Rattling can work anywhere if you match your technique to the time of year you’re hunting.
By John L. Sloan
Once thought to only be effective in Texas, rattling works almost anywhere there are whitetails. Each year, big bucks are taken this way, and each year I am asked a wide variety of questions on rattling techniques.
I do a lot of rattling and have probably shot two dozen deer by this method and lured in just as many for other hunters. But I’ve passed on untold numbers. In fact, I let more than a dozen bucks walk that I rattled in during a two-hour stretch one morning in Iowa. I also have never taken a buck that scores more than 150 inches as a result of rattling. That is not at all surprising, as I’ll explain later. There are many facets to rattling, so let’s start at the beginning.
You don’t buy your first turkey call Friday night and call in five gobblers the next morning. If you have never elk hunted, it would be a stretch to expect to immediately bugle a 350-inch bull into bow range. Success comes with knowing the animal you are hunting. This is just as true with rattle whitetails. Although I’ve often heard there is no wrong way to rattle, more bucks are spooked from rattling than you ever bring into range. The same is true of calling turkeys and elk if you don’t know what you are doing.
The stages of antler engagement begin as soon as bucks are free of velvet and end when they shed their antlers. But between these two biological events, antler engagement goes through some changes. If you don’t understand what these changes are, your efforts are likely to be counter-productive.
Sparring is a gentle click and clack of the antlers — a little light tine tickling, a little grinding, a little moderate smack now and then. Sparring starts as soon as the velvet is gone. It has nothing to do with the rut or buck/doe ratios and little to do with dominance. Many times I have seen big bucks sparring with considerably smaller ones.
Sparring is friendly social behavior between bucks within bachelor groups. It is not violent, can be participated in by as many five or six bucks and can be a deadly tool in your arsenal if you know how, when and where to mimic it. The best buck I ever killed using any form of antler engagement came to light sparring as part of a seven-buck bachelor group. It was opening day of bow season, and the high was 89 degrees.
If the bucks are out of velvet, I mimic sparring during the early season no matter where I am hunting. My sessions last about four minutes, and I might rattle four times over two hours. I spar early in the morning and late in the evening — the cooler periods of the day. If I am hunting a food plot in the afternoon, I seldom spar, preferring to just wait patiently. The food will bring them to me.
I like to spar or rattle in fairly thick cover. Remember, any time you call or rattle, you are actually inviting a deer to come look for you. Therefore, the less visible you are, the better.
Although sparring can be done with real antlers, synthetic antlers or a rattling device, I prefer to use a bag. You want a soft, quiet sound. It is equally likely to attract a doe, coyote, buck or even an entire bachelor group. Usually the smallest buck will come in first and the largest last. Be patient. This is another reason I like to use a bag. I can manipulate it behind my back with one hand and a minimum of movement, hidden from the prying eyes of the buck standing just out of sight.
Sparring is effective right until pre-rut activity begins and sometimes it even increases as the rut approaches. The first sign indicating you can pick up the volume is the breakup of the bachelor groups. However, that still does not cause me to put the bag up and pick up the real antlers. My sounds will still be moderate and friendly with just a twist of aggression. This is true even when I begin to see serious rubs. As long as it is warm and early in the rutting cycle, I stick with sparring.
When sparring, I use calls sparingly and match them to the sex and activity I am trying to portray. Sparring usually calls for soft, immature buck grunts and even some friendly doe bleats now and then.
Before we look at the next stage of antler engagement, let’s make another comparison to elk or turkey hunting. Veteran elk and turkey guides know the ideal way to call an animal past the shooter is to hunt as a pair. That is by far the best way to rattle, too. Given the chance, I have my shooter up a tree, well hidden, and I am out of sight at ground level. I have to trust that my shooter knows what he is doing and where to look. I try to bring the deer downwind of the rattling because that is where it wants to go. The key is getting the deer to pass close enough to the shooter for a shot before it gets too far downwind and smells the hoax. Experience alone will teach you how to do that.
I usually set up 50 yards or so upwind of the shooter, and we can’t see each other. Sometimes, I may see the deer when the shooter does not and vice versa. I truly believe a hunter sparring or rattling by himself might only see one of every five deer that responds.
Deer are fringe animals, so set up around thicket edges or heavy cover bordering fields. Entice the deer to come in for a close look.
If the sparring stage of antler engagement can be likened to two young kids on a grade school playground, the next stage may be for the high school guys. Bucks aren’t yet all out fighting. In this stage the intent is not to injure, but simply to show dominance, to say, “I can whip you if I want to.”
It’s the pre-rut period, and bucks are starting to travel alone. Rattle with more intensity and aggression. I like to use real antlers to send a more potent signal. Make an occasional hard, loud smack. Pre-rut antler engagement is not very long, and it seldom is about a doe. This is just a meeting to prove a point between two bucks of near equal age or size. These encounters quite frequently take place in open hardwoods or fields. A reliable setup is on the edge of travel areas, thickets or overgrown weed fields.
In 2004, during the first segment of my state’s muzzleloader season, Nov. 6-12, I hunted three times with moderate rattling. The first time was a calm, sunny, 35-degree morning. The second sequence that morning brought in a small 6-pointer. A few minutes later, a spike appeared. During the next sequence, at 7:45, a fat doe came to investigate. I took her home with me.
The next morning, secluded in a ladder stand on the edge of a hayfield and the corner of a small weed field, my first sequence brought an 8-point buck into the hayfield at 400 yards. I coaxed it to 226 yards, according to my rangefinder, but that’s where it stopped. This is a frequent problem with rattling. Bucks often hang up when they figure out the source area of the sound but don’t see or smell another deer. Once it stops, it seldom will come any closer. Fortunately, with a rest and a super accurate muzzleloader, I was able to drop the 8-pointer.
This article was published in the August 2005 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.