Common Sense For Rattling Hill Country Whitetails
September 21, 2016
Editorial Staff (286 articles)
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Common Sense For Rattling Hill Country Whitetails

By Gary Roberson

When I moved to the Hill Country in 1985, there were very few hunters rattling for whitetails. Most thought rattling was a calling technique that worked only in South Texas. What I found was, not only do Hill Country whitetails respond to rattling, they will do so over a longer period of time.

Years ago, Jerry Johnston and Jenny Crowder will remember Noel Feather was a regular at many of TTHA’s Hunters Extravaganzas. Noel’s claim to fame was he had rattled up and taken several monster whitetails while hunting in the upper Midwest. I remember sitting through his seminars where he would demonstrate just exactly how you must rattle the antlers and for how long or you simply were not going to be successful at luring that monster buck. I did not and do not agree.

First, there is no magic or specific routine you must perform in order to be successful. I can remember my Great Uncle Howard Roberson who lived at Dilley demonstrating to me how he rattled while clicking a 4-inch 2×4 block on the stock of his Winchester Model 94. Today, I know the sounds he produced would be more than adequate to trick an aggressive whitetail buck.

Key ingredient

The key ingredient to successful horn rattling is to call where bucks are competitive. This means the buck to doe ratio must be close enough to make the bucks compete for the does as they go into estrus. In the Hill Country, I have good success on ranches where the buck to doe ratio is three does to every buck or less.

In South Texas, where the deer populations are lower and nutrition from browse is generally better, the rut is generally more defined and takes place over a much shorter period of time. This is not the case in the Hill Country where I have witnessed bucks breeding does in late October and observed rutting activity in late January on the same ranch. This extended rut creates a situation where there will be more bucks available to breed a doe when she does cycle. For this reason, bucks in the Hill Country will respond to rattling over a longer period of time.

First response

In 1989, I decided to begin rattling most every morning beginning October 1 on a ranch north of Menard to find when I would get my first response. To my surprise, I had two yearling bucks come to me on October 3. They were not aggressive in their response—more of a curiosity thing. I rattled off and on that fall and into the winter calling bucks on every day that I hunted. I rattled up the last buck on January 29, and he had already shed one of his antlers.

As in calling any animal, much of your success will be determined by where you sit your butt down. One, you must be in earshot of a buck and your setup should be such that you take advantage of the wind, sun, and terrain. I prefer to scout an area, locating active scrape lines or an abundance of large rubs. Hill Country bucks prefer shin oak saplings or trees to rub their antlers, with cedar and mesquite being a second choice.

Use terrain to your advantage

I like to rattle in a semi-open area, if possible. Many times, mature bucks are hesitant to leave heavier cover to investigate and are more comfortable if there is scattered cover. I prefer to have an opening just downwind of my stand, as a buck can respond from any direction, but will almost always try to gain wind advantage. Use a bush or tree to “break up” your outline and rattle from the shade, if possible. When the sun is at a low angle, keep it at your back.

Make the right sound

Notice I did not make this the most important aspect of horn rattling. There are many gimmicks on the market from rattling bags to plugged piece of PVC pipe with rocks or marbles in it that you shake. While there have been reports of deer responding to these unusual tools, I do not recommend them. I prefer a set of real antlers or synthetic ones.

Unfortunately, not all antlers make good rattlin’ horns. My favorite antlers are of average weight and most importantly they mesh well without hanging up. If the antlers don’t mesh properly, you will struggle while trying to make the louder sounds that may be necessary to reach a distant buck. It’s important the antlers are not too dry, as they will produce a dead sound. I prefer antlers that produce the clear, crisp sounds and more importantly, so do the bucks.

Do I rattle with gloves? Never. Gloves “deaden” the sound I want to produce by absorbing much of the sharper, crisper notes. Gloves also reduce volume, and volume is important when there’s a strong breeze.

Use a cover scent

While I don’t believe there is any way to totally mask all human odor, I have found an effective cover scent in the Hill Country is cedar oil. If you’re not allergic to cedar, you can apply to your hunting clothes, as it’s not offensive.

If someone kills a buck that has the really dark metatarsal glands, I will remove them and put them in a plastic bag. When I set up to rattle, I will hang them in bushes just downwind of where I am sitting. In this fashion, when a buck responds to what he thinks are bucks fighting, he will smell a buck.

Gary and Clint Roberson

Gary and Clint Roberson

Be the decoy

A trick that Murry Burnham showed me years ago is one I use on most every buck I want to study or keep around for video. To this point you have attracted a deer because you tricked his ears and nose. In order to totally convince him that you are the real deal, you must trick his eyes.

Show the deer an antler. While sitting on the ground, I will raise one of the antlers above the cover and rock it back and forth to make sure that he sees the horn. Many times the buck will move closer when he sees the antler and at least, he is now totally confused.

Be aggressive

I have found the more aggressive I call, the more aggressive an animal will respond. If an old buck is coming hard and fast, he will make more mistakes and this is to my advantage. If he is sneaking in and cautious, he will be more difficult to kill or photograph.

One exception to the rule of aggressive rattling is in the pre-rut period. Bucks will respond to rattling much earlier than most people think; however, you must change your rattling style to be successful. Try to imitate two bucks that are “mock fighting” or “sparring”, use less volume and do not rattle as often. The bucks that will respond will do so with very little aggression, primarily out of curiosity.

Mimic a battle as closely as possible

Don’t bang the horns together as if you are clapping. Engage the antlers and do more twisting. I feel this twisting of the antlers more closely imitates the sounds of two bucks locked in combat. I keep the clanging, twisting sound going until my wrists and hands grow tired, then rest and go again.

Use a grunt call

I rarely, if ever use a grunt call by itself because of the terrain I prefer to call. If you use a grunt call correctly, your effective range is about 100 yards and I can usually see that far. Use the call when the deer “hangs up” in cover or is just out of range of the weapon or camera. Two or three short grunts followed by a period of silence is generally all that’s necessary to move the deer.

Concentrate calling efforts early and late

I seem to have the greatest success at daybreak when deer are most active. When it is cold and overcast, rattle all day. Start on the downwind side of a pasture and work into the wind, calling every quarter mile, depending on the wind and terrain.

Use real antlers, if possible

In my opinion, there’s nothing more realistic sounding than the real thing. I use antlers off a buck I killed many years ago. They are not very large but generate very good volume. When preparing horns for rattling, DO NOT tip all of the points. Simply remove the brow tines and then engage the antlers into each other and find what tip needs to be removed to keep them from “hanging up.” Leave as much antler as possible as the tine length is what produces the volume and sound quality.

Care for your antlers

As you know, antlers dry over time and when they do, will no longer produce a quality sound, they simply die. Always store your rattlin’ horns indoors. I don’t even allow mine to ride in the back of the pickup. In the offseason, treat your antlers so they don’t dry out. Years ago, I was told to use linseed oil, cooking oil, and several other products that might help preserve the antlers but smelled terribly offensive to me and more so to the deer.

The only thing that I have found that will preserve your antlers without an offensive odor is to use the tallow from a deer. I remove the fat from a deer carcass, especially the back or rump area as well as any gobs of fat inside the body cavity. I put it in a frying pan and melt it down, pouring the liquid into a container that I can put a lid on. When it cools, it will look like hog lard. I store it in the freezer or refrigerator and apply it to my antlers at the end of every season.

Final advice

Deer are like people, each one is an individual and everyone responds in a different fashion. One will come charging in like a mad bull and the next will sneak in. For this reason, I recommend you stay almost 30 minutes on a stand. Rattling is not a “cure all,” but can be a very effective and exciting tool to add to your hunting arsenal. After all, a hunt where you are calling beats sitting in a deer blind and watching a feeder and is way more exciting.

photos by Michael Englemyer

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