Many whitetail hunters neglect to bring their antlers or rattle-bag into the woods until just before the rut. Rattling works earlier in the season too; however, bucks react for a different reason than the “testosterone filled triggers” that may draw their response later on. Rather than coming to the sound to protect territory or for a chance to earn the right to breed a doe, they respond to be social with other bucks. This softer, social rattling can work throughout the season, from the time they shed velvet until the time they shed their antlers. It’s a sound that means there are two other bucks playing the game in the distance and you’d better not lose out.
Normally, for rattling to work consistently you need a balance to the buck to doe ratio and age structure of the herd. Competition for breeding rights seems to be important if rattling is to work well during its traditional time frame, which is characteristically about three weeks before the chase phase on up to the chase phase. While a balance is always best for a herd regardless of the time of year, it is not necessary for rattling to work well earlier in the season since they are responding to be social with other bucks. It’s more like a guy calling out to his buddies to come over and hang out to play poker.
Rather than smacking your antlers to imitate a knock-down, drag-out battle, try more to imitate sparing rather than fighting – simply begin by “tickling” them together. Instead of an aggressive fight, imitate two brothers in a friendly “arm wrestling match.” Bucks spar and posture to one another to see where they will rank in the breeding hierarchy later in the season – at this point they aren’t fighting to compete for territory or breeding rights, although ultimately the results will dictate who will do the majority of the breeding. Use soft, social buck vocalizations to add realism to the scenario and non assertive smells like Golden Buck or Trail’s End #307 placed crosswind from your position to draw them in if they decide to drop downwind to scent-check the area. A small buck decoy can also aid to draw them closer and take the attention off of you.