Hunting and Outdoors

Throwback Thursday—Rattling Whitetail Deer in Rut

Two young whitetail bucks against a background of trees

Rattling and calling whitetail deer is probably one of the oldest methods for calling a monster buck and bringing him close. One of the keys to rattling in a buck is timing. Rattle too early in the rut and you will spook them. Rattle too late and the peak of the rut will be over, in which case the bucks will not be interested and you will spook them.

Pinpointing the Rut

Two young whitetail bucks against a background of treesThe yearly rut is a complex cycle of hormone fluctuation in both does and bucks. Early in the rut, testosterone production in bucks begins to increase slowly.

In the early rut, scrapes are numerous. Young bucks are strengthening their neck muscles and scraping velvet from their antlers. During this phase, tentative rattling and scraping against trees and brush may bring in a curious buck, although most bachelor groups are still intact in this phase and most bucks won’t be curious enough to investigate. If however you decide to try, you want to tickle the tines in the softest of fashions.

As scrape activity increases, deer begin to show heavy musculature in their necks. This is when rattling may begin to produce curious bucks.

Bucks in this phase tentatively challenge each other with half-hearted challenges. Sparring at this point is weak, with bucks gently bringing their heads together and lightly rattling while pushing back and forth. Again, you are still in a period when you’ll want to use a smaller set of antlers and make a soft clicking sound when rattling.

Sparring matches are short, lasting only a few seconds before the two bucks disengage and look around to see what interest they have sparked from nearby bachelors. At this point, rattling to attract bucks may work, although response is slow and curiosity low.

As sparring increases, a half-dozen matches may break out at the same time in a decent sized herd. Bucks at this phase begin to respond to the sound of another buck scraping his antlers on a tree or engaging another buck.

This is the point when rattling begins to be effective. Your technique at this point should involve light, short half-hearted rattles combined with scraping your rattlers on trees and brush. Combined with appropriate grunting, you may be able to draw in a curious buck.

As the bachelor groups break up, serious fights and challenges replace sparring. Bucks no longer tolerate the presence of another buck and challenge any they find in their area. This is when rattling will be most likely bring a curious buck charging to see the interlopers in his territory.

By observing scrape activity, you should be able to pinpoint when this period of the rut arrives.

  • Scrapes along fields and trails have reached a peak.
  • Antlers on bucks are polished.
  • Their necks are bulging with heavy musculature from all of the scraping and sparring activity of the past few weeks.

Increased vocal activity is another indicator. As the heat of the rut approaches, males begin to vocalize loudly and frequently advertising their presence to any nearby does and warning off competing bucks. Fights between competing bucks are now a true no-holds-barred brawl, with bucks trying to best each other in earnest.

This is prime rattling time.

Doe activity changes dramatically as the peak of the rut approaches. Before the rut, does are frequently accompanied by last years’ fawn. As the heat of the rut comes on, does run off the youngsters, leaving them wandering around, appearing lost and perplexed. When you see a doe without an accompanying yearling, you are seeing a sure sign that the peak of the rut is right around the corner.

Occasionally, a second rut comes, as does that did not breed come into heat again and continue to search for a buck. Does come into estrus every 28 days, so carefully observing the previous rut may reveal the prime time to hunt during a secondary rut.

Setting Up Your Position

Deer investigating a fight will not generally come in from an upwind position. They generally circle around and approach from downwind. This increases the chance you will be “scented” by incoming deer and potentially scare them away.

By properly setting up your hunting position, you increase the chance of spotting the deer and engage them before they scent or spot you.

  • Try to set up on the edge of a field with the wind blowing in from the field. Deer in cover will still try to circle around, although they will not want to go out into the open of the field.
  • If you don’t have a nearby field, set up so you have some decent shooting lanes an investigating deer has to pass through while trying to circle around.
  • Make sure you have adequate cover. Deer have incredibly accurate hearing and can pinpoint noise to within just a few feet. That buck will come in and zero in on your position expecting to see another buck, so make sure you have enough camouflage and cover.
  • Sometimes placing a decoy nearby will be enough to get your target to linger long enough for you to get the shot off.

Rattling Techniques

There are a number of rattling techniques.

  • Many hunters swear by natural antlers and insist the natural sound of them clashing together cannot be replicated.
  • Many others have great success with synthetic rattlers. Synthetic rattlers are often safer, since they are smoothed down and don’t have the points and sharp edges of natural antlers.
  • Hunters who insist on using natural antlers cut the points off and smooth the sharp edges to avoid injuring their hands and fingers while vigorously rattling.
  • One innovation is the Rattle Bag allowing one-handed rattling, perfect for hunters in a tree stand.

Due to their incredible acute  hearing, fights between bucks at the peak of the rut are no-holds-barred affairs. They are noisy enough to draw bucks from over a mile away. While some fights are short, others are long and drawn out, sometimes lasting for as long as six to eight hours. Bucks are very vocal during fights, moaning, grunting, wheezing and bellowing as they summon the strength to defeat the challenger. As you rattle, stomp and kick the ground and nearby brush. This is when you should be making as much noise as possible!

On hearing a fight, younger deer tend to come charging in quickly to challenge the winner. Older bucks tend to be a bit more cautious and slower to respond, and they will come. Older deer tend to slink in with more care, preferring to observe the challenge unnoticed.

It is not unusual for an older buck to try to sneak off with a nearby doe while the two fighting bucks obliviously continue their challenge.

Don’t be too anxious to move on to a new location if rattling doesn’t produce bucks right away. While younger, less mature bucks may come running at the sound of a fight, older bucks respond more slowly and cautiously. If a short rattle doesn’t produce, try rattling for longer periods.

If you are off peak, rattle for short periods, 30-60 seconds, then wait for at least 30 minutes. If that still doesn’t attract a buck, try it again for 90 seconds or so and then wait again for at least an hour.

Grunts and Calls

In the late rut, bucks strut around grunting a low, drawn out, “Mrrrrrrrp!” grunt, advertising their presence and challenging any nearby bucks. They frequently grunt, pause to see if they are attracting any attention, take a few steps and repeat the process.

One common mistake made when grunting is grunting too loudly. Deer have excellent hearing, and their grunts are usually soft. If you’re just grunting and not rattling, use caution not to grunt too loudly.

Many grunters perform well at low volume, but sound horrible at louder volumes. Calls with long soft tubes work the best.

Hunters often shun electronic calls. Older technology did not allow electronic calls to mimic natural sounds accurately enough to fool most deer. Now there are new advances in compact portable callers enabling a wide variety of natural calls that are both accurate and loud.

The Nomad MX3 Electronic Deer Call has a remote so you can place the electronic caller elsewhere while you lurk nearby in a blind or stand and activate it with the remote.

Another caller with a remote has even better technology and allows you to play multiple calls at the same time, better mimicking the wheezing and grunting of two bucks engaged in a fight. The Phantom Hunter is a more expensive digital caller with a multi-track ability as well as a remote.

No matter what methods you use, nothing beats the rush of having a buck come rushing in to investigate your calls. By carefully observing deer activity in your area, you can determine how the rut is progressing and call accordingly.

Good luck and good hunting!

What special tricks, or tools do you use to make sure you bring home that big buck you’ve been waiting for since the last deer hunting season? Share your tips and tricks in the comment section.

This article originally published on October 7, 2009.

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

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