Your next whitetail hunt

Although I've rattled as part of my whitetail-hunting routine for many years now, truth is I've yet to take a buck that I've rattled in. The only “gagger”-as whitetail fans like to call extremely large-antlered bucks-I ever lured was spooked by another hunter before I could shoot. Just one of those things. Still, thanks to rattling, I've looked over a lot of bucks I wouldn't have seen otherwise. That alone convinced me long ago that rattling should at least be included in my bag of whitetail-hunting tricks.

I suspect most whitetail hunters have also tried rattling, but when you ask them about it, as often as not, they dismiss the tactic as unproductive or a waste of a time (see “The roots of rattlin'”). However, talk to a few hardcore whitetail hunters and invariably they'll insist that not only can rattling be successful, but that it also plays a significant role in their hunting strategies. That was certainly the case when I spoke to five of the most avid whitetail hunters you're likely to meet.

When to rattle

As we know, the reason for rattling is to mimic the sound of bucks fighting over a doe during the rut. When asked about their preferred time for rattling in relation to the peak of the rut, however, our five experts were divided in their opinions.

Duncan, B.C.'s Jim Shockey, a well-known whitetail hunter, guide and writer, says that rattling can be used throughout the various phases of the rut. “Before the peak, you'll bring them in out of anticipation and curiosity,” he says. “During the peak, they're at their most frantic and willing between does, and will often respond immediately. In the later phases of the rut, they're still eager and will respond, hoping there are a few unbred does yet available.”

According to Shockey, response to rattling simply evens out across the entire rutting period. “I suppose that more bucks are available pre-rut because none are attended by does,” he says, “but that's countered by the fact they're most eager during the peak, between does.”

The only time that rattling will not produce, explains Shockey, is when a buck has found a mate. “Rattling doesn't work on an individual basis if that buck is already tied up with a doe,” he says. “Nothing will drag him away at that point.”

Long-time Innisfree, Alberta whitetail outfitter Kirk Sharp suggests that the end of the rut-after the peak-is best. “They've become used to having does with them up to that point, and any activity that suggests some may still be available is attractive to them,” he says, adding that that is particularly true for larger bucks.

In his experience, Sharp says that rattling before the rut is not very productive. “If you sneak into their territory without them becoming aware of your presence, and they're nearby when you rattle,” he says, “they may come in out of curiosity, but that's about it.”

Not so with Sidney, Manitoba outfitter Lloyd Lintott, president of the Manitoba Wildlife Federation. “The two weeks before the peak-the first couple of weeks of November in my area-is almost a sure thing when it comes to attracting bucks through rattling,” he says, noting that while he has had success throughout the season, nothing tops the pre-rut period.

In agreement here is Edmonton's Claudio Ongaro, an avid whitetail hunter who's dropped several bucks that other hunters only dream of. “Unquestionably, the three to five days before the peak of the rut are when I've had the most success rattling,” says Ongaro, explaining that there are a lot of randy bucks as the peak of the rut approaches, but few does ready to breed. “At that time, bucks are more aggressive about exploring any opportunity to find a ready doe.”

Montreal's Roman Jaskolski has hunted white-tailed deer from Quebec to Alberta in his quest to find the perfect buck. He, too, prefers the pre-rut period. “Too early and they're not in the mood yet, and won't risk injury by fighting,” he says. “About a week before the peak is best. They're less cautious, and eager to find, or be found by, an accepting doe. They're ready and willing to fight at this time.”

Jaskolski goes on to say that he's had success up through the peak of the rut, but it tails off considerably past the peak. “At that time, bucks are tired from breeding and are starting to think about saving energy for the approaching winter,” he says. “They'll certainly breed if the opportunity presents itself, but won't be aggressive about it. In fact, rattling may frighten them off at this point.”

As for the best time of day to rattle, there's consensus that time has no significant bearing on rattling success. Still, Ongaro says his most consistent responses occur between sun-up and 2 p.m., while Sharp prefers early morning because the sound carries better in the cold, still air. Sharp says he's also had good results on those evenings when echoes can be heard. Lintott, Shockey and Jaskolski, meanwhile, say they have no real preferences.

Where to rattle

Choosing the best spot to start rattling largely depends on how you like to hunt. That said, our experts agree that wind direction is always a critical factor to take into consideration. Bucks coming to the rattle will often seek to get downwind of your position to confirm with their noses what their ears are telling them. That means you need to set up so that you can see if a buck is trying to head downwind from you.

Shockey, who prefers to still-hunt, says he'll often set up at the intersection of cutlines or other openings that allow him to detect deer trying to get behind him. Jaskolski and Lintott, like Shockey, say they'll often set up in a crosswind, making it that much more difficult for a buck to get downwind.

For Lintott, who hunts largely from treestands, the best set-up would be 100 yards or so into the bush from a known feeding field. In particular, he looks for natural narrowings or bottlenecks that will funnel the deer past his stand.

Ongaro, another treestand hunter, looks almost exclusively for active scrape lines when choosing a spot to set up. Where visibility allows, he sets up his stand anywhere from 75 to 100 yards downwind from the line. Any closer, he says, and you risk alarming any deer in the area. Sharp agrees that such areas of concentrated sign offer prime rattling locations.

The beauty of treestands, explains Ongaro, is that if you rattle in a buck you don't want to shoot, he'll eventually carry on, unalarmed and unaware of your presence. It's a different situation with ground blinds, however. “You either have to shoot the first buck that comes in or end up spooking it and any nearby does,” says Ongaro. “A couple of snorts and they're all spooked. At that point you might as well go home.”

But there can be drawbacks to rattling from a treestand all day, warns Sharp. “You run a high risk of deer sneaking in, discovering you without your knowledge and never returning,” he says. “They learn quick.”

As for Jaskolski, he's a supporter of a two-man rattle set-up. “Position a hunter well upwind of another who's rattling,” he explains, “and they'll often get opportunities as unsuspecting bucks focus on the rattler.”

Along with taking wind direction into account, all of our experts agree that you have to keep in mind that deer have excellent hearing. When responding to a rattle-even from a long distance-they'll have a pretty good sense of where the noise came from.

To avoid detection, Shockey says that if he sees a deer coming to his rattle from a distance, he'll often move 30 to 40 yards so the buck won't focus on the spot where he's hiding.

And wherever you set up, our experts stress that you must remain vigilant during the rattling process. Some bucks will race up to you as if their lives depended upon it, while others will tiptoe in. Don't let either scenario catch you unprepared.

What to rattle

I thought that some of our experts might use synthetic antlers, or alternatives such as commercial rattling bags. Instead, they all prefer the real thing, agreeing that nothing beats them for sound. And here they're talking about antlers cut from a downed deer, not sheds (unless they're freshly dropped).

For hunters who don't have access to the real McCoy, our experts suggest that they test as many synthetic models as possible to find a set that sounds the most realistic. Real antlers, they point out, create a sharp “clink, clink” sound.

When it comes to size, their preferences vary. Ongaro uses a set in the 160-class, for example, while Shockey prefers “a heavy set on cold, clear mornings when sound will really carry, and a smaller set for when I'm rattling in really dense bush.”

As far as Shockey is concerned, large rattling antlers are not necessary to call in large bucks. Lintott agrees. “There may be some merit in using large antlers,” he says, “but I've had pretty good success using a set in the 120-class.” They all agree, however, that hunters should remove the brow tines and clip the tips of the antler tines to reduce the chance of hurting their fingers while rattling.

Regarding the use of decoys to complement the rattling, there is agreement that decoys have value, but they seldom use them. “I know some hunters who use them in their rattling strategy with lots of success, but I can't be bothered,” says Lintott, summing up the consensus between our experts. “I worry too much about making noise hauling them through the brush and setting them up each time I call.”

How to rattle

All of our experts stress the importance of getting to your rattling location as quietly as possible. And once you're set up, they suggest waiting roughly half an hour before starting to rattle to further ensure the bush has settled down again. Of course, that isn't as important if you're still-hunting.

Interestingly, Lintott, Shockey and Ongaro start by using a grunt call to mimic the sound of bucks confronting each other. Lintott starts with a couple of soft grunts before switching to a doe-in-heat call, while Ongaro sticks with the grunt call only.

Shockey, the still-hunter, calls as he moves, but he also grunts a few times before doing anything else once he's in position. He then uses one of his rattling antlers to rake nearby trees as if only one buck has entered the arena and is displaying to an attending doe.

Two of our experts take this technique a step further by using their antler bases to pound the earth, mimicking the stomping hooves of an irate buck. Naturally, this tactic is reserved for those not in treestands.

For many years, the prevailing wisdom was to start rattling with a light tickling of the antlers so as not to scare off any bucks that may be close by. Our experts largely disagree with this approach, however. “When whitetail bucks decide to fight, they fight,” explains Sharp. “They don't fool around much.”

As such, he advocates rattling very aggressively right from the start, as do Shockey, Lintott and Ongaro. They continue this hard clashing of the antlers for 30 seconds up to a minute, interspersed with some forceful meshing of the antlers.

They then typically wait 10 to 30 minutes before repeating the sequence. Any longer, and travelling bucks could easily pass by without having heard a thing. Two to three minutes after completing a rattling sequence, Sharp says he then likes to rake nearby trees, much as a victorious buck might do when displaying his dominance.

Only Jaskolski prefers to initiate his rattling efforts with softer, slower rattles before building to a crescendo. Other than that, his preferences align with those of the others.

How long you continue to rattle from one position, meanwhile, depends on your hunting strategy. While still-hunting, for example, Shockey may move on after 30 minutes or stay as long as two to three hours, depending on his gut feeling and confidence in the location. A keen observer of deer behaviour, Shockey says he's watched deer take as long as 45 minutes to approach his rattling position.

From the treestand, Ongaro says he will sit and rattle all day long, with an average of four sequences per hour. Lintott and Sharp say they move every 45 minutes to an hour, on average. “Don't be afraid to take it to them if they aren't coming to you,” says Sharp. “Be aggressive.”

The noise makers

More do's and don'ts, comments and tips from our panel of rattling experts.

Jim Shockey

“I've been able to watch a lot of deer respond to the rattle over the years. Based upon my observations, of the 10 deer that hear your rattling, one will come to investigate, two will run dead away and seven will ignore it. And these are relatively unpressured deer. With heavily hunted deer, I suspect the odds are worse. Patience and persistence are therefore very important factors for success.”

Claudio Ongaro

“The biggest mistake I made in learning the secrets of rattling deer was rushing my shot. If you try raising your gun or bow when the buck is facing you, or even broadside, you risk him picking up the movement and hightailing it. Be patient, and he'll offer you the quartering away shot that will allow you time to rise comfortably and shoot.”

Kirk Sharp

“Resist the temptation to play with a small buck that's responded to your rattling. I watch a lot of hunters do this. They don't realize that all they're doing is educating a buck that will eventually be that much more difficult to fool when he's mature. If you don't want him, let him go and hope he gets away without noticing you.”

Lloyd Linott

“Be as quiet as you can getting to your stand. You're better off not crashing through the thick stuff, even if it means not setting up exactly where you'd hoped. Concentrate instead on bringing the deer to you.”

Roman Jaskolski

“Rattling is just one more tool in your arsenal and it should only be used when the conditions are right. If you do it wrong, you'll do more damage than good. It'll just frighten the animals when the conditions are wrong.”

The roots of rattlin'

When the primary focus was simply to put a winter's supply of meat in the larder, deer hunting was pure grunt work, with drives and still-hunting the tactics of choice. The last 20 years or so, however, have seen phenomenal growth on the sporting side of deer hunting, and with that a huge increase in science-based solutions to bagging that elusive buck. And that includes deer calling, which has been in vogue in one form or another since the early 1980s.

Antler rattling is among the oldest of the calling forms. It is meant to simulate the sound of two bucks battling over the right to breed a doe. When a fight breaks out, a doe that is ready to be bred is usually close at hand. Other bucks realize this and will, on occasion, come in search of that doe. This behaviour forms the basis for sport hunters using rattling as part of their hunting strategies.

Keep in mind, however, that rattling-like many of today's whitetail-hunting methods-originated in the southern U.S. So, too, has much of what's been written about rattling. Consequently, the rattling advice that's out there, to a large extent, may not necessarily apply to conditions here.

In many of America's managed deer herds, for example, the percentage of bucks in the overall population is very high. That means competition for does is also very high, and that bucks are keen to fight and thus respond to the sounds of other fights. The same doesn't hold true in those parts of Canada where there are plenty of does, and that means success in rattling, as with other tactics, may not be as high.