where deer can't easily identify each other by sight.
For bowhunters seeking to entice heavy-beamed bucks, the buck grunt is the call to employ. It has the advantage of working well throughout bow season, but it is really useful before and after the rut. I've found that bucks hanging out in early season bachelor groups are pretty susceptible to this call. Post-rut bucks that are focused on feeding to replenish lost fat reserves can be called in with this sound, too.
The buck grunt is short in duration, deep, and calm sounding. Bucks use it for many purposes, including showing passive dominance, as a social call, and to display submissiveness. For instance, a group of late-season bucks feeding in a small food plot may jockey for the best chow, and body language along with buck grunts is how they carry out the hierarchy in a peaceful manner.
A few years back, I was perched in an oak overlooking a tall grass meadow ringed by heavy timber. It was an unusually bitter cold early October day, and that had the deer moving. Unfortunately, my calls had fallen on deaf ears, and I could only watch as the deer traveled through the field out of arrow range. A few hours into the sit, I spied an eight-pointer with good mass on the far side of the meadow. I reluctantly pressed the call to my lips and belted out a few loud buck grunts. I barely had time to put the call away and grab my bow as the buck reacted and raced over, appearing like a guided missile not 10 yards out! Sadly, during the rush to get on him, I flat-out missed! That morning was a perfect example of calling success ratios. Eighty percent of the time you'll note no reaction. Ten percent of the time deer may spook due to your calls, but magically, the remaining 10 percent of the time they react just about how we want them to.
Lastly, there's the infamous snort-wheeze call. My experience with this form of deer talk says that bucks use it mostly while they are tending a hot doe and want to roust her from a bed, or when they want to threaten other bucks. Bucks will also snort-wheeze when discovering a fresh estrous doe urine trail or urine deposit at a scrape.
Replicating this unusual sound takes practice, and it should be reserved as a dominant-buck call because it can easily frighten off smaller bucks. I've never personally used it while hunting, but I have observed dozens of bucks communicating this way during the rut, and every time it either preceded breeding a doe or threatening another buck. Interestingly, this past November I was mock charged while photographing a buck after I did my own rendition of the snort-wheeze! This was a wild, free-ranging, bruiser 4x5 that mistook my crouching form and camera system for another buck. Thus, I would use caution with this call, as it's apt to put a buck on high alert or spook him out of the vicinity. If you happen to hunt an area rife with bold, mature bucks, I would definitely add this adrenaline-charged call to your bag of tricks.
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.