Calling a whitetail into shooting range is simply one of the coolest things you can do as a hunter. Not to mention, it’s awfully effective. But (and when it comes to good things there’s always a but), if you use your calls at the wrong times or in the wrong ways they can do more harm than good.
Here is a simple breakdown of how to call to bucks the right way, at the right times, during each different phase of the whitetail season.
The early season is a time for very limited calling. In September and early October bucks are not yet hyper-competitive and looking for a fight. They’re still enjoying the company of other bucks and are just starting to sort out the local hierarchy. For this reason, if you’re going to make some noise, it should be conservative and carefully timed.
Essentially the only scenario where I’m calling at a buck this time of year is if the deer is just out of range. In this situation, I’ll use a light contact grunt, which is essentially a simple short “buhhh” or two in an attempt to trigger his curiosity. With this sound, I’m saying to the buck, “Hey, there’s another deer over here; you might want to come say hi.” And that’s about it.
I’ll attempt making a contact grunt or two until I can confirm through the buck’s body language that he’s heard me—usually this comes in the form of the buck swiveling his head and ears in my direction. Whether he starts taking some steps in my direction or not, I’m typically done calling at this point. Aggressively continuing on from here is a recipe for disaster and a spooked buck. Less is more in the early part of the season.
As we push further into October and the pre-rut phase of the season, calling becomes increasingly more effective and your calling strategy can become more aggressive. At this point I’m still not doing any blind calling. The only exception might be an occasional light tickling of the tines to replicate young bucks sparring, which often happens at this time of year as bucks are beginning to feel a little feisty. I’m not talking a full-blown fight, this is just 15 to 30 seconds of light tapping and bumping of the tines. Again, this is a curiosity inducer. Not shock and awe.
As for grunting, I’ll still start most calling sequences with a light contact grunt, but if that doesn’t turn a deer, I’m willing to get more aggressive, either with a long, low drawn-out buck growl or a snort wheeze.
Imagine this scenario: A buck is traveling out of range and angling in a direction away from your setup. This is when I’d recommend busting out your grunt tube and first trying a short, contact grunt. Try one or two of these and if that doesn’t get his attention, rip off a louder longer, “burrrrrrppp.” If that stops him and he indicates interest—maybe a step in your direction and a perking of ears or simply walking your way—stop calling and prepare for a shot. If he continues walking, and the buck is mature, this is where a snort wheeze comes into play. This is like flipping off a guy at the bar. You’re looking for a fight. Rip off a snort wheeze, which sounds like an airy “tff tff tfffffffff” made without a grunt tube, and see what happens.
When the rut arrives you can continue on with your pre-rut calling strategy; simply raise the frequency and intensity of it all. During those couple weeks of peak rutting activity bucks are in perpetual search of females, while also fighting off any and all competition. Contact grunts, buck growls, and snort wheezes are all effective, but you can be louder and more aggressive with all of the above.
We’ve moved now from trying to induce curiosity to trying to spark rage. Add volume and intensity to all of your grunt calls when trying to get a buck’s attention, drawing out longer and lower notes with your grunt tube and adding intonation by cupping and releasing the end of the bellow tube. Of all of the buck vocalizations, the snort wheeze might be the most effective at this time of year. As mentioned already, this is a fight or flight kind of call, so if you try it on an insubordinate buck don’t be surprised if it runs off afraid. But if you’ve got a dominant buck in sight, this very well could bring him in for a tussle.
In addition to grunts, rattling now truly comes into form, especially in areas with lower hunting pressure and higher numbers of mature bucks. In these areas where bucks often need to fight to secure rights to breed a female, a rattling sequence can lure in bucks looking for action. Rather than the pre-rut tickling of tines, it now makes sense to replicate a full blown fight with aggressive hits and rattles with your antlers, thrashing of brush, and maybe even a snort wheeze or two added in as well. Rattling can be done at random intervals, regardless of deer sightings, or as a long-distance attention getter when you spot a buck at a far range.
One last call worth considering now is a doe in estrus bleat. This is the sound a female deer makes at this time of year when ready to breed, which sounds like a long, nasally drawn-out “mehhhh.” While not my top pick for the rut, I have lured in a few bucks with this call over the years and it can be worth a try.
As the rut recedes and the late season arrives, we’re back to the beginning of our calling strategy. Testosterone in bucks is now waning, energy levels are depleted, and hunting pressure has likely forced many bucks into hiding. All of this means that calling is now significantly less effective and should be used only sparingly.
The only call I’m typically using at this time of year is the grunt tube and I’m back to those light curiosity-inducing contact grunts. Soft, subtle, “hey I’m over here” kinds of sounds. And I’m not expecting this kind of call to bring bucks in from a long ways off either. This is the type of scenario where there’s a buck maybe 30 or 40 yards out of range, and I just need him to cover a little ground. That’s about all you can expect from a late-season call.
The only exception to this is if you have a second rut situation, where a young doe comes into heat late. If this happens and bucks all of a sudden find themselves in competition for breeding rights, you can again turn to your rut calls and possibly have success.
Do not be afraid to bust out some calls and try to lure a buck into range this season. It absolutely works in some places and situations. The trick is in using the right call for the circumstances, using it the right way, and not overdoing it.
With the above basic recommendations in hand, you should be well-armed to start testing the waters of calling in bucks. Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t in your hunting area. Question why certain scenarios blew up in your face and others brought bucks into your lap. And then learn from it all.
Feature image via Sam Soholt.