The challenge got him. The massive Kansas 8-point had heard everything before that; the deep tending grunt, the meshing and clacking of tines, even the deep, multi-syllabic growl. He was interested, no doubt, taking long seconds to stare my way and process the racket in his grey matter. But his mulling sessions were short, like a used car dealer considering an offer, then tossing it to the curb.
The buck was about to slip away, and I knew it was time for more drastic measures.
So I reached into my pack, found a plastic tube with a little bellows, and snort-wheezed at him. He slammed to a stop, again. But this time something had changed. Not back-hair-bristling dramatic, but a demeanor shift that was clear. The old man had been called out, and he wasn't shirking a dare. When the dark-bodied giant squared up to my stand I whispered, "Gotcha." The buck was coming.
I'd like to report that his antlers are now resting above my desk, but a 3-year old buck -- no slouch of a whitetail, even by Kansas standards -- came in from behind me to confront my dream deer, turning what should have been a slam-dunk into a mini-turf war that resulted in me not shooting anything.
My camo is faded enough that stuff like that doesn't bother me like it once did. And now, these many months later, I am content with this: I had an in-your-face encounter with the biggest 8-point whitetail I might ever see, and I enjoyed that adrenalin buzz because I was toting deer calls.
Whitetail calling is a mysterious business. Fifteen years ago, the few hunters who believed in calling deer argued about which grunt call had the right tone. Now we have doe bleats, bawls and bellows to add to the confusing mix of buck grunts, roars and wheezes. And just to keep things interesting, we have hunters -- some highly successful at that -- who still don't believe in calling to deer at all.
So I guess calling has come a long way since I started deer hunting. And while we know much more than we did even a few years ago, successful deer calling remains equal parts science and art.
THE RUT'S THE THING
It's hard to picture Mark Drury in the timber without a call of some kind. The M.A.D. Calls founder put his stamp on the industry with his turkey yelping prowess, then demonstrated his versatility by using whitetail vocalizations to kill some monster bucks on video. Drury calls throughout the fall but insists the rut is when bucks are most responsive. "I picture the rut as a bell-shaped curve, with the apex hitting about mid-November," he says. "My calling efforts mirror that curve. I call sparingly early, increase the intensity as breeding activity heats up, and taper down as the post-rut kicks in."
Drury has introduced some ground-breaking deer calls to the market, including the "Growl" which imitates the guttural, drawn-out and aggressive vocalization of a mature buck. This year, M.A.D. will take the concept further when it debuts the "Hyper Growl," a call that increases the intensity of the growl, but ups the ante with improved snort-wheezing and other sounds. "The design of the call incorporates what we call an 'HV tube' which mimics the mouth and nose of a whitetail," Drury says. "You can snort-wheeze and growl at the same time, which is a vocalization that our call designer Jason Nolz documented when listening to wild, mature deer. The Hyper Growl also allows the hunter to imitate the heavy breathing sound made by a buck chasing a doe or running through the timber. You can make any mature buck sound we know about with this call, and because of its design, you cannot over-blow the reed and make it freeze up."
Drury used a prototype of the Hyper Growl to kill two of his largest bucks to date, "Chiquita" in 2009 and "Treat" just last fall.
Still, the expert insists that calling is no magic bean for luring in mature whitetails. "As a rule, I believe in calling sparingly to deer," Drury says. "I like to call to deer I can see. This allows me to judge the buck's mood and body language and determine if he's vulnerable to calling, or if I should leave him alone and try him another time. If a buck isn't in the proper mood, he can be spooked by calling."
Drury says his three top scenarios for that response are when he sees a single buck cruising purposefully for a doe, any time he sees multiple bucks together, and in the aftermath of a buck fight.
PRE- AND POST-RUT CALLING
Of course, many hunting seasons occur outside the frenetic activity of the rut. But if you keep your calls stowed during these periods, you're making a huge mistake. I've called in bucks from the first day of the season (mid-September in my home state of Minnesota) to the last (January in some of the states I hunt).
As an example, just a couple of seasons ago I rattled in a buck in mid-September. I knew my stand was within hearing distance of the bedding area, and just before prime time I grabbed my rattling antlers and started tickling them. After a pause, I grunted softly a few times, then resumed rattling for a minute. I was reaching to hang the horns on a branch when I heard a deer approaching. It was a good buck, but not the "target" deer I had in mind. Still, he totally bought the sparring bachelor group scenario I'd tried to mimic. The pretty 10-point lingered by my stand, looking for the fight, when I heard yet another buck approach. This slightly smaller buck wandered in for the same reasons and, after he spotted the first buck, decided if there wasn't a sparring session happening, he'd start one. The two bucks clacked antlers for over 20 minutes.
Even monster bucks can be coaxed in with early-season calling. My friend Doug was hunting the opening morning of Wisconsin archery season a few years back, fully intent on shooting a doe for two reasons -- empty freezer space, and an Earn-A-Buck tag he wanted filled before the rut. Doug heard deer moving in a nearby thicket, but quickly realized they were on a trail that was not in bow range. Pulling a "can" style call and a doe-bleat reed call from his jacket, Doug started working them with soft bleats and bawls, attempting to kick-start some curiosity.
It worked almost too well. After hearing Doug's first bleats, a doe in the group answered, and over the next few minutes my friend held a conversation, with the real doe trumping Doug's efforts in volume and intensity. Slowly, the doe, followed by another doe and three fawns, headed toward Doug's stand. But before he could manage a shot, Doug heard another deer approaching quickly. Turning his head in that direction, my friend spotted a gorgeous, 160-class whitetail. Clearly curious about the conversation, the buck had wandered in to check things out. Though the buck stopped well within bow range, Doug -- who was required to tag and register a doe first -- had to ignore the opportunity to focus on the doe. When she finally presented a shot, my friend sent an arrow over her back and the entire herd exploded from sight. Doug considered extensive psycho-therapy sessions, but he eventually recovered on his own.
Will early-season bleating sessions consistently produce mature bucks? Of course not, but these anecdotes illustrate the social and communicative nature of whitetails. They also hammer home the need to be fluent in deer-speak regardless of the calendar month.
No one understands this better than Jason Nolz, who brought the initial concept and design of the Hyper Growl to the folks at M.A.D. But that aggressive, rut-oriented call wasn't Nolz's first foray into whitetail mimicry.
"I also invented and helped Hunter's Specialties bring to market a call they named 'The Cruncher,' which imitates the sound of a feeding deer," he says. "That call was the result of simply being in the woods, watching and listening to deer. One evening I watched a deer eating hickory nuts, and the crunching and munching went on for at least two minutes. But even more impressive to me was the effect those sounds had on nearby deer. It not only attracted them but calmed and relaxed them."
Nolz is convinced such sounds tap deep into a whitetail's psyche and, when reproduced by hunters, bring amazing results.
"In my mind, it's the ultimate stimulus-response relationship," he says. "From the time they're fawns, deer associate the sounds of their mother feeding with not only food, but safety and security. It's the perfect early-season call, and I've used it to relax deer that are spooky."
The actual sounds produced by a deer call -- the grunts, wheezes, bleats and, yes, even the crunches -- represent the "science" aspect of calling deer. How, when, and where calls are used is the "art" of the deal. Sometimes, knowing when not to call is as important as the hunter's ability with the instrument itself. "I've heard many, many hunters tell stories about a buck headed their way, and then they decide to grunt or call," Nolz says. "Why throw that card on the table when you don't need it?
Experts like Drury and Nolz call under the right conditions, to a deer that's in the right mood, from a setup that virtually ensures the buck will not sense them and become alarmed.
Every once in awhile, even a dim bulb like me -- someone who's read the playbook and wiggled into the right property -- can mimic their success. Of course I'd have loved to tag that giant Kansas bruiser mentioned at the beginning of this story. But I've got whitetail calling to thank for that awesome memory!