I HAVE ENJOYED outwitting whitetails by using their own language for almost as long as I can remember. It is the ultimate thrill.
As I have gotten older, I’ve learned a lot about deer communication. I’ve also learned to really cherish the opportunities I get to climb a tree and participate in this sport I have enjoyed for so many years — especially on mornings like the one I experienced on Oct. 27, 2010.
It was late October in Iowa, and I wanted to focus on sets where I knew there would be scrapes nearby. Cameraman Tim Young and I went to a place I call the Park Oak. It is a set where I shot a 153-inch buck three years ago, and it is usually near the epicenter of scraping activity.
We climbed into stand well before first light. As the sun crept up, I looked around to areas where I had seen scrapes in the past. Limbs that once hung low were broken and the ground was ripped up. The sight of the fresh scraping activity put a huge smile on my face.
Shortly after shooting light arrived, the first buck of the morning appeared. A 130-inch, 3½-year-old 8-point came in and worked a scrape at 30 yards. From that time until 8:30 a.m., not a single second passed when I could not see a buck somewhere around the set. The bucks seemed to be in the mood to loiter. They were working scrapes and checking does, but hung in the area all morning.
At 8 a.m., a new doe came flying through the draw just north of our stands. It ran right by a 2½-year-old. Instead of chasing it, the buck immediately turned and looked at the doe’s backtrail.
That 2½-year-old, stood there, staring into the woods for 20 minutes. I knew there had to be another buck there. Finally, the 2½-year-old sheepishly walked to the north. Its body posture was clearly fearful.
A few minutes later, I heard the distinct sound of antlers. I couldn’t tell if it was sparring or rubbing, but I knew it was close! Young heard it too. As he grabbed the camera, I pulled out the final prototype of the M.A.D. Hyper Growl call.
“I’m often asked which sounds I use most – my go-to sounds. The truth is it can depend greatly on the factors that control a deer’s mood. And, in may cases, my go-to calling sequence is a combination of sounds. The one constant is that those sounds must sound as realistic as possible.
Realism is what I strive for and that is why I am so excited about the new M.A.D. Hyper Growl. The call is made to mimic how a deer vocalizes using both its nasal and oral cavities, making it the most realistic sounding call I have ever used.
If you watch deer grunt, that animal might not necessarily have its mouth open. That means most of the sound is coming through its nasal cavity. The Hyper Growl is made to mimic this action. It is nasally, gutter and most importantly realistic. The design also makes it extremely easy to use. You can go from burping grunts right into a nice growl or you can breath with it like a buck scent checking a trail.”
I started calling intensely, hyper-growling, growling and snort wheezing for about a 15-second sequence.
As soon as I finished, I grabbed my bow and prepared for a possible shot (as I always do after calling).
Seconds later, and with the camera still running, I looked up to watch one of the largest white-tailed bucks I have ever seen headed toward us.
When calling works, it creates some of the most exciting encounters you can have in the deer woods. However, it’s important to go into calling with the right mindset. You must understand, right off the bat, that you are going to fail more than you succeed.
In fact, the older I get and the more I observe deer, the less I call to them. Yet I’m also more successful now than I’ve ever been when I do call.
The key is to understand the factors that influence when a buck is going to have an optimal response to calling. I have identified six factors that I weigh every time I call. Many of them are related, and they offer a road map for deciding when and how much to call. They are:
- The overall herd density — how many deer are on the property.
- The buck-to-doe ratio.
- The time of year you are hunting.
- The weather conditions leading up to and including when you are planning on calling.
- The mood of the deer at the time you are calling.
- The amount of hunting pressure on that deer herd.
In most cases, these six factors will dictate calling success or failure. I examine all of them, then base my calling choices off of experience.
Often, my decision to call is a gut response to these variables. Sometimes that gut feeling is easy to explain. For instance, if I’m in Wyoming during the first week of September, every buck is still in velvet and its 95 degrees out, you can bet I’m probably not going to call much. My call is staying in my pocket.
Contrast that with hunting in Iowa on Halloween morning just after a front went through. If I see a buck that is cruising and its posture indicates the buck is in a mood, you can probably bet that my Hyper Growl is coming out.
Obviously, these are completely different scenarios. Somewhere between this worst-case scenario and best-case scenario, there is success that can be found for any hunter.
MAKING A READ
Of the six factors that affect the chances a buck will respond to calling, the three most important are the weather that particular day, the time of year in relation to the rut, and the ratio of the herd.
White-tailed deer have moods just like humans do, but a deer’s moods are generally strongly related to weather conditions — not always, but generally. The right weather conditions will put more deer in a good mood to come to a call.
So, what are good weather conditions for calling? Basically, I’m looking for any weather event that will get deer up on their feet and moving.
A good way to identify the weather conditions that get deer moving is to observe your dog or cat for a week. After several days of watching your pet and the weather closely, I bet you will be able to identify the times that Labrador is most likely to go retrieve something or that cat is most likely to jump up and chase something that you throw across the room.
Just like deer, those pets go through periods of being tired and periods when they have lots of energy. People might say “Oh, Fluffy is frisky” or “Oh, Fido is in a good mood today.” Whitetails go through the same periods. And, just like your pet, their mood changes are often brought on by weather conditions.
To me, it has as much to do with the barometer and precipitation as anything.
Ideal conditions to call would be just after a front –— weak or strong — when the barometer is on the rise and it is actually rising at the exact time deer are supposed to be moving. In most cases, that would be the first few hours and last few hours of daylight.
That is often a difficult principle for people to grasp, but the weather front has to be timed when the deer are supposed to move. For example, a weather front that comes through at noon might not be as effective of a trigger as one that passes through at 3:30 or 4 p.m.
In the case of a rain event, if it has rained for three days and it stops at 10 a.m., it’s not nearly as influential as rain that stops at 4:30 p.m. or 7 a.m.
The best-case scenario is a barometer on the rise when deer should be moving. But, I also love when the barometer is bottoming out and is moving in a downward fashion rapidly during the time I expect deer to be moving.
A sliding barometer is great, but for me, the single best trigger is a long rain event that finally stops at the exact same time deer should be moving. That is, without question, the best trigger. When that happens, quit your job, leave your wife, do what you have to do to be on stand.
The trick is to watch the forecast and the radar, and then get on stand an hour before the precipitation is supposed to stop. You have to grin and bear it, because every single deer in the herd is going to be on their feet when the rain stops.
When this happens during the seeking phase of the rut — or during the immediate post rut — that is absolutely the peak time to really get out there and call. Plan on rattling, snort-wheezing, growling and grunting. When the weather and timing are right to put bucks in the right mood, it sometimes seems you can almost do no wrong.
Of course, the reverse is also true. When conditions are a deterrent to deer activity, calling doesn’t work well at all. The worst-case scenario is a prolonged period with stale air. This usually happens when high pressure moves in. The first day, those deer move their butts off. But if that pressure stays the same, and it doesn’t change, yuck. The deer are not going to move, and they’re not likely to respond to calling.
WHEN TIMING TRUMPS ALL
Weather plays an important role in calling success, but it is also just one factor. When the weather aligns with other factors, it can really get deer in a mood to respond to calling. However, during those most magical days — typically the first 10 days of November in the Midwest — it doesn’t matter what the weather is. Deer can be in the mood to respond to calling for other reasons beyond the weather trigger.
For me, the first 10 days of November and the last 10 days of November are the two best calendar periods to call deer. The first 10 precede the peak of estrus, and the last 10 follow the peak.
For younger bucks, the preparation leading up to peak rut is phenomenal. These bucks are surging with hormones, and they spend a lot of time on their feet searching for does that are almost ready to breed. These deer are in the mood to respond to calling, regardless of weather conditions.
The older age class of bucks is probably more vulnerable during the 10 days that follow the peak of the rut. My general observation is that the older the buck, the less likely it is to participate much in the seeking phase and pre rut during daylight hours. However, after the buck has had a taste of the breeding period, it’s much more likely to spend time on its feet looking for more. That is why older deer are more susceptible to calling during the post rut.
KNOW YOUR PROPERTY
While it is easy to watch the weather and look at a calendar, it’s also important to know your property. You must have an idea of how many deer you have and what the ratios are. You must also know how much pressure the deer are under.
For example, if you’re on public land in the U.P. of Michigan and your buck-to-doe ratio is 1 adult buck to 15 does, you’re not going to have the success that you would in South Texas on the King Ranch where the ratio is 1 to 1 and managed intensively for older bucks.
Most hunting places fall somewhere between those extremes, but it’s important to know where you stand.
Most states are doing a pretty good job of implementing more management practices to balance the herd ratio. And, certainly privately, most clubs and most private landowners are heading in that direction. This helps create competition between bucks and makes them more likely to respond to calling.
You can still call in deer on properties that are less than ideal, but if you’re on highly hunted public ground in Pennsylvania, it’s going to be different than a barely hunted private property in Iowa.
In areas with high pressure and fewer old bucks, you should call sparingly and rely on curiosity calls rather than extreme aggression. Also, be sure you are as vocally accurate to a real white-tail as possible.
I wouldn’t call very loud and I wouldn’t call very often. I would hit more of the breeding sounds, rather than fighting. Try light tending grunts and perhaps some doe bleats.
On a high-density, low-hunting-pressure property with lots of older bucks, I’m going to call a lot more aggressively.
SETUP IS KEY
The key is the setup. No matter where I call, I want a good barrier behind me. I have to have confidence that a buck is not going to get downwind. If that’s the case, I’m going to call a lot.
That confidence about my location is why I almost never call blind. If you are calling blind, you are inviting bad results. I typically only call if I see a deer in the distance and I see its body posture.
If I hear a deer crossing a creek or making a rub like the buck at the beginning of this story, I might test the waters. I’ll throw a call in its area one time to see if it’ll show itself. But it depends on if the buck is in an upwind situation. I never call to a deer if it’s not upwind of my position. If it’s to the side of my position or close to downwind, I’m just burning a chip, because if the buck is already close, it’s going further downwind. It’s not going to come running.
Hunters must understand that bucks aren’t swinging downwind because they suspect Hunter Joe is in the tree. They do it to see which deer in the herd is making those sounds. It is instinctual. Before they enter a fight, they want to test the waters. How angry is this other buck? How much estrus is in the air? How old is this animal? Do I recognize this scent? Is this Big Joe, who kicked my butt a week ago?
A buck circles downwind simply to assess the situation. But when the deer gets there and smells a hunter, that’s it. Chances are that deer is never coming to a call again. Just like humans, deer recall fear and fear occurrences more than anything else.
Young filmed as that buck came straight toward my calls, charging directly from where we had heard the rubbing.
The buck walked with a swagger, and made its way through a wide-open lane that brought it from 45 yards out, all the way to 25 yards.
Then the giant turned to give me a perfect broadside shot. No shot at a big whitetail is easy, and I must have been a little nervous. At the shot, I watched as the arrow struck a little farther back than I wanted.
I was certain my broadhead had struck the liver, so we carefully backed out, looked at the footage and decided to wait.
We found the buck the next day because we didn’t push it. At 1951/8, it is my largest whitetail to date. And I was able to kill the buck thanks to a well-planned calling sequence.
Mark Drury is co-owner of Drury Outdoors and the founder of M.A.D. Calls.
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