Whitetail deer are elusive creatures, and getting within shooting range of one isn’t nearly as easy as the Outdoor Channel often makes it look. Deer calls are one tactic hunters can use to swing the odds in their favor.
Even when used properly, deer calls don’t always evoke the dramatic and instantaneous responses you get when calling ducks or turkeys. Deer aren’t nearly as vocal as the feathered critters we love to hunt. However, they are a lot more talkative than most hunters realize. Learning to speak the whitetail language could be just the edge you need to fill your tags this season.
Grunt Tube Deer Calls
The grunt is one of the most common whitetail vocalizations, so it’s no surprise that the grunt tube is probably the most popular deer call on the market.
A grunt call uses one or two reeds and attaches to a flexible acrylic barrel. One of the most versatile and popular deer calls available to deer hunters, grunt tubes are designed to mimic the throaty groans of a deer’s vocabulary.
Both bucks and does grunt, but a doe’s will typically have a higher pitch than her male counterparts.
Must hunters use grunt calls to imitate buck vocalizations associated with tending to and breeding does. However, whitetails use social grunts year-round.
“They vocalize with each other all times of the year, but during the rut, there’s so much anxiety around those first does coming in heat. Does and fawns will grunt or bleat to talk to one another, but when those bucks are really cruising, they will grunt with more internal excitement. They’ll use a grunt to get the attention of other bucks in the area.” explained Michael Waddell, host of the outdoor show Bone Collector.
Doe bleats are high-pitched vibrating vocalizations similar to a goat’s “mah” sound. The tone is a social call does often use with their fawns and other does. Mama does often bleat softly to their fawns to touch base and let them know where she is. It’s a call of contentment and can provide a sense of comfort to other deer.
“As the season begins, sometimes the deer aren’t very responsive, but they’re curious. I like to use a bleat just every once in a while. Just letting deer that you can’t see but are close to you know that there’s a deer over there,” said Will Primos, one of the founding fathers of commercial game calls and the host of Primos Truth About Hunting.
When a doe is in heat, her bleats become louder, more drawn out, and more desperate. The estrus bleat is the whitetail equivalent of a late-night drunk dial. When bucks hear this call during the rut, they come in hot and looking for love. Hunters are most familiar with doe-in-estrus calls and often pair them with a grunt tube.
The most common type of bleat call is the can call. Primos invented The Can doe bleat call, although the company’s design is often imitated. This relatively foolproof call is a plastic, ventilated can with a puck inside.
To call, you simply place your finger over the hole and flip the whole can over. As the puck slides down the inside of the can, it makes a remarkably convincing doe bleat.
Cans aren’t the only doe calls on the market. Many grunt tubes, like the True Talker OG Deer Call from Hunters Specialties, can be adjusted to mimic doe and fawn bleats.
Several reed calls are also designed to mimic doe and fawn bleats, like the Doe Bleat from Bone Collector Game Calls.
While rattling isn’t a deer vocalization, it still sends a clear message to bucks in the area. Rattling replicates the sound of two bucks clanging their antlers together as they fight.
Before the rut, bucks will usually do some light sparring, nothing too severe. Light sparring is a way for bucks to size each other up and forms a pecking order before the breeding season kicks into high gear.
Once the does are in estrus and the rut gets into full swing, the wrangling gets more serious.
Rattling can be a powerful tool during the rut. Like teenage boys in high school, bucks will rush in to watch two guys duke it out. Sometimes they just want to enjoy the show. Other times, a buck may charge in to make a move on the ladies while the other dudes are otherwise occupied.
Hunters can use real sheds, synthetic antlers, or rattling bags to simulate the sound of brawling bucks.
Real antlers have the most realistic tone and timbre, either off a tagged buck or fresh sheds. While real antlers sound perfect when smacked together in a treestand, getting them there isn’t easy. They are bulky, take up a ton of space in a daypack, and can accidentally clank together when walking to your deer stand. They can also pose a poking hazard when climbing a tree, and being impaled by a set of rattling antlers isn’t the way you want to go out.
A rattling bag is a pouch stuffed with several pieces of fake antlers. To call in bucks, roll the bag between your palms or give it a one-handed massage. Varying the rhythm and the sound makes a good simulation of two light-sparring bucks.
Most rattling bags fit right in the pocket of your camo pants, so they are super convenient. The one major drawback is that few rattling bags come close to replicating the deep, reverberating clash of two hefty and aggressive bucks dueling for the affections of a hot doe.
Deer Calls: The Snort-Wheeze
The snort-wheeze is a dominance challenge unique to rutting bucks. Mature bucks use the sound to intimidate smaller, subordinate bucks in an effort to keep all the does for themselves.
When you hear the two short sniff-like vocalizations followed by a more extended sneeze-like sound of the snort-wheeze, you know there’s a bruiser cruising the woods nearby.
If you haven’t heard this gasping call, here’s a video one lucky hunter managed to catch on his trail camera. (If you’re impatient, jump to the 56-second mark.)
The snort-wheeze is a challenge call. Smaller bucks usually cower, so reserve the snort-wheeze for the big boys.
With some practice, you can do a decent imitation of this call with your voice. (It doesn’t have to be perfect.) If you’re shy, several companies make snort-wheeze calls, like the Intimidator from Woodhaven Custom Calls.
If you watch a deer feed its way across a beanfield, you’ll see its ears constantly moving. Although hunters have developed methods for tricking whitetail noses (scent eliminators and cover scents) and eyeballs (high-tech camo), fooling a deer’s keen auditory sensors is impossible.
A deer’s ears are about 10 times larger than human ears. Like rotating satellite dishes, whitetail ears attach to a complex network of muscles that can rotate those ears 180 degrees without moving the head. Those keen ears constantly funnel sound in the ear canal from all directions.
Deer are constantly listening to the world around them and can swivel their generous and agile auditory receptors in a fraction of a second to hone in on the noise source.
Hunters who use deer calls often have a love-hate relationship with whitetail ears. On the one hand, their sharp listening skills mean a whitetail can hear even a soft call from far away. The downside is that a deer can also pinpoint the source of a sound with scary accuracy.
When a deer comes in on a call, he’s looking for the deer that made it. Those eyeballs will stare straight into your camo-clad soul, trying to figure out why you aren’t a deer.
Primos suggests using a natural cover to help hide your position when you’re calling.
“I try to climb a tree that’s got some type of obstruction around it, like a tree top, a canebrake, a creek down below, anything that makes the deer hunt you,” Primos said.