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Part 1: The Art & Science of Rattling White-tailed Deer

PhotoBy Russell Thornberry

-- Safety First: I have chosen this short chapter as the single-most important facet of antler rattling because it might save your life. Nothing ruins a hunt like getting shot. I know; it happened to me.

Rattling antlers is supposed to sound like two bucks engaged in head-to-head combat. If we can fool the deer that originated the sound, we can certainly fool a hunter who might hear our imitation. It is of the utmost importance that the hunter who intends to rattle antlers knows where all other hunters in his area will be hunting, and it is equally important for his companions to know he will be rattling. Sometimes this is not possible when hunting on public lands.

Only a fool would invite tragedy by rattling in the midst of unknown hunters. Even when hunting on private property with total control of hunting operations, I still choose a spot to rattle from where I cannot be blindsided by man or beast. I suggest that you do the same. Hunting accidents are really hunting mistakes. Make no mistakes and give others no opportunities to make them either. The life you save may be your own.

Selection & Preparation of Rattling Antlers: On a given day, one might attract a white-tailed buck by clanking a couple of 2-by-4s together. That would be the exception rather than the rule. Common sense tells me the more lifelike the rattling antlers are, the more apt they are to fool the bucks that grow them. For this reason, I recommend the use of antlers cut from the head of a freshly killed buck. I am not saying that antlers are only effective right after being removed from the donor, but I am saying that the fresher the antlers are when cut from the buck, the livelier they will sound for years to come. These rattling antlers will always sound more lifelike than an old dried out, bleached set of shed antlers.

The size of the rack will play an important role. Small spindly antlers generate very little volume of sound and the audible range of the antlers is very limited. Because of this, I prefer a medium-to-heavy rack, which can be heard at greater distances. The obvious question now arises. Where do I get such a rack? The size rack I recommend for effective antler rattling might be considered a trophy by many hunters. That can complicate availability since most hunters would rather have the rack on the wall than cut up for rattling antlers. My suggestion would be to keep an eye on your friendly neighborhood meat hunter. You know the guy I mean. He's the one that's always saying you can't eat horns. When he kills a buck with a good rack, make him hold true to his words. Meat hunters and novices have the peculiar habit of killing large-antlered deer. Make your play before they get interested in the antlers.

The shape of the rack is also very important for comfort in handling. A tight basket-shaped rack may cause the handler much misery due to cracked knuckles and smashed thumbs. There is something most unconvincing about a human scream in the midst of a rattling sequence as the hunter smashes his thumbs between two antlers in 20 degrees below zero. To avoid this problem I select a rack with a gradual curve to the main beam. I prefer a rack with four to five points per side, including the tip of the main beam and the brow time.

To remove the antlers from the buck's skull, saw them off with a hacksaw at their bases below the burr. The burrs left intact will keep the antlers from slipping out of hand when rattling. Brow tines often need to be removed to avoid the thumb crushing and knuckle stabbing. To do so, cut them off to smooth any ragged edges or sharp corners. If the knurl along the antler bases is extremely rough, it may be smoothed down with a rasp for comfort of handling. Some hunters cut off the tips of the vertical times to avoid knuckle busting, but I say keep the tips intact. They offer a very valuable sound in one particular phase of rattling. As mentioned earlier, I avoid knuckle busting by selecting the proper contour of main beans.

When I have secured my rattling antlers and have removed the brow tines and rasped away any rough spots, I drill a small hole through the bottom of the base and out through the side of the antler, just above the burr. I push one end of a 3-foot leather thong through the bottom of the base and out the side of one antler; I then tie a knot in it so that it cannot pass back through the hole. The other end of the thong is then tied the same way through the hole in the other antler. This connects them in a handy way, so they may be carried over the shoulders when walking or hung over a limb when in a treestand.

In the Southern United States, hunters often soak their antlers in water or rub them with linseed oil before using them. Some believe the procedure enhances the sound of the antlers, making them more lifelike. I cannot say whether this treatment really adds anything to the reality of the sound of the antlers or not, but I can assure you that a pair of water-soaked antlers will shatter like crystal in sub-zero weather. If you hunt where it gets extremely cold, don't soak the antlers.

I keep my rattling antlers in my den at room temperature except when I am hunting with them. I have given them no other special treatment. Once the set has been out of the sun and the elements they should last for years, if they were good fresh antlers from the beginning.

--From September 1987 Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine

Editor's Note: This is the first installment of Russell Thornberry's articles on how to rattle white-tailed deer. Follow the links to read Part II and Part III.

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