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24 Things Every Texan Should Do Before He Dies: Rattling up whitetail bucks

Mike Leggett, Commentary

Staff Writer
Austin 360
Outdoors writer Mike Leggett uses his rattling horns to emulate the sound of two whitetails fighting during a South Texas hunting trip. Rattling is a fun way to hunt deer but a difficult way to kill deer.

Mike Leggett is a native Texan and veteran Statesman outdoors writer who has compiled ‘A Texas To-Do List: 24 Things Every Texan Should Do Before He Dies.' This year, he's taken us to every corner of the state to fish and hunt, search for artifacts and endangered birds, mountain climb, hike and camp out. Today we reach the halfway point of the To-Do List on a small hill in the desert north of Laredo, where Mike hunts for deer the way the Indians did it hundreds of years ago.

A skin-flaying north wind whooshed through the low desert brush, turning my cheeks Santa red, but muffling the sounds of my trek north to a low gravel hill.

A heavy, steel-gray sky threatened to begin pelting Webb County with sleet at any moment.

From the top of this slight bit of elevated ground, I could see down into a draw. Visibility was limited by the waist-high ceniza, or purple sage if you're a Roy Rogers fan. But the draw was directly upwind.

This would be the place.

I pulled out my tools. The horns, of course. A grunt call. Leather gloves to ward off the thorns. A face mask and the rifle.

I was ready. I was alone.

Or was I?

Facing the draw, I smashed the horns together like cymbals. I wanted the first sound to be loudest and most shocking. Then I began grinding the horns together using motions that I hoped would imitate the sounds of two whitetail bucks, head-to-head, pushing and shoving and trying to beat the other into submission.

As I worked the horns against each other, I kicked some rocks and waded through some brush, cracking branches and adding some depth and reality to the sound track.

When two bucks fight, the battle is unrestrained, noisy and sometimes to the death. In a grand sense, it is survival of the fittest. In the reality of the moment, it's all about who gets the girl.

No more than 30 seconds into my masquerade, a medium-sized buck exploded out of the draw about 50 yards away and began coming directly at the bushes where I was hiding. His hooves were flinging rocks and gravel, and he was knocking down bushes as he came. His muscles rippled, his eyes were wild and slobber slung from his mouth, caught in the wind and spider webbed around his head.

Honestly, at that moment, I was a bit concerned.

Here was a couple hundred pounds of armed and irritated buck, looking to beat down on a pair of interlopers trespassing in his territory. In that instant, I could visualize being trampled, then pounded by that buck.

And, in that instant, I knew I was right. This is one of the 24 Things Every Texan Should Do Before He Dies. It's wild. It's natural. It's real. It's invigorating.

Rattling — the use of deer antlers to imitate the sounds of two bucks fighting — is a perfect, interactive way of seeing animals and being involved, briefly, in their lives. Rattling puts you in the deer's living room, at his level, and it's one of the few times, even with a rifle, that the hunter is at a complete disadvantage.

Rattlers see things other hunters don't. Like coyotes or even mountain lions sitting near a skirmish between a pair of 200-pound brutes with locked antlers, waiting patiently to pull down an exhausted loser.

Although it is a common hunting technique everywhere whitetails are found today, rattling is quintessentially Texan. Old-time Texas wildlife biologist Bob Ramsey, who died a couple of years ago, popularized rattling for millions of hunters, but credited Indians with first using the technique. Ramsey always contended that the horns would attract deer any time and anywhere, and he often would rattle in a white shirt and a cowboy hat, just to prove his point.

Today you can buy all kinds of rattling accessories: special scents to mask your human smell; face masks and camouflage clothing; plastic "horns;" bags of sticks that make a rattling sounds, and rattling tubes and cans; grunt calls to enhance the allure of the horns; and video tapes teaching techniques.

You don't need all that. I've rattled deer with gravel and rocks, sticks and the butt stock of a rifle.

Horn rattling (and yes we know they're antlers, not horns) is simple and such a pure pursuit that everyone should try it at some point.

You don't have to kill a deer. In fact, you probably won't. Many hunters never see the buck they successfully rattle up, because the buck circles the sound to get downwind and check the scents from there. When he smells Chuck instead of buck, he's gone. There have been studies showing that rattlers see maybe 50 percent of the deer that respond to the horns.

I'm convinced that even suburban deer commandos could rattle deer out of their neighbors' yards, if they'd just sit on the porch with some horns and a beer.

Bucks, unless they are with a doe in estrus, can't resist the sounds of a fight. Sometimes they just want to watch. Sometimes they want to get in on it. Often, they're looking for an opportunity to steal the doe that started the whole thing to begin with.

I once sat on the porch of Bill Carter's house in Webb County and watched a fight between two monster bucks. Most fights last a few seconds. This one went on for several minutes along the edge of a wheat field 600 yards to the north. All around the two grappling heavyweights, other bucks, some big, some small, ran in and out of the brush. Some acted as if they might charge the combatants. Some just looked at who was fighting and took off. All of them were highly agitated, though.

I've never killed a deer that I've rattled in. But, oh, the things I've seen.

I once touched the horns only once, looked down at my chest to make sure I'd remembered by grunt call and looked up again — right into the face of a mature buck staring into the bush where I was kneeling. He was just inches away. He must have been just a few yards away when I rattled, and I hadn't heard or seen him.

Another time, I began rattling and within moments a buck jumped into the clearing near the spot where I was hiding. Followed quickly by another buck. Then another. Next thing you know, everybody but me is posturing and walking stiff-legged and acting tough. Nobody knew who to fight. I rattled some more. Before it was over, there were 11 bucks all in the immediate vicinity, all of them puffed up and ready to go to war.

Oddly enough, I felt more confident with 11 of them huffing around than I did when confronted with just that one buck that surged up out of the draw down in Webb County. He had crunched to a stop just short of my hiding spot, looked around, sniffed and slobbered. He was one confused buck.

When he moved again, he did so in a wide circle, sniffing the wind for deer as he went.

As he got downwind of me, he picked up parfum du chasseur, froze for a nanosecond, changed from Schwarzenegger to Carl Lewis, spun and bounded out of sight.

And I went back to rattling.

mleggett@statesman.com

@statesman.com

See video of Mike Leggett rattling for deer and read previous stories in this series at statesman.com/sports/outdoors.