November 02, 2021
By Scott Haugen
This article appears in the West edition of the November Game & Fish Magazine, now on sale. Learn how to subscribe
My 12-year-old son Kazden, who seconds earlier had pulled the trigger on a nice 3-point blacktail we’d called in, excitedly tapped me on the shoulder.
"Dad, look at that huge buck!" he said.
I looked up and saw one of the biggest blacktails I’d ever seen, standing in the exact spot where Kazden’s buck had been. I was speechless.
That buck lived to see another day, as Kazden had made a perfect shot on his buck and I held only an archery tag. But its presence in that place at that time served as a reminder that when rattling migratory blacktails, anything can happen.
ON THE MOVE
We were hunting public land in the foothills of the Cascades at about 3,500 feet. When rattling migratory bucks, I like covering ground, as that’s what bucks are doing to find does. The nastier the weather, the louder I rattle and the more ground I cover.
When it comes to rattling blacktails, knowing what the bucks are doing in different phases of the rut, as well as how they use and travel through the habitat, are keys to filling a tag. Nov. 7 to 10 is generally the peak of the rut, with a second rut peaking around the week of Thanksgiving.
The largest movement of blacktails from the Cascades starts at about 4,500 feet. While hunting up high can be productive, I like focusing efforts a bit lower. Find where multiple drainages converge and concentrate efforts within these funnels.
Because the country is big, rugged and densely forested, I like rattling loudly and covering ground when looking for migratory bucks down to about 2,000 feet. These bucks cover a lot of vertical ground in search of does. In windy, raining conditions, rattle loudly so sounds travel. If you don’t see anything after 20 minutes, move forward to where you think the sounds reached and start over.
Homebody bucks—those in the Coast Range, the lower foothills of the Cascades and on valley floors—will work does in their immediate area before expanding their search. Some old bucks may not even leave their core area if doe populations are high, as risk of injury through fighting isn’t worth the off chance of being able to breed an extra doe. Then again, a homebody buck in its prime can travel 3 miles or more in a day looking for hot does. In the thick cover of the Coast Range, three miles is a long walk. Using trail cameras to monitor movement of local bucks is one of the best educations you’ll receive.
Homebody bucks at lower elevations and on valley floors are more deliberate in their efforts to breed, as they know where the does are. They don’t cover miles searching for does every day as high-elevation bucks might. For these bucks, tone down the calling and stay in one place for a longer period of time.
I like rattling lower-elevation bucks when the weather is calm and my sounds travel farther. Homebody bucks can hunker in so tight when bedding that getting too close will spook them. Instead, get comfortable and start timidly rattling with real antlers. Rattle for 30 seconds or so, then wait a couple minutes and repeat with a little more volume.
I’ll often spend two hours in one spot when rattling homebody bucks, rattling first with light antlers, then progressing to a rattle bag. When rattling for bucks in big country, I’ll use heavy antlers and a synthetic bag, along with a grunt tube.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
When rattling to blacktails, it’s good to have options.
When choosing the right rattling apparatus, there are a few key considerations to keep in mind.
- GO SMALL: A young buck’s rack emits high-pitched, non-threatening sounds that are great for starting off a setup or targeting homebody bucks. It’s calm and not overpowering.
- GO BIG: At the other end of the spectrum, a rack from an old buck is heavy, carries a deep sound and is loud. I like this when targeting mature bucks. However, young bucks are often intimidated by it, so hunters who are looking for freezer meat from any legal deer should use caution with big antlers.
- GO SYNTHETIC: The middle ground is a synthetic rattling bag. Over the years, I’ve rattled in more blacktails with a rattle bag than anything else. There’s something about the tone and pitch that seems to get responses from deer of all ages.
A rattle bag can create volume that penetrates brush and forest and cuts the rain and wind extremely well. It’s also easy to use and easy to store in a pack. I use a rattle bag that has no wooden parts, made by Point Blank Hunting calls (pointblankcalls.com) in Portland, Ore.