"Rattling? That only works in places like Texas. It doesn't work here." I'll bet you've heard that one before, maybe even uttered those words yourself. The last time I heard it was in central Alabama, from a guy who'd been guiding there for nearly 40 years. One of the other hunters in camp, who'd had considerable success rattling in other parts of the country, decided to try it anyway. Not only did it work, but he also had all of us rattling in deer by the end of our three-day hunt. I rattled in five in one morning and another hunter rattled in two in one afternoon, including a buck that green-scored just over 168 inches.
The truth is, rattling can potentially work just about anywhere under the right conditions. It behooves us as deer hunters then to figure out what the "right" conditions are. Or, we can just let the biologists do it for us.
Dr. Mickey Hellickson conducted what is probably the most comprehensive study on whitetail deer's response to antler rattling. Over the course of three years, Hellickson and his fellow researchers conducted the study on the 7,800-acre Welder Wildlife Foundation Refuge in south Texas. They divided rattling sequences into long (three minutes) and short (one minute) bouts, and loud and soft volumes. And they applied each variation during pre-rut, rut and post-rut periods. Researchers worked in pairs, with one observing from a telephone pole observation tower while the other rattled on the ground.
Results and Discussion
Out of 171 total rattling sequences, 111 bucks responded. "Not bad," you say, "but that was Texas, where it's supposed to work." Furthermore it was on a well-managed ranch with high deer numbers, a good buck-to-doe ratio and a decent proportion of older bucks.
Of greater interest was that the researcher on the ground only saw 33-percent of the bucks that responded. Either the cover was too thick or they never came close enough. A common response was to circle downwind, where the buck would catch the ground researcher's scent and run off without being seen (by the ground researcher).
If you extrapolate those results, it suggests there's a better than 50-percent chance that you've successfully rattled in a buck, but never knew it. It also tells you how important scent control is, especially if you're calling and rattling.
Hellickson's study also offered some insight into how and when is best to rattle. Researcher's found, in general, bucks responded to loud rattling three times more often than soft rattling. As far as timing, they found rattling was far more effective in the morning than the afternoon, particularly early morning. They also observed the greatest response during peak rut. However, looking more closely at the data they noted that response among older (translation: bigger) bucks was higher during pre- and post-rut periods than during peak rut, with post rut having a slight edge. The Texas researchers also observed greater response rates correlated with less wind, cooler temperatures and more cloud cover, which is somewhat intuitive because this is when deer move more whether you rattle or not.
All this suggests that your rattling efforts will be most effective during the peak of rut, on cool, calm, cloudy mornings. If you just want to rattle in more bucks, make more noise, particularly during the rut. If you're more interested in mature bucks, make noise but don't get carried away. Perhaps a better philosophy though, is to rattle all the time, but expect more and better results when conditions are right.
Can you rattle too much? The researchers offer some answers to this as well. To test this they chose 11 bucks that were 4.5 years old or older and were wearing activity collars so they could tell when the bucks moved, and in which direction. They rattled four different times over several weeks. Six of the 11 bucks came twice, and one buck came all four times. Four didn't come the first time, but came the second. This all suggests the deer didn't become conditioned to rattling or react negatively over time.
Beyond the Science
Among the most commonly asked questions are how much and how often should you rattle? Hellickson's results didn't directly answer those questions, except to note that in some cases it took 30 minutes or more before bucks came to the antlers. However, the other hunter in that Alabama camp with me was Judd Cooney, who has hunted and guided for whitetails across North America for nearly half a century.
Cooney says the biggest mistake hunters make is getting discouraged and giving up too soon. When the time is right, he recommends you "rattle for a few minutes every 20 to 30 minutes, and stick with it. It's a lot more common to get a response the third or fourth time you rattle," he says. That seems to jibe quite nicely with the research.