October 10, 2023
In a perfect hunting world, there is little argument that the first week of November is the best time to be in the whitetail woods. Those magical days afford you the optimal chance of arrowing a buck as he throws caution to the wind and behaves carelessly. However, we live in an imperfect world and things don’t always go according to plan. When it comes to bowhunting, there are many variables that are beyond our control. For me, of all the variables beyond my control, hunting pressure most affects my hunting success.
The reality is, today there is no such thing as minimal hunting pressure, especially when hunting public land. Low-pressure hunting properties do still exist; however, these are almost exclusively private ground. Because of the extreme pressure exerted on whitetails in November, I have made adjustments to my October hunting. In fact, my “Octobers” have now become what were once my “Novembers.” Now I’ll add a disclaimer here.
The latter half of October can be excellent, but it does not compare to the frenzy of activity around the first 10 days (give or take) or so of November. Again, in an ideal world, with limited hunting pressure and deer that haven’t been pursued for weeks already, the first part of November is simply unbeatable. But, back to reality.
As the popularity of public land hunting has exploded, the impacts I’ve seen on the areas I’ve hunted for years have been undeniable. Like most hunters, I have limited time to hunt and try to take advantage of the very best times of the season—which previously meant early November. However, as mentioned previously, a whole bunch of other hunters feel the same way.
The exponential increase of November hunting pressure has taught me some tough lessons. First and foremost, it does not matter how great an area looks—it will not hunt the way it did before the pressure ramped up.
The biggest adjustment I’ve made on public land is spending more time scouting. But this is not the kind of scouting you’re thinking of. No, I spend time learning the habits of other hunters and less time focused on the deer themselves. I’ve found that when I figure out where the hunters aren’t, the bucks are likely to be there. To avoid the heaviest pressure, I reluctantly began to make shifts in the times I focused most on hunting.
"BEST" NOT ALWAYS
Over the years, I’ve learned that the best-looking areas are almost always to be avoided. While I have mentioned this in other columns, it is worth repeating as plenty of bowhunters make the same mistake year in and year out. If an area looks promising on a digital map, I now assume it will be hunted heavily and, in most instances, I don’t even waste time checking on it. Instead, I focus on areas that look less desirable.
Once I’ve narrowed down my choices I’ll spend time hitting every parking area around to check for human activity. If I see an overabundance of tire tracks and boot prints, I’m back in my truck and motoring to the next area. This system, while seemingly rudimentary, allows me to find areas that aren’t receiving an overabundance of pressure. However, on the flip side, this often means hunting areas with marginal habitat.
Often, I’ll spend a day or two scouring areas before finding a location that appears to have limited hunting pressure. From that point, the race is on to determine whether the location is holding a buck I’d like to hunt.
This is where the shift in timing has paid off. In early November, the focus was almost entirely on hunting funnels and terrain features. Sure, I wanted to see buck sign, but it wasn’t mandatory. If I knew I was hunting a solid area with great habitat, odds are the bucks were there and the terrain features would send them my way. In October, the best of the rut is yet to come and relying solely on terrain features is a risky proposition. Instead, I want a way to get a quick inventory of the number and caliber of bucks in an area.
As October creeps toward November, scrape activity increases. In my opinion, there is no more valuable piece of intel than that delivered by an active scrape. A freshly worked scrape leaves no doubt that there is at least one buck in the area (and often more), and that buck is nearby and intends to return.
What I look for is sizable scrapes paired with obvious licking branches. Finding a group of those scrapes in a confined area is the goal. These active scrape areas are the total focus of my hunting plans now. Where I used to save vacation time and put heavy emphasis on time in the tree in November, I now focus on the second half of October and put all my eggs in the scrape basket.
These scrape areas make it possible for me to quickly determine what caliber of bucks are using them through the use of trail cams. This is another advantage of October hunts versus those in November. In October, when bucks are actively hitting scrapes, a trail cam will capture vital intel in literally a matter of hours.
In November, when bucks are cruising hard, there seems to be little rhyme or reason to their movement. While November can deliver incredible (but random) buck movement overall, October in contrast delivers defined buck movement in areas defined by scrapes.
Again, I won’t go so far as to say October is a “better” month to kill a big buck than November. However, today the hunting pressure on prime public areas is at an all-time high. As such, I’ve had to make a tough choice and focus more on October.
Turning my focus to active October scrapes has proven very productive for me. I know when I locate an area of active scrapes that has reduced (or none) hunting pressure I’m in the game. While my system works, it’s not infallible.
By far, the biggest frustration I’ve experienced targeting scrape areas is the tendency for much of the activity to take place after dark. It’s a given. If I see two bucks in daylight, there are likely to be three or four others that show up on trail cameras after dark. It’s just the nature of the beast.
Again, I’m not implying here that October hunting is as good as that in November. While the deer are well on their way to the frenzy of rut, it’s certainly still a few weeks away.
The moral of this bowhunting story is you should not discount bowhunting in October. It is now that you are afforded an excellent opportunity to hunt mature bucks that, for the most part, haven’t been overpressured as they will be next month.