October 20, 2021
His name was Fred, or at least that's what the boys and I called the big typical buck with the tall, narrow, heavy rack that would have scored into the 150s or beyond.
Hunting a prime piece of real estate in a Great Plains state, the spot we hunted was classic prairie bottomland: a deep creek bottom, some timber around it, and lots of uplands surrounding the good stuff.
Like most hunters in the 21st century, we became aware of Fred’s existence thanks to a trail-camera photo, one that caused yours truly and my two sons to sit upright when his picture suddenly appeared on our computer screens.
Over the next couple of years, we got his photo from time to time, and had fun chasing this burly buck. But truth be told, none of us ever wrapped our hunting tag around him. Eventually, he disappeared, we lost access to the ground we were hunting, and that was that.
There was to be no Outdoor Sportsman Group television footage, no magazine story, and no social media influencer Instagram photo that screamed out "Look at what the Burkhead Boys have gone and done!"
But in the years that have transpired since then, I’ve often thought about Fred and why we didn’t get him.
And I’m afraid that the answer is that we were too wound up in our new-school ways of trail cameras, feeders (legal in the state we were hunting) and taking advantage of the holes in our work and football-playing schedules that gave us rare opportunities to get into the woods.
In short, we hunted food almost exclusively, because that’s where we routinely got photos of the big boy. But that’s also where he consistently gave us the slip.
While I don’t know for sure, I suspect that if we had played the big whitetail game by the old-school rules that I grew up with, we might have had a better chance to kill that big buck one fine October or November day.
Given the chance to chase Fred again, here's what I'd do differently this time around, especially as the October calendar heats up with pre-rut activity and prepares to head into the frenzy of the November breeding cycle.
Hunt Close to Bedding Areas Early in the Day
If I’m truthful, we did know where Fred was routinely feeding. But we never figured out where the buck was bedding, although I’m not sure it was on the few hundred acres we had access to hunt.
But knowing what I know now, and seeing what the surrounding terrain looked like thanks to mapping apps like onX, my guess is that he was bedding in a marshland area to our south or a ridge and woodlot to our west.
In both instances, there were some prime trails that led into the thick and nasty stuff, trails that probably would have been worth putting up a tripod stand or a ground blind to try and intercept the buck heading back to bed at first light.
My bowhunting pal Ronnie Cannon, a former Midwestern guide and an official measurer for the Pope and Young Club, tried to tell me this lesson years ago when we were chasing whitetails on some prime Illinois big buck ground.
"Early in the morning (in October), you need to be close to their bedding areas," said Cannon, an Oxford, Miss., resident. "The closer you can get to a bedding area, the better off I think you are, especially if you can get right on the edge of it," he added.
Cannon adds one caveat: don't get too close and blow Big Boy out of there.
"You need a well-made plan with a good entrance route to get into the bedding areas undetected early in the day," he said. "You’ve got to be there early.
"And a lot of times, the wind direction, the vegetation, or the terrain will dictate how close you can get to it," he added. "If you walk up in there, you’re defeating the purpose."
Hunt the Current Food
Early in the archery season, bucks and does are often keying in on green fields, harvested agricultural fields, food plots, or even feeders.
But that can change quickly as October rolls along, as bucks can suddenly disappear. Why is that? Because the acorns are falling, that’s why!
"Human intrusion can be one reason that deer suddenly change up their movement patterns," said Cannon, who goes by the nickname, Cornbread. "But you’ve also got to remember that as fall deepens, food sources are also changing up at this time of the year.
"In the late summer, deer might hang around bean fields and such in August and much of September. But when the acorns start falling in October, they’ll quickly move to them a lot of times."
I’ve found that to be true in Texas where I live and where red oaks are the predominant source of acorns. And where white oaks are more common, that trend is even more pronounced. It pays to know the food sources that your local deer utilize. And it pays to know when those food sources are available and when they are not.
Find the Big Buck Stage
Watch a lot of hunting shows on Outdoor Channel, Sportsman Channel, or My Outdoor TV (MOTV), and you’ll see hunters perched in a treestand as light wanes and a feeding field fills up with deer.
But according to Cannon, the biggest of the big bucks often wait until darkness has completely fallen to come into a field.
Does that mean hunters should avoid feeding areas at last light during the month of October? Not at all. But even more so, it means that savvy bowhunters might want to find the local staging area back in the woods where the true October monsters are waiting in the wings as the shadows fall.
"During the evening hours, if you can find a staging area, you can be in some prime real estate," said Cannon. "That’s where the bucks are actually coming toward the food source but hanging up a little ways away from it until complete darkness falls. That’s usually a good place to intercept a good deer."
Sometimes, staging areas can be nothing more than a spot back on a main trail heading into the food resource. But at other times, it can be something else.
"I’ve seen them stating somewhere about 30 to 40 yards away from the food source on a trail," Cornbread said. "But I’ve also seen them stage where there was a well defined thicket (in an otherwise sparsely vegetated area), a fence row, or even a narrow tree-line."
Hunt Cautiously Early On
Another mistake that I’m sure we made in chasing Fred was pushing our luck too soon.
"Nocturnal bucks are usually nocturnal because of something that you’ve done," notes my friend Ronnie. "That's things like trying to force yourself into the woods in a wrong wind situation, not paying attention to what you’re doing getting into and out of the woods or edging in too close for scouting (or camera work) near a spot you’re wanting to hunt.
Sometimes, when you know where a big buck is hanging out, you’re always wanting to push your luck and you end up making a mistake."
Cannon learned to bowhunt by old-school rules and he tagged a number of Land of Lincoln bruisers himself by playing the game the old-fashioned way, even using lineman boots and belts to hang and hunt stands in spots that gave him a first-strike advantage.
But Cannon is also a firm believer that while big bucks can be killed in October—and he has some mounts to prove it—the best time is still yet to come.
"Always remember that the rut is approaching and that's when things are more on your side,” he said. "In early bow season, and even into very early November, you can see the woods fill up with sign sometimes, but still not see the bucks. But then all of a sudden, the rut comes along in November and everything can change and (you start seeing deer come out of the wood works)."
Hunt the Weather Changes
If you’ve watched the groundbreaking "Thirteen" series on Outdoor Channel by brothers Mark and Terry Drury and their kids, you’re likely aware of the idea that hunting early autumn fronts can be a gold mine for big-buck hunters.
Cannon wholeheartedly agrees, noting that it’s been one of his October strategies for years.
"I used to really key on hunting around opening weekend," he said. "But now, I really focus on that first good weather change of the fall."
You know, the one where hunters are exchanging T-shirts for fleece, non-insulated rubber boots for footwear with a few grams of Thinsulate and stuffing their pockets with a pair of gloves and handwarmer packets.
Note that hunters aren’t the only ones who notice and react to chilly temperatures, northerly winds, and maybe some precipitation making things even more fall-like.
"When you have to put on a little extra clothing, you can bet that the deer will be a little more active too," said Cornbread. "If I had hair all over me and weighed 200 to 260 pounds, I’d probably get up and move around a little more as it gets cooler."
October cool spells are something that really get Cannon’s attention: "You can see some pretty nice bucks and some increased movement at such times, then it warms up and movement drops off again, and then, bam!, it’s November and the rut is on."
All of which can be summarized nicely in Cannon’s mind when he thinks of how to chase the monster bucks of October.
"Sleep, sex, and sustenance, those are the three things that are always driving deer," he said. "That’s what is always driving things in the deer woods. It just depends on which part of the year or season you’re out hunting in as to which one of those is most predominant in a deer’s life."
Meaning that even in the lazy days of the October lull, tagging a pre-Halloween monster is always a distinct possibility.
As long as you don’t break the old school rules trying to tag a bruiser nicknamed Fred, that is. Then, all bets are off.