November Ode to Deer Hunting's Rattle Master
(Lynn Burkhead photo)
I think about him in November, especially as the necks of local white-tailed bucks begin to swell and the rut begins to heat up in my portion of the woods. The “him” I refer to is Robert “Bob” Ramsey of Hunt, Texas, one of deer hunting's most iconic pioneers, who passed away on Dec. 20, 2009, at the age of 91.
If the truth be known, not many deer hunters these days across the nation know who Bob Ramsey was. But they should because Bob invented one of deer hunting’s most revered techniques, the art of smashing together a set of deer antlers to mimic a pair of bucks fighting, all in an effort to lure a rut-crazed trophy buck into effective shooting range.
And today, untold gazillions of white-tailed bucks later, the horn rattling technique is as much a tried-and-true part of American deer hunting lore as the use of Tink’s 69 doe-in-heat urine is. So much so that the late Ramsey, who managed his family’s whitetail rich 5,000-acre Texas Hill Country ranch for nearly 50 years, is considered by many to be the grandfather of the antler rattling technique. The same technique that you'll undoubtedly see displayed several times this week on various white-tailed deer hunting shows scattered across Outdoor Channel.
First described back in 1946, antler rattling was introduced to the American deer hunting camp when Ramsey penned a small masterpiece on the subject not long after his post-World War II discharge from the U.S. Air Force. That booklet, entitled How to Rattle Up a Buck, was published a few years later in 1952 by Texas game-call making legend Johnny Stewart. And the rest, as they say, is history, as in serious deer hunting history.
In his small book, Ramsey explained to curious hunters across the country the concept of violently clashing deer antlers together to simulate a pair of bucks fighting over courtship rights to an estrous doe.
While Ramsey credited Native Americans and Hispanic vaqueros with antler rattling as far back as the 1800s, he first tried the technique himself in 1932 after a lesson from a neighboring Uvalde County rancher named Sam Barkley.
After Barkley showed the youthful Ramsey how to clash together a pair of antlers, the youngster crossed a natural dam onto the western flanks of the Nueces River into a pecan tree-filled bottom to try out antler rattling first hand. He wouldn’t have to wonder very long about the technique’s effectiveness.
“I started rattling and heard some clattering,” said Ramsey. “A deer came running down the hill looking all around him for the fight. When he was about 40 yards away, I shot him with a Winchester Model 95 30.06 lever action rifle.”
That buck was the first of many for Ramsey and for others that he taught antler rattling to via personal instruction and through deer hunting seminars. Way back when, even before Lee and Tiffany were famous. One such pupil that credited Ramsey for teaching him the antler rattling technique was none other than the late American novelist, James A. Michener.
“In Texas by James Michener, you will see on the first printed page under the acknowledgments on the middle of the page where I taught him how to rattle up a buck and how to knap an arrow cave-man style,” said Ramsey.
“We got to be big friends when he was writing the book Texas. He came out here four or five times. He never took notes, never used a tape recorder. He had a photographic memory.”
So did Ramsey.
Since killing that first rattled-up eight-point buck with a 20-inch spread more than three-quarters of a century ago, Ramsey’s records and personal recollection, up to the time that I interviewed him in 2005, indicated that he had “rattled in” a mind boggling 2,006 whitetails for himself and other hunters all across Texas and other parts of North America. For the record, “rattled in” by the late Ramsey’s definition was a buck that came close enough for the deer’s antler points to be counted.
While the former Texas Game & Fish Commission and Y.O. Ranch wildlife biologist used everything from rattling bags, synthetic antlers, a hunting knife knocked against his rifle stock, and even a pair of cedar sticks beaten together to rattle up whitetails, Ramsey always preferred to use real head bones. In fact, he usually recommended that hunters use a solid set of natural antlers or recent sheds from a 10-point buck.
(Lynn Burkhead photo)
In addition to drilling a hole through the base of each antler through which to tie an 18-inch piece of cord, Ramsey protected his hands, wrists and watch crystal by removing the brow tines, sanding down any rough burr points, and “dubbing off” the antler tips.
Then, it was time to make some whitetail music, a deer hunting melody that would turn even Bach and Beethoven envious, if they were deer hunters, that is.
But according to the late deer rattling guru, conducting such a whitetail symphony is more than just making a little noise from a deer stand.
“(I’ll) jerk ‘em apart and paw on the ground or fight a bush with them,” the late Ramsey told me. “I try to make a lot of noise because when two deer are fighting, they don’t pay a lot of attention to where they’re going (or how much noise they’re making). In fact, they (deer) make more noise on the ground than they do with their antlers since they’re breaking brush, pawing rocks and running into prickly pear.”
After a sequence that lasted from a minute to a minute and a half in length, Ramsey would then wait several minutes.
If the time came to rattle again, Ramsey would then add a twist to his technique: “The second time, I don't rattle as loud,” he said.
“I figure the deer is coming and all I want to do is let him know the fight is still on. If I’m too loud and he’s too close, he might locate (me).”
Since nearly every buck that responds to the technique will circle downwind to check for the sound’s point of origin, Ramsey urged hunters to make sure that they set up with a long, unobstructed view downwind of their rattling position.
Other tine tickling guidelines from the late Ramsey included: using the shade of a tree or brush to help break-up a hunters outline; using a grunt call and deer decoys to help convince an approaching buck that he’s heard a real antler fight; keying in on the first and last hour of daylight; and rattling on clear, frosty dawns or cloudy, drizzly mornings with an overall wind speed of less than 12 miles per hour.
While he thought that the technique worked better in the days leading up to the peak of the rut, Ramsey also would rattle up bucks during the post rut phase as well. That was particularly true when young fawn does would come into estrous for the first time, even after the main autumn breeding circus had begun to wind down.
While Ramsey may have helped to birth the antler rattling technique in Texas, the practice certainly isn’t limited to the Lone Star State anymore.
Outdoor Channel personality David Blanton, producer of the Realtree Outdoors television show, has found that the technique works all across deer country, including on a frigid hunt in South Dakota a few years back.
By morning's end, a 140-class 10-point was down, tagged and ready to take a starring role on Realtree’s weekly television show as well as in the Monster Bucks video series.
While he is a big fan of the antler rattling technique, Blanton cautions that it still must be used with a bit of discretion.
“Hit the horns together for a good 30- to 40-second rattling sequence and then hang them up and resist the urge to hit them again,” said Blanton.
“That works to the hunter’s advantage because if a buck has heard it, he may have been 300 or 400 yards away and he comes in and he’s not exactly sure where it (antler rattling noise) came from.”
Many others have embraced the antler rattling technique over the years including one fireman in Kansas City, Mo., who at one time used Ramsey’s technique to kill big Midwestern bucks for nine years running.
“I sent him that book in 1982 and he said, ‘Boy that little book just changed my life,’” chuckled the late Ramsey during our interview.
“He said ‘I hunt with friends and now I always kill the biggest buck, but I’ll never tell them how I’m doing it.’”
Fortunately for the rest of us would-be deer slayers out there, from firemen to outdoor television show producers to Pulitzer Prize winning novelists, Ramsey was more than willing to come clean with his secrets of rattling up big white-tailed bucks.
So as I head out the door this week to look for the latest trophy buck to be adorned with my deer hunting tag, I'll do so with a tip of my hunting hat and a smashing together of the antlers in my hand, all in memory of the late Bob Ramsey.
Rest in peace, Rattle Master, rest in peace.