I hadn't yet thrown in the towel, but I was in the middle of my windup. When you've spent over a week fruitlessly scouring western Alberta's "big bush" for a trophy whitetail, it's easy to conclude the last half-day of your hunt isn't going to yield one either.
Then, as I eased along, my eyes picked up something big and dark in the timber ahead. Was this the monster buck I was looking for? Uh . . . no. While clearing a seismograph line years before, an oil company bulldozer had tipped over a lodgepole pine. What I'd spotted was the rootwad's dark underside, which contrasted boldly with its snow-speckled surroundings. Bummer.
But approaching the felled tree, I realized it might not be a disappointment after all. It offered cover, and the narrow cutline afforded visibility in two directions. From here, perhaps I could call in a big buck. It was the only trick still up my frozen sleeve.
I rattled hard for the better part of a minute, clashing the antlers together and cracking branches, then followed up with a few grunts. Upon finishing, I brought my rifle to my shoulder and sat quietly, scanning the woods. I saw no movement, so a few minutes later I repeated the presentation. Nothing. A few more minutes passed, and I did it all again. Still nothing. And then again. Same result.
Should I stubbornly keep this up, or accept the reality that nothing was coming? Knowing I was hunting an area with low numbers of deer, I scolded myself for being impatient. Sometimes it just takes a buck a while to get to you.
A half-hour into this routine, I was all but convinced I should pull up stakes. But a little voice told me to give it just a bit longer. So I went through yet another rattling sequence, followed by a few grunts.
Suddenly I was aware of another big, dark object in that timber — and this one was no rootwad. A mature buck was walking right in on me. As the brute stopped a mere 17 yards away and peered in my direction, I raised my 7mm Rem. Mag., found his thick neck in my scope and squeezed off a round. Soon I was filling out a deer tag I'd feared would go unused.
Shooting that chocolate-racked 9-pointer at close range, on the ground, was an amazing ending to my Alberta adventure and an example of how calling can salvage your whitetail expedition. And it was far from the only time I've filled a tag by making the right sounds in the right place at the right time.
While the clashing of antlers obviously isn't a vocalization, it's one of the most recognizable sounds in the deer woods. It's also one of the most alluring to rut-charged bucks. Rattling caught on in my native Texas during the 1960s, then spread from there with the continental surge in trophy whitetail interest. From Canada to Mexico, plenty of big bucks now have been taken as a result.
Learning the Lingo
Whitetails aren't nearly as chatty as elk, turkeys, waterfowl or coyotes. Even so, the woods are full of subtle deer sounds. One might alert other herd members to a sudden threat. Another's purpose is to aid in courtship, while a third helps maintain the social hierarchy.
A number of scientists have studied the "language" of whitetails over the past half-century. The most frequently cited study was done at the University of Georgia, where researchers recorded vocalizations of various ages of captive male and female whitetails. The team came up with 12 vocalizations and proposed that they served a wide range of functions.
"Alarm calls consisted of the snort, given when a deer detected danger, and a bawl, given when a deer was traumatized," the team noted. "Three agonistic calls were recorded. The low grunt was given in low-level agonistic, or combative, interactions. The grunt-snort, given during more intense dominance interactions, consisted of the low grunt with 1-4 rapid snorts added. The grunt-snort-wheeze consisted of the grunt-snort with the addition of a wheezing exhalation through the nostrils. It was characteristic of dominance interactions among bucks during the breeding season.
"Four maternal-neonatal sounds were recorded. The maternal grunt was used by does searching for their bedded fawns. The mew was given by fawns and appeared to solicit care from the mother. The bleat was a more insistent care solicitation call and was given when fawns were disturbed or deprived. A nursing whine was given repeatedly while suckling. Mating calls consisted of a tending grunt and the flehmen-sniff. When separated from members of their group, females gave a contact call."
So, there are a lot of means for vocal communication among whitetails. But which are most useful in hunting? Here are my picks:
Grunt: This is the go-to call for most of us. The pig-like grunt is classically associated with the rut, and any revved-up buck hearing the call is inclined to investigate. Early hunters likely made this "urping" sound with their mouths, but in the 1980s, reed-type commercial calls started to help even novice hunters sound like lovesick bucks. While there's debate over "tending" grunts versus other forms, to me it's all pretty much just slight variations on the same sound. A buck hearing this during the rut is typically inclined to investigate, and that's what matters to me.
Grunt-Snort-Wheeze: This buck vocalization is mostly a polysyllabic "hiss." I don't even bother trying to grunt on the front end of it; I simply go straight to the snort-wheeze part. The first two or three bursts of air are lightning quick, followed by one much longer and trailing off. This vocalization is the most serious form of insult in the deer woods. Upon hearing it, a meek individual will tend to vacate the scene; a macho one will accept the challenge.
Bleat/Bawl: A whitetail bleat is normally softer than that of a sheep or goat but fundamentally similar. Does and fawns that have become separated often use it to reestablish contact. That makes an urgent fawn bleat a great way to lure in does, especially during early season. You might think a doe would come only to what she thinks is her own fawn, but this vocalization apparently has more to do with a general maternal instinct than recognition of an individual fawn's "voice."
During the rut, an extended doe bawl can work. Whether it's because a buck recognizes it as a doe's open invitation or it merely helps him figure out where she is, the result often is beneficial to the hunter.
Early in bow season, I like bleat/bawl calls for does and light rattling for bucks. In areas with a November primary rut, most fawns are physically weaned by Labor Day but still hang with their mothers. So mimicking a fawn's "voice" can bring a curious doe into bow range. (It also can lure a coyote or bobcat.)
Meanwhile, non-aggressive rattling that imitates sparring is a great way to draw in curious bucks. I've pulled in bucks as early as mid-September with light rattling.
As the rut nears, I start combining more aggressive rattling with grunting. This is my No. 1 tactic when bowhunting over a buck decoy, as is standard practice for me from around Oct. 20 into late November.
I'll also occasionally snort-wheeze at a buck that doesn't want to respond to grunting. Once I can tell a big buck has seen my decoy, I quit calling and get ready to shoot.
When rattling in moderate to heavy cover during the rut, I start with a couple grunts, then go through a light rattling sequence of 30 seconds or less. If an unseen buck is nearby, that might pull him right in.
But if I see or hear nothing, a minute or so later I'll rattle more aggressively before pausing and grunting a couple more times. Blind rattling and calling in more open habitat, I generally start out pretty aggressive and stay that way until I see a buck coming my way.
The more eager a buck is, the less he'll worry about getting downwind of you before approaching. Still, mature bucks tend to use the wind to their advantage. So, the best rattling and calling setups give the deer some cover through which to swing downwind.
That's why I seldom set up with an open field or large body of water immediately downwind of me. Some bucks won't come close if they can't first scent-check the deer they think they hear. Of course, the trick is to get a circling buck shot before he catches a whiff of you.
Many setups fail simply because no shooter hears the call. Distance between you and the deer, along with topography, cover, and competing noise (wind or even a busy highway) can reduce effective calling range. Windy conditions might not matter much if the buck is 70 yards out and you're trying to coax him into your 30-yard lane for a bowshot.
But if he's crossing a field at 700 yards, it will take virtually perfect conditions to get his attention, much less bring him in. That said, one calm morning on the brushy plains of northern Mexico I saw a buck 800 yards away not only react to a grunt call but turn and walk a straight line to within 60 yards of me.
How deep into the season can rattling work? As late as there's a chance a buck is still prowling for love. The latest I've actually rattled one in (relative to the rut) was Jan. 9, in southwestern Iowa. And the latest I've ever shot a buck responding to the sounds of a buck fight was Feb. 22.
That morning in South Texas, I dropped a 6â€‰1â„2-year-old 8-pointer as he rushed to a real buck battle I could hear going on back in the thornbrush. The date was two months after peak rut for the area.
Don't Overdo It
One key to success in luring a big whitetail is knowing when not to call. You want to do just enough to get him coming your way but not enough to make him suspicious. And with rattling in particular, extra calling while the buck is coming or even looking your way from a distance can easily blow the deal. Never rattle or call while a buck is looking at you.
Many hunters get desperate when calling to a visible buck that doesn't want to respond. If you're sure he has heard you but doesn't want to come your way, either try a totally different call or simply shut up. Instead of calling louder and/or more often, as some hunters do, it's much better to simply let the deer walk away. He might be more agreeable the next time you hunt that spot.
From ducks to moose, any type of game can be educated to calling and become leery of it. That's certainly true of whitetails. So, if you hunt a certain spot often, be extremely careful not to overdo the calling. And if non-shooter deer respond, do your best not to get busted. The yearling you spook this fall could be the monster that doesn't respond to your calling from the same tree in 2019.
When you know the rut is on but you're not seeing mature bucks, blind calling and rattling could be well worth a try. In fact, if set up in a travel corridor during the rut, I sometimes call as often as every half-hour. You never know which big buck might have come within hearing range since your last attempt.
Bucks are most easily lured in if they're already on their feet before you start calling. Eager ones that had been just out of view sometimes show up within seconds, while others come from farther away and/or take their sweet time. On an evening hunt, stop calling or rattling when there's at least 10 minutes of shooting light left. I'd rather not call in a big buck at all than to have him arrive just in time to see me exit my stand.
Many hunters simply set up and hope a big whitetail comes their way. That approach of course can work — but why limit yourself? Become familiar with deer sounds and the situations in which making them can boost your odds. By "talking the talk" in the right place and time, you just might turn a dead hunt into a dead trophy buck.
Talk the Talk
When it comes to deer-calling versatility, it's hard to top the lineup from Flextone.
The Extractor from Flextone ($24.99) features an integrated X-Glide button that makes it easy to cover the full spectrum of whitetail vocalizations, from buck grunts to doe bleats to fawn bawls. Luckily, the snort-wheeze call — often considered a last resort on a stubborn buck — is also built into The Extractor, giving you yet another option to lure a mature whitetail into shooting range.
Rattling is more popular in some regions than others, but it works everywhere at the right time, making a quality set of rattling antlers a must for the serious whitetail hunter. Flextone's Battle Bones ($24.99) feature two full racks crafted with Antler Mass Technology for realistic fighting sequences. The Battle Bones also are easier and safer to pack than real antlers and feature hex-grip handles that offer better control and help avoid smashing your fingers during rattling sequences.
Sometimes, a soft buck grunt or doe bleat is all you need to bring that buck a few steps closer or stop him for the shot. However, making those sounds with your bow at full draw or your rifle on your shoulder can be tricky with conventional deer calls.
Enter Flextone's Tine Teaser ($9.99), a call designed for hands-free use so hunters can keep both hands on their weapon of choice. The Tine Teaser features a soft rubber body with realistic antler finish and comes with a lanyard to keep it close at hand. Simply place the call in your mouth and bite down in the appropriate area to produce your choice of buck grunt, doe bleat or fawn bawl.