Many outdoor activities come in three stages — Basic, Intermediate and Advanced. This progression allows hunters to (1) make mistakes, (2) correct those mistakes and (3) make more mistakes. All in all, a very elemental process.
Following this tri-level process is the hunting strategy known as deer calling, correct? That’s what I assumed when I was asked to write an article on advanced deer calling tactics. At first, I was stumped. I understood that over the past 20 years, there had been advancements in deer call technology. And likewise, there had been numerous discoveries in deer biology. But what could be considered advanced about grunts, bleats and wheezes? Was I missing something?
Stymied, I called on friend and archery devotee Chris Kirby. Currently serving as president of the Orchard Park, New York-based Quaker Boy Game Calls, Kirby spends as much time each fall perched atop a tree stand as does anyone in the country. A talented call-maker and outdoorsman far beyond his years, it took Kirby but seconds to answer my question — is there anything advanced about deer calling?
“No,” said Kirby, laughing. “Although deer do vocalize a lot more than hunters would have thought 15 years ago, there’s nothing whatsoever advanced about deer calling. It’s a grunt and a bleat and a deer.”
Essentially, deer, regardless of subspecies, communicate with but two tongues — a bleat, and a grunt. To understand these, says Kirby, is to understand not only the basis but also the intent of the deer’s vocalization.
All deer bleat, not just does and fawns. True, the sound is most commonly associated with females and young animals, but bucks will bleat on occasion as well.
The bleat is typically a short, low to very moderate volume sound of solitary contentment or normal social or searching interaction; however, there are two exceptions. The first, known as an estrus bleat or in some circles as the bleat-in-heat, is made by a receptive doe. The second exception, the distress bleat, sees the sound radically transformed from one of contentment to that of terror. Perhaps best described as a spine-chilling series of high-pitched squalls, the fawn-in-distress bleats are intended to appeal to a doe’s maternal instincts. Effective? Yes; however, Western hunters should take note that the fawn-in-distress call not only works on deer, but can also capture the attention of a cougar quicker than “here kitty-kitty” wakes up an old tabby.
As is the bleat with does and fawns, the grunt is often thought of as bucks-only; however, both females and young animals will use this low-pitched guttural noise.
Some purists will disagree, I’m sure, but truth be known, there are only two categories of grunts — grunts from old deer, and grunts from young deer. The difference, not surprisingly, lies in the pitch, a tonal separation which is the result of the maturation of the individual animal’s vocal cords.
“When it comes to the vocalizations deer make, they’re not as elaborate nor as extensive as that of, say, a wild turkey. Or a human voice,” said Kirby. “To me, you have a young buck and an old buck. An older buck’s grunt is going to be deeper than that of a young buck. Does are the same way. Old does are going to sound deeper; young does are going to be higher pitched. Now I’m simplifying that and there are biologists who will argue that simplification, but when you’re talking about hunting deer and the biological make-up of a deer, you’re talking about two different things.”
Now, allow me to back up and perhaps contradict myself by further defining young, old, and a couple other items related to grunts and grunting.
Grunts, young — A high-pitched grunt. Young bucks, like older animals, will grunt in not so much an aural difference but rather one which is situational. In other words, the sounds themselves will appear to be the same, yet will be delivered under varying circumstances. For example, a buck might (1) grunt as he moves through his range in hopes of attracting a doe. He might (2) grunt as a way of intimidating a lesser animal. Or he might (3) grunt simply as a means of social contact. To the human, the grunts sound very much alike; however, to the deer at the receiving end, there’s a world of difference. This said, it becomes apparent that calling is not only a matter of sound but also of situation. What illusion do you, the caller, want to present? A buck with a doe? A buck in search of a doe? Two bucks, one young and one old, in a confrontational situation? That decision, as Kirby explains, is the basis of successful deer calling.
Grunts, old — The lower-pitched, deep grunts made by an older animal. In the grand deer scheme of things, such sounds are presumed to carry more weight simply because they’re coming from an older, more experienced, and in many cases, larger deer. Here again, the sound chosen by the caller depends upon the situation or response the caller wishes to evoke.
Grunts, tending — The tending grunt is delivered at a moderate volume, and with much more duration than is the typically mono-syllabic, abrupt traditional grunt. How much duration? Thirty seconds isn’t out of the question. Nor is a full minute. A good rule of thumb is for the caller to quit upon feeling faint. Or fainting. The tending grunt is situational; the situation here being a buck, often a dominant animal, actually in the company of a doe in estrus. To the satellite buck, this is an opportunistic sound; however, in this case, the opportunist might just be the hunter. A note here — tending grunts can also differ from the baseline grunt in they can feature a muted ticking sound.
The snort-wheeze — Phonetically, the snort-wheeze is best described by its name — a quick expulsion of air, i.e. the snort, or perhaps two or three bursts, followed by a drawn-out breathy wheeze. The snort-wheeze is most often used in situations of aggression, confrontation, or intimidation.
His status as a nationally recognized designer of wild game calls notwithstanding, Kirby closed his pseudo-dissertation on deer vernacular with this piece of tactical wisdom, itself having little to do with calls and calling.
“The principles of scent elimination, stand placement and being in the woods on good sign is far more important than any call you could ever use. I mean, if you’re sitting on a trail and the wind’s blowing right down that trail, I don’t care what kind of call you use. It’s not going to happen.”