There are many ways to outsmart a whitetail, and I would like to think that I’ve employed most of them over the years. Although I’ve seen some innovative tactics work like charms, I would have never imagined that boredom would lead to three of my most memorable filled tags in 2007.
Although I’ve had mild success with grunt tubes and rattling antlers in the past, I’ve never considered myself a calling expert. In fact, I’ve earned my stripes as a deer hunter as one of those guys who simply slugs it out through time spent sitting on a well-placed stand. It isn’t a rock star existence, but it works.
That all changed last year when I hunted southern Illinois with my good friend Jerry Peterson, a longtime game call manufacturer from Tennessee. For years, Peterson had been urging me to add more bleats to my calling repertoire. He swore by their effectiveness for calling in bucks and does. I listened politely but seldom tried such calls in the field because I honestly didn’t think they worked that well outside the rut. I was also afraid of spooking deer.
On this October trip to Heartland Outfitters, I finally heeded his advice and reached for my call. It was a cool, calm morning, but nothing was happening. By 9 a.m., I was ready to call it quits. Unfortunately, my guide, Steve Wilson, wasn’t due to show up for two more hours. “Well,” I whispered to myself. “Here goes nothing.” I put the call to my mouth and inhaled twice. Mee-ahh. Mee-ahhh. I did it twice for good measure. Then once more just because. I hung the call on a branch and settled back into my stand. When I call during the rut, I usually reach for my bow immediately after calling. This time I didn’t. That indicates my optimism about the morning’s prospects. However, in less than a minute, I heard the swish-swish of footfalls in the leaves.
Imagine my surprise when eight adult does and one doe fawn appeared out of nowhere and made a beeline for my tree. I couldn’t believe it. They were all alert and on a mission. The lead doe surveyed the area almost as if she were a boss hen turkey looking for the source of a hunter’s yelps. The does hung around for a few minutes until one of the bigger ones started stamping her hoof at the base of my tree. She had apparently smelled my flashlight, which I had accidentally dropped in the pre-dawn darkness. With a doe tag in my pocket, I decided this was probably the opportune time to fill it, which I did with one of those slam-dunk, quartering-away shots we bow-hunters always dream about.
Back at camp, I was almost embarrassed to admit that I coaxed that line of does to my stand out of sheer boredom. However, the idea of using bleats as locator calls sure seemed to make more sense. And the more I relayed the encounter, the more I learned that other hunters use the bleat in the same way they use the yelp while turkey hunting. It seems to pique a deer’s curiosity enough so it comes over to check it out.
One of those hunters is longtime D&DH contributing editor Charles Alsheimer. “Bleats certainly work, but there is no rhyme or reason to it,” he told me. “I’ve studied whitetails for more than 40 years and can tell you does do not go around bleating their heads off when they’re in estrus. In fact, they are nearly mute and communicate mostly through body language and the scents they’re emitting during this time.
“However, that being said, I’ve killed a lot of deer by using an estrous bleat, especially those can calls” Alsheimer added. “It’s tough to explain. I think deer just know those sounds and instinctually respond to them.”
This seemed to be the case with a Wisconsin buck I arrowed just days after returning from the Illinois hunt. It was Nov. 1, and I was situated high in a poplar overlooking a hardwood ridge. Hunting reports from friends and colleagues were peppered with sightings of rut-time seeking behavior. The sun rose and inched its way over the eastern sky.
Nearly three hours into my sit, I again became restless and reached for my call. Again, I made three drawn-out “ma-mah” bleats. And, again, it produced an almost instantaneous response. This time, I hung up the call and reached for my bow. Moments later, I heard a dry branch crack from atop the ridge. That was followed by more snaps, which I soon identified as a deer’s hoofsteps. Then I saw a deer — a big one at that — marching down the ridge. It was a buck, and he was heading my way.
The buck covered 150-plus yards in seconds. My heart was already hammering, but it went into overdrive when I realized he was going to come all the way. When the buck got to within 50 yards of my tree, I could see he had his ears pinned back and that he was walking in a sidling (confrontational) posture. He was frantically licking his nose, a behavior that assists in a better sense of smell. The buck continued on his course until he veered wide of my stand at 18 yards. I drew my Mathews Drenalin and sent the arrow on its way. The big 8-pointer didn’t make it out of the woodlot.
More is Better?
Another one of my campmates on that Illinois hunt was Minnesota’s Scott Bestul, a regular D&DH contributor with many bucks to his credit. Bestul, like Alsheimer, believes in the power of bleats for deer hunting in general — whether you’re out for bucks or does.
The key, he said, is to adopt an ever-confident attitude. “Like most of us, I grew up thinking deer really didn’t make that much noise. However, after many years of tinkering with calls, the take-home lesson for me has been unless you try it and believe in it, you won’t have consistent success.
“Also, bleats seem to work best in areas with lower deer densities,” Bestul added. “Deer in lower-density areas have to work harder to find each other.” Bestul also believes that calling often while on stand increases his odds for success. “I call to deer nearly every time I go hunting,” he said. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but when it does pay off, it can be huge.”
A brute 10-pointer he killed in Iowa a few years ago is a prime example of this point. Bestul was bow-hunting when he spotted the buck walking across a field about 200 yards away from his stand. The buck looked rut-worn and was heading for a bedding area. Bestul immediately grabbed his rattling antlers and clashed them together. “He stopped and looked, but then continued on his way,” Bestul said. “I figured I had nothing to lose. After he disappeared, I pulled it all out — bleating, grunting and rattling for two extended sequences.
“Ten minutes later, he reappears, and he’s walking straight for my tree; slow but steady. Twenty years ago, I would have seen that buck and said, ‘Oh, there’s a nice buck walking out of my life.’ ” Not this time. Bestul sealed the deal with a perfect shot when the buck stepped within spitting distance of his tree.
The Best for Last
A few filled tags isn’t evidence for a sure-fire tactic, but it certainly can inflate one’s ego. That’s why I didn’t hesitate to use the bleat calling sequence during opening morning of our 2007 gun-hunting season. Gunshots echoed in the distance, and I couldn’t help but daydream about all the lifetime memories that were being made.
Our season draws more than 600,000 participants, and that always brings out an increased sense of anxiety for buck-hunters. Over the years, the statistics have bore out the fact that if it doesn’t happen on opening day, your chances of bagging a decent buck are reduced substantially. That, coupled with the fact the rut was still in high gear, caused me to again reach for the bleat call.
No need to hang up the call this time; it was hanging from a lanyard around my neck. Thinking back, I now laugh because I clearly recall hunkering lower into the seat of my tree stand, placing one boot atop the other and repositioning my slug gun across my knee…awaiting action as if I were waiting on a red-hot spring gobbler. It didn’t happen that fast this time. After about 15 minutes, I performed one more bleat sequence. “Snap! Crack! Snap!”
“Where is it?” I whispered to myself, my eyes flitting back and forth, trying to spy movement in the woods. A few more snaps allowed me to pinpoint the noise as coming from the west. Deer! I initially only saw the doe. Like the two previously noted encounters, this deer was trotting on a straight line toward my stand. It was an adult doe, and she covered 75 yards in about 15 seconds. The doe was about 20 yards away from my tree when she stopped. And looked back.
The doe was standing alert, stone still, when she lifted her already erect head even higher. “Snap! Crack! Snap!” She wasn’t moving, so there must be another deer on the way. It was a buck. And a big one at that. He was still a ways off, but I could already see absolute daggers for G-2s and G-3s. As with all the bucks I shoot, I immediately took my eyes off his rack and concentrated for the task at hand. The doe must have heard my bleats, because when the buck advanced, she scooted for the base of my tree.
It was almost as if she was trying to tell the buck, “There’s an estrous doe over here somewhere, but it isn’t me!” He couldn’t resist the invitation, and he’s now on my wall.
If my years of deer hunting experiences have taught me anything, it’s that all deer are different. Some respond to calls and others ignore them. Therefore, I cannot draw any solid conclusions from these three success stories. I can, however, offer one guarantee: I will never again be afraid to use a bleat call while hunting at any time during the season.
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