They say necessity is the mother of invention. I say desperation is the mother of discovery.
It was opening morning of Pennsylvania’s archery deer season in late September many years ago. The foliage was thick and green, the humidity was high and the deer activity was slow. I was sitting in a tree stand about 60 yards inside the woods, off the edge of an alfalfa field. A decent buck and two does entered the woods from the field about 80 yards to my left, and they immediately turned to head away from me. If I did nothing, I’d be out of the game. So I did something. I grabbed by grunt call and gave a short toot. The buck stopped, looked my way, then turned back to follow the does. I grunted again. This time, the buck curled around and walked straight toward me. I arrowed that eight-pointer when he stopped 10 paces from the base of my tree. And just like that, I became a believer in early-season calling. Here’s a look at some killer calls for early season whitetail.
For the most part, calling to bucks is considered a rut-time affair. By contrast, convention says the early season is a time for staying quiet, and relying on diligent scouting to be in the right place at the right time. Most whitetail hunters probably don’t even bother carrying their calls into the field in September and early October. I say that’s a mistake.
Whitetails are vocal creatures. Biologists at the University of Georgia in 1988 identified and recorded over 400 different deer vocalizations. And their research noted that deer communicated with one another all year long – not just during the rut.
One thing that tells us about whitetails is they’re social. They’re also curious. Ever had one stomp toward you in the wide open, with its neck craned and ears flared, while you stood motionless? Vocal, social and curious. That’s a recipe for calling success regardless of the species.
WHAT ARE THEY SAYING?
In the early season – late August through early October across much of North America’s
whitetail country – you’re likely to find deer in their late-summer feeding patterns. Does and fawns will be grouped together. Bucks that soon will try to kill each other will hang out peacefully in bachelor bunches.
Does and fawns talk to one another with a series of bleats and grunts. Fawns are prone to making calls that sound like a baby crying. These might be characterized as bawls or drawn-out bleats. The does also will bleat, although the pitch will be deeper, the volume lower and the duration shorter than the bleat of a fawn. This is not the estrus bleat you’ll hear later when its time to breed. It’s a call does make to gather their fawns.
Does also grunt. Quite a bit, in fact. It’s a low-pitched noise they use to maintain contact with their fawns and other does. It actually sounds a lot like the grunts bucks make outside the rutting period. Soft and short is the best way to describe it.
Buck grunts in the early season are noticeably missing the aggression that will characterize their vocalizations several weeks later. Think of it as bucks communicating in a civil tone, versus the trash talk that will take over when they start fighting over the ladies.
CALLS FOR THE TIME
Many of the deer calls on the market today are built primarily for the rut ‑ doe estrus bleats, buck snort-wheeze, magnum roar calls, etc. You don’t want to use those calls during the early season. Subtlety is the rule this time of year.
For buck calls, test a bunch of different models to find one that has a little higher pitch than the standard rut grunter. There are several models that feature a sliding O-ring on the reed, which allows you to adjust the tone and pitch. Those are great for early-season calling. So are calls that have accordion-style end tubes, which you can shorten and elongate to change the pitch.
Aside from the calls that make estrus bleats, pretty much any doe call will do for the early season. You want to be able to make soft grunts and bleats, just like a doe communicating with her fawns and other does. Fawn-bleat calls are a good choice too. Both are great for luring does into bow range, but they can also bring in a buck looking for company.
TALK THE TALK
A main difference between calling to bucks in the early season, as opposed to the rut, is you’re trying to pique a buck’s curiosity. Later on, you’re trying to challenge that buck. During the rut, you’re probably used to long, drawn-out grunts, or the tending grunts ‑ a series of fast burps that imitate the sounds a buck makes when it’s trailing a hot doe.
Early-season grunts are far more subtle. To our ears, early season grunts are tough to hear unless the buck is right under your stand. To imitate that call, give a single soft, very short “burp.” Wait a few seconds, then do it again.
The advantage in the early season is the vegetation is thicker, so an approaching buck can’t see as well through the timber. You want to fool a buck into thinking one of his buddies is hidden in the area, inviting him to come join the party.
If you’ve hunted much during the early season, you know the timber is full of doe bleats
and grunts. I don’t know if it’s because there hasn’t been much hunting pressure, or if it’s because does are so busy communicating with their fawns, but does are very talkative in the early season. Even though bucks are in their bachelor groups, doe chatter will sometimes cause them to come over. Remember, they’re curious and social.
What about rattling? Well, if you’re hunting early enough that most bucks are still in velvet, then I’d leave the rattle pack in your pack. But if there are some hard-horned bucks running around, by all means, do a little tickling. Bucks – especially young ones – will start playful sparring as soon as they shed their velvet. It’s just going to be light sparring, though, so all you want to do is make a noise to imitate the sound of tines tickling together.
DON’T BE A SPECTATOR
Big, mature bucks can become ghosts once they break out of their late-summer feeding patterns and go into pre-rut mode. If you have an early-season encounter with a big buck, you might want to try calling to him before he disappears. At worst, he ignores you and you have to come up with another plan to tag him. At best, you collect some fine venison for the table and a big rack for the wall.