In 2000 I was looking for a decent buck in MI's heavily hunted Upper Peninsula region. The cover was thick, the number of bait piles in the area out numbered the deer herd, and the buck age structure was very young. In fact what was a "decent buck" at the time? Well, it wasn't the young 4-point that aggressively postured into my lap after a grunting sequence on a late October frosty morning! However with three 35mm game cams running the entire season, I was thrilled to find a migrating 8 point that traveled through our land during late December. Was he a monster? No. But he offered hope, and a sign of growth to come.
Soon after my grunting encounter with the 4 pointer, I talked to nationally known local whitetail research biologist, John Ozoga. I don't remember his exact words, but he suggested that for a young buck to come into a call that aggressively, that he most likely didn't have any rivals in the area to keep him from doing so. In a nutshell, there were probably no bucks in the area that were older, at least in the immediate vicinity and I was a little bummed. When the game cameras confirmed John's thoughts, I began planning for the following season and a hopeful encounter with a buck that had shown he would respond to calling techniques. The plan was beginning to form a year in advance, but I was left with 1 question: When should I use calling techniques for bucks?
The set-up was easy, right? I just had to wait until a frosty late Pre-rut morning and sneak into the same stand I had used the previous year, with a NW wind. With a NW wind I could count on my scent blowing back to the open tag alder flanked creek, as I crossed an old beaver dam to travel Southwest into the stand location on a slight ridge. And if grunting worked well, than more aggressive, longer distance rattling techniques would work even better-right? Well, believe it or not...it did! While facing the Westerly swamp of low hardwood ridges and conifer bottoms, I first offered a couple of soft grunts in an attempt to lure any buck within close proximity. As steam rose from the creek like dancing ghosts against the rising sun to the East, I eventually grabbed my rattling antlers. After a 10-15 second sequence of light-aggressive-light, tangling of the antlers; I readied for the shot. A stick broke in the distance, and then nothing. I again blew the grunt call for 1, soft grunt which immediately urged the solid steps of an approaching buck. And then, there he was! The only problem? He was approaching from the NW and too far away for a bowshot! As he steadily moved to the East, I feared that he was trying to circle around me to catch my scent, but then he stopped. As he stared into the more open cover of the tag alder he hesitated, and showed a reluctance to move East and expose himself, even though he had good reason to do so. Instead, he turned and headed straight South to my position, just as he had probably done 1 year earlier, almost exactly to the date. He was upon me very quickly! As he turned to his right only 10 yards from my tree, I took the shot and my first buck harvested with rattling antlers was dead within seconds.
"When should I use calling techniques for bucks?" Many years after that 2001 experience, that same question has been tossed around during countless hunting discussions that I have been a part of. Those 2000 and 2001 experiences have been constantly reinforced, and my answer for when it comes to using calling techniques for bucks, particularily mature bucks? I seldom call because even after that 2001 encounter, experience has never convinced me that the consistent use of calling techniques has resulted in consistent success. The process of hunting whitetails is always evolving! As I continue to experience an older age of whitetails on an annual basis for both my career and passion, I have become more and more conservative in my hunting techniques for mature bucks. My conservative approach also includes the art of calling bucks through the use of rattling antlers, grunt calls, bleats, growls and any other method used to potentially lure a mature buck. My goal is to blend into a mature buck's home and the more careful I have become, the more consistently successful I have been. But even with those cautious strategies continually strengthened through accumulating years of experience, I still believe there is a "time and a place" to use calling techniques for bucks.
Using rattling antlers can be an outstanding way to attract an aggresive buck! However, which bucks are aggressive and when? At a select time, a mature buck can be extremely aggressive. He will fend off other bucks when he is in the 1-2 day process of breeding his next doe, and mature bucks have been known to risk injury and even death to enter violent altercations with other bucks. I have often found that immature bucks of 1-3 years of age can be consistenly lured to various calling techniques, possibly because they haven't been fully exposed enough to the potential of rage, strength and injury of a full-grown giant...yet? Regardless of when to rattle or even if you have an aggressive buck available to respond, I follow one, extremely strict rule: If there is cover on the downwind side of me that a mature buck can easily circle to, I do not rattle. In 2002 I had an even older buck come into a rattling sequence with the wind at his back and breaking brush the entire way. But, my excitement quickly turned to worry and then disappointment, as he completely circled my position within the heavy cover and eventually spooked. I am stubborn...so that wasn't the first time that happened, or the last!
1. Pre-rut, using light rattling techniques
2. Post-rut, using aggressive rattling techniques infrequently during mid-morning to afternoon hours
3. Zero, downwind cover
I approach the act of banging antlers together with extreme caution. What is the risk? That you spook a mature buck away from your position that may have otherwise had a great chance of traveling by your stand site today, tomorrow or even next week. What is the reward? That you can possibly pull to within bow range an aggressive monster in rare form, when he is ready to immediately pounce on any intruder that enters his territory, with no fear of injury, danger or death. During the Pre-rut, light techniques can be use to pique the curiosity of mature bucks, while being fairly non-intrusive. I really shy away from the Peak-rut though, when mature bucks are between does for only brief periods of time, and rarely respond to antlers when they are already with a doe. In fact, I believe they will typically avoid a fight at all costs, when they are tending a doe. But then, the Post-rut follows! During the Post-rut mature bucks often range far and wide in an often desperate attempt to find 1 last receptive doe during the conclusion of the primary rut. It is as this time that I believe aggressive calling techniques can be an outstanding way to attract a mature buck from great distances. There is certainly a balance to address when assessing whether to rattle or not. While being as cautious as possibly when hunting mature bucks, it compliments my own hunting techniques to often take the most conservative path, so that my stand locations can "live to hunt another day".
Compared to the loud aggressiveness of a set of rattling antlers, a grunt call is peacefully soft. If a buck can hear your grunt call-he is close, often very close! While I find that mature bucks often shy away from the potential of a loud, aggressive buck fight a high % of the time, they do not shy away from a grunt call and rarely react negatively. Every time I enter the woods to hunt a buck, I carry a grunt call. Because a grunt call rarely spooks a buck, I like to use them often. Compared to a set of rattling antlers, many mature bucks have fallen through the use of grunt calls by my hunting crew. Our success could be because we do not hesitate to use a grunt call when the conditions call for it, but at the same time I believe it is because they work...and they work well!
1. My grunting conditions are simple: Anytime I see or hear a mature buck passing by, or believe that one is close by for any reason, I grunt.
Rattling antlers can occasionally be a hit, but are often a miss unless the perfect conditions present themselves. Also, there appears to be a complete opposite reaction by bucks between grunt calls and rattling antlers! While I have often observed mature bucks that have been leary of other calling techniques, it seems that the older the buck, the more likely he is to respond to a grunt call. Unless a mature buck is with a doe, it has been very rare that he hasn't been attracted by 1-2 soft grunts. As soon as he stops and turns my way after a grunt, I put the call away and get ready! After one turn of the head, he is often committed and at times it only takes a few moments to pass before he is headed towards my position. In 2010 I stopped an 8 year old buck we were after, with 2 soft grunts. He stayed in that location, 45 yards away, for nearly a 1/2 hour! He was patient, wise but also interested. After the agonizing wait he did head my direction, only he stayed just outside of my shooting lanes while circling downwind of the imaginary "buck". Of course, that hunt didn't end the way I had hoped, but had it not been for a lack of clearing a shooting lane during the Summer months 25-30 yards in his direction, I would have been able to take a shot at the local legend!
While hunting thick bedding area or travel corridor cover, a mature buck has almost a spooky ability to surprise you! A grunt call has often saved the day when that happens. After a buck walks by and you have already had an opportunity to turn his way, try giving him a soft grunt. When he stops and turns, you better be ready because more often then not he will immediately travel to your exact location. A grunt call can really help to remedy a stand location if you are off by a few yards or more.
A grunt call is an outstanding tool that you can conservatively use all season long. Something similar to a grunt call is a "can call", or bleat call. I use a bleat call during the exact same conditions as a grunt call, but I place a lot more faith in a grunt call. However, various doe bleats products often have a much greater range than a grunt call, so many times I carry both for a hunt. Also for a stubborn buck that you have nothing to lose on, the combination of both a bleat and a grunt can be outstanding at times, too!
Snort Wheezes and Growls
In 2004 I was in my climber in SW WI for an evening sit above a hardwood bedding area. The CRP field was to my North, where 2 giants apparently decided it was time to "duke it out". It was amazing! I will never forget the sounds of the clashing antlers, grunting, growling and snort wheezing. But what was I supposed to do? I couldn't see them and I knew I couldn't possibly sneak out in the open to them and expect to get close, let alone to eventually take a shot. So, I cupped my hand and did the best snort-wheeze impression that I could muster. To my surprise...another buck in the opposite direction snort-wheezed back, and he was mad! He was on the outside of the woodlot and it sounded like he rubbed every tree on his way to my position. When a potential rubbing tree was located against the fence, it didn't matter...as I could hear the entire fence moving, creaking and groaning against his fury. I only wish by the time he traveled to my position, it was still during shooting light! As I listened to him pass by under my stand locations, I could barely make out his massive, ivory-tipped antlers! He seemed to disappear and after several minutes I unfastened my safety belt and climbed down. As soon as I made it to ground level, I could smell the strong mix of tarsel gland and urine. That buck had really worked himself into a frenzy...and he was still there! With a final "Huff", he was gone and crashing down the hill. WOW! He had let me climb down the entire tree, in a climber, while he sat and observed from less than 30 yards. Later during the week I killed a monster that dressed in the 190s nearby, only 2 hours after he charged me through a golden rod field during the morning entrance to my stand. That fateful morning (better him than me!) he came within 10' of me before turning away and melting back into the habitat with barely a sound. Was it the same buck? I do not have my doubts, and in nearly 3 decades of hunting I don't think it's a coincidence that the only buck that has responded to a snort-wheeze for me, is most likely also the only buck that I have had growl and charge me. It takes a very aggressive buck to respond to snort-wheezing and growling techniques!
Snort Wheeze and Growling Conditions:
1. Pre to Post Rut timing
2. The immediate presence of an aggressive mature buck
Using a grunt call is very non-invasive and cautious compared to using rattling antlers. However, using rattling antlers in my experience, is very non-invasive and cautious compared to snort wheezing or growling. Is there a time and place to use either calling techniques for bucks? Sure! But I would only use one in an attempt to attract an aggressive mature monarch that you hear or see, that is also appears content staying just out of bow range.
There are exceptions to anything in life, and that includes using calling techniques for bucks. In order to attract a mature buck out of the expansive brush country in Texas, rattling techniques can be outstanding! Even cruising Kansas giants in a large, open river bottom settings can offer incredible rattling opportunities while your scent blows harmlessly into an open field. In many of the pressure-filled Midwestern states however, I have found that taking the conservative approach can pay huge, consistent dividends. As you enter the woods in search of your next monster during the coming weeks, do you have a grunt call handy? I will...and maybe even a set of antlers, can bleat, growl or snort wheeze if I think I can get away with it. But rest assured I will make sure that I assess both the risk and reward of all of my potential efforts for using calling techniques for bucks, before using one.