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Texas Sportsman
Scent and Sound Tactics for Rutting Bucks
Make the wrong noise or leave human scent in the woods, and you'll probably never see a nice buck. But during the rut nature gives you a great choice to use scent and sound to attract a trophy.

Spraying doe-in-heat or tarsal-gland scent on a mock scrape is a great tactic for taking trophy bucks. Photo by Mark Edwards

by Mark Edwards

The cool mid-autumn morning promised great deer hunting, but after I had been in my tree stand for several hours and not seen any whitetails, I left the stand and began to still-hunt. A half hour or so of slinking through the wood lot brought me to a creek bottom, where the recent rains had swollen the stream to twice its natural size. I then pulled a doe-in-heat call from my pocket and let out a few fetching sounds.

Almost immediately, I heard crashing sounds from across the stream; seconds later, a nice buck materialized directly across from me. The old boy was frantic to reach the "doe," but the depth and force of the water prevented him from crossing the stream - and the brush prevented me from getting a clear shot at him. Finally, after the buck had dashed back and forth for a minute or so along the bank, he melted back into the pine thicket from whence he had come.

That outing was perhaps the first one where I ever used a whitetail call, and the trip taught me several lessons about deer hunting. First, calls can be used to draw in deer; second, never try to make a buck go where he can't or doesn't want to venture. Here are some situations to avoid if you decide to employ calls this year, plus some calling strategies that can work for you. Also discussed are tactics for using scents - and some common mistakes made with these potions.

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If there is one statement about deer calling that needs to be made early, it is that the vast majority of times you call, no deer will respond. Likewise, some situations are absolutely hopeless for game calling, and we should all learn to recognize those times.

For example, some barriers make it highly unlikely that a whitetail will advance on your position. Besides the creek scenario mentioned earlier, another form of natural barrier can be a large expanse of open land. For example, if the deer typically meander into a field in one particular area, then that's where you should set up. This is true no matter if the trees aren't the best for a portable stand, the cover is not suitable, or if the locale is farther away from your vehicle than you'd like it to be. You may be able to lure a lovesick buck across a massive field or clearcut, but chances are much better that you won't. In short, do what expert turkey callers and duck hunters do: Make matters easy for your quarry to approach you by setting up in the right places.

A situation that is definitely not conducive to productive calling is when you have to share heavily hunted public or private land with other hunters. For instance, several years ago, I was afield on some private land with several other hunters. The land had a goodly number of deer using it, but the prime stand places were located in fairly close proximity. At dawn, I realized that another hunter had set up about a hundred yards from me in a large walnut tree. Every 15 minutes or so, the individual gave his rattle bag a good going over. And during the course of the day, the gent lured in three hunters . . . but no deer.

The lessonhere, of course, is that for best calling results, you will have to either hunt on lightly pressured private land or trek deep into the backcountry of public property. Otherwise, human scent or the humans themselves may spook the deer even if they wanted to venture in to your calls.

If there is one whitetail noisemaker that we all should master, then that device is the grunt tube. Many of the older tubes can simulate only one sound: the "standard" buck grunt. Others can be employed to mimic the sounds of tending grunts or even the grunts uttered by a young buck. The current trend, however, is for tubes to be able to mimic the entire spectrum of grunt-like sounds.

The standard grunt is merely a short, no more than one second, burst of sound. It is an excellent call to utter as your first one of the morning. Bucks commonly make this grunt to announce their arrival in an area, especially when they are trolling about for does. You cannot really go wrong making the standard grunt throughout the day, in any circumstance, during the rut.

For me, the most exciting type of grunt to hear in the woods is the tending variety. This grunt usually lasts a little less than a second, but it often occurs in a series of three, four, or more. Whenever you hear this sound, expect to see a doe followed by a buck. The female is likely in estrus, or about to enter, and the buck will be following close behind her. If that buck is a "shooter," now is the time to bear down on him. But if the buck is not exactly what you are looking for, strongly consider letting him walk: A much better buck may well be trailing behind the first one.

If that aforementioned buck is a lesser one, you also have another option - mimic the grunt of a young buck. Many grunt tubes on the market have adjustable O-rings, designed so that a variety of buck noises can be created. Young buck grunts should be made softer, shorter, and less "bass" than standard grunts. If an estrous doe has just passed through your area and you make the young buck grunt, you could be in an excellent position to harvest a broadbeam.

Perhaps the most misused kind of grunt is the aggressive one. This is a loud, domineering sound with an "edge" to it. The error that many hunters make when employing the aggressive grunt is that they simulate it too often. For example, at first light, a hunter belts out an aggressive grunt with the hope that a real granddaddy will hear it. But even the dominant buck in an area may not be so willing to tangle with another of his sex. He may approach cautiously, or from behind your position, or not at all.

The aggressive grunt is too much of an all-or-nothing sound to be made first in the morning or even early on in an outing. Save this call for later in the day or when you have gone through your entire repertoire of buck sounds.

When you do decide to make the aggressive grunt sound, consider coupling it with some rattling. Of course, rattling is often more effective before the rut actually begins. But since you are in a last resort mindset now, it usually won't hurt to mock some buck fighting sounds.

During the rut, I would certainly guess that the various grunt sounds are the ones most made and preferred by hunters. I confess, however, that my favorite sound to imitate at this time is an estrus does bleat. This sound typically lasts a second or a little more and is rather drawn out (a-a-a-a-ah). Repeat this sound four or five times in succession, and repeat the sequence every 15 to 30 minutes.

The doe-in-heat call is one that is very hard to go wrong with. This sound will obviously not intimidate a buck (as some grunt sounds will), and you have a chance to lure in any male in the area. In short, this sound is an excellent one to utter if you are interested in taking a "buck census" or killing a wallhanger.

Simple doe bleats are certainly another option at this time. Many hunters try to make this sound seem less intense than estrus doe calls and often don't string it into a series. You can mix in some plain bleats with estrus bleats to make it seem that more than one doe is in the area.

Before examining some scent strategies that can pay off, let's look at some that can backfire. Perhaps the biggest argument involving scent usage is when to use doe-in-heat potions. For example, some hunters claim that doe-in-heat products should not be employed early in the season because they are not natural then, which of course is true. However, other individuals counter that bucks are opportunistic maters and that they will not ignore an estrus doe then. These sportsmen maintain that the pre-rut period is the premier time to use a doe-in-heat product.

Other hunters insist that the rut period is the best time to lay down a doe-in-heat trail. This scent is natural then, these individuals reason, and is a real billboard for bucks. Of course, other hunters disagree, stating that during the rut, estrus doe scent is everywhere, and chances are slim that a buck will make his way to your scent station when so much of the real thing is present.

My honest-to-goodness opinion is that I don't know which of these various schools of thought to believe. I have used doe-in-heat concoctions at all stages of the rut, and I simply cannot come to any definitive conclusions. Thus, I prefer to concentrate on avoiding some of the more common errors that can be made in regard to scent usage.

First, make sure that the scent you lay down is absolutely fresh. I used to take doe-in-heat scent afield in the bottle that it was packaged in. But the liquid that was not used those first few outings quickly spoiled. A better solution is to sterilize film canisters and pour about 1/7 of the liquid from the commercial vial into it. This tactic is sound on several counts. With a limited amount of deer attractant on hand, you will not be tempted to fall for the "more is better" school of thought (which is a common mistake hunters make) when laying down a scent trail or freshening a scrape. Second, you will be assured of having fresh attractant for at least seven outings, which makes your purchase of the scent a good investment. And third, you can place the scent in the original container in the refrigerator, where the potion will remain fresh.

Another mistake that you can easily avoid is contaminating the area with human scent when you are laying down a scent trail. Never touch a scent post of any kind with your bare hands. Many trophy buck hunters that I have talked to over the years wear rubber boots and gloves (the gloves made for dishwashing work well) when placing scent or canisters about. This strategy is very prudent and easy to implement, providing, of course, that we will take the time to do so. I also wash my scent pads with my hunting garb in scent-free detergent - another small thing that is easy to accomplish and that can pay dividends.

Regarding which scent strategies to employ, several options exist besides the standard doe-in-heat attractants. From interviewing famous trophy buck hunters over the last several years, I have noted that many of these sportsmen are increasingly relying on tarsal glands. For example, one individual even goes to check stations and asks hunters if he can remove the tarsal glands of subordinate bucks that have been checked in. This gentleman then freezes the glands until they are needed.

This trophy hunter told me that he attaches the tarsal to his boot via a string, thus laying down a scent trail that simulates the passing of a small buck through the woods. The goal, of course, is to create the illusion that an inferior animal is challenging the dominant buck.

The tarsal gland gambit can also have an addendum to it. Some veteran trophy seekers like to apply buck urine to the gland, perhaps making it even more inciting to a dominant buck. When these individuals reach their stands, they then create a mock scrape and licking branch and perhaps even hang the gland there. Doe-in-heat potion can also be poured on the scrape.

A very intriguing option available to hunters today concerns the use of gels. One of the worries that many individuals have is that any liquid scent that they apply to a pad will quickly become diluted. Indeed, the closer we come to our stands, and the farther away we travel from our vehicles, the less potent the scent becomes.

The premise behind gels, though, is that their semi-solid state allows them to maintain their potency longer and remain on a scent pad for a greater amount of time as well. Gels can also be quite effective when placed on a licking branch or mixed in with the soil found in a scrape. And in this circumstance, they may still be "doing their thing" if you hunt from that particular stand two consecutive days.

A real trend among trophy buck hunters is to employ both sound and scents to lure dominant bucks. For instance, a marvelous strategy involves laying down a doe-in-heat trail as you walk to your stand. Upon your arrival, periodically utter estrus doe bleats. To intensify this illusion even more, every hour or so hold forth with some tending buck grunts.

Another gambit concerns arranging around your stand scent canisters that have buck urine inside. Then make young buck grunts every 15 minutes or so, especially the first few hours after sunrise and late in the afternoon. Mix in some light rattling as well.

My favorite tactic is an old one, but it is tried and true. I like to place doe-in-heat urine on a scent pad when I am about a 100 yards from my stand. Upon reaching my stand, I like to emit estrus doe bleats about every 20 minutes. This is a simple, uncomplicated tactic and definitely not cutting edge or ground breaking. It just works.

Of course, hunters can commit several snafus when they combine scent and sound. In my opinion, the most common error is going overboard in both sensory departments. I have seen hunters distribute doe, buck and tarsal scents and utter the entire spectrum of a whitetail's vocabulary: everything from snorts and wheezes to grunts and bawls.

I have also witnessed occasions when individuals simply did not know when to cease calling. They held forth with a never-ending cacophony of everything from lost fawn bleats to the mock sounds of two 12-pointers engaged in a life and death locked antler struggle. And of course copious amounts of various, sundry doe and buck scents had been poured on the ground in every direction around their stands. The point here is that when using scent and sound either singly or together, less is often more.

Using scent and sound creatively during the rut can increase our chances of taking a buck to remember. But hunters should also be aware that such things as pre-season scouting, woodsmanship, marksmanship with a bow or a gun, and spending large amounts of time afield are, in reality, far more important in the overall scheme of deer hunting.

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