All you need to know about deer calling

January 27, 2014

Larry Richardson is the man who popularized deer calling 30 years ago.

Oh, sure, calling deer was practiced long before Europeans settled in North America. And a few savvy hunters carried this tradition forward into modern times, blowing on homemade calls to gain deer's attention and lure them in.

But it was Richardson, a wildlife biology graduate student, who moved deer calling into the mainstream. In 1983, Richardson published his master's thesis, "Acoustics of White-Tailed Deer" (Mississippi State University). Through his research, Richardson recorded eight different aural communications made by whitetails and explained what they meant. When his paper was published, he was astonished at the response of the hunting community.

"As word of my study spread, there was a flood of magazine articles and letters and contacts from game-call manufacturers," Richardson said. "Interest in deer calling just exploded, and soon many hunters were carrying deer calls into the woods and using them successfully to attract whitetails. It was phenomenal how quickly deer calling became an accepted part of so many hunters' game plans. Instead of just sitting and waiting for deer to walk by, now these hunters became proactive in calling them in."

That was then. What about now, 30 years later? Has anything changed in deer calling, and what can modern hunters do to be more successful at enticing bucks and does into bow or gun range?

Today, Richardson answers these questions with three more decades of experience in deer calling. Now a research biologist with the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service (mainly studying Florida panthers), Richardson remains an avid deer caller and student of these animals' behavior.

He notes, "Deer still make the same calls, obviously. But today we know a lot more about what these calls mean, thanks to ongoing research at several universities. As a result, hunters now have a greater understanding of how calling fits into the whole deer hunting package. As a result, they are calling with even more confidence and effectiveness, and they consider calling to be an important part of their overall deer hunting approach."

Here is an update from Richardson on how modern hunters can use calls to create curiosity, excitement or even anger to lure both bucks and does into harvestable range.

Overview Of Deer Communications

To conduct his graduate study, Richardson used microphones and cassette recorders to record calls made by captive deer in research pens at Mississippi State University. He then expanded his study and verified the same sounds were made by non-captive animals in the wild.

The calls Richardson identified were: bleat; distress call; nursing whine; grunt; alert snort (alarm snort); snort-wheeze; aggressive snort; and foot stomp (a non-vocal call). All have distinctive sounds and convey specific messages from one deer to another.

Richardson notes, "From the hunter's perspective, the grunt call, snort-wheeze and aggressive snort are the important calls, with the grunt call being the most important by far. The grunt call is the most common vocalization deer make. It is made by both bucks and does. It can be used as a contact call or as an acknowledgement call, like a cat meowing or a cow mooing. Also, a grunt call can indicate aggression. The differences in meaning are expressed through inflection and intensity in the calls and also body posture. So the grunt can mean, 'I'm here; where are you?' when made by a doe looking for her fawn. Or it can mean, 'I don't like you in my territory!' when a bristled-up buck challenges another buck during the rut."

Richardson continues. "The snort-wheeze and the aggressive snort signal that a fight is going on right now. Both these calls are usually interspersed with antler rattling to give the rattling sequence more realism. The idea is to attract a buck that is dominant in his home range. He thinks, 'There's a fight going on in my territory, and I need to find out who it is.'"

Richardson said two other calls hunters might use in rare circumstances are the distress call and the alert snort. The distress call is made by a fawn that's frightened. Sometimes maternal does will rush in to check the situation. However, this isn't a call routinely used by hunters during fall.

And Richardson said a hunter might mimic an alert snort made by a deer that is scared or curious and snorting at him. He explains, "The idea is to try to calm the deer's fear. You're trying to make him think you're another deer. I make this call with my mouth. I'll just snort once or twice back at him to see what happens."

Still, the grunt is the call Richardson makes 99 percent of the time. He prefers using grunt calls that blow (instead of mechanical calls) because they can produce the inflection he desires to communicate different meanings in different circumstances.

Tips For More Effective Calling

Through his years of observation and research, Richardson has learned many subtleties of deer communications and how to apply them in hunting situations. He offers the following tips to help others improve their calling.

"Deer just don't call a lot," he said, "and the biggest mistake deer callers make is calling too often and too loud. When I'm broadcast calling to attract unseen deer, I'll make two to three grunts in a low to moderate volume, then I'll wait four to five minutes and blow another series of calls. If you call more frequently than this, you're simply advertising that you're not a deer.

"Now, between these two series, I'll slowly and carefully scan the woods for any subtle movement or sign of deer. Bucks, especially, don't usually come running in when they hear a grunt. Instead, if they come, they approach slowly and alertly, looking for the deer that made the grunts. They don't live to old age by being careless."

If he sees a deer looking his way, Richardson won't call again, hoping the animal will get curious and come closer. He waits to let the deer make the next move.

However, if the deer turns to leave or Richardson sees a buck walking by and not coming toward him, he will blow a short grunt to try to stop him and make him look. If the deer fails to respond, Richardson will grunt louder to gain his attention, but he still makes as realistic a sound as he can.

Richardson said hunters should practice calling frequently so they can make a good call the first time.

"Deer have very acute hearing, and if you make a poor call, they can tell it's a fake, and it'll alert them to danger instead of drawing them in," he said. "Remember, you are playing to their curiosity to come and check you out. Calling too much, out of the ordinary, just confirms you aren't who you say you are."

The pre-rut and rut are the best times to grunt, both to troll in unseen deer and to draw visible deer closer. During the breeding season, Richardson grunts with greater intensity by adding more accent to the front end of the call.

The pitch of a grunt indicates the body size of the deer that makes the call. Larger-bodied deer grunt with a lower pitch, while smaller-bodied deer grunt with a higher pitch.

"When hunting, I always lean toward a higher-pitched call," Richardson said. "A lower-pitched grunt might make a buck think he's about to get whipped by a bigger buck and scare him away, while a higher-pitched grunt might attract an older buck that's ready to chase off what he thinks is a younger, smaller buck."

Richardson said blowing the snort wheeze or aggressive snort while rattling antlers signals mortal combat between two dominant bucks.

"These calls should only be used by trophy hunters who are looking for the big one. They're not likely to lure in sub-dominant bucks. A lot of times fighting sounds will actually scare younger bucks away."

Overall Package

Richardson said calling is but one part (albeit an important part) of an overall deer hunting strategy. He advocates wearing full camouflage when legal to do so (i.e., bow season). He uses unscented soaps and scent eliminators to minimize human odors on his body and clothes, but does not use cover scents or attractor scents. He explains, "I'm not sure how effective these scents are, and I'd rather be "scent invisible" instead of "scent noticeable."

He is unfailing about selecting stand sites upwind or crosswind from where he expects deer to appear.

Then Richardson calls — every day.

"I always take my call and use it," he said. "I call to paint a picture in a deer's mind that's appropriate to the circumstances of the day. If it's early season, I'll blow contact grunts, subtle and lazy. Later, as the rut approaches, I'll get more aggressive with my grunts. I call to deer that I don't see and to those I do.

"If done correctly, calling allows hunters to stack the odds in their favor. But if done improperly, it lowers their odds. They're trying to fool a really smart animal, and there's little room for error in calling, or scent management, or stand placement or any other facet of hunting. Hunters have to get it all right to enjoy consistent success, especially on mature bucks."

Richardson concludes, "Calling adds so much more to my pleasure in deer hunting. I enjoy interacting with deer. I get to use my senses like never before, and there's a great feeling of satisfaction when I call a deer in.

"Here's the bottom line: Calling increases my chances of success and adds to the enjoyment of my hunting experience. What's not to like about this?"