A whitetail buck can out-hear, out-smell, and outrun you when you try to stalk him in noisy conditions such as dry leaves or crunchy snow. So why not sit still and call him to you? Deer calls and antler rattling can be buck magnets, but also repellents when used improperly. Use these tips to bring in bucks during all phases of the rut.
It’s not a crutch
If you want to call in deer consistently, understand this is not a stand-alone skill. It must be paired with effective scent control and wind consciousness. Many failed attempts at calling were not complete failures. A deer may hear and move toward a call before smelling a hunter in the wind and splitting before being seen.
So, if you like a laid-back approach to hunting expressed by the idea, “forget the wind, let’s just hunt,” then calling is not an ideal tactic for you. If you are willing to put a little effort into assessing wind direction and controlling your scent, however, then calling becomes far more effective.
When blind calling to any deer that you hope may be around, call softly first in case there is one nearby. If you get no response after 20 minutes, call loudly to reach out to a larger area. When calling to a specific deer that you can see, in hopes of bringing him into range, call softly to make it harder to pinpoint you. When working a visible deer, avoid calling when the deer is looking toward you, already coming toward you, or when it will be drawn into your scent.
The calls you need to cover every situation from October to December include buck and doe grunts, doe and fawn bleats, antler rattling, and the buck snort-wheeze.
Grunts for whitetails
The basic grunt is a short, guttural “eck” sound made by does and bucks. Adult bucks have a deeper, louder grunt. A single, soft grunt, called the contact or social grunt, is used by does and bucks to locate other deer throughout the year. It’s like saying “Hey.” A boss doe calls with an aggressive grunt to call the group toward her. It’s a short grunt followed by a long grunt with an inflection of agitation and insistence.
Adult bucks grunt more aggressively during the rut to express dominance and when fighting for breeding rights. When they are with a doe and want to breed, they have a loud, three-or four-second tending grunt that expresses agitation and dominance. When they are following the scent trail of a doe, they use a trailing grunt — a series of quick, soft grunts.
How to grunt
Any of the commercially produced grunt calls make acceptable contact grunts by huffing a short burst of air into the call. Be sure to huff it up from your chest, not blow into the call as you would blow out a candle. When making the longer grunts like the doe aggressive grunt and the buck tending grunt, put inflection and emotion in the call by varying the pitch with your air pressure and opening and closing your hands over the call.
Some people can make an acceptable grunt with their own vocal chords but I can’t. I rely on a commercially produced call with an adjustable reed. Moving a slide to different positions on the reed gives four different calls, the fawn bleat, and doe, immature buck, and mature buck grunts. With such a call, you can create the illusion that a buck and doe are together to trigger a dominant buck’s jealousy and bring him in.
Using whitetail antlers
To prepare real antlers for rattling, cut off the brow tines with a hacksaw. They interfere with the grip and will crush your fingers when you rattle. Grind off the burrs at the base of each antler so they don’t tear up your skin or gloves when you work them.
You can carry them in a backpack or drill holes in the bases and attach them with a cord to carry over your shoulder.
In the off season, store antlers in a dry place away from human scent, like in a sealed plastic tub.
Angle your hand to direct calls toward the ground if you are in a tree stand or toward your shooting lane.
Fawns give a distress bleat when they are separated from mom any time during the year, especially in the fall when does come into estrus and abandon fawns to be with a buck. Does bleat when they are being chased by bucks and when they come into estrus. The estrus bleat is a drawnout, high-pitched, wavering call easily made on commercially produced tip-over can calls and mouth-blown calls.
When bucks fight, there is an initial impact clash of antlers which then becomes a shoving match with a lot of head shaking. The shoving produces grinding and popping noises from the antlers and head shakes makes the tines rattle. There are commercially produced rattle systems which are compact and easy to carry. I carry a set of medium-sized antlers off an eight pointer and have had success with them. Massive antlers rattle louder and sound the best, but are awkward to carry, so it makes sense to compromise.
How to rattle
To work your antlers, slam them together once, then grind them into each other with pressure. Then rattle the tines together. Alternate between grinding and rattling. A looser grip on the antlers when you rattle gives them more resonance, but you will have to grip them tightly to grind. Keep it up until your hands and wrists get tired. If you don’t get tired, you’re not doing it right.
Mature bucks make this sound to express territorial dominance over other bucks. It’s like saying “I don’t want you here and I am going to do something about it.” It can push a dominant buck over the edge, to bring him in, but will scare off subordinate bucks. To know if you should use this call on a buck nearby, check his body language. If you see laid-back ears, bristling hair, stiff-legged walking, thrashing trees with his antlers or scraping on the ground he is a dominant buck and will be drawn to the challenge of a snort wheeze. If there is one call that might bring a dominant buck straight in without scent checking the wind it is the snort-wheeze during the rut.
There are commercial calls available with instructions for the snort-wheeze or you can learn make the call with your own mouth. It’s two rapid-fire, loud bursts of air followed by a long one. In human language it’s like saying “pft! pft! Pffffffffffffff.” For the first two notes, huff air through your bared teeth with your lips wide open then let them close a little for the long wheeze of the third note.
You can watch all sorts of online videos about calling and rut timing, but here are the straight goods actually relevant to Ontario:
Realistic calls in the proper context for bow hunters in the first three weeks of October or early pre-rut are soft buck social grunts. Bucks are curious about other bucks in their territory. Although not really in a fighting mood yet, they do spar with their antlers so, short 10 second light rattling sequences 20 minutes apart sound authentic.
If you are trying to fill a doe tag, doe contact grunts, doe aggressive grunt, and fawn distress bleats will incite a doe’s curiosity or trigger her maternal instinct to approach.
In October and first few days of November, when bucks are scraping, cruising for does, fighting for territorial dominance, and following does, rattle hard and long, combining buck grunts and trailing grunts with your sequence.
Buck grunts will pull in territorial bucks. Doe contact grunts will pull in does and bucks. Fawn distress bleats will pull in does with bucks following them or cruising bucks because they know there may be does near fawns.
When does are in estrus and actively breeding, authentic calls include the estrus bleat alone or combined with the buck trailing grunt and/or tending grunts. Try rattle sequences up to a minute long and mix in loud buck grunts. If you are targeting a big buck, use the snort-wheeze while rattling. If you are hunting any buck at all, like a tender-eating forkhorn or six pointer, rattling pulls in curious immature bucks as well as dominant bucks. Immature bucks will hang back at a distance to watch.
The doe contact grunt, aggressive grunts, and fawn distress bleats are all natural sounds during the rut, and can attract a buck. If a buck is with a doe that is not yet ready to breed, you may not be able to call him away from her, but you can call in the doe with doe calls and the buck will follow.
Using these calls together would not sound authentic, but you can try different sequences based on what deer you are after, provided you space them 30 or 40 minutes apart. When blind calling, you don’t know what kind of buck will be within range of your call, so it doesn’t hurt to try different calls to find one that triggers his interest.
When the Ontario firearms season ends and archery hunters take to the woods again, most does have been bred. But bucks that have been locked down with them know there are always a few more out there that have not been. They are not done partying and start cruising again for those does.
So, rattling, estrus bleats, and buck grunts can still pull in travelling post-rut bucks. Call from travel corridors, pinch points, or high ridges to make sure your calls are heard. If you don’t have those options, call near bedding and feeding areas, but tone it down and use immature buck grunts because bucks near food are worn down from chasing, fighting, and breeding and don’t have the energy to fight aggressively, but may still be curious.
In the first two weeks of December, the does that were not bred in November come into estrus again. In this secondary rut, doe in heat bleats, fawn bleats, rattling, buck grunts, and snort wheezes are all valid calls again.
Deer calling is about creating an illusion that is attractive to your quarry. If you can grab him by the ears with your calling without alerting his nose, you will see and harvest more bucks.
When calling is not ideal
If your spot has seen a lot of hunter intrusion, calling, and rattling during the gun season, put the calls away for a few weeks and resort to stealthy ambush tactics. Or move to a less-pressured area if you want to call.
Originally published in the Nov.-Dec. 2021 issue of Ontario OUT of DOORS