The rut. It sounds off in October as a subtle melody, accompanied by calculated dance. The trees, once green with life, are now dotted with fiery red, yellow and orange. The boys of summer, who have co-existed peacefully for months, are about to become the men of fall. For whitetails all across the country, the rut is a symphony with a rhythm and rhyme all of its own. Learn to play along and dance to the beat, and you’ll be punching your tag in no time.
It’s been nine years since I began my crusade to learn everything humanly possible about a whitetail. In that time, I’ve employed countless tactics to get wise to a mature buck’s ways. Most have been unorthodox and a few have landed me in the doghouse. For example, in the fall of 2007, I thought it was wise to sleep with my bedroom windows open in order to hear the sounds of a buck as he would fight, chase, grunt, snort, rub and scrape his way to climax. I was two weeks into my apprenticeship when my wife informed me she was unwilling to sleep in a 50-degree bedroom for one more second!
For the past 14 days, I’d heard hundreds of whitetail sounds but I still couldn’t make sense of them. Then it hit me; I didn’t need to hear another sound—I needed to listen. So, just as any devoted husband would, I bought a space heater for her side of the bed and I set out to listen to the story through sound. What I discovered in the next 21 days (and in the subsequent five years of identical “research”) was a rhythm and a rhyme that has helped me become more successful during all stages of the rut.
The First Verse: Pre-Rut
Have you ever sat in your stand on a cool autumn morning, jacket zipped high to trap the steam from exhaled breath, and wondered what makes a buck tick? Some say the moon, some say the weather and others say food. I believe there’s some truth to all those answers, but I’ll save those discussions for another day.
In it’s most elemental form, the answer is simple. It’s sex, or perhaps you prefer breeding rights. You see, even in the early stages of the rut, a buck has a plan. His day’s events are simple. While heading out to grab some grub, he checks every signpost along the way. As he makes his rounds, his gait is a slow and steady rhythm in the crisp leaves. And when he happens upon a rival buck, he quickly halts and surveys the scene. His ears lay back, his head cocks and he does the sidestep stiff leg. His opponent accepts the challenge, and the dance begins.
- Hunter: Ben Brogle
Location: Garrard, Ky.
Gross Score: 267 4/8
Net Score: 260 1/8 P&Y
At this point, unlike later in the rut, the infamous snort-wheeze is usually saved for last. The testosterone hasn’t peaked yet, and this fight isn’t intended to bring down the house. The antlers make contact. It’s not the vicious, brain-rattling boom we all dream of, but it can be every bit as attention getting. For 15-20 seconds, it’s more of a slow-paced weigh in, a chance for your timber ghost to find out what he’s in for in the coming weeks. At this early stage of the rut, there’s predominantly tine tickling; specifically the higher-pitched last four to six inches of the tines. They tick and they tack almost gently, pausing briefly.
Now, this is where things get interesting. In the majority of my pre-rut observations, once the sparring hits that 20-second mark, it’s like flipping a switch. Your buck snaps his head viciously, eliciting an equal reaction from his opponent, and for the next 10-15 seconds the mood and the sounds reach their crescendo.
Heavier, louder and deeper sounding, their antlers become more engaged as more muscle is flexed. Moments later, the antlers break apart, ending again with the higher pitch. As one buck tucks his tail and runs, the other buck holds his ground; cue the snort-wheeze. This fight is finished, but there will be many more just like it over the next week. So, dust off your antlers earlier this year and try your best to mimic the light-turned-loud bouts that dominate the pre-rut phase.
The Chorus: Deer Vocalizations
I refer to the vocalizations of deer as a chorus, because these calls come into play multiple times during all stages of the rut. When you think vocalizations, think in terms of simple communications. Certain “words” have certain meanings. It’s not always in what the sound is but how it is expressed. For the purpose of this article, let’s focus on a buck’s three main communicators: the grunt, the roar and the snort-wheeze.
First up are grunts. In my opinion, a grunt is probably the most common “word” amongst deer. Bucks use grunts for everything from locating other deer to getting inferior bucks out of their personal space. I can’t tell you how many times in the heat of summer I’ve observed a mature buck grunt at a smaller buck that was getting a bit too close. Because of this, a grunt is probably the most heard vocalization amongst deer. In my opinion, its meanings are so various and abundant that it’s the least important of the three major communicators. However, for those magical few weeks of the rut, it can be flat out deadly.
As the rut progresses from pre-rut to full-blown chaos, a grunt changes drastically. It takes on a singular meaning, through how it’s expressed. During the chase phase, in particular, the lone, one- or two-second grunt is replaced by short bursts of grunts that vary in pitch. In most of my observations over the years, a buck that is hot on a doe’s tail will let out a sequence of four or five quick “burps” as his front hooves alternate hitting the ground.
Often times, it seems that these sequences are followed by what some refer to as a “growl” or a “roar.” Basically, what your buck is saying is “Hey, ho, hey, hey, ho … HEY!” Working your favorite grunt call this way can prove fatal to a wise, old whitetail.
Next up, let’s focus on what I call the “roar.” Used at the end of a chasing grunt sequence, often times a roar can seal the deal. However, it’s not used only during those sequences. There have been many times, especially when a buck is hot on a doe’s trail and he can’t see her (think standing corn) that I’ve heard a buck let out a blood-curdling roar. It seems to me that bucks roar almost out of pure frustration.
It’s almost as if they are telling the doe, “LISTEN TO ME. I’M DONE PLAYING GAMES. I’M READY TO DO THIS!” This deep, deliberate and often eerie sound can be incredibly deadly when aimed at a buck that is near the top of the local totem pole. But be careful; this sound isn’t bellowed out repeatedly, so use it sparingly.
That brings us to the snort-wheeze. This call, in my opinion, can be one of the deadliest calls you’ll ever pull out of your bag of tricks. Here’s why: it is mainly used during one time of year, the rut, and it has two simple meanings—either “I’m going to beat your butt” or “I just beat your butt.” For those two reasons, there is no mistaking what a snort-wheeze means to a buck when he’s cruising through the timber.
Snort-wheezes sound very similar for the most part, and they aren’t hard to imitate with practice. The first part of the call is a usually a clean fff..fff…fff followed by a long, drawn-out ffffffffffff sound. This second part of the call often has a nasally whistle to it that’s very important in making it sound realistic. If you’ve got a lone buck out in front of you and he’s walking stiff legged, rubbing trees and throwing dirt 10 feet behind him, hit him with a snort-wheeze and you might just have to hang on for the ride. Many times, if it happens it’s going to happen quickly!
The Last Verse: Rut-Crazed Rattling
It’s the moment you wait for all year. It’s where the men get separated from the boys. It’s lonely wives and all-day sits. It’s when nothing else matters but the wind direction. It’s time to rut rattle.
Rattling is quite possibly my favorite tactic for drawing in a big, old slob. Where I hunt, my rattling antlers are around my neck from roughly Oct. 26 through Thanksgiving. I am a firm believer in rattling with antlers that are relatively proportionate to the size of deer you’re hunting, and I absolutely prefer the real thing. My setup consists of sheds from a 10-pointer that scored 158 and had 38 inches of mass.
In all my rattling experiences, I’ve found that smaller bucks will pretty much come into anything. They’re still learning the ropes. However, an older buck will rarely pay attention to something much smaller than him. After all, he figures there is no sense wasting time on a couple scrappy youngsters that pose no threat to his throne.
When conditions are right, rattling can produce some of the most dynamic hunts of your life. A few years ago, I visited Iowa in early November and found myself perched 25 feet off the ground for an all-day sit on an overcast day with temperatures in the mid-40s. Shortly after sunrise, I started my first “rut-rattle” sequence. I consider a rut-rattle to be much different than the early-season rattle. These are violent, often lengthy battles meant to establish who is king.
They start hard, like a couple of two-by-fours slamming into each other. And they stay intense, sending deep sounds from the thicker main beams of the antlers echoing through the air. You can almost feel the hits, and if they’re close enough, you’ll hear the percussion play out through the bucks’ chest cavities. I’ve seen fights as close as 10 yards, and it’s nothing short of spectacular.
Back to that day in Iowa; a few smaller bucks responded to my first sequence. I let things play out because I never rattle once I feel a buck has a good read on where I’m set up. After the first bucks left, I rattled again. Within minutes, a nice 3-year-old, 140-inch buck showed his face. I let him walk. For the rest of the day, I rattled from that stand. All in all, I rattled in 21 different bucks!
Somewhere around the high teens, my shooter showed. As he got to 11 yards, I came to full draw. Things happened so quickly my cameraman didn’t have time to get into the right position, so I held at full draw, my pin buried on his heart for what felt like an hour. As the camera was swinging into position, the buck scanned the landscape, oblivious to my presence. Just as the camera got to where it needed to be, a coyote came charging out of the brush and ran directly at the 170-inch 10-pointer. In an instant he was gone, the coyote hot on his tail, and I was left standing at full draw. Such is the life of filming.
The moral of this story is this: rattle during the rut and rattle hard. Bucks have peak testosterone flowing through their veins at this time of year and they aren’t afraid to fight if you give it to them right. Rattling is especially effective when the going gets tough. If you’ve got a buck-to-doe ratio that is out of whack (lots more does than bucks) you may want to think twice about rattling. But if you’ve got a healthy herd with a ratio that’s in check, there will be plenty of opportunities to capitalize on the competition to breed. So, take advantage of it.
All in all, there’s more to hunting mature bucks than sitting in a stand. Knowing how and when to be active in a tree and what sounds to make, based on the stage of the rut, will help you suck in the buck of a lifetime. The sounds of the deer woods can offer a lot of information if you pay attention to them. Next time there’s deer in front of you, make it a point to listen to what they tell you. Don’t just hear it.