October 22, 2019
The monster 8-point had clearly not read the calendar. He was busy destroying trees, hog-troughing scrapes and badgering does like it was peak rut. Instead, it was October 8, and I remember the date because my dad not only rattled and grunted that buck in, but almost got a slam-dunk shot opportunity. Unfortunately, the buck zigged when dad assumed that he’d zag and, well, we’ve all been there when it comes to a shoulda-coulda-woulda giant.
It’s pretty sad that the reputation of an entire month rests on a handful of days when hunters have traditionally had trouble figuring out deer. Like many of my compadres, I’ve heard all kinds of explanations for the seemingly poor hunting in October, and for many years I joined ranks with the scads of hunters who were sucker-punched by a myth that said the tenth month was something to be endured until things got good. While some of October’s bad rep is understandable, there are also many reasons to love it. Here are three reasons why.
We all know that CHW (Conventional Hunter Wisdom) adores the concept of an October “lull” — a time period when bucks become maddeningly elusive, supposedly because of a sharp decrease in their daily activity. Well, pouring cold water on CHW isn’t always easy, so it’s cool when science can back you up.
According to research at Maryland’s Chesapeake Farms by biologist Mark Conner, buck movement did nothing but increase as the fall progressed. Conner’s radio-collared bucks moved an average of 1 1/2 miles in a 24-hour period in late summer. By October, they’d bumped their travels up to 2 miles per day, and of course by November they really had their track shoes on, clocking 2 1/2 miles daily. Even more interesting is that Conner’s bucks didn’t shift those travels to nighttime to a significant degree throughout the fall, meaning the old “bucks have gone nocturnal” excuse is pretty lame.
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But hey, I’ve bowhunted long enough to know that October can be tough. First, food sources can change drastically this month. Bucks can be highly visible in late summer and September, when they hit field edges and food plots with regularity. But by October other food sources (acorns, apples, persimmons, etc.) become available and—to make things more challenging — they flourish near and among the dense cover where bucks feel most comfortable.
In addition, the woods simply look and feel differently to a whitetail now than they did a few weeks ago. Trees and brush are shedding their leaves daily, and that once-dark stand of maples now resembles a spot-lit stage.
Remember, whitetails — especially mature bucks — are skulkers that like to live incognito whenever possible. So, a buck that was content to hang on a north-facing slope before leaf-fall might shift his favorite area to the opposite side of the hill, or to the edge of a swamp, or along a brushy creek bottom, where he just feels safer.
Finally, October bucks simply feel more hunting pressure than they did when the season first opened, and it’s important to remember that it might not matter how careful we’re being about scouting, stand hanging and when/where we sit. Other hunters (small game, waterfowl, fall turkey) or leaf-gawking hikers and bikers have been banging around the woods, bumping bucks from their safe havens, for weeks now. In other words, those “patterns” we thought we’d identified might be null and void now, as bucks seek out areas with less human disturbance.
So, what’s the solution to these curveballs? Lace up those boots and burn some boot leather on midday scouting runs. Identify new food sources, find shady and secluded bedding and travel spots, and nail down fresh buck sign. Then pop up stands and blinds in response to the new spoor, and you should be back into bucks.
THE SECRET MINI-RUT
It took me many years to recognize that not every doe in a whitetail herd was bred during November. When biologists describe the rut, they typically employ a bell-shaped curve illustrating a peak of breeding activity that occurs in a pretty specific time period for their region (in my area it’s typically November 8-15). What most of us (OK, maybe only me) have a hard time grasping is that a share of does are bred on either side of this peak; because of their birthdates as fawns, or because they are missed during the peak rut, these does come into estrous weeks before, or after, the breeding zenith. And, because a buck can breed a doe as soon as he sheds velvet, those does are going to get bred, no matter the month displayed on the calendar.
When the light bulb finally came on for me about this, I started paying attention to October breeding activity, and I didn’t have far to search. Several taxidermist buddies clued me in to dandy bucks tagged in early to mid-October, and when I discovered the kill-dates, I realized they almost always fell in the 28 days prior to peak rut. Now, an important part of my October effort is devoted to this time frame, and I’ve rarely been disappointed. Of course, the breeding activity isn’t going to resemble that pop-the-cork frenzy of November, but I don’t care; I’d rather jump on the buck activity focused on one doe, than try to filter through the chaos created when 70 percent of female whitetails are in heat and bucks are running around like teenage boys at a sorority picnic.
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How to hop on this early mini-rut? Well if you’re not making mock scrapes, rattling and calling, and treating this period just like you would November, you’re missing out on some fun. And, just like my dad and I found with the whopper eight-point described earlier, keep your eyes peeled for hot sign and active deer.
Every fall I hear guys describe a smoking fresh scrape or thigh-thick rub they found in October as “probably made at night.” Well heck, a lot of deer sign is made under cover of darkness, but if it’s November, we hunt it anyway. Why not do the same with October spoor? It might just be made by a highly active buck ready to look for love before dusk.
PRELUDE TO THE BIG SHOW
Any NFL nut knows the Super Bowl is often called the “Super Bore,” and if you really want to see some great action, watch the playoff games leading up to the main event. I feel exactly the same way about the whitetail rut; of course, November gets all the ink and — like the Super Bowl — you’re semi-nuts if you don’t at least tune in to watch some chaos. But if you’re really serious about tagging a whopper whitetail, late October is the time to make it happen.
Why am I hating on November? Simple. Of course, bucks are more active than they’ll be all year, and sure, you can see way more dandy deer, and fascinating buck behavior, in the 11th month than any other. The trouble is, killing a whopper — especially a buck that you know well — can be maddeningly elusive. Instead of sticking to familiar areas and following reasonably predictable patterns, November bucks are like popcorn seeds in a sea of hot oil. You know they’re gonna erupt; however, predicting the direction of that explosion can be maddening. Even worse, buck activity in November is largely influenced, if not dictated by, the breeding readiness of does. If Mr. Big doesn’t find a willing mate in his home range, he’s striking off cross country until he finds one, and we’re left watching empty trails and wondering what happened.
Conversely, the last eight to 10 days of October often feature all the rut behavior and similar activity levels but without the madness. Testosterone has built to critical levels, especially in mature bucks, but almost no does are ready for love, and he knows it. So, what does he do? He hashes up trees, makes elk-wallow scrapes and burns up frustrated energy by patrolling his home range like a restless night watchman. If you’re tuned into where a buck eats, sleeps and checks out does, October is the best time to kill him there.
I learned this many years ago on the first mature buck I ever killed with my bow. I’d spotted the heavy-horned 12-point on a summer glassing session, feeding contentedly in a secluded alfalfa field. When the bow opener arrived, I sat that area once or twice, with no success. But a scouting jaunt the third week of October revealed an explosion of sign near the field, and I immediately hung a stand where a red-hot scrape line led to a cluster of rubs. Does poured into the field on my first afternoon hunt and, just as the sun touched the western treetops, I heard a deep grunt, and the same buck I’d seen two months earlier hopped on the field. After he’d scattered the feeding does, the heavy 12 jumped the fence to check his scrapes and, seconds later, gave me a 10-yard chip shot. Later, just before I wrapped my tag around the first set of Pope and Young antlers I’d handled, I punched the date: 10/24. And I’ve been loving October ever since.