Rattlin' Magic

America's "Father of Trophy-Deer Hunting" shares his secrets for bringing big bucks to the horns

Some bucks actually charge the hunter. They come rushing in with no attempt at stealth -- eyes wild, nostrils flared, hair standing on end, long silvery strings of spittle drooling from their mouths. And sometimes they come really close. I've had a few within bayonet range, close enough to throw gravel on me from their skidding hooves. The reaction of an inexperienced horn-rattler to this kind of deer behavior usually falls somewhere between paralysis and hysteria. Even hardened veterans can be shaken. Believe me, a big whitetail buck in your face in this condition makes a spectacle you'll remember all your life.

"Chargers," however, are rare. Most bucks come walking or trotting to the clatter of antlers, confident and alert, tails half-raised to the horizontal -- a sure sign that they're completely fooled. Others -- the old, smart ones -- come in like a bobcat stalking a varmint call, sneaking and circling for the wind, using every shred of cover. These often escape notice; they've figured out that the crash-bang of a buck fight isn't always created by a pair of randy bucks. Sometimes they hang up, just like an old gobbler that won't come in and won't go away, and you may need special rattling tactics (see sidebar) to bring them in.

However he arrives, a big buck coming to the horns has to be the most thrilling experience in all of deer hunting. I've lost track of the number of bucks I've rattled up, but in my 60 years of hunting whitetails across three nations and 18 states, the total probably tops 1,000. By its nature, horn rattling tends to attract the more dominant bucks, with bigger chips on their shoulders and bigger racks on their brows. As proof, that score includes my own best buck and many other trophies taken by my companions and me.

My rattling career all started in the Texas Hill Country, where I made my first hesitant rattles with borrowed antlers. My mentor was hardly more experienced than I. All we knew was to bash two sawed-off antlers together. A real buck actually responding might have scared both of us to death. However, one of the great axioms of horn rattling is: Never lose faith in your horns. That means you keep trying, even when nothing shows up and you feel stupid. Some beginners give up after a few strikeouts and miss the kind of experience my second serious try produced -- no fewer than eight bucks in one place over 21/2 hours of intermittent rattling! At least three of these animals (including a 20-inch 11-pointer) would have been trophies anywhere, but I was so intoxicated with the adventure that I photographed all of them and never fired a shot.

Before the end of that season, four different hunters had taken fine bucks over my horns and I'd learned a lot about rattling. What I gleaned in that first season 30-plus years ago is, with refinements, essentially what I still do today.

The Setup
I learned the importance of choosing rattling spots with care and getting to them without disturbing the countryside. I was slower to figure out that the place must offer a good view downwind. Nothing in stand selection is more important; over the years, I've shot at least 90 percent of my rattled-up bucks downwind. But my ideal site offers more than just a good view -- it needs a few saplings or stout shrubs within reach, preferably with some dead leaves still clinging, and some gravelly soil around.

This shows that I like to rattle on the ground, rather than from a tree stand, tripod or enclosed blind. I've rattled bucks up from such stands and probably will again, but I know my rattling is more convincing when I can add all the extra sound effects produced by raking shrubs and thumping the ground to imitate a fighting buck's hooves clawing for purchase.

A good approach to a rattling site is to be as stealthy as you would if still-hunting -- upwind and silent -- without exposing or skylining yourself. ving usually scouted the terrain in advance and pre-planned my route, I already know where I'm going to rattle and why. If possible, I also execute the hunt on a favorable day -- preferably dry, cold and still. I like crisp early mornings following moon-dark nights for serious rattlingäbut I've rattled up some dandy bucks around noon on warm muggy days after bright nights, too.

There Is No Script
With all this done, the cadences of the actual rattling are the easy part. There is no "correct" or "incorrect" way to rattle antlers. The rule is: Whatever works, baby. Fighting bucks don't follow a script, and no two battles sound exactly alike.

One thing I do consider important is beginning with a few seconds of soft, unassertive rattling. If the hunter has approached properly he may unknowingly have set up close to a receptive buck without alerting him. The deer's instinctive reaction to a sudden, deafening crash of antlers close at hand, then, may be to depart at Mach I for Mexico. My preliminary antler tickling has produced a bristled-up buck in my face, literally within seconds, often enough to prove the point.

Get Aggressive
If nothing happens, it's time to get to work. The idea is to reproduce the sounds of a battle between dominant bucks, and that includes more than just clashing antlers. It helps to have heard a few real battles, but your imagination can fill in pretty well. First, the combatants may try to intimidate each other by beating up on any unoffending little shrub that's handy. Imitating this with an antler is easy; this is where the shrub with dead leaves still attached comes in. Just haul off and swat it with an antler as hard as you can. Don't be shy; clobber it! Then rake the antler up and down furiously, making as much racket as you can.

This phase can go on for as long as you're having fun -- but keep a rifle handy and a sharp eye out while you're at it because it's not unusual for a buck to appear during this stage of the performance.

While I'm doing that with my right hand, my left isn't idle. It's busy mimicking the sounds of deer hooves on the earth as they assault the shrubbery. This is where the gravelly soil comes in. Turning the blunted tines of my left rattle downward, a vigorous rocking motion renders the stamping and scraping of hooves with surprising realism.

Note that, so far, we're about halfway through the performance and the antlers haven't actually touched each other. This may be the time to throw in a few notes on a grunt call, if you like. A "snort-wheeze" is even better, but a plain old guttural, "growling" grunt works as well. Make it loud and harsh; it's part of the fight-scene ambience.

The Grand Finale
Finally comes the actual clash of antlers. I make it as loud as I can, and this is one reason I prefer large, heavy, natural antlers for rattling. I've watched a big buck on a perfect morning take note and run straight to me from about 600 yards. After the first clash, I press the antlers hard together and rub and clatter them with a kind of rolling movement of my wrists that's hard to describe but produces good noises with my rattles. Every set of rattling horns is different, as is every rattler's grip, style and strength, so whatever works for you is the thing to do. Remember, a buck fight is more of a shoving contest than a fencing match. Most brawls are stop-and-go affairs, with frequent pauses in the action.

I usually rattle from 30 to 40 seconds, wait a few minutes and rattle another sequence without the initial clash. From here on, I just wing it. Now and then I'll rattle continuously for five minutes straight. Sometimes I throw in another hoof-stamping and brush-busting sequence between rattlings, with or without a little grunting and snorting. If any of these tactics gets results, I stick with it.

It's hard for inexperienced rattlers, trained to be inconspicuous in the woods, to comprehend that you cannot make too much noise while rattling, although you can certainly rattle too much.

How I do it on any given morning depends on my mood, and it's seldom the same on two successive days. There may be subtle cues that modify my technique to suit conditions on a particular day, but I'm not aware of them. Of course, windy weather is poor for rattling, and strong, gusty wind rules it out, but I sure don't stay in camp in a moderate breeze -- I simply seek protected areas and try to rattle during lulls. By the way, these are the only times I routinely use a cover scent (usually skunk) while rattling.

Rattlers Beware
Antler-rattling will work anywhere whitetails roam, in any state or country, but there are a couple of caveats. First and most important, rattling on public land is simply suicidal. Don't even think about it.

Second, the higher the ratio of bucks to does, the more productive rattling will be. Any ratio larger than about one buck to three or four females reduces rattling returns. At a 1-to-2 ratio, it's exciting; at 1-to-1, it can be downright scary.

Finally, the best phase of the rut during which to rattle is the week before the peak; next best is the 10 days or so of the peak breeding period itself. But nobody is good enough to rattle a buck away from a doe in estrus. Many of us secretly believe our favorite rattling horns are magic, but they aren't that magical!

rattlers, trained to be inconspicuous in the woods, to comprehend that you cannot make too much noise while rattling, although you can certainly rattle too much.

How I do it on any given morning depends on my mood, and it's seldom the same on two successive days. There may be subtle cues that modify my technique to suit conditions on a particular day, but I'm not aware of them. Of course, windy weather is poor for rattling, and strong, gusty wind rules it out, but I sure don't stay in camp in a moderate breeze -- I simply seek protected areas and try to rattle during lulls. By the way, these are the only times I routinely use a cover scent (usually skunk) while rattling.

Rattlers Beware
Antler-rattling will work anywhere whitetails roam, in any state or country, but there are a couple of caveats. First and most important, rattling on public land is simply suicidal. Don't even think about it.

Second, the higher the ratio of bucks to does, the more productive rattling will be. Any ratio larger than about one buck to three or four females reduces rattling returns. At a 1-to-2 ratio, it's exciting; at 1-to-1, it can be downright scary.

Finally, the best phase of the rut during which to rattle is the week before the peak; next best is the 10 days or so of the peak breeding period itself. But nobody is good enough to rattle a buck away from a doe in estrus. Many of us secretly believe our favorite rattling horns are magic, but they aren't that magical!