As the rut really kicks in, it’s time to ratchet up your rattling.
By John L. Sloan
The first installment of Rattler’s Digest discussed how sparring gnaws at bucks’ curiosity in the early season, but does not intimidate, which makes sense since they’re fairly friendly just out of velvet. Then, the author advised you to increase the force of your rattling in the pre-rut stage since you’re now appealing to a buck’s growing urge to dominate.
The end of the rut’s mild sparring stage is marked by slightly more aggressive encounters between bucks. This new phase of light rattling often coincides with the onset of real winter weather. I want it cold. In Tennessee, where I live, cold is 30 degrees Fahrenheit. In Alberta, cold is … well, cold. I rattled there one morning in -17 F and dang near froze. But the bucks came.
Whether it’s clear and still or nasty and windy, you’ll see bucks chasing does as their pre-rutting tendencies take off. Since they’re on the move, I might rattle from five or six different stands, spending no more than 45 minutes or an hour in each spot throughout the day. I also hunt quite a bit from my boat. I love to cruise a lakeshore and stop and rattle every 500 yards or so. I have even rattled from the boat while it drifts on small, moving streams. Usually, this works best with a partner — one shooter and one rattler.
Rattling during this period need not be violent. I still tickle the tines, but I mix it up with some louder, more aggressive smacks. The sequence is short and always begins with soft tine tickling because I don’t know how close a buck might be. At this stage, I rarely add a foot stomp, tree rub or snort of any kind. I don’t rattle from the same stand over two consecutive days and no more frequently than once every three or four days.
Everything changes when the first do comes into estrus. Now the gloves come off. If you have ever heard an all-out buck fight, you realize you cannot get too loud or too violent. It is an awesome event. But it doesn’t happen very often. The hard fighting is always about a doe in heat or nearly in heat, and she is usually not far away.
Years ago, I watched from across a picked bean field as a big 8-pointer successfully defended a doe it was tending from four different bucks over a 90-minute period. Only one of the intruders got to actually engage the dominant buck. And it got its butt royally kicked in less than 30 seconds.
Now, does are just coming into estrus. They are close enough for the bucks to follow and chase, but not quite ready to breed. Bucks often chase or herd does into open fields during this period. The does attract more bucks and fights break out. These clashes are serious and last from scant seconds to as long as an hour. I have seen and heard both. So how do you rattle to mimic such an event?
Rub trees, crunch leaves, snort and bang the ground in simulation of a foot stomp. Get loud and rowdy. I usually do three sequences, 5 to 10 minutes apart and lasting about a minute. Between sequences, I call softly and my bow or gun is in my hands. An estrous scent makes sense, too, because an estrous doe will almost certainly be around. Try a plaintive doe bleat during the lulls between rattling.
Calling can make or break your rattling. You must know what sound to make, how to make it, when to make it, and, as with all animal calling, when to stop.
If you can’t make a plausible sniff-snort-wheeze, don’t even try it. Learn to master an aggressive buck grunt at the right pitch. If there are no 400-pound bucks in your area, don’t sound like one. And of utmost importance, if the buck:doe ratio in your area is skewed, understand that once you get past the sparring and light rattling stage, aggressive antler engagement is not going to be very effective. You’re better off just sitting quietly.
In Illinois, I once sat in a thick creek bottom covered up with rubs. A big, high-racked 8-pointer walked in from my right. I had not rattled at all. At 75 yards, it stopped and started working a tree. I began a little light clicking and clacking. It looked around, but soon went back to rubbing. Then, from my left came a dandy wide 8-pointer.
The bucks met and were friendly enough. I hit a soft doe bleat. The first buck left the area, and the wide buck headed my way. It was a more dominant buck; there was no fight required to test this fact. Experiences like this teach you when to call, when to rattle and how to know which is right for the occasion.
Late-season rattling can work if the buck:doe ratio is balanced. Competition causes fights.
Match your antlers to the area you are hunting. I would not use the same antlers in Tennessee that I use in Canada or even the Midwest. I want antlers that are average for the region. If the largest buck around is a 140-class buck, I use 120-class antlers.
A good pair of rattling antlers is not too thick and has some tine length. I prefer 8-point racks and I always saw off the brow tines. I have not used synthetic antlers, but I see no reason why they wouldn’t work.
I store my antlers indoors during the off-season. They are connected by lengths of cord and carried to the woods wrapped tightly together. Obviously, you should never climb a tree with the antlers on your body. Tie them to a line and lay them where you could not fall on them.
Once in the tree, have them close at hand. I carry a small screw hook just for that purpose. I hang them so I can tickle them with one hand and little movement.
I always stand up to rattle and constantly watch 360 degrees. Deer come to rattling in a variety of ways. I’ve seen them rush in, sneak in, suddenly appear from nowhere and completely circle me. I have rattled them back in and spooked them with too much action. Bowhunters: Plan how, when and where to draw. You have just enticed an animal that is looking for something into shooting range. It is alert and watching for everything.
Antler engagement is not magic. You will scare as many deer as you bring in and probably will only see a small portion of the deer that actually come to check you out. Whether or not you shoot a big buck because of it, rattling is a great tool with which to better understand deer behavior. And it’s always fun to see them respond.
This article was published in the September 2005 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.