Mid-November, peak of the rut, and I was in hot pursuit of a trophy whitetail buck. Perched high in a pine tree at the edge of field, I waited eagerly for a buck to approach down the trail and provide a bow shot. As it neared dusk, I looked across the field and spotted a lone doe walking up the grassy road. As she neared my position, she began running my way.
I wondered why she spooked and soon discovered the reason. A buck was after her. I looked up her backtrail a spotted a gorgeous buck coming toward the doe, and me, while grunting every step. My adrenaline soared as I readied my bow for the shot. The doe milled around my stand and the buck approached within 30 yards and stood broadside. I could see that his muscular, mature body and the crowning rack on his head was the trophy I was looking for.
He stood 30 yards as I contemplated the shot. There were some branches between us, and I was using a new bow and was not comfortable with the 30-yarder. I made the decision to wait. So did the buck.
He just kept standing there and would not move. The wind was right, he could not smell me, and I had not moved to reveal my presence. The doe bounded behind me, and I was sure the buck would follow and give me the shot. But he kept standing as it got darker by the second. I then made the decision to give a soft grunt to entice him my way. Wrong move. When I grunted, the buck looked around, and then slowly walked away. He didn’t blow, stomp, flag, or run… he just walked off. I was screaming in my mind for him to come back, but the buck faded away as did my chances for a Pope & Young.
The grunt call is a tremendous aid to the deer hunter. No doubt thousands of whitetails have been enticed into shooting range of hunters using the grunt call. But not every situation calls for calling. There are times when the hunter did not call it, and it was the best no-call. In some cases, the grunt was not used and should have been. Then there are the scenarios like the one I experienced when the grunt was used and should not have been.
Deer use a grunt for various reasons. Does and bucks both utter a form of the grunt. A doe’s grunt is softer and often called a bleat. The buck’s grunt sounds like a low guttural pig grunt and can be mimicked by some hunters with just their mouth. The grunt that hunters are most interested in is when the buck is grunting while in pursuit of a doe in heat. Deer will grunt at other times and for other reasons, but the grunt of the buck in a rut is the one we listen for, the one that means a buck with his mind on something other than caution is headed our way.
The grunt call became popular in the mid-1980s when the grunt tube emerged on the market, and every hunter had to have one. Now, it is standard equipment for most whitetail seekers. It is common to have hunters grunting away in their trees at seen and unseen whitetails in hopes of suckering one in.
But how does the hunter know when to use the grunt call and when to keep quiet? It is not appropriate in every case, and the key to effectively using the grunt call is to analyze the body language of the buck, and to evaluate the particulars of the situation.
Several years ago I was making my way to my hunting spot early in the morning. It was already light, and I was trying to slowly sneak into my area. With gloves and facemask doomed, I moved toward the creek bottom and heard some deer running around and thought I heard some grunting. So I grunted, thinking, “Buck in rut, doe in heat, bucks hear another buck grunting and come running.”
That buck came trotting over to me like a dog that had be whistled. He stopped about 15 yards away as I huddled behind a stump and hurriedly knocked nocked my arrow. A quick draw and release, and it smacked the surprised buck in the chest. The 6-pointer whirled and bolted, leaving a heavy blood trail. That situation called for a grunt because the buck was in heavy rut and was willing to check out intruders and possibly test the intruder. When he heard the grunt, the buck came over immediately to the sound with ears erected and eyes forward. He wanted to find the unwelcome visitor and defend his prize. A buck will respond to a grunt call when he thinks another buck is in the area, and he wants to chase the buck out of his territory. Therefore, just before, during or just after the rut is the best time to grunt up a buck. Other times may produce, but the rut is the prime grunting time.
I could have waited for the pair of deer to come within bow range by happenstance, but the grunt brought him over for an easy shot. This scenario is played out over and over in the whitetail woods every year. Stories are common of hunters grunting at a buck in rut and it responds, providing the grunter with a shot he may not have had. If the rut is on, using the grunt call often works. The grunt call did not work with the buck in the opening story. He was clearly in rut and after a doe in heat. But I was dealing with a mature buck that was especially wary and wise. When he heard the grunt, he did not see, smell or hear any other bucks around. Surely another buck within 30 yards would have been detected by the buck. Plus, the grunt may have sounded as if it were coming from 25 feet up in a tree. The old boy just knew that deer don’t hang out in trees.
Lesson learned—when a buck is in close, hold off on grunting. Deer can usually tell if another deer is around. If they suddenly hear a loud grunt and have not seen a deer close by, they become suspicious. It may even scare them. This is especially true of mature bucks that are suspicious and cautious by nature. If something doesn’t smell, look or sound right, they’ll leave and ask questions later. That is just what the buck in the opening story did. I believe he circled downwind to check out the scene from a distance and after dark. I never saw him again.
Another time to think twice about grunting is with immature younger bucks, especially if you know mature buck frequents the area you are hunting. Sometimes the young bucks are overeager and will throw caution to the wind and charge into any grunting but usually not when they are in a big buck’s core area. Many times the younger guys are subordinate, and they know it. They know that a bigger buck will just as soon gore him as to stand for him to hang around. A small buck that hears deep grunting may assume that the dominate buck is in the area, and he maybe in for a butt kicking.
Studying the deer’s body language is one of the best ways to dertmine whether you grunt or not. If a little buck comes in timid and shy, is looking around as if he is somewhere he is not supposed to be, the grunt call may scare him off.
This is true of any deer that you are observing. A whitetail that is behaving timid, subordinate or shy is not one to grunt to. In contrast, a buck that is boldly trotting through his terrain is vulnerable to a grunt call. If he walks as if he is cocky and unconcerned, he is a candidate. He might want to inspect intruders.
If you oversee a buck or bucks chasing a doe in heat, by all means grunt away. Their mind is on the doe at hand and you may not be able to lure them away from what they have. But it’s worth a try. They are prime candidates but are also preoccupied.
Bucks that are fighting or chasing each other are very susceptible to a grunt call.
Stephen Finn, of Duluth, was bowhunting in Gwinnett County in 1995 when he spotted a 10-pointer feeding on acorns out of range of his stand. Stephen watched the buck for a while when suddenly an 8-pointer appeared and the bucks began to fight. The 10-pointer knocked down and chased the 8-pointer out of sight. Stephen hit his grunt call a few times, and the 8-pointer returned into view and stood cautiously.
A few more grunts from Finn and another buck began walking up the hill toward the bowhunter. The newcomer buck kept looking back at the 8-pointer, allowing Stephen to raise and draw his bow. At 15 yards, the hunter shot and sent the buck running. He later found his 19-pointer that scored 158 Pope and Young inches. By using the grunt call on the fighting bucks, he was able to lure a buck to his arrow. The odds was set for some mature bucks to exert their dominance, and they were very susceptible to the grunt call.
When a buck is close, it is advisable not to grunt, but the definition of close depends on the terrain. The thicker the brush, the closer the buck can be to your position when you call. If a deer would not be able to see your location to determine whether a deer is there or not, then it is probably safe to call. But in open terrain, such as a clearcut or field, more distance is needed before tooting at a buck.
The closer a deer is to you, the softer your grunt should be. A short, soft grunt will sound better to a close-in buck than a loud blast. If you see a buck at a great distance and not coming to you, grunt away as loud as you can. It is kind of a desperation call that just might work. If it doesn’t, you’ve lost nothing. Another good time to try grunting is when a buck begins to leave the area. If you have held off on grunting for whatever reason and did not get a shot, when the buck starts to walk off, try bringing him back. When the situation is about to be lost and the buck is leaving, why not at least try to turn him around?
Hunting a swamp stand in early December one year, it was getting dark as I pondered how much longer to stay. Hearing some noise I looked down the creek to see a nice buck emerge from the brush. I reached for my bow and prepared for a shot. The buck was alone, and the rut was over. He was just milling about and feeding. There was no dominance exerting, no fighting, no does in heat and no territory defending behaviors evident. He took across a small branch at 40 yards and browsed about.
My first instinct was to grunt at the buck and entice him in. I then thought better of it. Examining the situation, I decided that the buck was not overly alert, had no idea that I or any other deer was in the area. He was just walking around and feeding. I waited and kept quiet. My patience and restraint was rewarded when he hopped over the branch and began walking straight toward me. When I released at 5 yards, the buck never knew what hit him.
Had I grunted, it may have alerted an otherwise calm animal. He was not concerned with defending territory or chasing does. A grunt likely would have put him on alert, making it more difficult for me to get a shot. Analyze the deer’s behavior and determine if he will come into range first before alerting him by using the grunt call.
Grunting or calling brings with it an invitation for the deer to look for you. Vocalizing deer are communicating something, and other deer will typically try to find out what and who is doing the talking. If the hunter is offering a challenge to a dominant buck, expect the buck to be looking for you. This may cause a problem if you are not well-concealed. Good camouflage and a hidden stand site may help the grunting hunter escape detection. The bowhunter must be particularly careful when issuing challenges to bucks. When you must wait for the deer to get in close before you draw your bow, it can be hard when they come in looking.
The ideal set up in this case of calling is two hunters. One hunter well concealed and calling on the ground, and the shooter hiding in the trees. The buck hears the call from the ground where the deer is supposed to be. He then is not looking for the hunter in the tree and offers a good shot—in theory. It is, of course, not always possible to round up another calling partner.
These days almost all hunters use grunt calls to some extent. Over-calling can educate deer and cause them to become too cautious. Several call manufacturers recommend and display in their videos the hunter tooting away with no deer in sight. This is intended to draw an unseen buck to the area. With no deer around your stand, why not go ahead and call just in case one may be around that you don’t see?
It may work, but what if a buck is lurking nearby that you haven’t seen? You have drawn attention to yourself, and the sly buck is sneaking around looking for you. If you move too much or at the wrong time, he could spot you and depart, and you never know it.
The grunt call is a great tool for the deer hunter and can be used effectively to draw in bucks. But as with any tool, it must be used right. When a buck is spotted, analyze the situation and study his body language. Then decide whether to grunt or not to grunt.