A Reason to Rattle
By: Drew Myers
This buck-busting tactic can help you fill your tag this fall
I find it odd that in a province full of avid moose callers many of them will sit in a deer stand as quiet as granite. Deer hunters have been conditioned to be as silent as possible to avoid detection from a whitetail’s ears, which are always twisting and turning, scanning for sounds of danger. However, if a hunter is willing to make a little noise by rattling, those same ears on big bucks can draw them into shooting range season after season.
Ontario is perfect rattling country. With buck-to-doe ratios fairly even across the province, competition for breeding can be intense. Couple this with the relatively low population densities in much of traditional deer-camp country or the segmented habitat in southern Ontario, and you have perfect conditions for rattling.
Bucks come to the sound of rattling antlers for a number of reasons, but you can boil them down into one behavioural stew - breeding. Bucks spar with each other when the velvet peels off their antlers for the rut. As fall progresses and does approach estrus, bucks come to the sound of antlers crashing together to either steal a doe from another buck or slip in to breed her when he’s chasing off another rival. After the main rut, bucks will fight over the few does that come into estrus later in the season. At all these stages, bucks respond to the sound of rattling antlers.
Timing is Everything
Prime time to rattle is about two weeks before the breeding period in Ontario, approximately Halloween to November 15. At this time, most does are not quite ready to breed, but bucks are and they’re looking for responsive does. When the majority of does start to breed, bucks tend to stay with one until she’s finished breeding. Then, they’re less likely to respond to a call. However, when does start to move out of estrus, bucks start looking for other does to breed and will again investigate the sound of rattling antlers. The problem is that bucks don’t always come when you rattle.
To be successful at rattling bucks into shooting range, you need faith that it works and must call from a good spot. You bring faith with you; you need to find the spot.
A good rattling location has fresh sign or is a regular travel corridor for rutting bucks and has something to block them from coming in behind you. Waterbodies such as ponds or steep drops are perfect for preventing deer from doing this, but a field or fresh logging cut behind you will also often dissuade deer from exposing themselves or, if they do, give you a clear shot at them.
You should have some sort of cover when you rattle. Bucks are reluctant to come out in the open when they can clearly see everything. The best rattling areas are open enough to see bucks coming and offer a shot, but with enough cover around to keep them searching for the source of the sound.
Rattling, like all game calling, is an art, but a few tips will get you started. Being too timid was the most common mistake I was guilty of at first. Deer make a tremendous racket when they fight, and you should, too. I start with a 45-second to a 1-minute opening volley.
Keep in mind that bucks don’t fence with their antlers. They use them to push and twist each other’s body and head, so try to make a grinding boneon- bone sound. If calling from the ground, making more noise by kicking your feet and breaking branches adds to the illusion. I also add some buck grunts before, during, and after the sequence.
Once the opening clash of antlers is over, I wait for about 30 seconds before giving them another 20 seconds of sound. Then, I put the calls down and wait at least 30 minutes before either moving to a new location or starting all over again. Some bucks I’ve rattled have come in within the first 10 minutes, but the majority have come poking along between 10- and 30 minutes after the end of the calling sequence. Patience is required.
You have a choice of natural antlers or commercial calls. I have a pair of antlers cut off a 10-pointer I shot a few years ago. They make a natural sound and can also be used to rake brush and pound the ground, to add realism. The problem is they’re heavy and awkward to carry - and sometimes I mash my thumbs with them.
Synthetic antlers, rattle bags, and other gadgets sound almost as good as the real thing and are lighter and safer. Unless I’m spending the day rattling as my primary strategy or have a short walk to my stand, I normally carry a rattle bag.
While you wait for a buck to respond, watch carefully, as deer often seem to appear out of nowhere. Keep your eyes moving and your body still.
Stick With it
One mistake some hunters make when rattling is that they don’t give it a chance to work. Last fall was a slow one for my rattling efforts. Only two bucks responded. However, one weekend a few seasons ago I rattled in nine bucks. Have faith that it will work and keep trying until a buck responds. Not every buck that hears you is going to come, and the majority of the time no buck is within earshot. Those are the facts. The upshot is that if you rattle regularly, by the end of the season you will likely have seen bucks that you would not have otherwise.
When rattling during a firearms season, always consider safety, especially when using real antlers. Wear lots of hunter orange, and if you see another hunter, make sure you put down the antlers asap.
Also wear protective gloves while rattling, as your hands can take a beating. Padded gloves made for mechanics or mountain bikers are a good option, but any pair of gloves that helps you grip the antlers and add a measure of protection is fine.
Rattling bucks in is about as exciting as deer hunting gets. While there will be days when bucks ignore you, the first time one charges in looking for a fight, you will be hooked on rattling. This fall, don’t just sit there, make some noise - and have your gun or bow ready.