“You ready?” I mouthed to my friend Mark, who had just hunkered down and nocked an arrow. He gave me an affirmative nod from beneath the sopping wet hood of his rain parka. Moments later, the clash of antlers shattered the silence of the damp forest above a steep gully in front of us. I continued mashing my shed antlers together as I thrashed them through ferns and pounded them through brittle alder limbs on the ground. Mark was 30 yards to my right where he could see down into and across the sword fern-lined ravine. I was set back from the edge about 10 feet, and behind some brush so I could do my thing undetected.
Moments later, I spotted the chocolate brown tines of a hefty 4×4 buck bobbing through the ferns 80 yards away. Flashes of his white muzzle periodically shown between small openings as he moved quickly toward us. When the buck reached the far edge of the gully, he stopped and scanned the area. His ears were forward and locked in our direction. Fearing he would leave if he didn’t soon identify the source of the commotion, I slowly leaned back and thumped an antler base into the ground behind me with a dull thud. He snapped his head in my direction and began making his way down into the draw, angling downhill slightly. At that moment, I knew he would soon emerge right in Mark’s lap!
* * *
Each year during my blacktail strategies seminars I get a number of questions around the topic of calling blacktails so I thought I’d take some time to answer the top 10 questions in a simple Q&A format, and in no particular order. Remember that the mating season is a complex continuum of factors that influence deer behavior from September through December.
I define “calling” as any intentional sound that I make to elicit a response from a deer. Sure, I use commercially manufactured game calls, real antlers, and my voice but just like calling elk, there are many other natural sounds that are used in conjunction with these tools to round out a comprehensive calling strategy.
1. What’s going on in the deer woods during the rut?
I’ll summarize what’s happening between September and December to establish a foundation for the remaining nine questions.
In my opinion, the breeding ritual for all antlered species begins the day they rub the velvet from their antlers. I encourage you to read up about the physiological changes that cause antlers to harden, but for hunting purposes, just know that when the velvet comes off, blacktails shift to a more nocturnal pattern and begin establishing the pecking order within their home range. I have trailcam photos & video of this velvet shedding process happening between September 1-5th but it can certainly vary based upon health and other factors.
Bucks are still in their social summer groups and older deer will become more solitary as the month progresses. Younger bucks are often seen feeding together and engaged in light and even playful sparring as the hormones begin to stir and they feel each other out. Most immature bucks will tend to hang out together throughout the entire breeding cycle. As September comes to a close, mature bucks will become extremely difficult to locate during daylight hours. First and last light glassing are your best bets. Trail cameras are invaluable in getting into the specifics of a mature buck’s whereabouts but remember that the more you are in there stomping around and spreading your scent, the more likely he’ll adapt and virtually disappear until the following summer. Take extra precautions to err on the side of extreme stealth and scent control.
October is a magical month and a great time to observe deer behavior, both bucks and does. It’s the month of the pre-rut or seeking phase. Two and three year old bucks are most visible and can be seen almost anywhere chasing and harassing does as mid-month approaches. But the does are nowhere near ready to breed so these teenage antics become tiresome for does. Mature bucks don’t typically engage in this aggressive chasing until late in the month or in early November when they have located a hot doe they want to breed. Still, their approach is more calculated and deliberate. They know the routine and will sequester a hot doe away from other deer until she is ready to breed. This typically occurs during the last week of October into the first week of November. Remember that does want to be bred by mature dominant bucks so you can gain valuable clues by focusing your efforts on the does in your hunting area.
80-90% of does will be bred in the blacktail woods during the month of November. I have determined that the peak breeding occurs around November 12-14th in my areas. It may vary so your best bet is to witness breeding behavior or count back about 200 days from when you see the first fawns in June. That will get you very close to knowing when does were bred in that particular area.
At this point in the breeding ritual, competition is at its peak. The trick is that many mature bucks are now in lockdown with a doe, and the woods can seem very lonely. The days leading up to and just after the peak breeding dates can be very productive times to call in a buck with fawn bleats and/or rattling antlers.
2. When should I try rattling?
Rattling is most effective after October 15th and continues to ramp through about the third week of November. That said, I rattled in a nice velvet buck into 10 yards in mid-August! Blacktails are curious and you just never know when it will pay off and create a shot opportunity.
I have also had excellent results around the second week of December. As mentioned above, 10-15% of the does that weren’t bred in November will come back into estrous in December, 28 days after their first estrous cycle. Some of these deer will be yearlings that are still hanging with their mother. This is a time you can capitalize on a condition where there are few does to breed and lots of bucks that still have raging hormones and the instinct to breed.
3. Do blacktails grunt?
Yes they do. A lot. But it’s much softer that you might expect after seeing guys blowing on grunt calls on TV. It’s a much softer grunt and they will grunt while tending a doe as they get close to breeding. It’s a way to entice the doe and let her know he is staying with her until she’s ready. It also serves to let other bucks know he’s laid claim to this particular doe. Grunt calls can pull in curious bucks and those who might be looking to challenge a doe suitor.
4. What is a snort-wheeze and what does it mean?
A snort-wheeze is an aggressive threat call that bucks make when in close proximity to each other. I first witnessed this several years ago at very close range. I had two young bucks square off and start fighting less that five yards from my natural ground blind. They were bristled and pacing around each other while making this sound. It’s a call made by forcing air out through clinched nostrils. They make an abrupt snort immediately followed by a forced exhale which emulates a buzzing wheeze sound that fades over 3-4 seconds as they exhale. If you hear this sound, there are TWO bucks in your immediate area, and you may be able to sneak in for a shot because they will be intently focused on each other.
5. What is the ideal setup for calling and/or rattling?
The ideal setup is a calm, still day, preferably frosty or very close to freezing. I like the sound to really travel and reach out there. I prefer to call adjacent to feeding areas during early morning and evening, and downwind of bedding areas during midday hours. I like to setup so a deer would have to come look for the source of the sound. They will know exactly where the sound is coming from so you need to ensure you are in a spot that will require them to move to you. And you must give it time! I can’t count the times I have been impatient and busted by a sneaky buck at 25 yards. I always expect deer to circle downwind so I set up accordingly for my shooting lanes. I wait a minimum of 30 minutes before moving to a new location.
6. How does your rattling sequence change from October through December?
Rattling intensity should match the natural progression of the rut phases. In early October, it’s more about light sparring (tickling on antlers) than all-out shoving matches, which occur late in the month. A simple breakdown might look like this:
Low volume, light sparring. One 15-30 second session twice per hour or per location if you are on the move.
Medium volume. More intense sparring, sessions may last 45-90 seconds on 20 minute intervals.
October 25 – November 20
Medium to high volume. Ramp your sequences up to intense sparring and shoving, thrashing brush, breaking sticks. My sequences build over time to simulate two bucks who aren’t willing to back down. The first session will be short, maybe 15 seconds. I want to reach deer within earshot that might be close. I wait 20 minutes and start again for about 30 seconds followed by a 20-minute wait. Repeat with sessions lasting up to a minute. After three sessions, I wait about 45-60 minutes then repeat or move to a new area.
November 20 – December 31
Medium volume. Ramp from medium to intense sparring, sessions may last 45-90 seconds on 20-minute intervals. Wait 45-60 minutes before moving locations.
7. Does weather change your approach to calling?
Yes, as mentioned above, sound will travel much further when the air is crisp and calm. On rainy days I often will forgo my natural antlers and use a synthetic rattling bag instead. I’ve found the sound to be louder with the rattle bag but ensure you don’t have one with wooden dowels. They are worthless in the wet and difficult to keep dry.
8. How do you rattle effectively from a treestand?
Many people enjoy excellent results rattling from an elevated position. This can work well and sound natural in hilly topography where it’s more natural for the sound to be coming from an elevated position. When I’m in flat terrain, I will often “jig” my antlers on a pull-up rope and let them bang together in the ferns, salal, and thump the ground. This sounds very realistic and if you see a buck coming you can simply let go of the cord to get ready for a shot.
9. I’ve read that rattling will usually bring in lesser bucks. Is this true?
Yes, in general. Most of the bucks I’ve rattled in; both whitetails and blacktails have been 2-3 year old bucks. And most come in pretty quick, usually within about five minutes. Older bucks tend to come in on a walk and stop often to look and listen. They are cautious and will often hang up for 10 or more minutes at a time. Count on them circling downwind before getting into bow range and be sure to use vegetation, blowdowns, etc. to your advantage. Imagine where you want the buck to be for your shot and set up accordingly. Gun hunters have a much better opportunity for circling deer.
10. What doe bleat sounds do you make, when and why?
I will use doe bleats throughout October, November and December. A doe will bleat out of frustration when getting harassed by young bucks, to communicate with her fawn(s), and other times while feeding amongst other deer. It’s not a loud call and is generally a social call so I haven’t had too many bad experiences while bleating to other deer. Consider that if you blow on any call, you are telling deer exactly where you are. Don’t play with the call. Use it sparingly and consider what you are trying to communicate. If you’re not sure, then it’s probably best to hold off.
Calling & rattling deer doesn’t work all the time. It’s simply another tool you can employ to tip the odds in your favor. And it’s an exciting way to truly engage in the hunt. You have the unique opportunity to create a shot opportunity from thin air instead of waiting for one to present itself. With practice, you’ll gain confidence. With confidence, you’ll try it more often and experiment. And from there, you’ll continue to learn and enjoy some success.
You may be wondering if my buddy Mark was able to get that buck at the beginning of this post. Well, it was quite a show but no, unfortunately he did not. A soaking wet finger tab flub (this was 1991 and we all shot fingers back then) caused an errant shot that missed clean at a mere 8-10 yards. As the buck tore back down into the ravine I grunted loudly with my voice and hit the antlers so hard, I cut myself pretty good with a sharp tine. The buck slammed on the brakes and started to come back but this time he circled wide to scent check my position. I lost sight of him at about 45 yards and I could only assume he winded me.
I hope this post answered some of your questions and helped illustrate my approach to calling blacktails. I’d love to hear about your experiences or answer any questions in the comments section below.