When to Call Whitetails – and When to Shut Up

When to Call Whitetails - and When to Shut Up

The time was the last week of October. The place was western South Dakota. I was perched in a treestand situated in a tall cottonwood that stood along the banks of the Bad River. A little better than 30 minutes of legal hunting time remained as I reached for my rattling antlers. Thankfully, the wind had finally died down to a slight breeze.

After going through a rather aggressive 45-second rattling sequence, I fished out a grunt call and let go with several subtle urps. A few minutes later, I heard the unmistakable sounds of a deer walking across the river behind me. I knew the deer had crossed to my side, and that it had to be very close. But at least five minutes went by before I finally spotted it. The big 10-pointer was headed straight toward my position at a slow walk.

The trophy whitetail stopped only once as he closed the distance, and that was to face off with a young eight-pointer that had mysteriously appeared. After getting a few things straightened out about the local pecking order, the 10-pointer continued on his course. I waited until he’d cut the distance to a mere 15 yards before issuing a soft voice grunt, which instantly stopped him in his tracks. I locked my top sight pin on his vitals, took a second to steady myself, and then released an arrow. The buck ran only about 40 yards before stopping to look around. He tipped over seconds later.


It’s a fact that the sport of bowhunting for whitetail deer has seen more changes in the past 15 years than it did in the previous 40 years combined, especially in the way of technologically superior equipment.

So, what has all of this revolutionary new equipment and the sudden influx of technology and knowledge done for the average deer hunter? There’s no question that it made better hunters out of some. But in my opinion, it has also left a lot of deer hunters more confused than ever.

Without a doubt, one of the more notable changes has been the popularity of using some type of call to lure trophy whitetails within bow range. Whether it’s grunt calls, bleat calls, snort-wheeze calls, or rattling antlers, the purpose for using them remains the same — to help bring deer into range, deer that wouldn’t have come into range otherwise.

I must admit, I am a fan of calling for whitetails, and I use both grunt calls and rattling antlers. However, the vast majority of the mature whitetail bucks I’ve arrowed over the years were shot without the aid of any kind of calling device. And after keeping accurate records of the experiences my hunting partners and I have had during the past 15 years, it’s apparent to me that the “put up and shut up” method just might be the most effective — for the majority of the season anyway.

I know and keep in touch with a number of highly successful whitetail bowhunters. I’ve questioned most of these guys about their feelings regarding the use of calls. While all of them agree that calling will work sometimes, they say the best way to hunt a mature deer is to sneak into his home area, quietly put your stand in place, sit quietly for a few hours, and then walk out again as quickly and quietly as possible if the buck doesn’t make an appearance. Simply put, this low-key approach is the overall most effective way to hunt mature whitetails.

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In my opinion, the “to call or not to call” conundrum hasn’t been helped along by the tremendous influx of hunting TV shows and videos. Sadly, too many deer hunters believe everything they see on these shows and videos. If the featured hunter is shown using a grunt call and/or rattling antlers to lure a big buck within bow range, then by golly that’s how the hunt went down.

To be very honest, though, things don’t always play out the way they’re portrayed on hunting shows and videos. I know, because I’ve been involved in that business for over 20 years. There’s almost always at least some bit of “fluff and filler” added to successful hunt footage via the use of recreates that are filmed after an animal is taken. Sometimes things are recreated in a manner that pretty much accurately portrays the way things went down. And sometimes they’re not.

Again, I’m not saying calling doesn’t work. What I am saying is mature bucks that reside in some parts of the country, especially heavily pressured areas, most definitely have become somewhat “call wise.” Permit me to draw up a fictitious scenario to illustrate exactly what I mean.

You’re perched in your treestand on an afternoon during the late pre-rut. It’s a little before sunset, and the wind has died completely. Suddenly, you hear a deer approaching. You turn your head in the direction of the sounds and see a huge buck slowly walking through the woods. From the start, it’s apparent he isn’t going to come within range of your bow. No need to worry, however. You’ll just fish out your grunt call, give a couple of toots, and bring him running.

Greg Miller with South Dakota whitetail buck

The first toot on the call stops the big deer in his tracks. On the second toot, his head snaps around and he looks straight in your direction. He stares hard for nearly a half-minute, and then he turns and looks the other way. You give another toot on the ol’ call, and he looks in your direction once more. This time, he stares for just a few seconds before looking away. Once again, you issue forth a deep urp. The buck doesn’t even look in your direction this time.

Thinking maybe he didn’t hear the last call, you try one more. The buck still doesn’t look your way. In fact, now he’s starting to walk again. Worse yet, he’s walking away from you. Desperately, you start blowing harder and harder on the call. By the time the big deer heads out of sight, the tooting has increased both in volume and frequency. Quite honestly, you now sound more like a one-man marching kazoo band than a whitetail buck.

Sound familiar? I know it must to many hunters, because I’ve had this exact sort of experience related to me by various folks. And while I really don’t care to admit it, I’ve also done my share of “over-calling” to big whitetail bucks. But hey, we’re all prone to committing mistakes.

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Which brings up another misconception regarding calling: If a little bit is good, then more should be even better. If ever this old adage didn’t apply, it’s when using deer calls. You might actually experience more success by using the tactic less often. From what I’ve seen, if a buck doesn’t respond to your initial calling efforts and you’re sure he heard you, I would strongly recommend shutting up. Additional calling attempts are only going to make him more suspicious, not more interested.

A friend of mine had an experience during a recent season that perfectly illustrates the point I’m trying to make. From his stand, he could actually hear another hunter blowing on his grunt call. He also could see a 31⁄2-year-old eight-point buck a short distance away. Every time the other guy blew on his grunt call, the buck would lift his head and stare in the direction of the sound. “This happened about a half-dozen times,” my friend told me. “The next time he heard the call, the eight-pointer tucked his tail, dropped his head, and went sneaking off in the opposite direction.” The guy blowing on the call never did see the buck.


I believe that a lot of hunters know when big bucks are going to be most susceptible to a bit of calling. While I personally believe the late pre-rut period is the best time to call in targeted bucks, the rut usually provides more positive responses overall. That’s because bucks of all ages and sizes often will respond to rattling and grunting. However, don’t assume that rutting bucks will always come charging in, ready to fight and/or breed.

I well remember a Kansas bowhunt where I used a grunt call and rattling antlers to lure in a 150-class 11-pointer. It was a morning in mid-November, and I was perched in a treestand near the banks of the Arkansas River. About 20 minutes after daylight, I went through my first rattling sequence of the day. Ten minutes later, I detected a slight bit of movement in a patch of tag alder brush 75 yards straight out in front of me.

A few seconds went by, and then a young forkhorn buck walked out of the brush. I was just starting to relax, when I noticed more movement behind the small buck. Then, I saw a very large set of antlers floating above the brush. The next thing I knew, a big-bodied, heavy horned buck had walked into the open. The forkhorn continued walking toward my position, while the big buck hung back and watched. Eventually, the young deer walked directly under my stand and into some thick cover behind me.

Sensing that everything was cool, the 11-point slowly made his way in my direction. When he was within 30 yards, he suddenly turned broadside and stopped to sniff the ground. I immediately came to full draw, settled in on my sight picture, and put an arrow through his vitals. I recovered the Kansas brute after a very short trailing job.

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Although this hunt took place during the peak of the rut, the big buck didn’t come charging in to my rattling/grunting sequence. Quite the opposite, actually. Both he and the young buck sneaked in, walking very slowly and constantly checking their surroundings. Not a stereotypical reaction of rutting bucks, but a positive reaction nonetheless.

So, in the end, what’s my honest opinion about calling for mature whitetails? Well, I’ve been doing the rattling/grunting thing for more than 30 years now. Those many calling sessions have taken place in more than a dozen different states. I can say without hesitation that there have been far more instances where I’ve seen zero response to my calling efforts than vice versa. It’s just the nature of the beast.

However, I still do believe that it’s okay to call more frequently during the rut. And here’s why I feel this way. First and foremost, bucks are constantly on the move at this time of year. A big deer that cruises by at first light could be a mile or more away 15 minutes after he walked by you. However, a big buck that was a mile or more away in a different direction when you first rattled could possibly stroll within earshot. So, it’s entirely possible you could be calling to different deer, even if you increase your calling sessions to several times per hour.

Secondly, most of us know that big bucks are, by nature, far more likely to respond to calling during the rut. Not only that, they’re also less likely to detect when something might be slightly amiss. While they certainly haven’t thrown caution to the wind, they can be somewhat oblivious to things that they never would have missed had they not been under the influence of that lovely three letter word — rut!

Whenever possible, I like to add a buck decoy to my rut-calling efforts. Here’s why. Prior to using a decoy, I called in a number of big bucks that hung up just out of bow range and refused to come closer. Yes, I had fooled their ears into believing that they’d heard two bucks fighting. But once they arrived at the scene, their eyes obviously told them something wasn’t quite right.

The way I see it, a bowhunter stands a much better chance of killing a mature buck if they’re able to fool two of that deer’s senses. If you’ve lured him within sight by rattling and/or grunting, you’ve obviously fooled his sense of hearing. Oftentimes, the presence of a buck decoy will fool a buck’s sense of sight as well, which dramatically increases the odds of him walking within bow range.

In closing, I’d like to pass along a personal deer-hunting philosophy I’ve adhered to for many years. It applies not only to calling but to hunting for mature whitetails in general. We should always consider the woods our classroom, and the deer our teachers. Just as with any other form of schooling, the best students are those who spend most of their time sitting quietly, attempting to learn all they can from their teachers.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>