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Part 3: The Art & Science of Rattling White-tailed Deer

PhotoBy Russell Thornberry

-- Now that you understand how to handle the antlers and the various rattling sequence, I want to deal with a vital aspect of successful antler rattling. Utilizing one or more hunting partners while rattling ups the odds of success dramatically. The reason is simple. Two heads are better than one. Three heads may be better than two. The more eyes watching, the better.

On the Ground
When rattling from a ground position, I prefer to have a partner sitting back-to-back with me. Not only can he watch my backside, he can assist with the kicking of leaves and breaking of limbs and branches during the twisting and grinding sequence while I tend to the antlers. There is some twisted law that causes a piece of toast to land jam side down after it falls from the table. The same law says that a white-tailed buck will come in on your blind side more often than not. This extra pair of eyes leaves no blind side. In addition, the non-rattling partner always has his bow or rifle in hand.

In the Trees
I am convinced that there is no more effective way to rattle whitetails than to have the rattler on the ground and one or more hunting companions in treestands. Positioning is all important. Once the rattler's location is established on the ground, a single partner should occupy a treestand approximately 100 yards downwind of the rattler. The majority of the time bucks come in on their nose from downwind of the rattler. They want to confirm with their noses what they believe they are hearing. The hunter in the treestand, downwind of the rattler, will likely see the buck as he comes in. The hunter in the stand will be well above the deer's nose and will likely catch the animal totally off guard. An incoming buck may circle the rattler at a safe distance but pass unknowingly into range of the hunter in the tree.

By using a third partner, this place can be even more effective. The rattler is on the ground and one partner occupies the treestand approximately 100 yards downwind of the rattler. The second partner will choose an intermediate treestand location visible to both the rattler and the downwinder partner. His primary function is to relay information about incoming deer from the downwind partner to the rattler. This is assuming the rattler cannot see the man 100 yards downwind of him. Most often he cannot. By using simple hand signals, information can be conveyed from hunter to hunter. This will enable the rattler to know what to do and when.

He may be advised of an incoming buck and thereby cease rattling. He may be advised that a buck is interested but standing his ground, in which case he may decide to tease the buck with tickling rather than the full force of the sequence he was using. It is a great asset for the rattler to know in advance of incoming deer. It can mean the difference between success and failure. I believe the three hunter system described here to be the most effective means of rattling that I have ever seen.

Tree to Tree
Rattling from a treestand with one or more partners in other treestands is also very effective. This offers the same advantage to the downwind hunter of seeing a buck that the rattler might not see. The disadvantage lies primarily in lesser available support sounds while rattling. Conversely, if wind is a specific problem in the hunting area, this system gets all hunters involved above the deer's scent plane.

Finding a Productive Rattling Area
Serious hunters naturally want to know where antler rattling will be most effective. The key to rattling success is found in the ratio of bucks to does in a given area. The more evenly matched the population of bucks to does, the more competition there will be among bucks for breeding the does. There have been some interesting experiments done with ratio control on private lands.

In one case, the game was controlled through harvesting until there was actually a one-to-one buck-to-doe ratio. It seemed like a good idea, but in the end it was a disaster. The bucks fought one another so viciously for breeding rights that they literally tore themselves apart. There was not a buck on the ranch that did not have broken antlers. They often fought to the death. It became obvious that nature did not intend for white-tailed deer to exist on a one-to-one basis. It would have been an antler rattler's mecca but it was not in the best interest of the future of the deer. A buck will naturally service multiple does. He's designed to do so.

The hunter usually has little or no access to game counts. There may have been no counts done in his area and even if there have, white-tailed deer are hard to count under the best of conditions. They are often counted in the north during mid-winter when snow makes them easier to see, but bucks may have dropped their antlers by then and may be indistinguishable from does.

In spite of these problems, there are some specific ways the hunter can ascertain something about the buck-to-doe ratio in his area. When there is a good buck-to-doe ratio there will be many scrapes. Conversely, when bucks are too few, scrapes are few as well.

Fresh rubs indicate the presence of bucks. My feeling is that rubs also are indicative of competition between bucks. If there is an overpopulation of does, which diminishes competition between bucks for breeding rights, there are generally fewer rubs. If the buck-to-doe ratio is healthy and the natural breeding competition exists, there will be many rubs.

Experience has repeatedly shown me that the larger the tree upon which a buck rubs, the larger the antlers. Finding any concentration of rubbed timber six inches or more in diameter means that there is a mighty fine buck in the neighborhood. Some spring scouting may produce shed antlers that give the hunter a valuable indication of the age quality of the bucks in his hunting area.

Another means of identifying ratio problems can be seen in the summer months. If there area spotted fawns showing up in late July or into August, it can mean that the does greatly outnumber the bucks. If the ratio is in reasonable balance, the bucks will breed the majority of the available does during the main rut, which usually occurs in mid- to late November in Canada and the northern states.

The gestation period for a whitetail averages 200 days from the peak of province, which for the sake of example we will say occurs on the 20th day of November. This means that the fawn should be born on or about the 11th day of June.

During a doe's estrus cycle, she will be receptive for a period of 24 to 26 hours during which she may be bred numerous times by the same buck or several bucks. If she is not bred, she will cycle out of estrus. Twenty-six to 32 days later she will repeat the process. This cycling process continues until she is bred for a maximum of three cycles. If not bred by the third cycle, she is through cycling for that year. It is extremely rare for a doe to cycle more than three times.

If a doe, according to the time table stated, was not bred in the first and main rutting period, she could not be bred until later December or possibly in late January if she was not bred until her third cycle. Should such last breeding occur, newborn fawns could be born in mid-July or mid-August. If the hunter finds later born fawns in his area on a regular basis, he can assume that the buck population is too low for the number of does in the area and that the odds of successful antler rattling will be very low. Newborn spotted fawns in late July or August can also indicate that bucks are being harvested too heavily or that does are being under-harvested. Either case results in poor antler rattling success.

Using the Wind
The best of all conditions for rattling antlers is absolute calm wind conditions. The reasons are two-fold. One, the sound of the antlers carries best with no wind to mute them. Secondly, the deer cannot utilize his tremendous sense of smell to pinpoint the rattler's location. But since the hunter almost always has to contend with some wind conditions, it is essential that he learn how to use the wind to his advantage.

Wind is used to the hunter's advantage because he knows that a whitetail will almost always approach the rattler from downwind. This simply dictates that a trap be set for an interception downwind of the rattler whenever possible. If rattling alone, it means that the rattler should select a location with a good downwind view so that the deer will have to expose himself when he makes his downwind approach. For every rule there is an exception, and I have seen white-tailed bucks charge into the antlers with seemingly no concern for the wind direction. It can happen, but it is definitely the exception. Plan for the downwind approach and you will be right far more often than you'll be wrong.

Hunters should remember that air currents rise as they are warmed by the rising sun and fall as the heat from the sun diminishes in the evening. This is a key consideration in establishing a rattling location. In hilly terrain, one must position himself so that air thermals do not broadcast his scent. This is a particular problem when hunting river valleys. There is an exceptionally strong rise and fall of the air currents in river valleys and deer inherently know how to use these conditions to their advantage.

In the morning, when the thermals rise, situate yourself so that deer cannot approach from above you. Conversely, in the evening avoid positioning that would allow deer to approach you from below. A whitetail's sense of smell is his greatest defense mechanism. If the hunter is as conscious of wind and thermal directions as a white-tailed deer, he will bring home his fair share of venison.

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

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