By P.J. Reilly
Ph.D. applies some science to the mystery of antler rattling.
Being a deer hunter offers the opportunity to see things in the woods that non-hunters probably will see only on TV: a buck chasing a doe during the rut, a buck making a scrape or a doe challenging a coyote to protect her fawns.
The first time I saw two bucks fighting was about 15 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. I was perched in a stand on a treeline adjacent to an interior, grassy clearing. About an hour after sunrise, I heard a racket from the thicket on the far side of the opening. I recognized the sound immediately as antlers clashing, but I thought it was another hunter rattling. I thought that until I saw two 3-year-olds pushing each other.
It was fun to watch, but what impressed me most was the attention the battling bucks attracted. I was so focused on the combatants, I didn’t see the 8-pointer strutting in on stiff legs to my right until he was 15 yards away. He rushed over to the fight, stood a few feet away and watched.
About that time, another buck approached from my left. It was a decent 10-pointer, and when he paused 25 yards in front of my stand, I loosed an arrow that disappeared perfectly behind his shoulder.
Technically, I didn’t rattle in that buck. But it was the sound of antlers cracking — the very thing rattling imitates — that drew him to my stand.
Rattling works. It works because it’s a real sound in whitetail country each fall. Bucks fight, and those fights attract other bucks. Some approach out of curiosity. Others rush in to defend their territory or to see if there’s a hot doe left unattended by the warriors.
“Rattling doesn’t work every time you do it,” said Buckmasters’ Jackie Bushman. “It’s one of those things you do, hoping to get the attention of a buck that’s in the mood for a fight. If the right buck hears you, get ready.”
There are some places where rattling is a killer tactic that will help you fill tags every season. In other places, it seems useless. The makeup of the deer population has a lot to do with that.
“Here in Alabama, our buck-to-doe ratio is out of whack (with does outnumbering bucks), so it’s not as effective as it is in places like the Midwest or Mexico, where the ratios are more even,” Bushman said.
That only makes sense. There’s more competition for hot does in areas where the ratio of bucks to does is closer to 1-to-1. Conversely, in areas where there are multiple does for every buck, there’s not as much need for bucks to fight over hot does.
Rattling is like calling to spring gobblers, Bushman said. Lots of birds hear you call. Some respond, and some don’t. You have to tickle the ears of the right tom in the right mood to lure one into shotgun range.
SURVEY SAYS ...
Mickey Hellickson, Ph.D., of Orion Land & Wildlife Management Services in Texas, is one scientist who put rattling under the microscope to see what he could learn. His report from 2009 is available on the website for the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M University-Kingsville.
For his experiment, Hellickson went to the Welder Wildlife Foundation Refuge north of Sinton, Texas, to see if he could determine what type of rattling sequence attracts the highest number of bucks.
“Because no research had ever been conducted on antler rattling, I relied on rattling articles I had read in popular hunting magazines to develop four different rattling sequences,” Hellickson wrote in his report.
His four sequences were short and quiet, short and loud, long and loud, and long and quiet. Both of the short sequences consisted of three 10-minute segments. Each featured one minute of rattling followed by nine minutes of silence.
The long sequences also consisted of three 10-minute segments, but they each featured three minutes of rattling followed by seven minutes of silence.
During the quiet sequences, harsh antler clashes were avoided, while the loud sequences featured clashes, brush raking and tree rubbing to generate as much noise as possible.
The rattling sequences were done over a three-year period during the pre-rut, peak rut and post-rut from 17 observation stands. Two people participated, with one rattling on the ground in the nearest clump of brush upwind from the stand. A spotter watched for responding bucks to count them and estimate the age and approximate score of each.
By the end of the study, Hellickson had rattled 171 times, with 60 sequences in the pre-rut, 60 in peak rut and 51 during the post-rut.
“The periods of the rut were determined based on necropsy records of more than 900 does killed on the refuge,” Hellickson’s report states.
All totaled, 111 bucks responded to the rattling sequences. The two loud sequences were performed 85 times and drew in 81 bucks, according to the study. The quiet sequences were performed 86 times but only attracted 30 bucks.
The length of the sequences didn’t seem to matter, Hellickson found. The short sequences were performed 88 times and drew in 57 bucks, while the long sequences were performed 83 times and attracted 54 bucks.
Hands down, peak rut was the period when rattling was most effective. The 60 sequences run during peak rut drew in 65 bucks for a 108-percent response rate. During the post-rut, 28 bucks responded to 51 sequences, for a 55 percent response rate. Only 18 bucks responded to the 60 pre-rut sequences, for a response rate of 30 percent.
Morning was the most productive time of day for rattling. Sixty of the 111 bucks that responded came in to the 64 sequences performed between 7:30 and 10:30 a.m.
The period from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. was the next most productive, drawing 33 bucks on 62 rattling sequences.
Only 18 bucks responded to the 40 sequences performed between 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.
Regardless of the time of day, 60 percent of the bucks (67 of 111) were first spotted downwind of the calling location.
For the study, Hellickson divided responding bucks into three age categories: 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 years, 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 years, and 5 1/2-plus years. Forty-six bucks were counted in the 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 category; 37 from the 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 group, and 28 from the older group.
The single-most productive sequence was the short-and-loud routine. Performed 45 times, the sequence drew in 45 bucks, for a 100-percent response rate. It drew in 18 bucks age 1 1/2 to 2 1/2, 18 bucks age 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 and nine bucks age 5 1/2-plus.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Bushman has been rattling in bucks all over North America for decades. His preferred instruments are a set of medium-size sheds.
“You need sheds big enough that they have enough baritone to really reach out there when you have to,” he said.
The first thing Bushman does when he selects a set of rattling antlers is cut off the brow tines.
“A lot of people get their hands all banged up because they don’t cut off the brows,” he said.
Next, he drills a hole in the base of each antler and connects them with a length of string or strip of leather. That’s so he can keep the set together, and so he can hang them easily when he’s in a stand.
“You might have to pick them up fast if you see a buck that’s about to disappear, or you might have to put them down quickly if a buck hears you and starts to run in,” he said.
Commercially made rattling products like the Hunter’s Specialties Heavy Horns Rattling Bag also are good choices, according to Bushman. And whatever he uses for rattling, Bushman always has a grunt call on hand.
“You gotta have that grunt call,” Bushman said. “When two bucks are fighting, you’ll hear a lot of grunting.”
PLAYING THE MUSIC
So exactly how do you mimic a buck fight by rattling and grunting? Bushman recommends hunters find videos of actual buck fights to get a sense of what they sound like.
“You can’t beat the real thing,” he said. “Listen to the sounds and try to imitate them. One thing you’ll notice is a buck fight is not quiet. It’s loud, and it’s violent.”
Indeed, bucks are killed every year in rut-crazed battles over does and territory.
“The No. 1 thing people do wrong when they rattle is they’re too soft,” Bushman said. “They’re afraid to make noise. Don’t be. A real fight is loud.”
Having said that, however, Bushman likes to start his rattling sequences quietly. He’ll just tickle the antler tines together at first.
“That’s just in case there’s a buck laying 30 yards away in the brush that I can’t see,” he said. “If you smack your antlers together with that buck there, he’s gonna turn inside out getting out of there.”
Bushman likes to rattle 20 to 30 seconds at a time, every 15 minutes. And he’ll build his volume with each calling sequence, as he determines there are no bucks hiding out close by. At full aggressiveness and volume, Bushman will smack his antlers together, then spend a good deal of time grinding them as hard as he can. If he’s on the ground, he’ll rake nearby brush and pound the dirt.
“When you separate your antlers, do it hard,” Bushman said. “When two bucks break apart, it’s rough.”
After a sequence, it’s critical to put down the antlers, grab your bow or gun, and scan the area around your calling location, especially the downwind side.
“It seems like a lot of hunters stand around holding their antlers after a sequence, and the next thing they know, a buck’s on top of them,” Bushman said. “Get rid of those horns and get ready to shoot. Sometimes it happens fast.”
A NEW TOOL IN THE BAG
If you’ve never tried rattling before, play around with it this season and see what happens. The first time a buck approaches your stand with a stiff-legged gait, flared nostrils and hair standing up on his back, you’ll be hooked.
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This article was published in the September 2013 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.