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Whitetail Rattling 101.


It was the last hour of a bitter cold November afternoon, and I hadn't seen a buck all day. Sitting at the corner of two fencerows overlooking a vast alfalfa field, I finally spotted movement on the snow a half-mile away. My binoculars revealed the silhouette of a full-racked buck. After observing the whitetail for several minutes, I concluded he wasn't coming anywhere near me without some encouragement. With nothing to lose, I reached for my trusty rattling antlers.

The response could not have been more dramatic. At the first crash, the buck spun in my direction and started across the field at a dead run. I then made a cardinal error: eager to hold the buck's attention, I continued to grind the horns together while forgetting how fast a motivated buck can cover ground. Moments later, the buck was standing 15 yards away while I stood armed with nothing but shed antlers.

I didn't try to force the issue by reaching for my bow. Eventually, the buck drifted off down the fence line and gave me a chance to pick up my bow undetected. Another backhanded tinkle of the antler tips brought him right back on the run, and as he stared down into the thick brush behind me looking for the fight, I sent a cedar arrow through his ribs.

I'd had plenty of opportunity to study the buck's antlers during this sequence of events, and I didn't need to run my hands along them to know he carried six points on a side. His headgear wasn't the issue. It was the dramatic conduct of the hunt that burned that chilly afternoon's events into my memory--and that illustrates why I don't go deer hunting without rattling horns in my daypack.

WHITETAILS HAVE PROBABLY generated more theories than all other species of big game combined. Scrapes, rubs, scents, calls, moon phases ... good grief. Years ago, I decided to concentrate on what I personally observed in the field. I learned that most whitetail theory is just that, with two important exceptions--scrape hunting and rattling.

One caveat: with the sole exception of cougars, whitetails are the New World's most widely distributed big game animal, and their behavior varies by location. While I've hunted them from Mexico to Alberta, most of my own observations have taken place near my home in the Mountain West. Many of my conclusions can be extended to whitetails elsewhere, but some differences need to be taken into account in other locations, particularly with regard to rut timing.

The number of experienced bowhunters who seldom rattle antlers always surprises me. Explanations generally run: "I bet I rattled a dozen times last season and never saw a deer," or, "I saw a big buck coming down the fenceline, and when I rattled, he turned and ran away." But as my father told me 50 years ago, "When you're hunting big game, whatever you're doing only has to work once."

Whether the quarry is ducks or moose, most calling instructions begin with elaborate descriptions of the sounds you're supposed to make. Helpful hint: it doesn't much matter. Whatever you're calling, the most important variable is the mood of the animal, over which you have no control.

The next most important factors are when you call and how you set up. The actual sounds you make rank a distant fourth. Tinkle the top tines together, grind the bases, and you'll be rattling whitetails.

At what point in the season should you rattle? Conventional wisdom holds that rattling is most effective just before the rut, since that's when bucks are establishing dominance. However, years ago, while hunting elk early one September, I heard the distinct clash of antlers ahead of me in the aspens. Assuming I'd located sparring bulls, I eased forward into the wind only to find two mature whitetails tussling in the middle of a meadow as two smaller bucks observed them. As I watched, two more bucks materialized from different directions to watch the show. That display of natural rattling--and the astounding results--took place many weeks before the rut.

I've personally experienced my best rattling during peak rut--the last two weeks of November where I live. Bucks may be busy chasing does then, but all that testosterone makes them bold and aggressive, and that's exactly the mindset that produces aggressive responses to rattling.

I've rattled-in bucks at all hours of the day. During the rut, I usually stay quiet right after daylight to avoid disrupting the does' natural movement patterns. At that time of year, nothing beats having unsuspecting does firing by, and rattling won't help that cause. Midmorning through noon is my favorite time to rattle, followed by mid to late afternoon. I usually tone it down again an hour before dark.

I divide the way bucks respond to rattling into two categories: aggressive and tentative. The buck I describe shooting above typifies the aggressive response--direct and immediate, with caution thrown to the wind. It doesn't always happen that way, but when it does, it's one of the most dramatic moments in bowhunting.

Some bucks respond much more cautiously, as if their instincts tell them to investigate before committing to a fight. These bucks may be younger and smaller, but not always. They're also more likely to circle downwind, and they may require a bit more encouragement to bring them into bow range.

Some seasons back, my wife, Lori, and I were sitting in stands several hundred yards apart in a timbered coulee below our rural home when I heard her start to rattle. Immediately, a 4x4 appeared in front of me and began to walk slowly in her direction. Because of the terrain, I knew she couldn't see the deer. As soon as she stopped rattling, the buck halted but continued to stare in her direction. When she started to rattle again 10 minutes later, the buck resumed his measured approach. "Keep rattling Lori!" I wanted to scream as this continued for nearly an hour. Darkness fell before she could lure the buck into bow range. She never even saw the deer. Moral: be patient, and when conditions are right, keep rattling.


Sometimes, silence is golden. We've already talked about the need to avoid spooking does. Should you rattle as soon as you see a buck you want to shoot?

The answer is an emphatic no. First I observe the deer, and if I sense any chance he will come my way on his own, I remain silent. Calling any game animal represents an exchange of information between offense and defense that can hurt either side. If the buck clearly isn't headed my way, I'll rattle, usually waiting until the deer is out of sight to minimize the chance that he'll see my movement. Won't he quickly pass out of hearing distance? Not likely. I've watched enough bucks come from great distances not to worry about that.

The Boy Scouts advise us to Be Prepared, and no one has said it better. A tentative buck might give you time to prepare, but my own rule is: never rattle unless you're ready for an immediate, aggressive response.

Whitetails have an uncanny ability to pinpoint the source of sound from a distance. "Aggressive response" doesn't mean a deer will just come into view. It means you'll have a deer within a few yards--right now. Exchanging rattling antlers for bow sounds simple enough--until you've tried it with a buck staring at you from pointblank range. An admission from a hunter who's been caught offguard? You bet. I learned years ago that you can't kill a buck while you're holding rattling antlers.

Before you rattle, make sure you can exchange antlers for bow quickly. This is especially important in treestands. Your bow should be hanging from a hook or a branch where you can reach it with minimal movement, and you should have a similar arrangement ready for your rattling antlers. I join mine with a leather thong threaded through holes drilled in the bases so I can hang them up quickly.

If you're hunting from the ground, nock an arrow and hang your bow from a branch where you can reach it quickly. On cold, still mornings--the best for rattling--I make my first sequence short and immediately exchange antlers for bow. If a buck is going to respond aggressively, he'll usually do so at once.

Synthetic antlers are okay, but I'm old fashioned and still prefer to rattle with shed antlers. Rattle bags are compact and require little movement to produce effective sounds. Lori loves hers; perhaps she'll convert me someday.

As usual, attitude may be the most important element of technique. Calling any game animal into bow range requires confidence in the method, and for bowhunters accustomed to silence, making noise to attract wary animals can seem counterintuitive. Confidence in rattling requires either a positive experience or a leap of faith. But anyone who has gained that confidence knows one of hunting's most rewarding experiences--rattling a whitetail buck into making a fatal mistake.
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Title Annotation:Adventuresome Bowman
Author:Thomas, E. Donnall, Jr.
Date:May 1, 2008
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