The first time he heard a deer call, Fred Hiltner was convinced his buddy was putting him on.
"I was relatively new to hunting in Alaska and I though he was pulling my leg," Hiltner said.
That was 20 years ago and Hiltner, now a teacher at Harborview Elementary School and an experienced hunter, knows better. He's since called many deer but well remembers that crisp fall morning on Chichagof Island.
Hiltner's friend had positioned them behind a small clump of pines in a muskeg meadow and blew into the little call.
"He bleated and I said, 'sure,' " Hiltner said. "This buck just stood up out of nowhere, stretched, let out a big breath of steam and started walking over."
Hiltner's skepticism is understandable. Deer are not considered to be vocal critters like ducks or geese. Elk bugle across canyons, birds sing and coyotes howl. Deer sometimes softly bleat, but it's not something the average hiker hears on a weekend in the woods. Many hunters who have successfully called deer say they have never heard a real deer make the squealing sound of a deer call.
A deer call sounds like a kid blowing on a stretched blade of grass and most deer calls are essentially that - a strip of plastic pulled tight between a couple pieces of wood.
Marc Scholten grew up hunting ducks and pheasant in South Dakota. In the first few minutes of his first deer-hunting trip in Southeast he watched his buddy make a deer call from a twig and a strip of fluorescent orange surveyor's flagging.
"It worked like a charm," he said. "I called in the first deer I ever shot. We field dressed it, moved over 100 yards and called again and called in five more."
Scholten said he once watched a fawn make a mournful sound similar to a deer call, a 'maah, maaah,' bleating. It looked to him like it was separated from its mother and was calling for the doe. Others have seen the same behavior.
Hank Masters has heard all that and more. He's a bowhunter and an accomplished caller.
"You can hear them talking," he said. "The bucks will be mewling. When you're up close to them with a call, you hear a lot of things you don't usually hear. You get to see their eyelashes."
Masters builds a small box-like deer call that is sometimes sold locally at Rayco Sales. In addition to hunting, he's called deer in close to shoot videos.
"I've called 30 or 40 does in a day," he said. "If you want pictures, hold still and wait until all the deer have come. There'll be more than one come lots of times."
He said they sometimes wander in one after another or quietly slip into sight. Sometimes they charge right in, especially does and bucks at the very peak of rut.
Hiltner has called deer and heard their hoofbeats as they run through the forest - only to stop at the edge of a clearing. Then the does come out in the open, followed by bucks, almost as if they send out the does to see if it's safe, he said.
Jim Papoi has called deer at all times of the year and said he thinks most deer calling is communication between does and yearlings.
"About any time of the year you can get a doe to come into a call," he said.
Bucks are most responsive to a call during the rut or mating season. The length and timing of the rut varies from area to area in Southeast, but tends to be this time of year, from midOctober to midNovember, sometimes stretching into December. The bucks are looking for does and a well-hidden hunter with a call can trick them.
"They're pretty pumped up," Papoi said. "They're still wary, but not as wary as the other times of the year. They lose their common sense. Sometimes in the peak they'll come charging right in. I've almost been run over. I've had them come in point blank."
It's not magic, though, and hunters agreed that timing, weather and hunting skill are very important. A deer call can sometimes scare off deer or make them suspicious.
"Sometimes they just blow at you, exhaling, kind of a distress call that warns the others that something is wrong," Papoi said.
Deer on Douglas Island are tougher to call because they get more pressure than deer on outlying islands.
"You still have to hunt them and you still have to get where the deer are," Papoi said. "If they see you, they'll turn around. The main thing is to not move when they're coming in."
Papoi and others said weather is a big factor.
"It's definitely the best if it's calm and overcast. Deer get spooky when it's windy and they can't hear well, they get in the brush and don't like to move much," he said. "I've had the best luck calling when conditions are calm, there's not a lot of rain, maybe a drizzle. A little wind is OK as long as you're down wind."
Many hunters warn that a deer call will also draw black and brown bears.
"It sounds like a predator call," Masters said.
That can be dangerous. Masters once used a deer call from a blind in a tree and had a bear try to climb up the tree. Scholten was charged by a black bear on Douglas Island that mistook his call for a real deer. His friend yelled and it hightailed it the other way.
"Now I always blow my call where I have good visibility in all areas," he said.
Riley Woodford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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