How to Call a Deer:Tips and TechniquesBy Patrick Long | Updated:
There’s nothing quite like calling to a deer and making it come your way. It can be almost as fun and exciting as actually sending an arrow down range. Although whitetail hunting is somewhat unique, because calling isn’t considered a central part of the hunt. Elk, turkey, duck, and predator hunting all require calling as a skill you pretty much have to have. However, we spend most of our time trying to make as little noise as possible in the deer woods, but the right call at the right time could bring a nice buck your way.
No matter what you’re after, calling to your prey to either mimic their own species or something they're looking for is an effective way to draw them in. Whitetails are no different, their vocalizations just aren’t as noticeable as an elk’s bugle or a turkey’s yelp. They just aren’t known for making a lot of noise, so many hunters are not entirely sure which calls to use in the first place.
That being said, don’t blow past the deer call section at your local sporting goods store thinking it’s all garbage. There are some effective calling tools and strategies you can use in the deer stand, but knowing how and when to call will be key to your success.
Deer Talk: Their Vocalizations and What They Mean
There was a long time in my hunting career where I thought the only noise a deer made was blowing or snorting. It happened a lot, generally at me. As the years rolled on and I figured out how to sit still, I learned deer have a lot to say, you just have to be in the right place during the right time.
So what vocalizations do deer make, what do they mean, and how can you use them to your advantage in the woods? I’ll cover some of the most common and useful calls you can make, including some gear recommendations. As with any part of hunting, the best way to be an effective caller is practice, so gear up and let’s dive in!
The Grunt: Social, Trailing, Tending
All deer, bucks and does alike, make some version of a grunt call in various social situations. A doe will make soft grunts as sort of a social reassurance and bonding to other deer around them, as will bucks most of the year. This is called a social or contact grunt. It basically says “hey here I am”. For the majority of the year, this is the main sound deer make. Although as the fall rolls around, the exact same sound has a different meaning.
When the rut kicks in though, social grunts go from “hello” to “let’s mate”. Soft grunts in a sequence can indicate a buck is chasing or trailing a doe, and that is generally called a trailing grunt. This just lets the doe and every other deer in the area that the buck is dedicated to the chase. Once they have the doe worn down, cornered, or otherwise caught, they will switch to making a more aggressive and lower grunt. They still produce a lot of these grunts in succession, and it is known as a tending grunt.
The trailing or tending grunt is certainly useful in a few situations, but it isn’t my go to call. You can get the same kind of attention with a simple grunt, or a rattling sequence, and both of those are easier to do than making a convincing tending grunt sequence.
As you would expect, a female or younger deer will make a softer, higher pitch grunt than a large buck. It’s important to differentiate between them when you call based on what you’re trying to accomplish. A loud, deep grunt in the fall can draw in a curious mature buck looking for a challenge, but it will likely run off does and younger bucks. A softer, and higher pitched, grunt can bring in just about everything.
I usually like to strike a balance in between unless it’s the peak of the rut and I want to bring in aggressive bucks. An adjustable grunt tube gives you that flexibility by having an adjustable tone to cover everything from a fawn bleat to a buck grunt. You can control volume by increasing airflow, and you can further vary the pitch by cupping and moving your hand over the end of the call and extending the tube. It’s also small and light, making it a great call to wear around your neck or throw in a vest pocket.
The Snort Wheeze
A snort wheeze is a noise exclusive to bucks. It is usually used by a dominant male making his presence known to another buck. It’s a series of short exhales through their nostrils followed by a longer exhale meant to intimidate another deer before a fight breaks out. You can interpret this call pretty much as a vulgar insult to the other bucks momma, and the promise of a fight.
If you have a bigger buck in visual range, but outside of shooting range, a snort wheeze may be the ticket to bring him closer. Using it on a small buck may be successful, but could end up with him bolting in the other direction if he’s not in the mood to get his butt kicked. This is one of those calls that is either a hit or miss. It can bring a buck within range, or send them the other direction and it varies across states and individual properties. To give yourself the best chance, use this call during the peak rut when bucks are the most aggressive.
You can buy a call to do this, and oftentimes they are made in combination with a regular grunt call. Although a snort wheeze can be done pretty easily with just your mouth, and a little practice. Personally, I make a couple of short, loud ‘fft’ noises followed immediately by a longer, trailing off ‘fffff’ as my snort wheeze, but there are different ways to skin that cat.
What’s more important than the sound is when you use it: only during the rut, and generally only on larger deer. Again, you can shoot your shot on a smaller buck, but the idea is you’re asking for a fight. A smaller buck may think better of it and run, even if he doesn’t know you’re a hunter.
The Doe Bleat
Along with grunts, does and fawns will talk to each other with bleats. A bleat can be anything from a soft, short, nasally ‘meh’ to a long, drawn out, pleading ‘meeeeeeh’ depending on the context. Deer chatting in a group are going to be soft, short and repetitive. A lost fawn or a doe in search of her baby is going to sound more desperate.
A bleat will definitely get a deers attention, even if they don’t come running in. A doe will use a bleat to talk with the rest of the does in her group. It is often used if a doe is separated or lost. After she lets out a few bleats, other deer come looking and the group is reunited. It’s the same story with a fawn bleat. Fawns spend plenty of time curled up on their own, but if they ever feel like they are lost or in danger, they let out a high pitched bleat that gets the attention of any doe in the area.
Whitetails are a gregarious, social species, so try to tap into that if you see a lone doe. Hit her with some soft social bleats and she may come in search of a group, or try to tap into her maternal instinct with a desperate fawn bleat. Does are commonly known to adopt or look after fawns that lose their mothers, so a fawn bleat can bring in a doe if that is what you are looking for.
You can bleat at deer using either your voice or a mechanical call, and you can call to them as long as they aren’t spooking. Bleating to deer you can see can be highly effective, and it lets you judge their body language to see if they’re receptive or suspicious of you. If they aren’t spooking, keep calling until you get a positive response. Of course, don’t call if they are within shooting range, and the perfect sequence takes plenty of practice.
The Contender grunt tube I mentioned earlier can be adjusted to make a bleat call, but you can also use a can call like Primos’ The Original Can Deer Call for a simple, repeatable bleat. Just turn the can over and it does the rest, making a realistic doe bleat. If you’re confident enough in your voice calling, you can add some different inflection and volume to try to bring in deer.
While not a vocalization, rattling for bucks is one of the most popular calling techniques for bringing in bucks. Rattling is meant to mimic the sound of two bucks fighting. You can use real antlers, fake antlers, or some other device that sounds realistic. Bucks don’t fight for no reason, but they are willing to kill each other for breeding rights. So if you rattle during the right time, an eager buck might just come in to check it out. That being said, rattling is best used during the pre-rut or rut as bucks will only spar or fight during this time.
When you rattle, you want to sound as realistic as possible. For me, it actually helps to envision bucks fighting when I rattle. I’m trying to set a scene, where two deer cross paths in search of a hot doe, feel each other out, then crash antlers in a battle for dominance. Sure, it’s a little dramatic, but on a long sit during the rut, it helps to break up the hours of sitting and waiting.
There are as many different rattling strategies as there are rattling products, but the key is that you don’t clash your rattling antlers together super fast and frequently. I recommend watching some bucks fighting on YouTube and trying to mimic the cadence and duration of an actual fight. If you’re hunting from the ground, throwing in some leaf rustling and dirt kicking can add to the realism.
One of my favorite rattling methods comes from Janis Putelis of MeatEater, while I don’t think he came up with the idea, he’s the first person I saw talk about it. He had a video once where he talked about tying three antlers together on the end of a rope, and taking the other end up the tree with you. When you want to rattle, pull up on the rope. This sounds natural, and even gets some sound from the leaves into it too, which is definitely there when bucks actually fight. The thing I love most about this is that the antlers are not in your hands and taking up space in your stand. Plus, if you see a deer coming in, you don’t have to scramble to put your antlers away and grab your bow. You just have to simply let go of the rope.
Keep in mind what you’re doing when you rattle: you’re trying to call in an agitated, aggressive buck, and if you’re successful that’s exactly what you’ll get. So, finish your rattling sequence, put the antlers down, and grab your bow or gun. If a buck is on the way, he’s coming in hot and his head is on a swivel, ready to bust you while you fiddle with those antlers.
You don’t want to over-do it with rattling, so wait at least 30 minutes between rattling sequences. If a buck hears you and is a ways out, you want to give him time to reach you. You’re also announcing your position to every deer within earshot, so if you’re not hunting bucks exclusively, you can end up spooking off does if you rattle too often. You can get more aggressive with it as the rut ramps up, but the best call is often silence.
Deer Calls by Rut Phase
I have already mentioned before that during some parts of the rut, some calls have a totally different meaning. Well it’s no surprise that some calls are better to use than others during certain parts of the year. Of course, there are no wrong answers in hunting, and if it works for you then it works, but here are the standard calls that you might want to use during each phase of the season.
Deer Calls by Rut Phase
If your state opens its bow season in early September, like Georgia, you probably know that on opening day, there isn’t a single deer in the woods thinking about the rut. During this time of year, deer are very social and bucks may even be in bachelor groups. It will not take long for bachelor groups to break up, but deer are by no means aggressive during the early season. You probably will not find very many fresh scrapes or rubs either; the bulk of the deer sign is going to be tracks and nibbled on browse.
During this time of the year, you might be better off being quiet. My go-to strategy is to find a favorite food source and hang a stand nearby. If I were to use a call during this time of the year, it would likely be the basic contact grunt or a doe bleat. If you like to take a few does at the start of the season like I do, a doe bleat is a good way to bring them into bow range.
When the pre rut starts, deer are going to start laying down more sign. You will start seeing fresh scrapes and more rubs. Those are both forms of communication, and throwing some calls in will bring it full circle. Bucks will certainly be one their own by now, but they will not be aggressive. You may see a pair of bucks do a bit of light sparing, so some rattling may work well.
Although the best type of call I like to use during this time is a contact grunt. I throw out a few blind grunts every hour or so (when I’m in the mood) and hope to catch the ear of a deer nearby. Contact grunts can be extremely effective during this time, and the doe bleat is still a great option too.
During the peak rut, all bets are off. Depending on where you hunt, a call might not work at all or it might bring deer running in during this phase of the rut. You can expect to see deer running wide open after each other during what most sane people would describe as the best days of the year. I try my best to make sure I am hunting the right location during the peak rut more than what call I am going to use. Since deer are moving so much, hunting a funnel, or popular cross roads is a great strategy.
If you are going to call, aggressive calls are the best. Bucks are now ready to fight to the death for the right to mate. If you don’t know, besides humans, deer are the number one killer of other deer, and the majority of it happens during this time. So stick with low and aggressive grunts, and try out a snort wheeze if you see a buck out of shooting range. Rattling can also be very effective, just be ready for a deer to come running to check out what you are up to.
During the post rut, things slow down a bit. The peak of the rut is over and the majority of does have been bred. Most deer are going to be focused on feeding and recovering from the peak rut. Although the difference between the post rut and the late season is that younger does will come into estrus during this time of year, and the mature bucks know that they still have a chance to breed more does.
You don’t want to use anything too aggressive during this time, because like I said, most deer (including some shooter bucks) are not going to be focused on breeding. They are going to be more social and you will likely see deer in larger groups. So, the best thing to try out during this time is a standard social grunt. It gets the attention of other deer and can work well during the post rut. A doe bleat can also be used to try and convince a buck that there is a doe that has yet to be bred, and that might just bring him in.
During the late season, all the does have been bred and all the deer are focused on feeding. You will not do very well with aggressive calling, and calling in general may not be super effective during this time of year. Since deer are so focused on feeding (much like the early season) I focus more on hunting around food source during the late season. That is where you are going to see the majority of deer, and if you set your stand up right, they should walk right past you without having to call at all.
Although if I really wanted to use a call during this time of year, the contact grunt is always a go to. During this part of the year, a doe grunt transitions back to mean “hey I’m over here” instead of being a breeding call. A doe bleat might also work well. That will signal that a doe or a fawn is trying to find other deer to be with, and during the late season deer are in larger groups, so a bleat could bring in a lot of deer at once.
What Works Here, Doesn’t There
Another vitally important thing to know about deer calls is that what works in one state, or even one property, might not work on another. I have hunted in areas where a grunt will stop a running deer in its tracks and bring it right to you, and I have hunted in others where the same sound during the same time of year will send deer the opposite way with their tail up.
Keep that in mind while you do research, or watch people call in deer online. Every deer population is different, and every deer is different. Every call can get a different reaction based on when you use it, how you use it, and especially where you use it. So don’t expect to call a Bonne & Crockett buck within 5 yards after your first call on a new property. It takes practice to not only be able to make a good call, but to also figure out what deer in the area like.
Whatever your experience level is, adding a couple of calls to your hunting game can help increase your success rate. It can make the time you get to spend in the stand more productive, and it can help you stay in the stand longer during those peak times of season. Instead of just looking forward to the next snack time, you can add some calling sequences into your schedule to make those hours pass, and probably see more deer while you're at it.
Just make sure you don’t call too much, sometimes the best call is no call at all. You should also try your best to imitate what the deer are doing during that time of year. If deer are aggressive, your calls can be aggressive, if they are focused on feeding, you should focus on hunting feeding areas. Most importantly, calling takes practice. It may take a while to be able to make a good sounding call, and it may take years to figure out what the deer on your property like. Just keep at it, and eventually, you will call in a shooter.