As a lifelong bowhunter, I was trained to be stealthy, stalk undetected, or wait motionless in ambush for unsuspecting whitetail deer. So, it goes against my grain to break the silence of the woodlands by calling blindly or to out-of-range deer in hopes of luring them for a close shot.
I primarily hunt whitetail deer from a tree stand because of the added advantage of seeing more animals and facilitating more time for field-judging and filming. When I have good confidence in the predictability of deer movement during a particular setup with appropriate wind direction, I will not call at all; however, if I see a mature animal or a group of deer passing out of range, or if I’m trying to prevent them from colliding with my downwind odor, I will call to them using different techniques throughout the season.
During the opening week, I set tree stands based on summer scouting and hope to intercept a mature buck still on a predictable feeding pattern. In Illinois, this usually means extensive feeding on drying soy beans or alfalfa. Any calling I do during this time of year consists of soft doe or lost fawn bleats. Bucks are still curious and often search out the added security provided by a family group of does.
While bleating at a group of fawns on the second day of the season, I managed to entice the mothering instincts of the lead doe enough to move the entire group fifty yards closer to my tree. Allowing them to pass within fifteen yards resulted in my taking of a mature four-by-four with long back tines and a seven inch “Y-fork” on the right side who was trailing the herd a short time later.
By the time mid-October arrives, the mast crops of acorns, black locust pods, or wild apples begin to attract deer. It’s also a time when there is much posturing and sparring from young bucks who are trying to establish their pecking order. I will begin carrying a small set of rattling antlers in my pack, using them very sparingly to arouse curiosity of other combatants. I realize that not everyone is interested in taking only mature bucks, so a young buck will do just fine. Light tickling of the tines has brought in many bucks for me to enjoy and capture on film. Tapping the tines or softly grinding the lower beams together is often all that is required to get a buck to strut in on stiff legs, with ears laid back, and neck hair at attention. His preoccupation with posturing often causes my broken camouflaged form in the tree to go un-noticed.
The end of October and first of November are a time for the initiation of the regional rut. Not only do I use the doe bleat, but now employ a host of other techniques including tending grunts, serial grunts, bawling grunts, rattling antlers, and the often over looked wheeze call to try to move deer. Many of the mature bucks have not yet hooked up with a receptive doe yet, so I will call at any large buck moving through the area as well as increase my frequency of blind calling at periodic intervals as needed. I typically do not call much during the first hour after light because I prefer going undetected during this time of increased deer movement. During the following three hours of my tree stand sit, I will call quietly using a grunt tube or going directly to a wheeze call. I may let out two wheezes thirty seconds apart every twenty minutes or so. This is a very close range calling technique that I will definitely use on a big buck out of range or about to cross my scent trail. This call is most appropriate for mature bucks that are not in the presence of a receptive doe. I do not wheeze at young bucks because it is a vocalized warning signal telling all other bucks to stay away from me and “my doe.” It will often cause young bucks to flee or at least be on red alert. Mature bucks have a different mindset and presumed dominance while trying to take over a receptive doe from a competitor. So the wheeze will not incite fear, but rather a brazen attitude of machismo.
This aggressiveness was clearly demonstrated to me when I used a series of nine wheeze calls and six grunts over a twenty minute period to call in a huge seven and a half year old buck I was familiar with in my area. He responded to my warning calls with a wheeze of his own while rubbing trees, breaking limbs, and scraping the ground. He got very angry with my lack of respect of his reign. I finally enticed him to come straight in at me through thick honeysuckle brush, but alas, my shot went just under his heart. Even though I missed this great buck, I still cherished the experience with doing battle with such a magnificent animal.
During windy days I tend to use rattling antlers to increase my effective calling range, but over the years I have learned not to rattle as much during the rut. My goal is to bring in mature bucks and I have found that rattling may be counter productive this time of year for this age group. Again, if a young buck is what you seek, then light or heavy rattling will usually work well. The young bucks are actively searching for available does throughout the day and they are acting on instincts associated with a presumed fight for dominance. Meanwhile, there is a good chance that older bucks may have had a negative experience from being fooled by a hunter or an actual confrontation where he lost. They are also more apt to circle my location in hopes of finding the scent of the doe which caused the conflict. It is also simply a numbers game where there are generally few mature bucks in the age structure of a herd, but they have a higher occurrence of already finding and locking with a doe in heat, which makes them significantly less responsive.
I grunt at bucks during the rut but usually only after the wheeze fails to draw a desired response from a solitary buck. Grunts can be made loud, soft, or commandingly drawn out, but like all calling, may bring in a buck on red alert, making getting off a shot more difficult. Grunts have an over all calming affect, but like any calling can simply be ignored. My brother, Mark, experienced this calming once when he was in a tree stand positioned in a thicket set so he could see out into an oak grove. He saw a doe with a fawn feeding on acorns or fallen leaves from nearby bushes. He did not think she was in heat any more due to the closeness of the fawn. The fawn started running around and playing, like they do, when Mark saw a huge 11-point buck come into where they were. Instead of wheezing or rattling which may put the buck on the offensive, Mark grunted two times and the buck immediately left the doe and walked straight at him. Since he was in the thicket, he did not have a wide shooting area, only a small lane from that direction. The buck stood straight on in his lane at sixteen yards. Mark held his seventy-five pound longbow at ready, but could only wait for the buck to make the next move. Shortly the fawn began running around again causing the buck to look in its direction. As the leaves and brush rustled from the fawn’s play, the big buck needed to get a better look, so it turned sideways, giving Mark the broadside shot he was wishing for. He sent a Kentucky flint knapped stone tipped birch arrow on its way and saw it pass completely through the buck and strike something hard in the ground on the other side. After waiting a while, Mark got down to pick up his arrow. It was then he noticed that the shaft was broke at the notch where the flint was secured. It hit a stone so hard after passing through the deer that it cracked the shaft end. The shaft was blood soaked; causing excitement in Mark as he followed the trail for the first seventy or eighty yards, but then it gave out. It took a while to find the deer, and the big buck made over four-hundred yards before it was found dead. The 800 grain arrow passed between the fifth rib from the diaphragm at an angle that clipped one lung and the liver. Mark does not recommend taking anything other than a broadside shot, and is seriously thinking about only shooting from the ground with these type broad heads in the future. The buck had thirteen-inch back tines and was over twenty inches wide inside spread that resulted in a net Pope and Young score of 172. He filmed this same deer in a previous year, but had not seen it again until this final time.
So in review, I much prefer the wheeze call during the rut and into the late season; however, I have had great success post primary rut using a specialized calling technique I termed “puppet fights.” Being frustrated with traditional rattling and inability to hold a bucks attention at close range without him spooking or circling me, I devised directional rattling from the ground by tethering four shed antlers together on three-foot cord leaders attached to a single haul-line fastened within reach of me to the tree near my elevated stand position. I was then able to continue my fierce rattling with a buck moving in, often at less than thirty yards. I like the fact that the sound from four heavy sheds bouncing and clashing each other on the ground comes from a more natural direction and the ruckus created is more realistic of two fighting bucks as they break limbs, rustle leaves, and tamp their feet on the earth. I can also swing the antlers against the tree’s trunk creating yet another convincing sound of the battle. By pulling or the single haul-line with one hand like a puppeteer, I can better control the tempo of the fight. I can do so with less movement, and with my free hand holding my bow or video camera at ready, I’m better prepared for the shot than when using traditional rattling with dual sheds clashing together occupying both hands. I keep my eyes on the approaching buck for the entire duration using the puppet fights technique without having to hang them up like traditional antlers and then reach for my bow and nock an arrow. I am simply much better equipped for the quick action that rattling entices.
I successfully called in several bucks the first time I used the ground rattling technique. I attached one end of the tote line to the tree, leaving it easily reachable at my side while facilitating minimum movement. I left about four feet of slack in the line as the pile of four antlers tied to the other end laid ready to dance at the base of the tree. It was mid-December in Illinois when I first reached for the cord and lifted the sheds a few feet off the ground, giving them a shake and dropped them. As soon as they hit the ground, I quickly jerked them back into the air allowing them to flip and clank against each other. I found I could vary the intensity of my “fighting bucks” from sparring and tine tickling to an all out fight for dominance by increasing the force at which I pulled the line. The four large sheds sounded much more realistic to me than just a pair, and they imitate a variety of action. Bucks came right away, one from the north and the other from the west. Both eight-pointers, they appeared to be two and a half years old. As one of them went behind a tree, I slowly lifted my forearm. Taking the slack out of the line allowed the sheds to lift and group together, then came to rest with sounds of bone as I let down. The massaging of the tines was all it took to bring both bucks right on in within five yards of my tree. With un-noticed movement, I easily brought my right hand up to the bowstring and would have been ready to shoot had the bucks been a little older.
Assessment of this first hunt revealed that I could continue the antler rattling when the bucks were reasonably close, and still prepare for the shot much more quickly and with limited movement. I was convinced that the sound of antler tines and a slight rustling of leaves directed from ground level was the key to bringing the bucks past me. More than anything, the rustling leaves fooled the bucks into thinking the action was taking place a little further down the hill, so the bucks hurried to get there.
I was very pleased with the outcome of my first attempts, but still wasn’t sure if the technique would increase the frequency of response by mature bucks. Bucks that have just gone through the rut seem to respond much more readily to rattling because the competition has increased between them, and this fight over a receptive doe may be the only action in town. However, mature bucks are still more cautious, and are familiar with the consequences of a fight, making them much more reluctant to come charging in. I was hoping that the additional sounds created by the puppet fights would provoke a sexual urge that a mature buck would have to address, or at least spark enough curiosity to make him come to investigate the origin.
During mid to late December and into January, the rut has tapered off and the cold weather makes deer more interested in food. As deer concentrate around a dwindling food source, fights among dominant bucks becomes more prevalent and serious as competition increases over a few remaining does coming into estrous. Consequently, I greatly increase my use of rattling this time of year because of its increased range and effectiveness to lure mature bucks. Again, it can be used as a successful tool to bring in lesser bucks if you desire.
Between Christmas and New Years one year, I used puppet fights to lure over forty bucks while spending time hunting two separate properties ten miles apart. Waiting for a special buck, I captured many of the other deer on film. Images of these bucks can be viewed in our next video from Brothers of the Bow called “Essential Encounters.”
On one hunt I stayed in my tree stand during near forty-degree temperatures and rain, and the following day endured temperatures that dropped to twelve degrees. The heavy wind was constant, with gusts exceeding forty miles per hour. The fine snow ice-blasted my face, and, paired with the negative five degrees wind-chill, numbed any exposed skin. In late afternoon, four does fed on honeysuckle toward me but eventually veered off, passing wide of my tree. One of those does would have been very tasty, and with this icy wind, it would have been a good time to make a kill without disturbing the rest of the evening hunt. About thirty minutes later, I bounced the four sheds off the ground with the haul-line and raked them through the brush at the bottom of the tree. There was mostly grass and very few dry leaves at the tree’s base, but the dead and dry box elder limbs cracked crisply when the horns struck. Shortly, three bucks came toward me to investigate. A small eight-pointer went back into the thickets to my right, while the second buck with shed antlers and large pedicles stood around for a few minutes but soon lost interest. The third buck was a ten-pointer that started to come closer. He was four and a half years old and I recognized him from a shed I found the previous spring not a hundred yards from where the buck now stood. After staring in my direction for a while, he turned to walk away. I reached over, grabbed the line and shook the antlers. The buck immediately turned and trotted toward me, locking up at thirty yards. After three minutes, he again started to turn away. He couldn’t see the origin of the fight, so I grabbed the line and bounced the sheds one more time. He swung his head back toward me and crept ten yards closer. Turning to his right, the buck slipped through the honeysuckle brush until he stopped broadside in my shooting lane at twenty yards. After a short blood trail, I found the buck at the bottom of a ravine. He was quite a prize. With limited movement and my bow in hand, I conned a big buck at close range. The wind may have helped disguise my calling, but I didn’t feel the cold as I collected my reward for staying out there all day and having faith in a peculiar calling method. I have dedicated an entire chapter to the puppet fight technique in my new book called “One with the Wilderness.”
Since isolated does coming into estrous abandon their fawns, I like to capitalize on this confusion using fawn bleats to move deer toward me. The bleat may bring in does in a defense mode, or even bucks who associate this distress with an opportunity to find a receptive doe. Late December and early January in my area is the time of year that yearling does who were born early in May go into their first estrous. These young does are very confused by the attention they are getting from multiple bucks. There is usually a very active chase involved for theses fawns, so a fawn bleat may bring in a nearby buck that has lost track of her.
When used appropriately, calling deer is very productive, but we must all pay attention to its overuse, and undesired effects they may have in your specific hunting area. Similar to bugling elk or calling turkeys, deer are able to adapt to adversity they may experience at the hands and voice of hunters. There really is no “magic bullet” to deer hunting, so neither is calling. It will work great at times and be detrimental at others. The same can be said for using scents, decoys and any number of gadgets marketed to hunters. But if these things give you confidence and keep you hunting, they may bring success inadvertently by employing the “ultimate gimmick,” time spent in the woods.
I used fawn bleats to move a group of feet toward me; this nice nine-pointer followed the group.
A mature buck taken using the Puppet Fight technique.
A mature buck taken using the Puppet Fight technique.
Mike Mitten is a cancer researcher from Illinois. His life’s passion can be experienced in his new book “One with the Wilderness” (Passions of a Solo Bowhunter), and as a co-producer of the bowhunting films “Primal Dreams” and “Essential Encounters.” For information visit brothersofthebow.com