Rattling 101 - Part I

I caught movement out of the left corner of my eye just as I pulled the shed antlers apart from each other. I slowly turned for a better look, but whatever it was that had made the movement was no longer visible. I sat motionless, intently staring toward where I had seen the movement. With nothing in sight, I softly blew the grunt tube around my neck. At the sound of the grunt the buck finally made himself visible by jerking his head up in attention.

The buck, a mature nine point with tall tines and exceptionally heavy main beams, began trotting in my direction. He quickly moved to within 30 yards and then stopped and looked to his left. I looked that direction as well and noticed a second buck also responding to my earlier rattling segment. This buck, an eight point that appeared to be middle-aged, froze in his tracks when he noticed the first buck.

The two bucks then began sidestepping toward each other with hair on end to magnify their size. When neither buck backed down from this initial encounter, each buck laid his ears back. The bucks continued to side step in half circles in front of each other, each with head lowered and antlers extended. The larger buck finally called the smaller buck's bluff and charged toward him. The smaller buck stood his ground for a few seconds as the two bucks locked antlers. Quickly though, the larger buck proved his dominance and the smaller buck broke free running back toward the direction where he was first sighted.

As if this was not enough excitement, a total of five additional bucks responded to my next two rattling segments over the next 20 minutes. At one point there were three bucks within 25 yards of my makeshift blind under a mesquite tree. One of these bucks walked by at an eye-opening distance of only five yards!

Although two of the bucks were undoubtedly mature and were well within even bow range, I was not hunting. Instead, I was conducting preliminary research toward a doctorate degree at The University of Georgia.

The core of my research involved an intensive three-year telemetry study on movement patterns and behavior of different-aged bucks. In addition to this research, I initiated a second study on antler rattling. I was especially interested in the rattling research because bucks that respond to rattling offer a unique view to their breeding behavior. Of course, I was also interested in the rattling research because I love to hunt whitetails.

My first question was “what type of rattling sequence attracts the highest number of bucks?” Because no research had ever been conducted on antler rattling, I relied on rattling articles I had read in magazines to develop four different rattling sequences. Volume and length of the rattling were varied between each of the four sequences.

I conducted the rattling research at the Rob and Bessie Welder Wildlife Foundation Refuge, north of Sinton, Texas. This refuge was chosen as the study area for several reasons. The deer herd is relatively high, the buck to doe ratio is fairly even, and the age structure in the buck segment of the herd is well balanced. In addition, because the study site was a refuge, none of the bucks had been previously exposed to antler rattling. Also, 17 30-foot tall observation towers are located throughout the refuge. These towers offered ideal stands for observing and videotaping bucks as they responded to our rattling.

The four rattling sequences were randomly tested during the pre-rut, rut peak, and post-rut over a three-year period. Each sequence began with a 10-minute segment that included one or three minutes of actual rattling followed by nine or seven minutes of silence. This was then repeated two more times over the next 20 minutes.

The four sequences were called “short and quiet” (SQ), “short and loud” (SL), “long and quiet” (LQ), and “long and loud” (LL). Both short sequences included three 10-minute segments with each containing one minute of rattling followed by nine minutes of silence (total of three minutes of rattling over the 30-minute period). Both long sequences also included three 10-minute segments, but each segment now included three minutes of rattling followed by seven minutes of silence (nine minutes of rattling over the 30-minute period).

During the two "quiet" sequences, both elbows were held against the body to avoid loud antler clashes. During both "loud" sequences, the antlers were clashed together as loudly as possible. We also broke nearby branches, rubbed bark, and scrapped the ground trying to make as much "natural" noise as possible.

Each rattling sequence was tested at one of the 17 observation stands and included two people. One person watched deer respond to the rattling from the top of the stand, recorded data, and videotaped each buck with a camcorder. The second person performed the rattling upwind of the stand in the nearest clump of brush. Both people were completely camouflaged and remained as quiet and still as possible when not rattling.

Whenever a buck responded to the rattling, we estimated its age and gross Boone and Crockett Club score “on-the-hoof.” The interns and I watched videos of known-age bucks to prepare us for estimating ages and scores. Because each buck response was also videotaped, we were able to review the video of each buck during the evenings to arrive at a consensus of the buck’s age and gross B&C score. We also recorded the time and direction from the stand where each buck was first sighted. Lastly, at each stand we estimated wind speed and direction, temperature, and the amount of cloud cover.

By the conclusion of the study, we had rattled 171 different times with 60 sequences performed during pre-rut, 60 during rut peak, and 51 during post-rut. The periods of the rut were determined based on necropsy records of over 900 does killed on the refuge. A total of 111 bucks responded to our rattling.

The two loud sequences (SL & LL) were performed 85 times and attracted 81 bucks, nearly three times as many bucks as the two quiet sequences (SQ & LQ), which were performed 86 times and attracted only 30 bucks. The response rates were 95 percent for the loud sequences and 35 percent for the quiet sequences.

As the volume of the rattling is increased, the number of bucks that respond also increases. Obviously, more bucks were able to hear the louder rattling because the sound carried further. However, bucks also responded quicker and more aggressively to the loud sequences. On several different occasions we had bucks run to within a few yards of the person rattling.

There was no difference between the response rates of the four sequences when they were combined according to the length of the rattling. The short sequences (SQ & SL) attracted an equal ratio of bucks when compared to the long sequences (LQ & LL). The short sequences were performed 88 times and attracted 57 bucks. The long sequences were performed 83 times and attracted 54 bucks.

However, when the data were grouped according to the timing of the rut there were some differences based on rattling length. During the pre-rut, the LL sequence attracted the highest ratio of bucks. During the rut peak, the SL sequence attracted the highest ratio of bucks. And during post-rut, the LQ sequence attracted the highest ratio of bucks.

The majority of bucks responded to the rattling during the first 10-minute segment with the lowest response rates during the third segment. However, the differences between response rates by segment were not great. Forty-nine bucks (44 percent) responded during the first segment, 37 bucks (34 percent) responded during the second segment, and 25 bucks (22 percent) did not respond until the third segment. Therefore, from a hunting standpoint it is important to remain in the same rattling location for at least 30 minutes if you are interested in seeing a majority of the bucks that will respond to the rattling.

When I grouped the responses based on the timing of the rut, I found that the majority of bucks responded during the rut peak. Lowest response rates occurred during pre-rut. During the rut peak, 65 bucks responded to 60 different sequences for a response rate of 108 percent. During post-rut, 28 bucks responded to 51 sequences for a response rate of 55 percent. And during pre-rut, only 18 bucks responded to 60 sequences for a response rate of 30 percent.
Next week I will tell you when and how to do your best rattling to bring in the big bucks.

Photo By Hardy Jackson

Posted by Dr. Mickey W. Hellickson

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