Photo by Jared Moossy
Watching John Mayer simulate the sounds and antics of fighting bucks is to watch him transform into a rut-addled whitetail himself.
He grunts. He snorts and wheezes. He bashes trees with a splintered branch. He paws and grinds the earth. You can almost see his neck swell and his eyes strain with effort and intensity. I have to check to make sure that he hasn’t completed his Oscar-worthy performance by urinating down his leg.
This isn’t just a show. Mayer’s method acting is a reliable way to draw bucks out of the dense scrub brush that improbably grows out of the sunbaked caliche limestone of West Texas’ Edwards Plateau. This impenetrable screen of mesquite, dwarf cedar, and flesh-grabbing tasajillo cactus is one reason that tower blinds and elevated feeders are synonymous with whitetail hunting in the Lone Star State. They are the only reliable ways to hunt, or even see, deer for most of the year.
But for a short window just prior to the rut, when the veins of every buck west of Abilene course with a mixture of testosterone, adrenaline, and–it seems–roadhouse whiskey, you don’t need to bait deer with corn. You can lure them out of the underbrush by imitating a smash-mouth, bar-clearing brawl–one of those nasty knockdown battles that will draw an antlered crowd.
Photo by Jared Moossy
The place I’m hunting, a sprawling ranch devoted equally to oil and whitetails, is called ‘ Vatoville. Owned by Steve and Michelle Anderson, the ranch has only two rules: Have fun. And don’t shoot Huevos, an ancient buck with wide, heavy antlers that limps from feeder to shade and enjoys the sort of admiration and clemency from Steve that ranchers reserve for retired, prize-winning bulls.
I have hunted Vatoville a couple of times, as a guest of Anderson and the camouflage company Mossy Oak, and I know bucks grow big and old here. But though I’m convinced of their efficacy, tower blinds aren’t my thing. I’d rather be on my feet, working into the wind and stalking through stands of shin oak and broomweed, my eyes open for arrowheads and buck rubs.
John Mayer shares my affection for ground-level hunting. He’s Michelle Anderson’s cousin, and he runs a neighboring ranch. We share a deep love of rattling, so every time he hears I’m hunting Vatoville, he drives over in his dented pickup and hands me a fresh set of rattling horns. “Ready to make some noise?” he asks, grinning around a chaw of Copenhagen.
Mayer’s explanation of why rattling works during this pre-rut window is as good as any I’ve heard.
“When there’s a fight at a bar, what does everybody do?” he asks rhetorically, though the answer is as certain as finding chorizo gravy on the biscuits they serve at the crossroads cafe north toward San Angelo. “They gather round and watch. Bucks are the same way. They’re ripe for a fight, but they don’t necessarily want to start one.”
This is the magic of the pre-rut. For 11 months of the year, even Texas whitetails are conditioned to avoid confrontation and seek a sort of monastic solitude. But for a few weeks their trip-wire senses are tuned to a different frequency, one that sorts out pecking order for the upcoming breeding season through a gauntlet of sparring, confrontation, and dominance.
On my most recent trip to Vatoville, last November, I throw my pack in Mayer’s pickup and push the antlers back to him. “Let’s see how many bucks you can rattle in,” I propose, knowing John will rise to the challenge. I want to research responses to rattling, investigate the behaviors of bucks as they approach a rattling site, and quantify the ages and number of deer that answer our calls. No one I know rattles as well as Mayer.
So on this first day, at least, I trade my rifle for a notebook and prepare to conduct research in this most productive laboratory. As we pull away from the ranch house, I smile back at Mayer. “Who knows? Maybe we’ll rattle in ol’ Huevos!”
THE RIGHT ANTLERS
Photo by Jared Moossy
Mayer is particular about his “rattlin’ horns.” For starters, they are not a matched pair. He says matched antlers tend to smash his fingers with their tines when he works them, and the opposing tines don’t allow for enough main-beam contact. Instead, he picks sheds from the same side–the right–but from different bucks. They are similar in heft and dimensions. Mayer will experiment with dozens of antlers until he finds two that resonate and mesh well together. He consummates their union by marking their bases in black marker. Then he usually lashes them to opposite ends of a length of leather latigo strap and hangs them around his neck.
Mayer prefers heavy antlers with significant main beams but short tines. That configuration amplifies the bone-on-bone percussion of the beams, he says.
“You have to take care of your horns,” Mayer insists. “A lot of guys keep them outside or in the bed of their pickup, but they get dried out and lose their sound. I’ll keep mine inside and wipe them down” with waterproofing sealant to keep them from drying out. And he wears heavy leather gloves to protect his hands from the violent crashing and grinding of the antlers. In a way, he’s protecting himself from himself.
Photo by Jared Moossy
Vatoville is tailored for run-and-gun hunting. The landscape is broken by a series of low, rocky ridges that overlook broad, brushy swales. Deer often bed on the ends of the ridges and feed in the valleys. By walking a ridge, we can rattle into the valleys on either side as well as deer on the ridge itself.
But Mayer looks for more than the height of land when he sets up to rattle.
“I want a place with some brush,” he says. “A deer might come running across the open, but that’s pretty rare. Usually they’ll come in under cover, but you don’t want such a concentration of trees and brush that you never see the deer.”
Mayer is especially mindful of the cover downwind of his calling location. Just like a coyote coming to a call, a buck will always try to cut the scent plume of a rattling set. Mayer wants the thinnest cover downwind, so he can see an incoming deer from far enough away to judge its size and make a shot. If he’s rattling for a partner, he sets him up on shooting sticks and points him downwind.
Then he looks around for the props that will enhance the realism of his fighting-bucks simulation.
“I want to set up in an area with lots of leaves I can crunch, limbs I can crash, and rocks I can roll,” says Mayer. “And if there’s some bare dirt, that’s even better, so I can make lots of dust.”
These ingredients are central to Mayer’s transformation. The rattling is only part of the show.
Photo by Jared Moossy
When Mayer gets into character, it’s hard to know where the hunter ends and the whitetail begins. He acts like a manic, inept landscaper, crushing vegetation and pawing dirt. Not only does he physically occupy the role of a sparring buck, but Mayer seems to get emotionally invested in ‘ the part as well. He gets snippy, edgy, and easily agitated when he’s smashing and grinding his rattling antlers.
He tucks under the limb of a mature tree, partly to hide his outline in its shadow, but also so he can crash limb against limb. Then he moves. He’s a kinetic whir, here bashing the tree to sound like a pair of particularly antagonistic brawlers, there rolling rocks as though the deer are straining to get footing. He blows a grunt tube to accentuate percussive bashes of his rattling antlers.
Mayer doesn’t stay in one spot long–maybe 10 minutes at the most–but while he’s set up and rattling, he’s all business.
“I start fairly soft, to bring in deer that might be close by,” says Mayer. “But if I don’t get a buck right away, I’ll keep crashing the horns and kicking dirt as long as I think a buck that hears it might need to get here. Then I quit, walk a ways, and do it all again.”
During a hike down a half-mile-long ridge, Mayer might make three rattling sets a few hundred yards apart.
SWARMS OF SOPHOMORES
Photo by Jared Moossy
In our first day of “research,” we rattle in 13 different bucks. Three juvenile scrappers come in to our first set, and five more to our second. At another set, two young bucks come in from opposite directions and nearly run into each other as they try to pinpoint the sound of the rattling.
Additional deer are around–we can hear them moving in the brush and sometimes see limbs shake as they shadow-fight with cedars instead of rivals–but I don’t count these ghosts in my totals.
Our last set of the day seems promising. After the first wave of bucks sprints in–two of them never leave, tucking into cedar trees to watch what they are convinced are two bucks fighting only 20 yards away–an old, pot-bellied veteran approaches through the brush. Is it Huevos? I can’t see his antlers, only his body as he approaches with stiff legs and his head erect, on high alert.
Finally, he crosses an opening and I can see he’s not Steve’s protected deer, but rather a smaller, brown-horned buck with broken tines and a fresh cut on his face. Then he’s gone, swallowed up again by the brush. This is the nature of rattling. You don’t see all the deer that you call. The ones you do see often don’t give you much time.
The age class we see is also typical for an area with high buck densities. The younger bucks are more curious and responsive than mature deer. But I know from trail–camera pictures that there are big, older bucks here, so on the second day, I bring my rifle.
In our first set, a buck comes in so fast and hard that he has to veer around photographer Jared Moossy to keep from bowling him over. We rattle in four more deer in another spot before I sense that something is watching us. I turn my head and see a buck 15 yards away, slightly above me on a rise, silhouetted by the rising sun. He’s so lathered in sweat that he’s steaming. His shoulders are stiff and his back is bristled. He’s looking for a fight.
The buck turns to run, but Mayer stops him with a grunt, and I swing the rifle and fire. I know the shot is good as the deer crashes away.
After the noise and the adrenaline subside, Mayer claps me on the back. “Let’s see what we got!” It occurs to me then that we didn’t have time to assess the antlers. That’s the other side of rattling. It amps you up just as much as it agitates the deer that respond to the horns.
We find the buck piled up in a patch of shin oak, dead as a hammer. If the proportions of his antlers slightly disappoint me, the pursuit for him certainly didn’t. This is the way to hunt whitetails: with a hunk of antler in your hands, the pulse of expectation in your veins, leaning forward into each electric moment.
In the right place and the right time, in-your-face tactics can unlock every buck in your deer woods. Here are three tips from Travis Faulkner to help you lure your biggest buck yet
Sound Like a Buck
Photo by Brad Herndon/Windigo Images
For whitetail freaks, the rut is the Super Bowl of deer hunting–a brief, action-packed time when mature bucks previously thought to be untouchable are suddenly vulnerable. It’s a time when top-heavy monsters are fired up and ready to rock–which means you’d better be ready to break from the subtle hunting tactics that you’ve been using in weeks prior and get downright nasty. A rut-charged buck is the antithesis of meek. Your calling, scent, and decoy tactics must match his mood. Now’s the time to become aggressive: Picking a fight with the biggest and meanest buck in the woods must be the goal.
After being in stealth mode for the past few weeks, it can be difficult to switch over to more aggressive tactics, which are noisy and draw attention. However, fretting that using calls will spook deer is a major mistake, especially once the rut kicks into full swing. Done correctly, aggressive calling helps you effectively reach and attract bucks from long distances. It can also pull bucks into close range that may have been headed in another direction. At the end of the day, calling simply creates more shot opportunities.
Grunt It Up
So what exactly is aggressive calling? For the most part, hitting bucks with a few dull and muffled grunts is not going to cut it. According to Knight & Hale pro-staff member Chris Parrish, you’ve really got to put the “deer” in the deer call to maximize your success.
“If you want to tag bigger and better bucks, then you’ve got to add emotion to your calling,” says Parrish. “You can’t be afraid to pick a fight when the situation calls for it. After spotting a potential shooter that’s out of range, I like to first try a series of deep-throated grunts with a heaping helping of bass to get his attention. Depending on the current phase of the rut and the nature of an individual buck, a few agitated grunts like these might be all you need to coax him right into an open shooting lane.”
But if it isn’t, Parrish’s next step is a short series of blaring grunts, along with an emotionally charged snort-wheeze.
“I can’t tell you how many bucks I’ve turned completely around with this series of calls,” he adds. “Sometimes it has the opposite effect and may spook a buck, but it’s definitely my high-intensity call when it looks like there is no other chance of getting a shot. The snort-wheeze is by far one of the best buck vocalizations a hunter can use to challenge dominance and start a fight.”
Photo by John Eriksson/Images on the Wildside
Learning to properly blend and mix your calls to convey aggression is a strategy that can add a whole new level of realism to your calling. For example, a series of short anxious grunts followed by a yearning estrous doe bleat will drive a lovesick buck absolutely crazy. This simulates an excited buck chasing a hot doe, and it’s a highly effective calling strategy that will work across the country.
In the past, the blending and mixing tactic has consistently produced close encounters with shooter bucks for me in just about every state that I’ve hunted during the rut–even in areas with lopsided buck-to-doe ratios, where other calling techniques such as rattling were less productive. The trick is to cup your hands over the grunt call to create an echo chamber and turn your head from side to side when calling. This replicates the sound an excited buck makes in hot pursuit of a receptive doe.
Regardless of which calls you decide to go with, you will have much more success when you use emotion to generate a true sense of drama and realism. Violently raking the leaves and using an antler to clash with the bark of a sapling tree are great ways to beef up your aggressive calling sequences. Utilizing this dramatic technique, coupled with agitated grunting and snort-wheezing, is a deadly combination that definitely draws attention when you’re hunting from the ground.
Finally, when it comes to your calling location, don’t underestimate the importance of wind direction. Most veteran hunters will tell you that mature bucks almost always approach the sound of a call from a downwind direction. It’s a difficult point to argue. But know that for every buck you can see, there might be another two or three that came in for a look, caught a smell, and just left. Once you begin a calling sequence, be hyper-vigilant. Look and listen in every direction and you won’t get caught flat-footed.
As Chris Parrish likes to say, if you add a level of aggressiveness to your hunting tactics, you just might be surprised by what comes walking in to your next setup.
Stink Like a Buck
Photo by John Hafner
The first lesson we all learn as hunters is that a deer’s best line of defense is his nose. The good news is that there are creative ways to strategically turn a heavy-racked shooter’s strength into a weakness that can be easily exploited.
First, let’s once and for all lay to rest the pontifications of naysayers who question the validity of using deer scents to take a buck. I can tell you that deer scents work well and often–particularly during the rut. However, if you want to transform an ordinary hunting setup into a target-rich environment, forget about the meek and mild technique of hanging a scent-saturated cotton ball or two near your stand and hoping for the best. Sure, it will draw a deer if one happens past, but I prefer to take the more proactive approach of complete scent saturation. With bucks running the woods hard in search of estrous does, liberal use of scent will cause bucks to hunt you.
If trail-camera photos and other sign indicate a solid population of good bucks, I’ll get to work, sneaking into the location and laying out a scent perimeter around my stand site. I like to flood my hunting area with scent days and sometimes even a couple of weeks before hunting it. I crisscross draglines soaked with estrous doe scent in roughly a 360-degree area and then strategically hang scent wicks sprayed with a combination of plain and estrous doe urine at about the height of an average whitetail’s nose. The idea is to simply get into a dominant buck’s head and trick him into thinking that this is a high-traffic zone and a popular hangout for estrous does. Remember, this is a time of year when lots of bucks and does–many of which have been chased out of their core areas–are running through the woods. A solid scent circle adds a touch of authenticity and will help keep deer around.
When I’m about to hunt the stand, I’ll pull a single dragline heavily doused with estrous doe scent (and freshened several times along the walk in) back through the area and hang new scent wicks in shooting windows on the approach trail in order to create a hot lane and lead the buck into position for a shot. The final part of the ruse is to scatter collected deer pellets near my stand location for added realism.
Change a Buck’s Habits
Photo by Mark Raycroft
Count southern Ohio bowhunter Stanley Suda among the devout believers in the power of scents. He has more than one jaw-dropping buck to show for it, including a 230-inch non-typical giant he took last year. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Suda’s success is his proficiency at overcoming deer hunting’s biggest dilemma: pressured bucks that turn nocturnal. On many occasions, Suda has used his scent distribution strategy to control both the where and the when of his buck sightings.
“In my opinion, one of the best ways to generate more shot opportunities is to rely on scent to actually control big-buck traffic patterns and daily routines,” says Suda. “And you can do it with a simple rake and buck and doe urine. By cleaning narrow paths several inches wide and spraying both doe and buck scent in them, I’ve been able to condition whitetails to use these trails as primary travel corridors. With a little work, I can direct deer onto these mock deer paths straight through productive hunting spots–bucks will use them to cruise for does during the day–and throughout the rut.
“I begin by pinpointing the current food source and then construct mock trails connecting the feeding area with potential bedding cover,” he says. “When blazing these trails, I create multiple paths through prime setup locations. They need to be strategically located in areas that can be reached and hunted without spooking whitetails in the process.”
Suda’s finishing touch is to construct a line of mock scrapes that lead to his stand location, with a final primary scrape located in his best shooting lane. The primary scrape is larger than the others and is freshened with a programmable dripper that disperses scent only during daylight hours. There are several daytime-specific scent drippers available, but he uses the Code Blue 2Timer ($84; codebluescents.com), which is equipped with double reservoir tanks and is capable of alternating scents and release times.
“With the 2Timer, I don’t have to risk disturbing my area to freshen the scrape,” he says. “I can basically train a buck to check it according to my hunting schedule.”
A couple of seasons ago, Suda used the time-release scent technique in one of his primary mock scrapes to close the deal with a giant nocturnal buck.
“Periods of intense hunting pressure forced a really nice shooter in Kentucky to go nocturnal,” Suda says. “I was afraid the buck would eventually get pushed and shot by hunters during the state’s modern gun season, which was about to open. In order to close the deal fast, I set up a primary mock scrape along the edge of a densely covered bedding area.”
The plan worked to perfection. Suda made contact with the buck he referred to as the Nocturnal Nightmare.
“A few days before the opening of gun season, the buck eased out of his bedding area at midday to check and work the mock scrape. He gave me a perfect 15-yard broadside shot.”
Making the scrape seem more active during daylight hours is exactly what it takes to create a shot opportunity with a hard-to-handle nocturnal giant. The ability to release fresh dominant-buck urine and estrous doe scent simultaneously into the mock scrape can trigger an aggressive response from bruisers that are extremely territorial. The mere thought of an intruder buck making a move on a hot doe can pull a dominant shooter in on a string.
Look Like a Buck
Photo by Donald M. Jones
Set foot in the deer woods even once and you’ve likely heard the alarm snort of a spooked deer. The reason deer blow, biologists say, is because one of their senses–hearing, smell, or eyesight–has detected danger, and snorting is an attempt to coerce the source of the intrusion to show itself so that the alerted deer can gain confirmation from at least one other sense. Until at least two senses are in sync, the deer doesn’t know whether to flee or stay. And that’s precisely why decoy strategies are so effective.
With the help of rattling horns and calls, most hunters are perfectly capable of sounding like a deer. And with the current assortment of scents and scent-dispersal systems on the market, we can also smell like a deer. But it’s only with the help of decoys that we can essentially impersonate a deer, or at least provide deer with a positive visual cue. Put all three together while the rut is in full swing, and it’s game on in the whitetail woods.
The key to success with this three-pronged strategy is to custom-match your decoying, calling, and scent-application tactics with the phase of the rut. If you pay close attention, the overall behavior and daily actions of deer will tell you exactly how and where to set up your decoy, along with what strategies to use. Correctly putting these critical pieces of the puzzle together is ultimately what will make or break your hunt.
Kick Things Off
Your tip-off to the first phase of the rut is a noticeable increase in rubbing and scraping activity. Dominant bucks are becoming extremely territorial and restless. Setting up a subdominant intruder buck decoy along established scrape or rub lines can be very productive. Pinch points, bottlenecks, saddles, and fence lines that are located between known feeding and bedding areas are also decoying hotspots now.
After choosing a stand location, make a mock scrape near the decoy using both dominant buck urine and tarsal gland scent. Pull a dragline dipped in buck urine through open shooting lanes, and when you’re on stand, be sure to periodically attack the buck’s ears with assertive grunts and simulated scraping and rubbing. Nearby bucks that hear the racket, smell an intruder’s scent, and see the decoy will march straight to your setup, ready to throw down.
Pick Up the Pace
Photo by Donald M. Jones
When you suddenly begin to see more bucks cruising about in the daytime, you know that a shift in decoying strategy is in order. During this time, it’s not uncommon to spot mature bucks cruising popular doe hangouts and younger bucks harassing slickheads that are not quite ready. A few of the older does might even be hitting their estrous cycle, and things are on the brink of cutting loose.
Setting up a buck decoy with an aggressive posture (laid-back ears) on the edges of open feeding areas and along major doe travel routes can generate some serious action. Pull double draglines–one with estrous doe urine and the other with buck scent–around the decoy. In order to increase the effective range of the scent, hang several cotton-style wicks with mature buck urine in a complete circle around your stand or ground blind. Calling strategies should include irritated grunts, snort-wheezes, and aggressive rattling.
It’s Prime Time
Photo by Donald M. Jones
During the chasing and breeding phase of the rut, a lot of the smaller bucks seem to disappear from the scene. At this point, rub and scrape lines will go cold. This is when you see the big boys on the prowl, chasing, pushing, and breeding receptive does. The best decoy sites are on or near field edges, food plots, doe bedding areas, and travel corridors that connect these prime locations.
At this stage of the game, a buck and receptive doe decoy pair is hard to beat. Hanging scent wicks with dominant buck and estrous doe urine around the decoys and along the ground will usually get the job done. Calling sequences should include a mixture of excited buck grunts and estrous doe bleats, which will completely unravel any mature shooter that calls your hunting area home.
Without question, adding a decoy to your hunting arsenal will ultimately change the way you hunt during the rut. However, combining custom-matched calling and scent-application strategies with your decoy setups can make you virtually unstoppable in the deer woods. Launch a full-force attack on all three of a buck’s primary senses, and he’ll never know what hit him.