The Origin Story of How Deer Hunters Learned to Rattle in Bucks

This story, “Why Not Try to Rattle Up a Buck?” originally ran in the May 1951 issue of Outdoor Life. While most readers are plenty familiar with the tactics described here, the article is a time capsule from an era when rattling was unheard of among most of the country’s deer hunters. Until, that is, OL shared the regional technique with our national audience.

THROUGHOUT a vast empire of cactus and-mesquite country in the Southwest—an area about the size of New England with New York and Pennsylvania thrown in to balance off a few south-Texas counties—the man who goes into the woods for deer usually carries a set of antlers slung over his shoulder or stuck in his belt. 

Maybe they’re ancient-antlers with a history that goes way back. Old-timers in that border country have been known to mention their deer antlers in their wills, along with a good rifle, a faithful bird dog, and maybe 100,000 acres of grazing land. Such ancient antlers give off a sharp, dry click when you smack them together.

Or the antlers may be fresh—green, as hunters say—or old ones soaked in water overnight to soften them. You see, hunters who carry antlers into the brush have a lot of different ideas about the kind of antlers they ought to have.

Furthermore, to these Texans they aren’t even antlers. They’re horns. But they’ll have them, and in the mesquite-and-cactus country they’ll use them to “rattle up” bucks. First, one of these hunters will take a stand at the edge of some opening, either hunkering down at the base of a big mesquite or sitting among its branches. Then he’ll grasp an antler in each hand, with the prongs facing each other, slap them together, twist them, and snap them apart. In a few minutes—or half an hour, depending on the hunter’s notions—he’ll rattle the horns again. 

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In that country, lovesick bucks answer the music of the horns, and the manner in which they respond ranges all the way from timid inquiry to belligerent intrusion. The reason they answer is simple: They get the idea that two other bucks are fighting and they become excited over what the bucks are presumably fighting for a soft-eyed little doe.

Now, if the lone buck is young and small, he may ease along the brush line, peering cautiously ahead, with the aim of stealing away the doe without getting in on the fighting. If he is a lordly old fellow with his neck swelled up to full fighting size, and a rack of antlers with which to do battle, he may barge in ready to fight anything he sees—deer, dog, or man. 

At one time or another, almost every hunter in south Texas and northeastern Mexico has tried his hand at rattling antlers for deer. Yet, if you move northward a couple of hundred miles into the Texas hill country, where cedars and oaks and rocks replace mesquite and cactus, you’ll search a long time before you find a hunter with a set of “rattling” antlers. The natives will tell you flatly that rattling just doesn’t work on hill country deer. But once in a while you’ll run into one who’ll say, “Rattling sure does work in the hills! I’ve brought in plenty of bucks that way!”

At this point you’re certain of just one thing—rattling has been successful in southern Texas for a long, long time. But if the method works there, why shouldn’t it work elsewhere? Has it really been given a fair trial in other sections ? 

I was curious enough to write to wildlife officials and experienced hunt ers in all our good deer states. Their replies boil down to this: A lot of people outside Texas have heard of deer rattling, but few have tried it. Which makes me wonder whether hunters in many sections may not be passing up a good bet. 

Big Attraction! Fight! 

John G. Sampson, of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, agrees with me that rattling seems a practical method of luring deer. He says: “I have moved in on bucks that were fighting and have jumped other bucks near them. Apparently these were spectators drawn in by the sound of clashing horns. They were standing around as though waiting to see how the battle would turn out.”

And some Montana hunters report they have had success in rattling up white-tail deer, but none with mule deer or black-tails. Elsewhere, though, rattling is practically an unknown art. 

Of course, in states where the deer season doesn’t coincide with the rut, you could rattle antlers till the cows came home and there wouldn’t be a buck among them. Or so I’m told. I’ve been given a lot of theory on this rattling business, but not enough good, solid facts. That’s why I think that if deer hunters in other sections would give the method a try we might get some startling results. 

Naturally, you’d have to do your rattling in a quiet section of deer country—if you can find a quiet section in open season. Bucks surrounded by the roar and rattle of musketry have only one instinct—to get the heck out of the path of danger.

Rattling’s an Old Trick 

All told, rattling can be one of the most fascinating forms of deer hunting. I know of nothing more gratifying than to see a big buck show up, with fire in his eyes, ready for battle. When you can outwit a deer like that you’ve earned your shot. 

It’s an old, old game. Here in Texas they say it was discovered by an old-time market hunter. He was coming to town one day, his wagon loaded with deer carcasses, when a buck came barging out of the mesquite. The hunter, so the story goes, added him to the load. 

A short time later, another buck pranced up—and was soon in the wagon. The puzzled hunter stopped to figure things out and discovered that two carcasses were lying so their antlers clashed as the wagon jounced along the rough country road. 

Being nobody’s fool, the hunter nailed a piece of hardwood to the side of the wagon and hung a set of antlers so they’d tap against it. That device lured in many a pugnacious deer. Other hunters heard about his success and started to rattle in deer. Naturally, they all tried to improve the method. And “improvements” have been added ever since. 

May 1951 magazine cover
The May 1951 cover featured a painting by John Newton Howitt. Outdoor Life

For example, Dr. J. Gordon Bryson is a veteran Texas deer hunter who uses what he calls the “full battle” technique. He works with tremendous energy and determination. He bangs the antlers together, beats them on the ground, scrapes and paws the grass, rattles near-by bushes—in short, puts on an act. And he says he can bring deer in anywhere, in the hill country, where he does most of his hunting, or anyplace else. 

“You’ve got to create a scene,” Dr. Bryson insists. “When two bucks fight, they don’t just tap horns, then loll around for half an hour. They plow into each other and paw the ground and bang into bushes and come down hard when they rear up. You’ve got to make all those noises. Why, one day I was doing my stuff and a big old buck came near to jumping on top of me. There wasn’t any doubt in his mind—he knew two bucks were fighting.” 

Yet you find equally successful hunters who sneak into the woods at dawn, hide among the branches of a tree, then do nothing more than gently tap the antlers at long intervals. 

Each hunter has his own technique. Most seem to work—at times. But is there any reason to believe rattling will work only in the mesquite-and-cactus belt? I put that question to Howard Dodgen, executive secretary, and Frank Cowsert, supervisor of wardens, of the Texas Game, Fish, and Oyster Commission. They are hunters experienced in both the mesquite country and hills. 

Their answer should interest hunters iri many sections, for they insist that white-tail bucks probably will answer the music of the horns anyplace if conditions are right. 

And here are the right conditions: First, the bucks must be in rut. Second, they must be in an area where there is somewhere near an even balance between bucks and does. Third, there must not be enough hunting to drive the bucks to cover and keep them there. 

If a buck has a number of does in his harem, they point out, he’s not likely to go dashing off to collect another one at the sound of battle. And that, they I say, explains the success of the rattling method in mesquite country and its poor record in the hills. In the mesquite areas, poaching has been general until recently; plenty of does and fawns have been killed off, so the ratio of bucks to does is about fifty-fifty. In the hills, where ranchmen rigidly protect their deer and lease their property to hunters, the ratio of does to bucks may run as high as ten to one and is seldom less than five to one.

When you get an explanation as logical and reasonable as that, it seems pointless to go further. But every man is entitled to his say, so I went to a hunter who has killed more than 300 deer. He is Capt. W.M. Molesworth, an 84-year-old Texan who has spent most of his life in deer country and much of his time hunting. 

Will It Work in the Hills? 

“I don’t go along with that doe theory,” he told me. “I lived for thirty years on a 10,000-acre ranch in the hill country. It was covered with cedar and oak and cut up with canyons. I tried time and again to rattle up a buck on that ranch. I rattled up just one. And he came trotting in when I tapped my pipe on my gunstock. 

“Now, there were as many bucks on that ranch as there were does. We didn’t have any game laws then and when I wanted venison for the house I usually took a doe or a fawn. Better meat. There were plenty of bucks.” 

“Did you ever try pipe tapping again?” I asked. 

“Lots of times, but it never worked again. And in those days I used to go down to the Rio Grande country once or twice a year and get one of those big bucks. Always rattled him up. In fact, when a man slapped the horns together he had to be careful he didn’t get run over. A big buck would come in all bristled up, and sometimes he’d keep right on coming, even after you hit him once or twice.”

Last season I hunted in the hills with Jim Roddie, a guide who has spent much of his life in deer country—both in the hills and in the mesquite. Roddie says he has yet to rattle up a buck in the hills, even though he has tried it many times. Yet he has no trouble bringing one to the antlers in the mesquite country. 

“I pick out a fine stand in the hills,” he says. “I pick a place on my own ranch where there are plenty of bucks and the deer aren’t disturbed much. I hunt up some scrapes—places where deer have been peeling bark off saplings as they toughen up their necks getting ready to fight. When a buck does that, he paws the ground and leaves his love scent. An old buck will sort of stake a claim, scraping three or four places. He checks his scrapes from time to time. If some other buck comes in and leaves his scent, then, brother, get ready for a fight. 

“Well, I’ve taken a stand at places like that—places where I knew there were bucks in rut. Never once got a rise.” 

Dr. Bryson, who was with us on the hunt, said he had called up dozens of bucks in the hill country by rattling antlers and swore he would do it again the next day. 

He didn’t get a buck, and Jim Roddie did. But you can’t generalize from that, just as you can’t from the fact that a few seasons ago a companion and I had no trouble rattling up bucks in a pasture in the mesquite country where there were at least five does to every buck. I counted seventeen does one morning, and it was obvious from the tracks—and from what the ranch owner told us—that there was a great preponderance of does. According to the Dodgen-Cowsert theory, those bucks shouldn’t have answered the horns. 

They did. There wasn’t a bit of doubt about it. My companion and I were walking along a lane, stopping now and then where the cactus and mesquite were thickest to send out a little horn music. About the third time we slapped the antlers together, up came a buck. He was young, with a small set of antlers, but he was fat and we weren’t after a trophy—we were after a buck. He came on the run and didn’t stop until he was about forty yards away. We stopped him there for good. 

You have a tough time reconciling logic and reason to the actions of deer, especially when their minds are on does. But it does seem that deer in some kinds of terrain respond to the antlers more readily than deer in other areas. And it seems equally true that white-tail bucks anywhere might be expected to move toward the sound of antlers under the conditions set forth by Dodgen and Cowsert: If the rutting season is on, if the buck isn’t already attached to two or three does, and if he isn’t frightened by the frequent booming of rifles and the clatter of hunters’ boots against rocks and bushes. 

A lot of ifs, you say. Well, the reward to the hunter who calls in a buck by rattling antlers is so novel and fascinating that even a mere chance of success is worth many long hours of squatting beside a tree trunk, banging the horns together now and then. 

It might work. Who can tell ? And if it does work in an area where “they won’t answer the antlers,” you’ll have something to talk about for a long time to come. Why not try it?

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