It isn’t often that a week's hunting vacation hits the rut right. I mean just right. But I did it in South Dakota the middle of last November. For three days, I'd get up early and glass bucks running helter-skelter across the open plains, charging any doe in sight. But the best action occurred after the early morning activity would wane and deer would move into the cover. That's when, with the wind in my face, I'd tiptoe into the brushy draws, set up with the still-rising sun at my back and bang two antlers together with all my might.
Sixteen bucks came to my mock fights that week. Most of them were young, but what a rush to see the 4- and 6-pointers bounce in tight, stop and perk their heads to see what all the fuss was about. One morning a heavy 8-pointer, probably a shooter, skulked in downwind, but I had no opportunity through the trees. The best buck, at least 5½ by the bulk and blackness of his body, never got closer than 70 yards. He froze behind a tree and stared for five minutes before turning and melting away in the brush, like old deer do.
I didn’t kill a buck, but it was my best hunt of the year. And from a tactical standpoint, it reaffirmed a key finding of what I consider to be one of the best scientific studies ever done on whitetail deer: The peak of the rut is the best time to rattle in the most bucks.
THE RATTLING STUDY
Mickey Hellickson, one of the top deer scientists in America, conducted a three-year project on whitetail behavior and antler rattling on a 10,000-acre ranch in South Texas. The deer population was healthy and the buck / doe ratio was near 1:1. His researchers rattled in two-man teams during all three phases of the rut each November and December. When a buck came in, they noted the time, weather, etc., and videotaped each deer so later they could estimate its age and rack score.
Mick’s research was conducted a decade ago, which has been a good thing for me. It has allowed me to compare and analyze the study’s key points against my field notes and observations as I’ve hunted and rattled across America these last 10 years. Read on and you will see that my real-world hunting pretty much mirrors Mick’s findings, with minor variations here and there.
1. Rattle in the Peak Rut
Over the three-year period, the researchers rattled 171 times at different locations and pulled in 111 bucks. A response rate of 65 percent is impressive, but the best info is found inside the numbers. As I mentioned earlier, and Mick confirms, “The peak of the rut is by far the best time to rattle in the most bucks, the most numbers.” During the wild days, when frenzied bucks troll and/or chase, 65 bucks responded to 60 rattling sequences—a 108 percent response rate. Sometimes two or three bucks charged or circled into their rattles. On two occasions, eight different bucks responded.
While rattling in those 16 bucks in South Dakota last November was the ultimate affirmation for me, I’ve had good luck rattling the peak in many other areas as well, pulling in two bucks here, one there. So much luck in fact that I now rarely carry my horns before Halloween. This, too, jibes with Mick’s study. “Our lowest response rate (fewest bucks coming to the horns) was in the early pre-rut,” he said.
While you might certainly rattle in a big deer that is feeling his oats and rutting early, say around October 20, I believe your chances are much better if you wait to rattle until November 1, and then keep it up until just before Thanksgiving. This way you don’t burn out your best spots and stands before most testosterone-addled bucks get in the mood to hear your fights and come in.
2. Rattle in the Post-Rut
For years I have shouted to anyone who would listen that the first 10 days the post-rut (late November into early December in most areas) are a great time to rattle up a big buck. A few years ago on a cold, still morning in early December, I perched on a hill overlooking the Cimarron River in Oklahoma. The pink dawn broke and my cameraman, Ed, whispered, "Buck in the river.”
He was an old deer, thick-chested and thin-hipped, with a short, gray face. I hadn’t looked at his rack yet, but I knew he was a shooter. The gnarly 8-pointer stepped out of the misty river and slid into the brush.
Whack, bang, thwack, grind, urrrppp. . . I worked the horns, threw in some mighty grunts.
The buck turned and came stiff-legged through the scrub, his face shining in the morning sunshine. Three hundred yards, 200, 100, 70 … and then I shot him. The warrior was at least 6 ½, the oldest buck I have ever rattled in.
The post-rut is when Hellickson’s crew rattled up the most mature animals. Of the 29 bucks that responded to 51 rattling sequences during this phase, 10 were 5½ years old, and another 10 were 3 ½ to 4 ½. Easy lesson: Don’t give up on your rattling too soon! 3. Rattle in the Right Weather
On that Oklahoma hunt it was a cold, still morning. You’ll have your best luck in the mornings by far. This has played out so many times for me in recent years that I rarely carry my horns in the afternoon. And the science confirms it. Sixty of 111 bucks (67 percent) that the researchers banged in came to the horns between 7:30 and 10:30 a.m. Cool days with 75 percent cloud cover and little or low wind speed were best.
4. Rattle Like you Mean It
“If you aren’t exhausted after a sequence, you didn’t rattle hard enough,” said Hellickson. He and his crew rattled aggressively 85 times and attracted 81 bucks. Their 86 shorter, quieter sequences pulled in only 30. The length of a rattling session didn’t matter much. Both one- and three-minute volleys lured an equal number of bucks.
This jibes with my hunting, because I rarely spar the horns or rattle lightly anymore. I used to, but horn sparring and tinkling never seemed to work for me. Besides, the fun of it is to go out in the rut, bang and grind the heck out of the horns, bust and rake some brush, and then sit back quietly in anticipation of what might happen.
5. Carry the Right Antlers
I’ve tried a variety of real and synthetic horns, and most of the rattle bags and gadgets. Any one of them will work if you catch a rutting buck in the right mood to respond. But I like the real antlers of a 130- to 140-class buck, which to me have just the right mass and heft to feel good and sound good. Saw off the brow tines and wear leather gloves to keep from mashing fingers.
6. Pick Your Rattling Battles
As compared to the Texas ranch where Mick did his work, the private or public ground you and hunt will definitely hold fewer mature bucks, and likely the buck / doe ratio won’t be so good. Still, use the research as a guide to rattle on. Climb into a treestand or sit hidden on a ridge on a cool, still morning from November 1 on, and keep trying it through the first week of December. Don’t rattle every day; just select days when the weather is right and the bucks are rutting. Whack the horns, lay them down, keep still and scan the woods. Oh yeah, have your bow or gun ready. A big buck might just be coming.
7. Set Up Right
An hour or after sunrise, move toward thick-cover areas where you know or think bucks hide out. Your best opportunity is if you actually see a rutting buck go into a thicket and you can slip in to target him specifically.
Sneak toward cover from downwind, and use terrain (hills, draws, creek banks, etc.) to cover your moves.
Set up on a downwind edge of cover where you are hidden, but can see well. Sit on a low ridge, bank or similar vantage (but don’t skyline). During the Texas rattling study, researchers in towers saw every buck that came to the horns, while rattlers on flat ground were lucky to see half the bucks. Get elevated.
Sit with the rising sun and good cover behind you.
Make sure you can see reasonably well to either side downwind, as many bucks circle with the wind to try and sniff out the fighters.
Carry a wind-checker and test the breeze often. If it starts to swirl and turn bad as the sun heats up the ground—very common--back out and move to a better setup.