The Science of Calling in Whitetails

The art of getting a big buck close

The Science of Calling in Whitetails
Calling whitetails works, but it’s a process, and most of the time you will fail. But when you don’t, it can be the difference between tagging out and an empty freezer.

The only way Harmon, my nephew, knew to hunt deer was to sit over a food plot and hope for a buck to walk by. I wanted him to experience some boots-on-the-ground still-hunting during the rut, so we sneaked to a bluff overlooking an oak hollow. We set up almost like turkey hunters with our backs to a tree below the bluff’s crest. About 15 minutes later, I saw a deer through the woods, perhaps 100 yards, quartering away from us. I elbowed Harmon. There was no chance of a shot, so I blew on the grunt tube as if I were Dizzy Gillespie.

The deer stopped, changed direction, and fast-walked toward us. It was a young seven point, and I whispered to Harmon that if he liked the deer he should take it. Ten seconds later, Harmon’s .243 lurched and the buck went down.

“Ah, man!” he exclaimed. “You called him right in!” He was clearly pumped.

“Nothing to it!” I lied.


What he didn’t know was that I’d blown that grunt call probably 500 times without success since the last time it had worked a couple years earlier. Bucks often act like they can’t hear me when I grunt, but sometimes they come running, and that’s why I carry it on every hunt. Did the little buck think I was another buck and just wanted to fight? Was he curious? Or did he think I was a doe? It got me thinking: Is there an art to calling deer? To help determine this, let’s turn to science.


Vocalizations of Whitetail Deer

The most in-depth study on the subject was conducted by Dr. Thomas D. Atkeson, Dr. R. Larry Marchinton, and Dr. Karl V. Miller at the University of Georgia’s Deer Lab. In 1988, they summarized their findings in article titled “Vocalizations of White-tailed Deer” in The American Midland Naturalist.

The study was based on a herd of captive whitetails in Georgia, and the researchers recorded all the sounds the deer made then matched them to consistent actions over time. Eventually, they identified 12 distinct deer sounds.

This is all very interesting, but only some of these vocalizations help me as a hunter. Realistically, I want to be able to call in a deer, and so the “mew” and “bleat” could be handy for calling in a doe (Primos sells its The Can call that anyone can master) while all the mating and challenge sounds could call in dominant or curious bucks. Finally, the contact call could potentially calm down a nervous doe or even bring in a buck.

deer calling chart

But it’s not so easy. First, all deer sound a little different, and they are difficult to hear unless you’re close to them. So these subtle, nuanced calls are very difficult to learn. However, there are plenty of YouTube videos recorded by hunters wherein deer can clearly be heard making calls, so one thing you can do is watch a bunch of them and try to match the sound heard with one of the identified calls listed in the chart. Then try to mimic them to you make sure you’re not saying, “I’m going to whip you,” to a doe when you should be saying, “Hey, good lookin’!”


“There’s no doubt that the right stimulus to the right animal at the right time can be effective, but it’s largely dependent on the animal’s mood, and we can’t control the moods of animals,” said Gordon Whittington, North American Whitetail editor-in-chief. “Besides, we have no way of knowing a deer’s perception of various sounds, so it’s nearly impossible to study what actually triggers deer.”

Whitetail researcher Grant Woods agreed. But anecdotally, he’s noticed that deer tend to vocalize more in areas with a balanced buck-to-doe ratio. So if you find yourself on such a property, do not hesitate to call often.

After 30 years of trying to call whitetails with a success rate of less than 5 percent, I’ve found that deer are also individuals with different tastes and tendencies. Some are dominant and like to fight, while others may be dominant but don’t like to fight. Others are shy or just weirdos. Ever had a turkey ignore your box call, then go nuts moments later when you scratch your slate? It’s possible that individual deer like different tones as well.


Then there is timing. A tending-grunt given in October probably isn’t going to work. So astute hunters should know not only what call they are making and how to make it, but also when to use it.

Understanding whitetail vocalizations is still in its infancy, but there’s no doubt that calling works. Studying the language and learning how to make specific calls at specific times rather than throwing random grunts in the wind can give hunters an advantage.

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

2018 Petersen

2018 Petersen's Hunting Episode 9: Aloha Axis Deer

Host Mike Schoby joins his buddies Jon Dubin and Jeff Johnston on the island of Lanai for a deer hunt Hawaiian style!

Cheeseburger Poppers

Cheeseburger Poppers

David Draper shares his recipe for making delicious cheeseburger poppers with wild game in this edition of "Fare Game."

Camp Chef at SHOT Show: Elk Venison Slider Burgers Recipe

Camp Chef at SHOT Show: Elk Venison Slider Burgers Recipe

Have a freezer full of ground elk venison from your fall hunting trips? Never fear, the folks at Camp Chef have a great SHOT Show recipe that is lean and mean, easy to prepare, and a crowd-pleasing favorite!

2018 Petersen

2018 Petersen's Hunting Episode 13: Forest Buffalo

Craig Boddington returns to Mozambique's fame Coutada 10 for a shot a forest buffalo that's eluded him for 10 years.

See More Popular Videos

Trending Articles

Dream of a job in the hunting industry? Here's the inside scoop on some of the most coveted positions in the outdoors. Stories

17 Dream Jobs in the Outdoor Industry

Kali Parmley

Dream of a job in the hunting industry? Here's the inside scoop on some of the most coveted...

Looking for a great gun for the young hunter in your family? Here are eight favorites. Guns

8 Great Youth Guns Designed for Growing Hunters

Brad Fitzpatrick - July 18, 2016

Looking for a great gun for the young hunter in your family? Here are eight favorites.

Are predators really to blame for declining deer numbers? The answer might surprise you. Conservation

Do Coyotes Really Affect the Whitetail Herd?

Jeff Johnston

Are predators really to blame for declining deer numbers? The answer might surprise you.

From trajectory to penetration to recoil, we evaluate this cartridge for the big-game use case. Ammo

Is the .308 the Perfect North American Big Game Cartridge?

Richard Mann

From trajectory to penetration to recoil, we evaluate this cartridge for the big-game use case.

See More Trending Articles

More Whitetail

 The Ozonics HR-200 and HR-300 are designed to hang above your treestand and cover your scent with Whitetail

Can Scent-Covering Technology Fool a Whitetail's Nose?

Jeff Johnston

The Ozonics HR-200 and HR-300 are designed to hang above your treestand and cover your scent...

There's much more to killing massive whitetails than being lucky. Whitetail

5 Principles To Kill Giant Bucks

Jeff Johnston

There's much more to killing massive whitetails than being lucky.

August is the perfect time to ensure your deer stands are secure and ready. Whitetail

September Is Coming: Now Is the Time to Check Your Treestands

Jeff Johnston

August is the perfect time to ensure your deer stands are secure and ready.

Trail cameras can provide some valuable intel, but don't rely on them too much. Whitetail

Are You Relying Too Much on Trail Cameras?

Jeff Johnston

Trail cameras can provide some valuable intel, but don't rely on them too much.

See More Whitetail

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save.

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get Digital Access.

All Petersen's Hunting subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now