By Lynn Burkhead
A number of years ago, I found myself in a treestand, primed for a refreshingly cool October morning spent bowhunting local whitetails. And truth be told, it was a pure old school bowhunt in the early 1990s — long before game cameras, food plots, and scent destroying ozone emitters took over the deer-hunting world.
With several good bucks roaming the sizable patch of North Texas ground that my friend Steve and I had traded some work out for the return of seasonal hunting privileges, everything seemed to be all systems go for a morning of deer-hunting possibility.
The acorns were occasionally dropping from a nearby white oak tree, the cool breeze made the morning the most pleasant of the season so far, and the first tell-tale rubs and scrapes signaling the coming rut were beginning to appear like neon-lighted signposts in the creek bottom that my treestand hung in.
I’ll admit, my expectations were high that morning as I climbed into my hang-on stand, hoping for a repeat visit to the taxidermist shop with a Pope and Young qualifier riding shotgun in the back of my pickup truck. As I settled in during the approach of dawn, all seemed right for a memorable hunt as I hung my bow and made sure my safety belt was cinched up tight (this was a few years before safety harnesses came into being).
Fast forward a few hours later and I hadn’t seen a single deer. Fighting both the mid-morning nods and a growling stomach advertising for the pancake house down the road, the morning stillness was suddenly interrupted by the earthy sounds of a buck grunting somewhere close by.
But as I listened to the guttural noise in the woods, I quickly dismissed it as Steve sitting somewhere a few hundred yards away, playing on my deer hunter’s nerves with his grunt call. The noise was too loud, too steady, and too close to be the real thing.
Or so I thought. But an hour or two later as we met at the truck for our prearranged departure time, Steve unraveled that idea quickly.
“Man, did you hear that buck grunting?” he queried as he put his bow into its case.
“That was you, I know it was,” I snarkily replied as I stowed my own gear away. “It didn’t take me long to figure out that you were just messing with me. Nice try, buddy.”
“Burkhead, you really are a newbie, aren’t you?” Steve laughed. “That wasn’t me brother. When I heard that buck, I was sure wishing that I hadn’t left my grunt call at home.”
Moral of the story? When it comes to arrowing a mid-October deer, a grunt call might be the best tool that a deer hunter has in the arsenal, old school or not. And that’s true whether or not you’ve left it at home or you’re — embarrassing confession time here — wearing it around your neck like I was that day.
When used properly — particularly during the gathering days of the pre-rut, during decreasing daylight hours, while weather is changing, or during the glorious fall days as the breeding frenzy begins to unfold — the grunt call can help lure in a monster buck, whether he’s simply inquisitive, looking to establish dominance in a particular patch of woods, or is actually starting to prowl about and seek out does as the colorful autumn leaves float to the ground.
Jim Lillis, a retired Texas senior regional director for Ducks Unlimited and a veteran buck slayer with a wall full of great Lone Star State bow bucks, is one of my go-to sources for any and all things related to information on how to hunt big whitetails.
After all, he’s arrowed a number of Pope and Young qualifiers as well as a Boone and Crockett giant, a 10-point that net scored 175 2/8-inches. That 2007 buck is one of the “Top 10” typical bowkills of all-time in Texas and proof that he’s got game when it comes to big bucks.
While he’s got a great Mathews bow, the latest Kuiu camo duds, and every reasonable deer-hunting gadget to hit the market in recent years, Mr. Duck, as I call him, is never without a simple grunt call after a lesson he learned from a tripod stand years ago on his West Texas deer lease.
“I did some grunting and had an 8-point and a smaller buck come in,” Lillis said of the early fall encounter. “But the 8-point locked up at 60 yards and wouldn’t come any closer, so I tried to call him a few more times with the grunt call.
He soon found out why the buck wouldn’t come any closer. “When he left, I looked up and a good 10-point was coming into my bleats and grunt calls,” Lillis said.
Unfortunately, Lillis wasn’t presented with a clear shot on the buck’s vitals and the encounter ended without an arrow being released. But because of the buck’s response to the call, to this day there’s a grunt call around Lillis’ neck when he climbs into a treestand, tripod, or ground blind.
As pointed out above, there’s good reason for the lure of a grunt call in mid-October, a time of transition that sees whitetails moving from the lazy every day food patterns of late summer to the increasingly edgy mood as the November rutting frenzy approaches.
But don’t take my word for it. Here’s how my good friend and frequent OSG contributor Travis Faulkner put all of this in a story he did a few years ago for the Knight & Hale Legendary Calls company in a well-written piece entitled “October’s Deadliest Calling Strategies.”
“In most hunting regions, the middle of October is when hunters will start seeing some major changes in mature buck behavior, patterns and daily activity,” noted Faulkner in that article. “Factors such as increased hunting pressure, cooler temperatures, shortening days and alternating food sources are responsible for these activity and pattern shifts. Bucks will begin rubbing, scraping and sparring more in preparation for the upcoming rut. The right call and calling strategies can be all it takes to bring a heavy-racked bruiser into a cleared shooting lane.”
Travis is one of the best deer hunters I’ve ever been privileged to know and he’s so good at his woodsy craft that he even had to build a big addition onto the back of his Kentucky home to house all of the record-book deer mounts that he’s accumulated over the years. So, if you ignore my advice, well, you’re not missing much. But if you ignore a guy with dozens of trophy whitetails on the wall, well, I hope you’ve got a good recipe for tag soup!
David Blanton, the longtime executive producer and co-star of the Realtree Outdoors television franchise programs on Outdoor Channel, Sportsman Channel and My Outdoor TV (MOTV) is another deer hunting rock star that happens to be a big believer in the grunt call.
But Blanton does note that a hunter can go overboard by using such a call too often. That’s perhaps never truer than during the days of the mid-October lull when a call can be enough to lure in an inquisitive buck — or enough to push him away for good.
“If you give out three or four grunts to simulate a buck chasing a doe, that’s fine,” Blanton told me in an interview a few years back. “But if you blow on it like a duck call, I think that does have a negative effect.
That’s especially true when a whitetail isn’t too far away from a hunter’s camouflaged position.
“If I see a buck cruising 150 yards away and I don’t want to shock him with the (rattling) horns because they’ll be too loud and he’s too close, then I’ll hit him with the grunt call, see how he responds, and if that does the trick, that’s all I’ll do,” said Blanton.
Because when a monster bucks turns and begins heading toward a hunter’s stand location, those few grunts are often more than enough to turn good hunting prospects into wall-hanging reality.
Even if it’s October and you’re wondering whether or not a good hunting buddy is playing a trick on you from a nearby stand.
Because while it might seem a bit forgotten in today’s high-tech world of whitetail hunting tricks and gadgetry, an old school grunt call can often be just enough in mid-October to lure in Mr. Big for a well-placed arrow into the boiler room.
If that’s the case, maybe you’ll be the one standing back at the pickup truck with the last laugh. And the biggest taxidermy bill, too.