A Complete Look at Rattling – Part I
There is nothing new about rattling for whitetail deer. Once thought to only be effective only in Texas, we now know it will work almost anywhere. Each year, some good bucks are rattled in and killed by hunters. And each year I am asked many times how to rattle and a variety of rattling related questions.
I seldom hunt in Texas now but I did live there for several years. But I do a lot of rattling every year. I guess I am pretty successful at it. I have probably killed about two-dozen deer while rattling and rattled in about that many for other hunters. Untold numbers more were passed up. I passed up 13 of 14 I rattled in during a two-hour period one morning in Iowa. I also have never killed a truly big buck as a result of rattling. By big, I mean one over 150 inches of antler. I have never seen one that large come in but that is not at all surprising, as I’ll explain later. There are many facets to rattling and I’ll try to deal with each one in a clear concise manner. 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 might be a bit of a stretch to expect to bugle a 350 bull in to bow range. To be successful, you need knowledge of the animal you are hunting. This is just as true when attempting to rattle. Although it has often been said there is no wrong way to rattle, I don’t completely agree. I do think that 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.
First it is mandatory to understand the stages of antler engagement. It begins as soon as the buck are free of velvet and it ends when they shed their antlers. But between these two biological events, antler engagement goes through some changes. If the hunter does not understand this, his efforts are very likely going to be counter-productive.
Let’s begin with sparring. Sparring starts as soon as the velvet is gone. It has nothing to do with the rut. It has nothing to do with buck/doe ratios. It has little to do with dominance. I have many times seen larger bucks sparring with considerably smaller bucks. Age seems to matter little. Sparring is a friendly, social event between bucks within bachelor groups. It is not violent, can be participated in by as many five or six bucks and can be a double deadly tool in your arsenal if you know how, when and where to do it. The best buck I have 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, 1995 and the high temperature was 89 degrees.
I spar a lot during the early season and I do it no matter where I am hunting as long as the bucks are out of velvet. But what is sparring and how do you do it?
Sparring is a gentle clicking and clacking of the antlers. A little light tine tickling, a little grinding, a little moderate smack now and then. I may have each session last three or four minutes and I may do three or four sessions over a two-hour period. Mostly I spar early in the morning and late in the evening-the cooler periods of the early days. If I am hunting a food plot in the afternoon, I seldom spar, preferring to wait patiently. I have the food as an attracting agent.
I like to spar or rattle in thick cover. Remember, anytime you are calling or rattling, you are actually inviting a deer to come look for you. Therefore, the less visible you are the better.
Although sparring can be done using real antlers, synthetic antlers or a rattling device or bag, I prefer to use a bag and I don’t think it matters much what brand. It is a soft, quiet kind of sound spread out and not done in a hurry or a flurry. It is also about as likely to attract a doe or coyote as a buck. Early season sparring is also likely to draw 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 my range of vision.
The time for sparring lasts for quite some time. It goes on right up to the time the pre-rut activity begins and even then, it can be effective. Sparring may increase in intensity 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 pickup 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 often use calls. I use them sparingly and I match the call 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. One of my best calls during sparring is a friction call. I seldom use scents when sparring. But in truth, I seldom use scents at all with the exception of my own urine.
Now before we move to the next stage of antler engagement, let’s think a bit. Let’s compare this to elk or turkey hunting. Veteran elk and turkey guides have known for some time, the ideal way to call an animal into range is to do it with two people and call the animal past the shooter. That is by far the best way to rattle. Given the chance, I would have my shooter up a tree, well hidden and I would be on the ground, also well hidden. Obviously I would have to have trust in my shooter and he would need to know what he is doing and where to look. Hopefully, I could bring the deer downwind of the rattling because that is where the deer wants to go. They are easier to call if you call them where they want to go. But the key is to get the deer to pass close enough to the shooter for a shot, before he gets too far downwind and smells the hoax. Experience alone will teach you how to do that. I normally set up 50 yards or so upwind of the shooter and usually we can’t see each other. Sometimes, not at all infrequently, I may see the deer and shooter doesn’t. Just as often he sees him and I don’t. I truly believe a hunter sparring or rattling alone may only see one of every five deer that respond.
Always remember deer are fringe animals. They like the fringe of things. Think edge of thickets or heavy cover bordering a field. That is your location. Entice the deer to come look closely, not just check from a distance.