Does rattling work only during the peak rut? Can your rattling be too loud? Too soft? Stop here for a crash course in this deadly, but wildly misunderstood deer hunting tactic.
There’s no doubt that at the right time and place, a rattling system can work wonders to draw inquisitive or territorial bucks to your stand site. Of course, rattling is by no means a modern advancement in hunting technique, as the original antler rattlers were First Nation hunters, and long before European settlers colonized North America. What has changed since then about rattling for deer? Well, for one, modern-day hunters. We like to make every excuse in the book about our lack of success. And when it comes to rattling, I’ve about heard it all: The rattling was too loud, too frequent; rattling makes it easy for local does and fawns to bust you, and rattling works only during the very peak of the rut.
To be sure, rattling doesn’t work each and every time you tickle the tines or bash those beams together. But experience has shown it works often enough that I’ll keep it in my arsenal of tools, when it’s time to locate and ambush mature whitetails most anywhere in North America. That said, here are some of my all-time favorite rattling myths and misconceptions: Rattling Myth No. 1: It works only in Texas where there are LOTS of deer. I rattled-in my first buck in northern Alberta when it was -30° F. It was a far cry from a deer hunting experience in south Texas, but it worked. Of course, the higher the density of local deer, the better rattling works, as there are more deer to create competition. I’ve found that if you maintain the attitude, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how often rattling works anywhere white-tailed deer live.
Rattling Myth No. 2: You’re rattling too loud or too softly. I’ve watched deer playfully sparring back and forth, as their antlers tickled together to make audible sounds, but you’d never call it a fight. And maybe not surprisingly, even those soft sounds lured-in other bucks, presumably to see who was pushing, playing, or sizing up the competition. I’ve also seen full-blown fights where bucks fought till one of the opponents died. Not only did the fight sound intimidating, it was. Other deer ran back and forth through the same field in a frenzy of activity. The large 5×5 buck in the heat of battle took a full-on assault from the side, and antler puncture wounds into his vitals stole his life. Is there such a thing as too loud, or too soft? I don’t think so. Rattling often boils down to the intensity of the encounter, and the light “tickles” can sometimes generate as much interest from other deer as an all-out battle to the death. Rattling Myth No. 3: Responding bucks approach only from downwind. I set up in some Texas mesquite and rattled intently for an hour. I had at least five different bucks come to investigate, and all came from different directions. Of course, the ones that approached from downwind eventually smelled me and took off like any whitetail would, but the encounter taught me to keep my senses on high alert, as deer could (and do) approach rattling sounds from anywhere. But it’s also smart to play the odds. Setting up where you have an open stretch of country downwind can be very beneficial for spotting incoming deer before they can smell you. Rattling Myth No. 4: Bucks that have been rattled in won’t ever respond again. I was invited to Texas to hunt an old white-tailed buck a friend had been watching for years. He was an old, Brahma-nosed stud that had to be one of the oldest deer in the herd. As luck would have it, we rattled the buck in on our first sequence of the first day and never got an opportunity for a shot. We worked the area for the next five days, and on the final evening of my hunt, the old floppy-eared buck again showed up. He raced from the tangle of shrubs he lived in and stood with his head high, checking for any neighbors participating in a Fight Club. It was all the proof I needed to confirm that you can rattle in even the wisest old buck more than once. Rattling Myth No. 5: You must sit still when rattling. Deer have exceptional eyesight, so being relatively still when rattling will certainly help your chances of remaining undetected. After all, the noise you are making will draw bucks directly to your exact location. However, I have never seen a deer fight, or even playful pushing, where you didn’t hear hooves pounding the ground and vegetation rustling and sticks breaking. Making additonal noises while rattling can help make your entire setup sound more natural. A hunt with Steve Ray, the inventor of Rattling Forks (see him in action above), taught me a few tricks. Ray always carried an empty, plastic water bottle that he left the cap on. When rattling he simultaneously twisted or rubbed the bottle against a solid surface, producing loud crinkles, crunches, and cracks. Ray doesn’t have three hands; he often dropped the bottle on the ground while rattling and worked it with his foot. The extra noise is significant, and sounds like a real battleground. Rattling Myth No. 6: It works only on small bucks. If you think rattling will work only on small bucks, you haven’t spent enough time at it, or you hunt in an area with few mature bucks. All sizes and age classes of bucks will respond to clashing antlers. It is part of their communication with each other, and is used to set the pecking order of any herd. A fight means someone is either trying to challenge the pecking order or find out where they belong. I’ve rattled in little spikes to old, mature warlords of the whitetail woods. Rattling Myth No. 7: You can rattle too much and too long. I used to think you had to rattle, take a break, then rattle some more. What I’ve found out by hunting with experts like Steve Ray and Larry Weishuhn, is that your rattling sequence doesn’t need any breaks. In fact, I’ve seen deer coming to clanking antlers, only to stop when the noise of the scuffle ended. Rattling continually, for 30, 45, or even 60 minutes can prove productive. You just don’t know precisely when a buck will wander into earshot of your rattling, or eventually get annoyed, feel intrigued, or suddenly just want to fight. And, just because one buck shows up doesn’t mean you should quit. A good long rattling sequence can often generate multiple buck sightings, so my advice is try several different approaches but don’t limit yourself. Rattling Myth No. 8: Does and fawns will bust you. I’ve heard other hunters tell me that if does and fawns come to your antler sounds, they will spook all other deer away. I will admit that an old, nanny doe can blow and snort when she sorts out a hunter from the real McCoy, but it hasn’t hampered my efforts to bring in other deer during a rattling sequence. Stay vigilant and let the natural deer noises help attract more bucks to your location.
Rattling Myth No. 9: Rattling only works during the peak of the rut. This theory is an absolute myth. In fact, I’ve found you get more responses during the pre-rut when the bucks are developing their pecking order and starting to lay down scrapes. Post-rut bucks are on the hunt for any remaining does that haven’t been bred, and competition can be fierce. Rattling works from early fall right into winter, so don’t be afraid to carry your rattling system anytime you plan to hunt. Rattling Myth No. 10: Only real antlers will consistently draw bucks in. Another foolhardy myth. Heavy, hardened natural antler beams do resonate great sound, but there are a multitude of materials, and incredibly effective modern rattling systems that in no way shape or form resemble natural antlers, yet produce incredibly realistic sounding fights and antler clashing. And if you haven’t tried them, you’re missing out.
Rock, Rattle & Roll On… Don’t believe all the horror stories you hear about rattling for deer. The best way to find out what really works is to experiment when you are in the deer woods. Rattling is a natural sound, and if your efforts don’t immediately draw a big buck to your location, don’t think you’re sending all of them to the next county. There are lots of myths about rattling, and hunting in general, but dispelling them is the best way to advance your deer-hunting game. When you’ve truly mastered the technique, rattling can one of the deadliest tools in your deer-hunting tacklebox.