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Part 2: The Art & Science of Rattling White-tailed Deer

PhotoBy Russell Thornberry

-- How to Rattle Antlers
There are numerous considerations that enter into antler rattling, such as location, position, wind, etc. There are certain limitations when rattling from a treestand as opposed to rattling from a ground position. I will cover these points in following chapters, but here I wish to explain how to use the antlers. Once the mechanics and general philosophy are learned we will move into specific hunting situations and cover the where and when of antler rattling. This chapter will deal with "How to Rattle Antlers."

The Standard Grip
The first method, which I call the "standard grip," is achieved by holding the antlers firmly by the bases with the tines pointing away from the body in the same general attitude that they grow from the buck's head. The right antler is held in the right hand and the left antler is held in the left hand. This grip is fine for a set of antlers that poses no inherent knuckle busting problems due to configuration.

The Crosshand Grip
The second variation I call the "crosshand grip" in which the right antler is held in the left hand and the left antler is held in the right hand. Both antlers are held firmly at their bases, extending away from the body. The curve of the main beams will curl away from each other until you cross your wrists, at which time the antlers will face one another as they do when growing from the animal's head. This grip is safer for rattling with antlers, which otherwise tend to smash thumbs and knuckles. In the crosshand grip, the antler tines are pointing away from the hands as the wrists are crossed during the rattling sequence. Brow tines may be left in tact if the user prefers the crosshand grip as they pose no problem in this style of rattling.

The Overhand Grip
The third grip is the "overhand grip" and the antlers are held front to back. The primary function of the overhand grip is to avoid painful thumb and knuckle smashing when imitating the initial clash of fighting bucks. Because of the great force applied in the clash, I use the overhand grip and then continue with either the standard grip or the crosshand grip for the balance of the rattling sequence. The overhand grip is simply a safety precaution in this specific forceful clashing of antler against antler, which will be described in full detail later in this article. It is important to remember, regardless of the grip you are using, to hold the antlers with a firm grip. This makes them sound solid rather than tinny and unattached.

Getting Ready to Rattle
Once the hunter has selected his rattling position on the ground, there are several key things he should consider before beginning. He should clear a place on the ground where he can sit or kneel quietly. He will want to be able to move and turn without creating any noise. For this reason I brush away all leaves, twigs and branches where I will be rattling. I will choose a location where there are shrubs or tree trunks that I can thrash with the antlers. Obviously these shrubs or small trees should be within arm's length from the rattling position. Although I have brushed away the leaves from my position, I want to have them close enough to stir with the antlers as another part of the rattling sequence. If rattling from a treestand, the stirring of leaves and thrashing of shrubs will not be possible. For this reason, the most convincing rattling is from a ground position.

From a Ground Position
Once I have settled into my ground position, I usually wait from 15 to 30 minutes before rattling. I generally rattle from within a timbered area, and I like to know that the forest has settled down after my arrival. No matter how quietly you approach your rattling position, squirrels, birds and sometimes even deer become aware of your presence. When I sense that the other occupants of the forest have accepted or forgotten my presence, I am ready to begin.

The first step is the tickling of the tips of the tines. This is done by holding the antlers firmly in each hand and lightly clicking the tips of the antlers together. Tickling should last about ten seconds. The function of this light, barely audible tickling is to arouse the curiosity of any buck which may be lingering in close proximity to the rattler. If the rattling sequence begins with a mighty clashing of antlers, it might spook deer away from the rattler rather than attract them.

I learned this lesson well while rattling one evening from a treestand beside the Red Deere River in Southern Alberta. I blasted the antlers together in a mighty clash and suddenly half a dozen deer jumped into the river and swam quickly to the other side. Some hunters believe that the heavy rattling right off the bat is the way to attract a dominant buck. This may be true, but as you follow my sequence, there will be ruckus enough to attract a dominant buck, if he's in the area.

By starting out with the light tickling of the tines, you will also get a look at what else is in the neighborhood. Not everyone has to kill the dominant buck to be happy. After the initial tickling of the tines, wait a full 15 minutes before the next step. At this point, you are trying to kill a buck with curiosity. If there are no signs of life after 15 minutes, repeat the 10 second tickling sequence once again with slightly more volume. Again, wait 15 minutes before continuing.

The reason for such a short sequence followed by 15 minutes of silence is to maximize the deer's curiosity. Because the tickling sequence is lightly audible, it is logical to assume that any buck hearing it will be relatively close to the rattler. For this reason, I make the sequence short to minimize the deer's ability to pinpoint the location of the sound. I have actually watched a buck stand up in his bed upon hearing the first ticking of the antlers. As it tried to pinpoint the location of the sound, the initial sequence stopped.

He stood like a marble statue without batting an eye, waiting for the next clue. Fifteen minutes later, the next sequence began. Immediately, the buck began moving toward the sound. When it stopped again, the buck stopped as well. While the buck was moving, the rattler heard his footsteps in the leaves. Knowing that there was a deer coming, the rattler remained absolutely silent for 25 minutes. Curiosity finally got the best of the buck and it came within 30 feet of the rattler, never knowing the real truth of the matter. If there is a single common fault with most antler rattling, it is over rattling. There are times when silence is golden. The time intervals between rattling sequences as described in this text are simply guidelines. I would not recommend that they be shortened but when the situation demands, they may certainly be lengthened as necessary. Every hunter who decides to take up antler rattling must learn that a whitetail buck is born with more patience than any hunter will ever achieve. Rattle accordingly.

Now I want to make this most important point. Immediately after you finish a rattling sequence, put the antlers down and pick up your rifle or bow. This eliminates the horrible embarrassment and frustration of watching a buck appear while your hands are full of antlers. At the tender age of 13, I rattled in my first buck. He charged in unexpectedly and with bloodshot eyes and hackles bristling, he stood 50 feet before me. I sat helplessly with antlers in hand and fear pounding in my heart. Enough said!

If neither of the initial ticking sequences has produced any interest, approximately 30 minutes should have elapsed and you are ready to begin rattling in earnest. When two mature, evenly matched bucks square off for battle it is serious business, sometimes to the death. This kind of fighting is not to be confused with the sparring of lesser sub-dominant bucks, which may appear more as play than battle. When two large, evenly matched bucks commit to battle, it begins with a head to head charge and the subsequent striking of antler against antler, which I call the clash. I imitate the clash with a hard crack of the antlers, back and front, with the overhand grip.

Once the bucks are engaged, antler to antler, they lunge to and fro and twist their heads in an attempt to throw their opponent off its feet. The initial clash is followed by the sound of antlers twisting and grinding, which is accomplished by twisting the wrists and grinding the antlers against one another using either the standard or crosshand grip. This sequence should produce an erratic non-rhythmic variation of sounds. Two bucks engaged in battle may stand head to head and push silently for a moment. Then one buck will shake its head furiously, intensifying the clattering of antlers. Picture the fight in your mind as you recreate it with the antlers.

While the antlers are producing the all important sound of fighting bucks, the rattler should be kicking leaves and working the antlers against bushes or tree bark at the same time. The fighting is furious in reality and there are eight feet in constant motion, driving, skidding and thrashing the ground. The rattler wants to recreate the whole scene if he is going to do it justice. Once the battle is underway, there is no such thing as too much noise!

After approximately 30 seconds of this twisting and grinding of antlers and foot thrashing the leaves and nearby shrubs, separate the antlers with a loud clatter of tines as the antlers are jerked apart. This is called the break. Imagine the bucks pulling away from one another with a violent shaking of their heads. Picture that move in your mind's eye and imitate it when you break.

Immediately following the break, rake one antler vigorously against a tree trunk for 10 seconds. Bark raking is a common occurrence among fighting bucks. I have watched them suddenly turn from one another and vent their wrath upon a tree trunk or sapling. I am not sure of the significance of bark raking but it is not the same as rubbing. It appears to be an act of rage among fighting whitetails, so I incorporate it into my rattling sequence.

Just after the 10-second bark raking sequence, holding the bases of the antlers firmly in both hands, strike the butts of the main beams against the ground in a two part rapid succession, recreating the forefoot alarm/challenge. This rapid thump, thump striking of the forefoot against the ground is used as a challenge or alarm signal. Both bucks and does use this signal, so I imitate it as a part of my rattling sequence. The following five steps will summarize my entire rattling sequence from a ground position.

1. Tickling Tines - Holding the antlers firmly, tickle the tips of the tines together as a teaser to arouse the curiosity of a nearby buck. Tickling should last only 10 seconds. Wait 15 minutes and repeat the tickling sequence with slightly more volume for another 10-second period. Wait an additional 15 minutes. If there is no success, move ahead to step two.

2. The Clash - An initial crack of the antlers imitating the initial charging together of the bucks. Use the overhand grip.

3. Twisting and Grinding - Immediately following the clash, using either the standard grip or the crosshand grip, twist and grind antler against antler for approximately 30 seconds. Accompany the twisting and grinding with the thrashing of leaves and breaking of branches to imitate the sound made by the deers' feet during combat. End this sequence with an obvious break.

4. Bark Raking - Immediately following the 30-second twisting and grinding sequence, rake one antler vigorously against a nearby tree trunk or sapling for 10 seconds.

5. Forefoot Alarm/Challenge - Upon completion of the bark raking sequence, the forefoot alarm/challenge is simulated by a rapid two-part pounding of the butts of the antlers against the ground creating a thump, thump sound.

How Long to Rattle
Steps two through five should take approximately 50 seconds. After completion, quickly put the antlers down and pick up your bow or rifle. Wait at least 15 minutes before repeating steps two through five again. If you have any indication of an approaching buck, it is wise to remain absolutely silent rather than continuing to rattle. A white-tailed buck will attempt to pinpoint your location through his senses of sight, sound and smell. The less understanding he has of your location, the less likely you will be caught flatfooted.

The question of how long to continue rattling in one spot arises after an hour of so with no success. If you have done your homework and have reason to believe there is a buck inhabiting the area, you cannot rattle too long in one location. Deer move in and out of the audible range of the antlers. Once, after rattling for four hours in the same spot, a 10-point buck came in on the dead run, nearly stepping on my brother John. It was obvious that the deer had simply wandered into hearing range of the antlers and upon picking up the sound, came in a mad dash. It is important to realize that you will not be aware of every buck that responds to the antlers. Quite often they will figure the rattler out and slip away totally unnoticed. If you lose faith in your position, you should move at least a half-mile to a new location before beginning again.

Rattling From a Treestand
Rattling from a treestand has some limitations as compared with rattling from a ground position in that much of the sound of the battle cannot be recreated. The thrashing of leaves and branches and the forefoot alarm/challenge are examples of sounds which will be eliminated when rattling from above.

Nonetheless, treestand rattling can be effective. The rattling sequence begins the same in the treestand as it does on the ground. The 10-second tickling of the tines followed by 15 minutes of silence begins the sequence. Repeat this sequence if there is no response the first time. If after 30 minutes and two tickling sequences there are no results, you are ready to begin the heavier rattling sequence. Begin with the clash as previously described, followed by the twisting and grinding sequence for approximately 30 seconds, ending with the break.

Immediately follow with 10 seconds of bark raking. Now put your antlers down and pick up your bow or rifle. You will need to plan a logical place to put the antlers when not in use. It is not as simple as when rattling from the ground. Hanging antlers over a limb can be tricky. They have a tendency to swing and clack together in the wind, which can ruin your effort. Plan ahead and know where the antlers are going to be placed. You will want to be able to pick them up and discard them quickly and quietly.

When you have completed the treestand rattling sequence, which includes the clash, twisting and grinding, break and bark raking, you will have consumed approximately 45 seconds. Wait 15 minutes and repeat the same sequence. Hereafter, I recommend that the rattling sequence be repeated on 30- to 45-minute intervals.

--From October 1987 Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine

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

By Dub @ Wednesday, November 28, 2007 1:47 PM
Thank you for the information. I rattled in a nice 8 point this year, probably by accident b/c it was my first try, now I'm hooked and am trying to find all the information that I can. Thanks again. Dub

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