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Rattling, Texas-style.

When the time is right, rattling for rutting whitetails is an adrenaline rush like no other.

It was the second setup of the morning when things got really exciting. My hunting partner Will Welch and I were on the ground, backed up against, a huge fallen oak tree in the Texas Hill Country. The rising sun was at our backs. The temperature was 28 degrees, and when we whispered strategies to each other, our breath came in smoky clouds.

Directly in front of us were sparse mesquites sprouting from a blanket of prickly pear cactus. Beyond that was a huge grove of ancient pecan trees about 150 yards away. Between the pecans and the mesquite flat was a shallow ravine. We had good visiblity to the downwind side, where we expected the action to come from My partner had his camera rested on his knee; in my lap was an old bolt-action 30-06 When we, were both ready, I mashed the shed antlers together with a "crack" that echoed across the sunlit landscape.

The first setup of the day had produced a small eight-point that charged to within 50 yards before getting a nose full of our human scent, which sent him bolting for cover. He was too young, anyway. We were looking for the ranch's management bucks--specifically, bucks 5 1/2 years old or older with eight point or less that showed inferior genetics.

It was the third week in December, about two weeks after the peak rut, and the bucks seemed responsive to the horns. The cold temperatures calm morning and time of the year put the odds in our favor. We continued to scan the sunlit mesquites as I continued grinding the shed antlers together. Occasionally I'd strike the ground with them to simulate hooves pounding in the dirt, then scrape the antlers on nearby brush--anything to make it sound more like a real fight.

Less than five minutes after my sequence had begun, I caught movement in the pecan trees. I saw, just enough to know there were some big antlers' coming our way, and then they disappeared in the shallow ravine.

I jabbed an elbow in Will's side and pointed my gun barrel to where the buck had dropped out of, sight. "Big buck, coming fast," was all I could mumble before my mouth went dry as a desert. I swallowed hard and had just enough time to get my gun to my shoulder when the antlers came bobbing out of the ravine.

The thick-necked buck weaved through the mesquites like a slalom ski racer. At a mere 18 yards he put on the brakes and stared intently into the blinding sun. The buck obviously couldn't make out the two camouflaged forms that were slouched against the huge fallen oak.

"I think he's an eight with a broken drop tine," Will whispered with the buck still staring right at us.

Looking through my scope, I saw something different. "No, seven point with a busted brow tine. Old buck. Can I shoot?" Precious seconds ticked by.

"I think he's got a busted drop tine on the left side. Don't shoot," Will whispered back. A drop tine, busted or not, was obviously a genetic trait worth keeping in the deer herd.

By this time the buck was getting nervous. He walked stiff-legged--his hair standing on end--still looking for the sparring bucks he'd heard moments earlier. When he angled to our right, he offered a profile view of his antlers.

"He's a seven. I'm sure of it," I pleaded to my partner.

"It's your call," came Will's response.

With that I grunted with my voice, and the buck stalled at 25 yards in the mesquites. Just his head and neck were visible. With the crosshairs on the center of his neck, I squeezed the trigger, and the buck hit the dirt.

Lifting his rack, Will and I broke into smiles. What Will thought was a broken drop tine was just a gnarly, bulbous mass on the buck's left main beam. His right brow tine was busted, but at 6 1/2 years of age and only seven points, this big-bodied deer was exactly the kind of management buck we were after.

For sheer, adrenaline-charged excitement, I can't think of a more exciting way to hunt whitetails than by rattling. Of course you won't rattle something in every time, but it's awesome when you do. Having a mature buck charge into hand-shaking distance is enough to crack the nerves of any veteran deer hunter.

When conditions are right, it's possible to rattle in multiple bucks in a single day--usually to within close range. Sometimes they get too close. I'm reminded of the story a hunting partner shared of a buck that had come in from behind him. The mature buck literally hurdled the stubby bush in which my friend was hiding and stopped 10 yards in front of him for a moment before realizing something wasn't right. Then he blew a snort that nearly nocked off my friend's cap before disappearing into a thick patch of mesquites.

My buddy never got off a shot at the big 10-point. The same friend once had a buck charge in so quickly and unexpectedly the buck actually lowered its head as if to charge the rattling shed antlers in my friend's hands. My friend shouted and waved his arms, and the buck veered at the last possible second.

The basic theory behind rattling is that the sounds of banging antlers simulate the noise of two bucks sparring. Simple enough. But during the rut this sparring is usually attributed to two bucks fighting over breeding rights of a potentially receptive doe in the area. When other bucks hear the sounds of antlers crashing, heavy breathing and brush breaking, they assume a hot doe is nearby. It's actually the potential of an estrous doe that brings 'em running.

One of the most important requirements for successful rattling is the timing of your attempt. Cold, overcast mornings with a light breeze are my favorites for calling in rutting bucks.

Studies done in Texas have shown that the best time for bucks to respond to rattling is during the peak rut. No matter where you hunt white-tails, you can boost your odds by contacting the local big game biologist and finding out when the rut traditionally peaks in your hunting area, then time your hunt accordingly.

Rattling is also effective in the pre- and post-rut stages. The buck mentioned in the opening paragraphs was rattled in two weeks after peak rut. While studies in Texas have shown that peak rut is the best time to rattle in just any buck, they've also shown that post-rut rattling was the best time to lure in mature bucks. These older animals aggressively seek one more receptive doe during this phase.

Another important ingredient for best results is to rattle in an area with a good buck-to-doe ratio. I've had the best results on well-managed properties with a buck-to-doe ratio of 1:1 1/2. This means there is more competition for the available females.

When hunting in an area where the ratio is, for example, one buck for eight does, there are so many available does to breed that few bucks bother to respond to the sounds of a fight. It's just not worth the bucks' effort when they have so many does to choose from.

I've rattled in nearly 100 different whitetail bucks over the years, and this experience--plus that of my hunting partners--has shown that most bucks willing to respond to rattling come in during the first 10 minutes. In fact, many arrive less than five minutes after the first sequence. Still, on occasion a buck will slip in 20 minutes after I've started rattling, so I generally spend 20 minutes or so rattling before moving to another spot.

There's another reason to hold tight for the extra time. On my best day of rattling I got a dozen different bucks to come in--sometimes more than one per setup. From that experience I learned that you shouldn't give up just because a buck runs in and then leaves because he doesn't like the look of things. It's possible another is coming behind that one.

I rattle hard and loud for about three minutes, then following the rattle sequence with five minutes of silence. Most of the bucks I've rattled have come in hard and fast, but some have sneaked in as quietly as a heavily hunted gobbler. I'll repeat these steps until I think it's time to move. I'll usually move at least 200 yards before setting up again.

The actual rattling involves smacking the antlers together, grinding the tines and beams and hitting nearby brush whenever possible.

If you've ever seen an actual big buck duel, you know it's a heavy-duty battle. Bushes and trees are often snapped and toppled as the bucks shove each other back and forth, and the sound of heavy hooves stomping the ground carries for a great distance. Try to simulate all of these sounds when rattling.

Hunting with a partner is a good idea. Ideally, one person concentrates on rattling while the other person works to get (and make) the shot. If you can achieve a height advantage, by all means do so. Studies conducted in Texas where the person rattling was on the ground and an observer was in a 30-foot tower stand showed that the observer saw lots of bucks responding to the rattling that the hunter on the ground never spotted. Remember to keep your eyes on the downwind side; an incoming buck will circle to get the wind in his favor almost every time.

Last year was a better-than-average year of rattling for me and my hunting buddies. Two weeks before dropping that seven-point, I shot an old eight-point--the fourth buck of the morning to respond. If that sounds like a fortunate outing, consider what my partners were able to pull off during the same season. Travis Wier killed a 140-class eight point, and Will Welch shot a 150-class nine-point. Both bucks were rattled in to close range. Now that's what I call action.

RELATED ARTICLE: Gear for Rattling

I've had good success with commercial synthetic antlers, shed antlers and real antlers sawed off an old mount. My favorite set is an average-size set of antlers from a short-tined, heavy eight-point. When using sheds, just make sure they are fresh enough that they have good sound to them.

I saw off the brow tines flush with the main beams to protect my fingers when I'm grinding the antlers together. Some of my partners also like to grind off the tips of the remaining tines so they are not as sharp should they hit you in the hand. I also drill a hole through the base of each antler and run a cord or rope through both antlers and tie them together so I don't lose one. Thick gloves are also advised to protect your hands from the grinding antlers.

Full camo--including a headnet--is important. I also like to use a grunt call, albeit sparingly, to add realism to the sounds of a buck fight.

As far as guns, any deer-capable rifle will work. Some of my buddies prefer open-sighted lever-action rifles since most shots in the Texas brush country come at 50 yards or less. On variable scopes, keep the power cranked down to about 3X when rattling in an area with limited visibility.

Wearing carbon-activated clothing that suppresses human scent--such as out-fits offered by Scent-Lok, Cabela's Scent Pro and Bass Pro Shops Supprescent--could also prove helpful. Incoming bucks are more likely to spook from human scent than from seeing you move since the bucks are expecting to see movement from two deer fighting anyway.
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Author:Ray, Brandon
Publication:Petersen's Hunting
Geographic Code:1U7TX
Date:Dec 1, 2002
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