September 22, 2010
By Steve Bartylla
One glance at the huge-bodied main-frame 8-pointer that stepped out of the woods told me he was a buck I wanted. Unfortunately, the 200 yards separating us was a problem. Worsening the situation was the fact that less than five minutes remained of legal hunting time. I knew I needed to make something happen fast!
Slipping my hand in my pocket, I grabbed my Primos Great Big Can as I brought the grunt tube to my lips at the same time. Sending out a couple of deep grunts got his attention. As he looked over in my direction, I tipped the can twice. When he still did not commit, I pinched my lower lip to my top front teeth and exhaled a forceful snort-wheeze. Laying his ears back, he marched halfway toward me before another deer caught his attention. Another grunt and snort-wheeze were enough for this dominant buck to disregard the distraction and close the distance to 20 yards.
Now in bow range, he stood broadside. As he looked for the hot doe and challenging buck that he thought would be there, the limb of a tree stopped me from sending an arrow in flight. All I needed was for him to move, but he stubbornly held his ground.
Finally, helplessly watching shooting light vanish, I broke every rule and snort-wheezed at him again. Believing it would make him scamper away but hoping he'd stop still within bow range for one last look, I was surprised at his reaction. After scanning the area, he stubbornly held his ground and tore up chunks of dirt with his front hoof, flinging them across the field.
Not able to waste any more shooting light and needing him to move in any direction, I snort-wheezed at him again. This time, after another momentary glance at my position, the mid-140s brute calmly turned and started back out into the field to eat. Coming to full draw in one smooth motion, I sent an arrow slicing through his vitals.
NUDGING THEM CLOSER
The events surrounding my encounter with that mature 4€‚1/2-year-old 8-pointer are a great example of what calling can do for a hunter. Although we'll talk about blind calling later, the best success I've always had in calling is nudging a shooter to within range.
As obvious as this sounds, when I spot a shooter, I want to kill him right then and there. There are exceptions to everything, but hoping to see that buck again is often wishful thinking. So that makes killing him on the spot a priority.
To do so, I usually pull out all the stops. I almost always begin with a buck grunt. Outside of a snort, this is by far the most commonly heard deer vocalization during hunting season. I use it to remove any doubt in Mr. Big's mind that everything he is about to hear consists of deer noises.
If two grunts aren't enough to persuade him to come over for a closer look, and most often they aren't, I'll hit him with a couple of estrous calls (with a can call). Now the stage has been set. My make-believe buck is with a doe. A good share of the time, this is enough to get the real buck to commit. A bigger share of the time, it isn't. That's when I send a snort-wheeze slicing through the air.
Every one of these acts is meant to build upon the last, adding more of a sense of urgency to the situation. The snort-wheeze sends out a challenge. If, like the buck that began this article, we're dealing with a dominant buck, that challenge is hard to resist. If not, they still may respond in hopes of collecting the girl as these other two bucks duke it out.
If all else fails, out come the rattling antlers. Now the two bucks are brawling, and you better get over here yesterday if you want the girl. If that doesn't work, it's time to punt.
I believe I have nothing to lose. Mr. Big has shown me that he isn't coming over, and I need to change his mind or I'm out. That same desperation could be seen in the opening buck story. When things are headed south, I'll break the rules and throw the kitchen sink at a buck. What's the worst thing that can happen? I don't get the shot that I wasn't going to get anyway. Conversely, I may get one that I otherwise wouldn't have gotten!
There's one glaring exception to all of this. That's when Mr. Big is tending a hot doe. I've heard others talk about snort-wheezing a buck off a doe and others talk about using a fawn distress call to lure the doe over. Personally, neither has worked for me. I've found that doing nothing in that case is my best option. The thing about a hot doe is that she can change everything with one turn. With other bucks out there harassing her, the bleakest situation can turn on a dime in a heartbeat. Scare her away and that chance is gone.
As aggressive as I am in trying to nudge bucks in, a big part of my approach to blind calling is the polar opposite. To begin with, if the area I'm hunting is heavily pressured, I never blind call. Sure, I'll occasionally try nudging in a buck that I can see, but it rarely works.
Mature bucks in these settings have seen it all many times before. If they were prone to being duped, they would have died at a tender age. Much is written about tight buck-to-doe ratios and healthy age structures being beneficial to calling, but I believe they take a far back seat to pressure and location.
By location, I mean the composition of the habitat surrounding the stand. Unless decoys are used, blind calling in open areas rarely works on mature bucks. For a buck to be able to see that nothing is there and still commit to entering bow range, he has to be in an absolutely primed state of mind. Even then, he typically figures out it's a ruse before coming those last few critical steps.
In the absence of decoys, I've found thick cover to be a must. With it, the mature buck understands why he doesn't see the deer. Without it, the tactic reeks of something suspicious. To determine if the setting is right, I ask how believable it is for me not to see a buck 40 yards away. If it is believable, we're in business. If not, I leave the toys alone.
Much is also made of timing, but I have a different slant on that. I don't care what phase of the season I'm in, dominant bucks are much more likely to respond than subordinate bucks. When dealing with the subordinates, the timing refers to whether or not they've been getting bullied lately. If so, the odds are good that they won't come running in to a grunting buck, a challenging snort-wheeze or crashing antlers. Unfortunately, you never know when they've been getting beat on. So I view it as a roll of the dice every time.
PAINTING A PICTURE WITH SOUNDS
Another way I view this differently than many others is that I go all out every time I blind call. Some hunters suggest lightly tickling the antlers early and late in the season. That's never worked for me. I live by the motto plastered on weight room walls in high schools across the land: Go hard or go home!
A great example of this was when I filmed a calling tip for Double Bull's former show on The Men's Channel. Slipping in before first light, I set up the tending buck and bedding doe decoys. After placing some estrous scent behind the doe decoy, I sneaked in to the blind and settled in.
At sunrise, I trained the camera on the decoys and began my calling sequence. First, a series of four to five tending grunts preceded three flips of the can call. Next, alternating pitches between very deep and mildly deep tones, a frantic series of eight to 10 more grunts followed. A short pause later, my head swiveling to catch movement, I made two snort-wheezes. Head still swiveling, I reached for the antlers and forcefully crashed them together. For the next 30 seconds, the antlers ground together, interspersed with a few more smashes. Placing the antlers down, I scanned again, only to flip the can twice more and follow it with three to four more deep grunts.
Obviously, two bucks had picked up the trail of a hot doe that was actively advertising she was ready and willing. Frantic over the competition, the bucks engaged in an epic struggle, only to have the doe remind the winner that she was still there for the taking. A couple of final grunts proclaimed the winner's victory.
I had just finished this sequence when I saw the 160-plus-inch 8-pointer. My calling efforts worked, and he sneaked in during the closing seconds. I hadn't had any intention of filming the kill, but my mind changed immediately when I realized that I couldn't pass up this golden opportunity of having the calling tip followed by a kill of this magnitude captured on video. Much too swiftly, I swung the camera over to the buck.
Standing some 70 yards away, the buck caught the motion of the camera through the uncovered window and stared at the barely brushed-in blind. Even as he stomped, I was confident he'd eventually march into the decoy setup. After a minute of alternating stares between the blind and decoys, he did just that!
As I panned along, following his every step, a nagging notion began dominating my thoughts. Within seconds, either the buck would rush the buck decoy or he'd figure out he was duped and he'd bolt. Somehow, I had to shoot now.
Knowing it was now or never, shifting the buck as far back in the frame as I dared, I snatched the bow and came to full draw. Estimating his yardage as I settled my knuckle behind my jaw, I let the arrow fly. After the arrow zipped over the buck's ducking back, I watched with awe as the great buck bound away. I'd completely blown the shot!
Still, the blind-calling sequence performed flawlessly. Despite having set up the blind just hours before, and despite the area having very limited ground cover and despite having the windows of the blind open and being busted cold, the old buck had fully committed. The calling sequence had worked like a charm and the decoy pair had sealed the deal. I simply missed the shot.
That blind-calling sequence worked because of the decoys. Calling alone addresses only the hearing part of the equation. When not in thick cover, decoys can address the visual part. Lastly, properly using estrous doe and buck scent can convince the nose. The combination of all three can produce explosive results!