The Science of Calling in Whitetails
The art of getting a big buck close
The only way Harmon, my nephew, knew to hunt deer was to sit over a food plot and hope for a buck to walk by. I wanted him to experience some boots-on-the-ground still-hunting during the rut, so we sneaked to a bluff overlooking an oak hollow. We set up almost like turkey hunters with our backs to a tree below the bluff’s crest. About 15 minutes later, I saw a deer through the woods, perhaps 100 yards, quartering away from us. I elbowed Harmon. There was no chance of a shot, so I blew on the grunt tube as if I were Dizzy Gillespie.
The deer stopped, changed direction, and fast-walked toward us. It was a young seven point, and I whispered to Harmon that if he liked the deer he should take it. Ten seconds later, Harmon’s .243 lurched and the buck went down.
“Ah, man!” he exclaimed. “You called him right in!” He was clearly pumped.
“Nothing to it!” I lied.
What he didn’t know was that I’d blown that grunt call probably 500 times without success since the last time it had worked a couple years earlier. Bucks often act like they can’t hear me when I grunt, but sometimes they come running, and that’s why I carry it on every hunt. Did the little buck think I was another buck and just wanted to fight? Was he curious? Or did he think I was a doe? It got me thinking: Is there an art to calling deer? To help determine this, let’s turn to science.
Vocalizations of Whitetail Deer
The most in-depth study on the subject was conducted by Dr. Thomas D. Atkeson, Dr. R. Larry Marchinton, and Dr. Karl V. Miller at the University of Georgia’s Deer Lab. In 1988, they summarized their findings in article titled “Vocalizations of White-tailed Deer” in The American Midland Naturalist.
The study was based on a herd of captive whitetails in Georgia, and the researchers recorded all the sounds the deer made then matched them to consistent actions over time. Eventually, they identified 12 distinct deer sounds.
This is all very interesting, but only some of these vocalizations help me as a hunter. Realistically, I want to be able to call in a deer, and so the “mew” and “bleat” could be handy for calling in a doe (Primos sells its The Can call that anyone can master) while all the mating and challenge sounds could call in dominant or curious bucks. Finally, the contact call could potentially calm down a nervous doe or even bring in a buck.
But it’s not so easy. First, all deer sound a little different, and they are difficult to hear unless you’re close to them. So these subtle, nuanced calls are very difficult to learn. However, there are plenty of YouTube videos recorded by hunters wherein deer can clearly be heard making calls, so one thing you can do is watch a bunch of them and try to match the sound heard with one of the identified calls listed in the chart. Then try to mimic them to you make sure you’re not saying, “I’m going to whip you,” to a doe when you should be saying, “Hey, good lookin’!”
“There’s no doubt that the right stimulus to the right animal at the right time can be effective, but it’s largely dependent on the animal’s mood, and we can’t control the moods of animals,” said Gordon Whittington, North American Whitetail editor-in-chief. “Besides, we have no way of knowing a deer’s perception of various sounds, so it’s nearly impossible to study what actually triggers deer.”
Whitetail researcher Grant Woods agreed. But anecdotally, he’s noticed that deer tend to vocalize more in areas with a balanced buck-to-doe ratio. So if you find yourself on such a property, do not hesitate to call often.
After 30 years of trying to call whitetails with a success rate of less than 5 percent, I’ve found that deer are also individuals with different tastes and tendencies. Some are dominant and like to fight, while others may be dominant but don’t like to fight. Others are shy or just weirdos. Ever had a turkey ignore your box call, then go nuts moments later when you scratch your slate? It’s possible that individual deer like different tones as well.
Then there is timing. A tending-grunt given in October probably isn’t going to work. So astute hunters should know not only what call they are making and how to make it, but also when to use it.
Understanding whitetail vocalizations is still in its infancy, but there’s no doubt that calling works. Studying the language and learning how to make specific calls at specific times rather than throwing random grunts in the wind can give hunters an advantage.