Grab your rattling antlers and your duck decoys for some unique Manitoba magic
by Rob Olson
When most people are getting their Halloween costumes ready for the kids and carving pumpkins, it’s time for you to get your muzzleloader out and dust off your chest waders. I am a passionate deer and duck hunter and I hate to have to choose between them, so I don’t. For the past twenty years or so, I’ve been combining the two hunts during the third week of October when muzzleloader season normally opens.
The greenheads and bluebills are fat and beautiful by this time, and what’s better than crispy, roasted, fat fall ducks? This also happens to be the time when, in my opinion, mature whitetail bucks are most likely to come to rattled antlers, if you know how to do it.
Warning: I’ve got strong opinions on how to rattle for whitetails. I’ve been experimenting with rattling shed antlers as a way to attract bucks for several decades now and here’s what I’ve learned.
First let’s start with the antlers. I’ve tried it all – synthetic antlers, rattle bags, old shed antlers, fresh antlers – and in my view, you just can’t beat the real thing, period. A set of mid-sized antlers that still have their color produce a sound that just plain works. After lots of experimentation, I now have two sets of rattling antlers that are pure magic and which my hunting friends always want to “borrow”. I guard them with my life and much like I wouldn’t go ice fishing without my flasher, I wouldn’t go muzzleloading without them.
I use two fresh, shed antlers, both from the same side of a deer so they lay together naturally, and the tines don’t crush my hands. You need to be able to rattle for a long period of time. The biggest mistake I think people make is that they don’t rattle even remotely long enough. A real fight between two bucks can last a long time and it can be loud and violent.
I’ve rattled a lot along the edge of the valley at Minnedosa, so I’ve been able to watch bucks from a great distance react to my rattling and what I mostly learned is that very often, as soon as I stopped rattling, they stopped coming. I’ve never seen constant rattling scare away a buck. I have startled bucks that were right beside me, by rattling too loud too soon. But mostly I’ve seen bucks stop coming when the rattling stopped. Writers often tell you to rattle for a short time, like for a minute, every 15-30 minutes or so. I think this is a huge mistake. I rattle almost continuously and have had great luck with that approach.
To rattle a lot, you don’t want two antlers of giant proportions; it’s too tiring and beats you up too much. Small antlers don’t seem to make the right kind of sound and I have rarely had luck with them. You want two left or right antlers from a mid-sized four or five point buck. And you need to cut off the brow tines, and grind or sand that spot down, or you will mash up your hands. Drill a hole through the base and connect them with a carrying string. Now you are ready to bring in a big boy.
Deer Fight Club
I am convinced that the period of the last week of October, through the first week of November, is prime time for rattling. I’ve brought in as many as 10 different bucks in one session, but only at this time of year. I think calling is a better approach during the rut, but that’s another story. For the muzzleloader opener, “the boys” are past hanging around like summer pals, and are not quite yet into chasing girls. But they are figuring out amongst themselves who is going to be first in line to breed. That means it’s fight time.
Get yourself hidden in a great piece of property with lots of deer sign. You need to set up so that the area downwind of you is open. Bucks will often circle downwind of you to smell what you are, and you want them to have to expose themselves when they do that. Rattling up against a bluff with the wind blowing in your face and with your downwind side being open cropfield – bingo.
Start by gently rattling, then work up to a real fight and go as long as you can. You can vary the intensity as much as you want. The key is to be extremely hidden and keep rattling. I lay on my back, nearly flat, pack under my head, in heavy grass or brush cover. I have my gun laid out pointing past my feet so I can easily raise my black powder rifle with a short, minimal move and close the deal. Hunting in teams is not essential but is ideal because the buck will pinpoint the rattler. And I do mean he will absolutely pin you down with eyes five time better than yours. Having the shooter to the side just allows a bit more leeway in making the shot a good one.
Too Much Fun
I’ve always maintained some of the most exciting hunting occurs when you get to call in your quarry. Big honkers turning to your call and coming in wings set, a big gobbler answering your calls and strutting in, or an elk answering your cow call with a blood curdling bugle. You drop a hail call and a big flock of mallards turns, locks up and drops in on you…..my heart is beating fast just thinking about it. Well here’s your chance to actually call in a big, strong and smart buck on his turf and all the mallards you can handle…on the same day.
I’ve had too many memorable rattling and duck hunting same-day sessions to write about, but one stands out the most, and although we bagged a bunch of fat, grain-fed greenheads, we didn’t even shoot a deer!
The day before, Jim Fisher and I were cruising around Minnedosa, looking for ducks and we saw what makes every duck hunter’s blood boil: a huge swarm of ducks dropping like rocks into a small, wooded slough. We crept up quietly and peeked through the willows. You couldn’t fit another duck on the pond. We were vibrating.
The morning came early and we slipped in with some friends and my cantankerous Dad and Uncle. The ducks were spending the night on a large lake, and feeding in a barley stubble field at daybreak, then popping into our small, willowed “day pond” for water. At daybreak, we were ready but no ducks. Two hours went by and still nothing. Had they moved? Were they gonna come? I was getting very nervous they wouldn’t show.
I heard wings and looked up. Several hundred mallards, with their throats bulging with grain were circling but then headed west. Did they see us? Jim Fisher hit them with a quick hail call and they immediately turned and came towards us. They came closer and closer. I was sure with that many eyes an old Susie would see something wrong. When the first fat greenhead put his feet in the water, the boys shot. In two hours we had a beautiful bag of birds and a morning we will never forget. As we picked up the decoys, they were still circling the slough.
After a lunch of fried duck sandwiches on the tailgate, and a beautiful snooze in some warm grass, we were ready for a little rattling. When scouting for ducks, I’d spotted a wheat field with about 20 does and fawns feeding in it. With that many ladies, and the rut coming, I knew there’d be some bucks in the adjacent 40 acre bush, but I had no idea how many.
We set up on the north side of the bush, in a thin strip of trees adjacent to main woods. And since there was a big south wind, the deer in the bush could not get downwind of us unseen and would not smell us till it was too late. Perfect.
I had my father with me and wanted to rattle in his first buck. He was a total non- believer. Well, not for long! Most times the rattler would want to set up away from the shooter, so the gunner can have some freedom to move a bit for the shot. I did this with Dad but that was a huge mistake because he is an ornery character that does not follow instruction, as well as a novice rattle hunter, so I should have kept him closer to me.
I was 15 yards behind him when I started my rattling. Within seconds a giant and I do mean a giant deer, came to the edge of the bush. He was a monarch, a once-in-a- lifetime buck. I thought, “this old curmudgeon is going to shoot a monster his first time rattling!”
When I stopped rattling to let my hands rest, the big dude turned to leave, like they do. I started rattling again and he came back to the edge. His antlers were way outside his ears. A super wide, heavy 6×6. I’ll never forget what he looked like, standing there like a statue, regal, like he owned that place.
I then did a trick that has put many big bucks in my freezer: I used my foot to give an adjacent sapling a little jiggle. I try to lay with my foot against a small sapling when rattling. If a buck hangs up and you move a sapling a bit and rattle the branches a little, well from a distance, that tree moving often triggers a deer. I have had them come too fast and nearly trample me, which is a good problem to have.
When the sapling moved the monarch then started walking towards us: 100 yards, 75 yards, 50 yards. Why wasn’t Dad shooting? “Shoot”, I screamed in my mind. Dad was looking the wrong way and wasn’t paying attention to the elk-sized animal bearing down on him. He later admitted he thought there was no way in heck that rattling would work and wasn’t paying attention. I finally got Dad’s attention by hissing at him and I motioned to shoot (!!) with my finger, to which he replied with a loud’ “what!?”…….. And with that, the third biggest deer I’ve ever seen ran out of our lives and into my dreams.
We continued rattling and brought in 5 different bucks that night but Dad was spoiled in seeing the monster and was holding out for him to come back. But you normally only get one chance at a deer like that. Oh well, just as good he lives on in our memories. Over the years, I’ve done this waterfowl and deer combo hunt all over Manitoba: pintails and bucks at Whitewater Lake, bluebills and deer at Erickson, honkers and big deer at Lundar, and bluebills and gnarly bucks in the Whiteshell. This opportunity is world class and can be done in most parts of this Province, and so can you.
Email me your thoughts on rattling; I’d love to hear from you.