by Richard Alden Bean
Hunting bucks, either blacktails or mule deer, is at times both challenging and frustrating, a game that gets in the blood of a hunter. Hunting big bucks is all of that, and much more. So much more, in fact, that we’ve developed innumerable methods and techniques and designed specialty equipment for figuring out the puzzle-piece trail a trophy buck oftentimes leaves us.
There’s still-hunting and stand-hunting, spot-and-stalk hunting and deer drives, each of which usually comes with some type of regional bias attached. One method, however, is universal to all deer hunting irrespective of the species: calling. That’s right – calling deer to your location. And as you might have guessed, there’s an entire cottage industry to support the grunting and antler rattling required for the tactic.
Using sounds to bring bucks to you, rather than you going to find the bucks, is a technique that’s been quietly in use for decades, but its popularity with hunters has only recently come to the forefront with outdoor media and manufacturing companies. Seemingly forever, elk hunters have played off the rut-crazed bugle of a bull, suckering herd bulls in to protect their charges from some young upstart that dared to cut into his harem. When the old bulls got smart and stopped reacting so quickly to bugles, hunters learned to recreate the sounds of a cow, knowing that resisting a wandering female would be more than a hormone-enraged bull could handle.
It stands to reason that deer, being in the same ungulate family as elk, would not only rush in to fight off potential challengers but also vocalize their intentions. A lot of quality bucks have been fatally surprised when they showed up looking to drive another buck away from an area and encountered a hunter there instead. Such are the secrets handed down from father to son for years but rarely before spoken of publicly.
And yet it’s so simple. All that this method requires is learning how to mimic a buck’s rut-induced grunt and how to scrape and rub and knock together a couple of old deer antlers in a way we call rattling. Some hunters have turned rattling into an art form complete with crashing the antlers into nearby brush and trees to add realism to the sounds of the struggle that brings bucks running. If you’re short of those talents or materials, there are plenty of manmade versions – with instructions – to help you in these endeavors.
There are other sounds deer make that you can use to bring a buck within shooting range. One is the soft bleating of a doe (remember the cow elk calls?), which can bring other deer coming toward the hunter. The other is the plaintive sound of a fawn. What’s different about these sounds is that a buck challenging another buck does not make them.
Rattling is fairly specific to the rut. Bucks spend little energy fighting the rest of the year, aside from when younger bucks spar and joust with each other while in bachelor groups during summer. Typically, the sound of horns rattling wouldn’t raise an eyebrow on a big buck until raging hormones and a swollen neck dictate his activities late in the fall.
There are probably as many ways to use rattling horns as there are hunters in the woods. The sounds you want to mimic, of course, are those of buck deer in battle. Not only would the two bucks make “rattling” sounds as their antlers clash, but there would be sounds of hard antler slipping and sliding against hard antler as well. Sometimes you’ll only want to rattle the tips together; at other times you’ll want to pound the antlers to the bases of their deepest forks.
Perhaps the best way to learn how to rattle is to be in the field when rutting bucks are actually fighting. Various manufacturers have video and cassette tapes that can help you learn these methods as well.
Grunting, on the other hand, works over a broad period of time, because all deer are vocal, and their effectiveness increases with the shortening of daylight hours. A buck hearing the vocalizations of another is likely to investigate to find the stranger. You’ll find that grunting can also be incorporated to help settle jittery deer or to get a buck to lift its head at just the right moment.
Few hunters can actually reproduce an appropriate buck grunt with their vocal cords alone, but several manufactures now produce grunt “tubes” that make extremely realistic impressions.
The key to using any of these calls is by blowing easily through the air chamber. Blow too hard and the reed either vibrates too fast, thus making a higher pitch than you need to influence a mature buck, or it will stick in one place and prevent any sound from coming out of the call. Lightly and evenly exhale through the tube to produce a low-pitched, throaty tone: That’s the sound you want.
A buck in full rut may grunt repeatedly as it runs to investigate the rattled antlers of two bucks fighting or in response to another buck’s nearby grunting. You can almost pace this sound by imagining yourself running and grunting lightly each time your foot hits the ground. That’s an extremely aggressive call, however, and should only be used when circumstances warrant.
And finally, try grunting and rattling simultaneously. Easy does it, however, as neither is typically a prolonged affair.
What’s interesting is that fawn bleats work as well in the fall, when fawns are nearly mature, as in the spring, when young of the year are small and helpless.
Calling a doe with the sounds of a distressed fa
wn will work just fine if you are hunting in an either-sex hunt or are deliberately targeting does, but that’s not the point here. The technique works to bring bucks within shooting range, too. Timing certainly has a lot to do with it, but as bucks prepare to enter the rut, it’s only natural for them to keep close tabs on their harem of does. And with the rut just about to begin, a buck that sees does on the move is likely to follow. It’s a bit like Saturday afternoon at the local shopping mall: Locate the crowds of pretty girls, and the boys won’t be far behind.
“The fawn bleat plays on the maternal instincts of the doe. They come in to check out the sound. We have real good success with that,” said Jimmy Rizzo, a longtime hunter of all sorts of game animals and birds. “I’ve used the fawn bleat with success year ’round.” Rizzo also noted that the call is valuable in locating deer during off-season scouting as well as during fall hunting seasons. “In the fall, there are certain times you use the doe bleat, and there are certain times when the grunt call will work better.”
Rizzo says the fawn bleat also makes a good predator call during the spring when the fawns are small and represent an easy-to-catch meal for coyotes and other predators. He told of a recent off-season incident that proved the attractive qualities of a bleat call.
“We hunted coyotes in the same area we hunt deer in the fall and used the fawn bleat on them,” Rizzo said. “We called in a doe almost immediately. We had a good field of view and could see quite a ways, and we saw movement almost immediately. She had heard the call and moved right in on us. She’d run and then stop and try to figure out where the sound was coming from.”
“We get on a spot and make a series of calls,” Rizzo said. “Typically, with the doe bleat, I would call for 10 seconds, then wait 15 seconds. The call series would be about one minute long, and then I would quit calling for maybe 15 minutes to see what came to the call. You don’t want to overdo the calling.”
Rizzo says he does the same thing with the fawn bleat, and sometimes uses both calls together, intermixing the two until he gets a response. “We always start off with a close call, not using much volume for that first minute or so. The call may sound real loud to you if you are in timber, but I don’t think the deer can hear it for more that 200 or 300 yards. In open country it’s different: The sound carries a lot farther. In the woods, even fairly loud calls (to the caller) don’t carry far. I’ve put hunters out on spots and called, and while it sounded loud to me, they never heard me calling.
“With the fawn bleat it is hard to say how far you can call the does,” Rizzo said. “The fawn bleat brings the does and the does bring the bucks. You set up much as you would for predator calling. You want to be in an area in which you have a good field of view, but don’t get right on top of a ridge or hill. You don’t want to skyline yourself. It’s a dead giveaway.”
“Just like with coyote hunting, you want to camo yourself by taking a calling position where you have a solid background behind you that hides you,” Rizzo cautions. “Get up against a tree or a bush.”
Rizzo stresses that even in an area you know holds deer, you can’t be exactly sure where the deer are. They may be where they could see the movements of a hunter using the call, so a careful choice of background cover is as essential for deer calling as it is for sharp-eyed predators. Being able to set up in a shady spot also helps, as shadows help mask movement.
“If there are deer in range of the call, you’ll probably pick up movement right away,” Rizzo said. “The deer react to the call even if they don’t start coming your way; they may put their heads up to look, and that is easy to spot.”
For the rifle hunter, you don’t necessarily have to call the deer to you for this type of calling to work: The buck that reacts to the sound by moving enough to give away his position is nearly as good as the buck that trails a doe right to the call.
“Bedded deer will first look in the direction of the call, and then they usually get to their feet,” Rizzo said. “I think it (the sounds of a fawn or doe) attracts bucks at times even though there is no doe with them. With the fawn bleat, we have called in bucks that were by themselves. We haven’t gotten really big bucks to come in that way, but younger bucks will. I don’t know why they respond to it the way they do. They may relate more to the call because they are younger, or perhaps younger bucks are just more curious or less cautious.”
“I don’t get real aggressive with the call; you don’t want to scare the deer away,” Rizzo added. “On the other hand, when using the call to hunt predators, you want to make it sound like a fawn being attacked, and we have had deer come to that call as well.”
Finding calls that imitate does and fawns is not difficult. Almost all call manufacturers include them in their inventories. Some manufacturers even make adjustable grunt-bleat calls that work in all situations.
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