Over the past three decades our understanding of whitetail behavior has grown significantly, and one of the primary lessons we've learned is that deer use a complex mix of vocalizations to communicate.
The whitetail's vocabulary is extensive. It consists of grunts, wheezes, bleats, and other sounds that allow deer to communicate, breed, and establish dominance.
One vocalization in particular — the grunt — has proven highly effective for drawing big bucks into your stand during the rut. And hunters are learning to mimic this unique vocalization to increase their odds of success.
If you've watched much outdoor television or read articles on whitetail tactics, you've seen the grunt call can be a deadly weapon when it comes to attracting big bucks. Although, many hunters have never managed to duplicate the successes they've read about or watched on TV, leading some to believe the grunt tube is only effective in a very limited number of situations or at very specific times of the year.
Hunters who have had success with a grunt call and have had deer respond to the vocalization would disagree with that sentiment. So, we've interviewed three experts to determine what makes an effective calling setup and how you can up your odds of success this fall.
"I have people tell me that they think grunt calls are a gimmick," says Will Primos of Primos Hunting.
Will is one of the earliest pioneers of grunt tube calling and says it can be a highly effective hunting method that works well in a variety of situations.
"I'd say that 80 percent of the deer I call to during the pre-rut react in some way, and about 50 percent come to the call," Primos says.
If this hasn't been your experience with a grunt tube, then it's important to examine why you aren't having a high level of success with your calling setup.
Hopefully by shedding some new light on deer vocalizations you can increase the chances that the big buck you are chasing will make an appearance and offer you the shot you've been waiting for.
Understand Blind Calling versus Specific Calling
"During the pre-rut when you're blind calling (calling to deer that you can't see), the deer come in out of curiosity, because they are territorial and very competitive," says Primos.
Blind calling is one of his favorite tactics during the pre-rut, when he wants to "wake deer up." For blind calling, Primos uses his grunt call in coordination with bleats and wheezes to entice a buck to leave cover to investigate.
This is very different than calling to a specific buck that is in your line of sight. In those situations, you have the ability to read the deer's body language and use that information as a key to his moods and motives, which helps understand when to call or what call to use, Primos notes.
Hunter's Specialties' pro-staffer Heath Wood agrees that reading body language is critical.
"Watching a buck's body movement plays a big role," says Wood. "For example, if a buck is coming through and is kind of on alert, do not call. All you're doing is pin pointing your location, that's not what he is wanting to hear.
"However, if a buck is coming through the woods slowly zig-zagging back and forth with his nose to the ground trying to wind a doe in heat, that's when I like to call, because that is what he is looking for. A trailing grunt that sounds like another buck doing the same thing would be a good call for that situation."
Make Him Come to Investigate
Primos, Wood, and Quaker Boy's Bob Wozniak all agree that calling to a buck that can see you is a recipe for failure.
"If a buck can see you, then don't blow the call," says Wozniak. "He'll figure out where you are and won't come in."
This is one of the reasons that many hunters feel that grunt calls aren't effective — they've witnessed bucks that, upon hearing the call, turned and left the vicinity in an obvious panic.
According to Will Primos, the fact that many hunters can't get the deer to come when grunting could be due in large part to the fact that you made it too obvious that there was no other buck around.
"He's not going to come looking if he can see that there's no other deer there," says Primos.
To combat this, he likes to call in areas where bucks that are more prone to come and investigate the vocalization because heavy cover limits their field of view. Primos calls this "making him hunt you." When these deer come to investigate, Primos says, they'll be licking their nose trying to get every scent molecule possible."
That licking behavior is a sure sign that you've gotten the buck's attention and he's curious. Set up your calling spot next to a blow down, creek bank, cane thicket and make the buck hunt you.
Carry Multiple Calls
Grunt calls are highly effective tools for attracting deer, but all three experts agree that grunting is only one method of whitetail communication and that you should have other tricks as well.
"During the early season when I'm blind calling, I like to use a doe bleat can and then grunt," says Primos. "I want to make any deer that hear the call curious. If that doesn't work, I'll use a wheeze. Deer can hear a wheeze farther away than a grunt. I generally reserve a wheeze for the pre-rut and rut but trying a wheeze in the early season can raise the deer's level of curiosity."
Wozniak says that he likes to use his grunt calls in coordination with a doe bleat to pique the interest of nearby bucks and prompt them to investigate the calls. Wood also likes to use calls in conjunction, both doe vocalizations and rattling antlers.
"I like to grunt in combination with my rattling bag," Wood says. "Before and after I rattle, for example, I will give out three or four challenge grunts, then do a rattling sequence followed up with a couple more deep grunts. Once a buck comes in, I will again grunt two or three times to make him look for me, because that is the reason he is coming in to find what he had heard."
According to Wozniak, there's also a vast difference in the quality of grunt tubes available today. He prefers calls that have a rubber baffle system because he says they sound less like a plastic reed and more like an actual deer.
Every Deer is an Individual
Wozniak has taken over 130 deer, and he believes that most of those deer have been killed using a call. But he's quick to point out that no two deer are the same, and their response to vocalizations, even from day to day, can change.
"Not every buck will respond, but just because one deer doesn't come to the call doesn't mean the next one won't," says Wozniak.
In addition, deer will respond in various ways to different calls. Some bucks will come in to a grunt call, some to a doe bleat, some to a wheeze, and others will respond to some combination of those vocalizations. This is part of the reason that many hunters don't believe that grunt calls work — they've been in line of sight with a buck that, upon hearing the call, didn't respond.
When they turn tail and run, hunters blame the call. In reality, it is just as likely that the setup was what prompted the buck's exodus, and it doesn't guarantee that there won't be another deer slipping in to investigate.
Use Vocalizations Throughout the Season
Deer use vocalization to communicate throughout the year, and they will respond to calling outside of the rut. Primos and Wozniak both mentioned that they start using deer calls early in the season — oftentimes in late September or October — to try and illicit a response from whitetails.
According to Wozniak, he's grunted in and killed bucks early in the season, so don't leave your call at home just because the rut isn't in full swing.
Primos says that he likes to hunt near cutovers and other bedding areas during the pre-rut, and to grunt at a level he calls a "roar," which tells any nearby bedded bucks that another buck is possibly defending a doe. He'll then follow up the roar with a combination of a bleat and a wheeze, and then he gets quiet and waits to see what happens.
Oftentimes, he says, that is enough to get a buck on his feet and send him in your direction.