Trying to mimic the sound of a pair of bucks locking antlers might entice a deer to come check out what’s going on. Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

A lazy afternoon sit suddenly became a whole lot more interesting when I spied a doe slipping through the mountain laurels on a path that would take her close, but not close enough for a bow shot. I slipped a grunt call out from my jacket and gave a short, soft burp. The deer froze, then grunted back, turning my way. Another call elicited a similar response and just like that, we were communicating. The doe dismissed her original direction and slowly came my way, grunting every few steps until finally pausing in an opening, where I proceeded to fire an arrow harmlessly between her legs and into the ground.

It was a failure in terms of harvest but I took solace in a minor victory in deer calling.

Much of deer communication is done through scent, but while their vocabulary is fairly limited compared to ours, they do communicate through sound as well. Like learning any language, knowing what to say and when to say it can make for more interesting and effective conversations. Fortunately, a limited vocabulary makes that task a bit easier for the hunter.

The call I made in the opening passage, and heard in response is sometimes referred to as a greeting grunt. Its exact purpose is not entirely understood but it probably means something like: “Hello, I’m a deer,” or “I’m over here.” I’ve heard it numerous times, particularly from does with fawns, and it may also be a way of keeping in contact in thick cover. It sometimes works to entice a deer out of that cover.

Another call that sometimes works, particularly in the early season is a fawn bleat. It’s basically a higher-pitched, more drawn-out version of the doe grunt. A mother’s maternal instinct is strong and does are sometimes attracted to the sound of a lost fawn. Add a little emphasis – like a fawn caught in the brush or being attacked by a predator – and the does might come running, or run the other way.

Somewhat the same applies to bucks. An occasional greeting grunt might draw them into the open, and more aggressive calling can work better during the rut. Many hunters have probably heard the continuous grunting of a buck chasing down a doe during the rut. Other bucks hear that sound as well, so imitating it tells them, “There’s a hot doe over here. Come on over.”

Not all sound communication is vocal, either. When two bucks square off, whether it’s merely a test of strength or a legitimate battle, they mesh antlers, sometimes strategically, other times quite aggressively. Like the tending grunt, that too may attract rival suitors.

Responses to rattling vary. Sometimes a buck will charge right in, looking this way and that for the battle scene. Other times they slip in more cautiously, often from downwind. Studies from Texas showed this was far more often the case, and while elevated researchers observed the deer scent-checking the scene safely from downwind, those on the ground doing the rattling often never saw the bucks they attracted.

Most deer calls can be imitated with a mouth-blown grunt tube, or by rattling antlers, but one of the more popular and sometimes effective calls is the bleat can. By tipping the small canister upside down and then back upright it makes a long, drawn-out bleat. That supposedly imitates the sound of a hot doe and while the researchers say that’s not really the case, it seems to work just the same.

Perhaps the best bit of advice when it comes to calling is that it’s not a panacea. Reactions range from indifference to outright flight, but occasionally it works; and when it does, things can get very interesting and exciting. That’s especially true of rattling. It may not work the first time, or the second, but keep at it. Sometimes deer need a little extra reassurance and encouragement to join you.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and Registered Maine Guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at: [email protected]


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