October 04, 2023
Like an urban commuter contemplating which exit to take to avoid a traffic jam ahead, the whitetail buck paused on the sandy riverbank to mull trail options. Dawn was breaking, and the deer had been feeding all night on a lush alfalfa field just across the river. As the leader of a trio of bachelor bucks, his decision would either lead the group away from my stand or right into the trap.
Although bachelor groups were disbanding as the October days passed, this group remained intact, albeit with dominance on display. Their prevalent sparring, pushing and laid-back ears all pointed to a brotherhood ending as they traveled from the field to the bedding cover entrance where I waited. Then, as if on cue, a younger buck took the lead and started down a path leading right to me.
All three deer slowly began working my way, with each taking a different trail through the brushy cover. Fortunately, the most mature of the trio selected the trail that ran right below my stand. As my heart rate accelerated, he walked by at 15 yards and I silently drew my bow. The arrow hit home, and a few minutes later I was tagging another whitetail in the most transitory period of the hunting season.
OCTOBER EQUALS CHANGE
Whitetails live a life of transition that sees them alter their behavior continually throughout the year. When hunting pressure surfaces, for example, instinct directs them to make lifesaving changes to survive, and these behavioral tweaks occur almost constantly throughout the hunting seasons.
Out of all the months, October probably features some of the biggest transitions for whitetail bucks. Why? Well, whitetails begin the month living a frat-house lifestyle with a band of brothers. Midway through the month, though, they slowly begin changing from gluttonous brothers to oppressive dominators as they finalize the pecking order before the rut. By month’s end, whitetail bucks, particularly mature bucks, shun most other males and focus on procreation.
To successfully tag an October buck, your focus and hunting strategies must be as fluid as a whitetail’s changing lifestyle. Failure to modify along with transitioning deer could mean less venison in your freezer this winter. Take an analytical look at your hunting area as you digest the following information. It could help you zero-in on the transformative lifestyle of an October whitetail buck.
EARLY GLUTTONOUS WINDOW
Whitetail bucks gorge on food sources from late summer into early fall. Shortening daylight hours signal many things to deer, but especially the oncoming rut and the guarantee of winter. In early October, some bucks have rut stirrings, as testosterone production begins increasing in their bodies. However, food still ranks as the top priority for both males and females.
Males take it a tad more seriously, though, as instinct prepares them for breeding. During the rut, they’ll rob their body of 20 to 25 percent of its mass as they try breeding as many females as possible. Take your own weight and subtract 25 percent. That simple calculation clearly shows how run-down a buck can become and why beefing up supports their survival when transitioning from breeding season straight into a harsh winter. Winter may not be as harsh in a southern zone, but northern whitetails need every ounce of fat to make it through a ruthless winter.
For hunters, that means targeting high-value food sources now, especially those with a strong fat component. Constantly monitor whitetail nutrition sources, which vary depending on location, food palatability and whitetail preference. Whitetails often abandon agricultural food, such as corn or soybeans, once acorns begin dropping. The high fat content in mast like acorns adds more pounds per bite than natural browse and many food plot plantings. Keeping tabs on dropping acorns, particularly from white oaks, could mean the difference between action and stagnation at a clover plot.
Spotting early-October whitetails on food plots and in shorter crops like soybeans is easy. But if your locale sports oaks, be prepared for a disappearing act. That’s why constantly monitoring deer food sources each week—via surveillance or trail cameras—is so important in October.
Also, set up as many ambushes leading to oaks, food plots and any large agricultural fields as possible. Take into consideration predominate winds, edge opportunities and stealthy entries and exits from stands. This can be a challenge, as fields fill up with deer at night. A better option to reduce your human footprint is setting up just inside cover. That way, when shooting light evaporates you can slink out behind a veil of hardwoods.
As Halloween approaches, the upcoming breeding season becomes a bigger priority to bucks. With testosterone surging and nearing full capacity by October’s end, bucks change their routine. Some studies suggest that bucks that may have gone into the underground acorn bunker are now daylighting again, adding as much as five more minutes of daylight movement per day as November nears.
Besides moving more during daylight hours and not supersizing their meals, bucks also release more of their pent-up energy by making fresh rubs and scrapes, which start appearing seemingly overnight. Typically, bucks max out on testosterone approximately 2 weeks before does begin cycling. To relieve their anxiety, males hound females relentlessly, rub trees and tend scrapes.
Trail cameras will undoubtedly reveal more daylight movement, and if you follow the real-time clues of rubs and scrapes, you may pinpoint buck lairs. Identify a pre-rut pattern, and you’ve stacked the odds in your favor as high as possible. Right now, bucks frequently repeat their visits and refresh primary scrapes. Look for the most rubs leading to the largest, most active scrapes, and your whitetail season could easily end before the rut’s randomness kicks off in early November. Consider marking every new rub and scrape on a hunting app (HuntStand is my preferred choice) to reveal patterns right on the satellite image.
Play the Game
Beyond establishing patterns, whitetail fakery strategies shine now. Primarily, we’re talking mock scrapes, scents, decoys and deer vocalizations (aka calls).
Scents play an integral role in whitetail survival, not only from predation, but also in finding suitable mates. Accentuating real scrapes or creating mock scrapes in the shooting lane of your choosing has more merit now than ever. Even if you don’t believe in the attracting power of a mock scrape, merely misting scent across a trail or on vegetation in a shooting lane has serious stopping—and distracting—qualities to set up the perfect shot. I have stopped more deer than I can count with a good misting of Golden Estrus scent on nose-high vegetation.
This time is also one of the most productive for calling deer. Bucks are restless and intensively searching, so they’re eager to investigate the sounds of fellow deer. Grunts (aggressive and tending), bleats and the sound of clashing antlers can lure deer into range as they seek out their first tryst. During the frenzy of breeding, bucks busy chasing may ignore calls, but a solo buck on the hunt doesn’t miss many vocal or antler-clashing cues. I prefer using real antlers (I’m an avid shed hunter) when I’m hunting a box blind or stand to which I don’t have to hike very far. When I have a longer hike or I’m carrying a lot of stuff—or walking through thick brush where a pair of antlers might get hung up—I’ll use Rocky Mountain Hunting Calls’ Mini Rattle Cage for its simple backpack convenience.
When you combine those calls with decoys and scent, it creates a deadly pre-rut ruse. If a deer hears grunts, bleats or rattling, and then spots a decoy when visually inspecting the area, they’ll swing downwind and you may get an easy 20-yard shot. Immature buck decoys have traditionally been used the most, as bucks project dominance in their home range.
Remember to study the evolutionary meet-and-greet behavior of rutting bucks. They always pass each other in a parallel fashion to display a huge stature with raised body hair. Set your decoy up in a broadside fashion for the best shot angle. To keep things simple, I utilize Montana Decoy Company’s folding, photo-realistic decoys. Adding a wick of quality buck scent to the site presents another sensory certainty for realism.
TIME OF TRANSITION
While the month of October poses its share of challenges, it can still be a great time to harvest a mature buck. Hunters near and far may bemoan the dreaded October lull, but much of this perceived slowdown may be due simply to changing patterns. Deer may be moving from predictable (and highly visible) food plots to secluded hard-mast hot spots. Or they may move to thicker cover areas to evade increasing hunting pressure. Be prepared to make your own changes to be successful. And be ready for when the pre-rut hits, because everything will change once again—hopefully for the better.