October 13, 2014
By Tony J. Peterson
I have a rule in life: I don't trust people who don't like dogs or music. I also don't trust hunters who claim the October lull is their favorite time to be in the woods. To be fair, most of those hunters are earning paychecks by espousing whitetail hunting wisdom, but still.
The first three weeks of October can be brutal from a deer sighting perspective, but that doesn't mean it's are a lost cause. When I look at the walls of my basement and the deer mounts that hang from them, I can count several that were arrowed from early to mid-October. In fact, lull bucks represent about one third of all of the mature bucks I've killed.
You're probably thinking I'm going to unveil a secret calling technique or admit that I've got a deer lease locked up and loaded with mature bucks and zero hunting competition.
Neither are true. The reality is that I start from scratch on October 1 and begin to scout and hunt like I don't know anything about current deer movement. This goes for my public land spots as well as my private. I do have strategies and tactics, of course, that all play into my tabula rasa style of hunting.
Following are 10 tips that help me fill tags while others sit out.
Get A Climber And Use It
A high percentage of bowhunters own at least one climbing treestand, although usage varies greatly by region. I've run into countless hunters who tell me there just aren't enough straight-trunked trees to justify climbing stands. This is true in some areas, but for most it's just a handy excuse not to deploy a climber.
During the lull, when I'm desperate to look over new ground while trying to unravel the mystery of what the deer are doing, a climber is one of my best friends. Learn to use one quietly, carry a sharp saw, and find a vantage point over some previously unhunted October woods.
Forget the field edges, the pounded trails and the easy spots. Hang your cameras in places that you've always been curious about but couldn't justify wasting time watching. This is a low risk, high reward strategy that gives you eyes in the parts of the woods that are largely ignored. You will get a fraction of the images that you'd get in higher odds spots, but you might get the right images. I'll take three images of a mature buck in some sort of pattern that I've missed over 1,000 images of does and three pointers doing exactly what I expect the deer to do.
Don't get sloppy with this strategy, though, because you don't want to bumble into an old homestead and slap a camera on the tree only to tip your hand to the big boy living there. Treat this as a real effort to figure out mature bucks and it will become just that.
If the bucks seem impossible right now, consider a meat hunt. It has gotten much more difficult to come across doe tags in many of the better whitetail states this year, but there are still plenty of antlerless licenses to go around. If you feel like you can't possibly get a mature buck into range this time of year then go after the ladies.
The first two weeks of October are my favorite time to try to pattern — and arrow — a few does. In the process I inevitably run into bucks, and you will too. It keeps you hunting, which is more important than anything.
Hunt Where You See Them
We will start with a simple one here. If your deer hunting has gone stale, start to pay attention to where you see deer — any deer. What about that doe feeding on a woodline? She might be chowing down on acorns while the bucks stage just inside the thicker stuff. That tiny spiker you saw leaving a pond? He might have just shown you where all of the deer are slaking their thirst each morning.
Deer sightings this time of year are good, and most offer clues to the current movement. Follow up these sightings with a treestand or ground blind sit to see what is really going on.
I'm constantly on the hunt for new deer ground because it's so hard to come by. This means that occasionally I do secure permission at a new property, or run across some public land that I've never set foot on. In each case, it's not uncommon for me to ditch some of my reliable haunts to hunt the new ground in October.
This preserves some of the stands on properties I've got more confidence in and forces me to hunt smart at a time of year when conventional wisdom says it's going to be tough. Time in the woods is everything, and if it takes a new property to get you out there, find it.
Taking the most difficult time of the season and adding in a public land hunt might be about as appealing to most bowhunters as attending a PETA banquet in support of saving spotted weasels in Paraguay. However, there is a strange phenomenon that occurs on many public properties the first three weeks of October: they get ignored by most bowhunters.
Deer on pressured ground relax and it can actually be a good time to hunt Uncle Sam's deer spots. Last fall I spent exactly one day bowhunting a 550-acre parcel of public land near my house in the Twin Cities. On October 3 I carried a stand in and set up because of sign I found while woodcock hunting. That single session resulted in a 20-yard shot at a mature doe, and a new layer of tightly-wrapped venison in my freezer. I did see two other hunters — both after woodcock — which is very rare for that property.
Think Thickets (And Other Thick Stuff)
The leaves are dropping and the once-thick woods of early season are becoming barer. Many hunters theorize that this is part of the reason that big bucks move less during daylight during October. I don't know if that's true or not, but it doesn't seem excessively far-fetched. It also begs the question: Why not find thicker cover?
If the bucks are wigged out by the sudden sparseness of cover, wouldn't they just move into the thick stuff? Well, they seem to. A good rule to follow is that if it looks like an awesome spot to squirrel hunt, you might not kill a mature buck there. If it looks like a better spot to flush a woodcock or rabbit, then you might be on to something.
OK, so as a last carrot to dangle in front of your nose I'll say this: those get-rich-quick-products we are always trying to sell you? Some of them actually work, and there is no better time to test them out than right now. This goes for certain decoys, calls, and scents.
Again, this is a low-risk time of the season to try new things, and some of them will produce positive results. You may not kill a mature buck this time of the season, but if a forky reacts the way you hoped he would, a 140-incher might do the same in three weeks.
Forget Deer For A Day
Do you know what squirrels and turkeys eat in October? The same things deer eat. If you're burned out or at least spinning your wheels deer-wise, take a break from deer chasing and hunt something else. Every October I spend a few days hunting fall turkeys and what I find in the way of deer sign almost always changes my hunting strategy.
Of course, the real reason I hunt turkeys in the fall is because it's a blast, but that doesn't mean there aren't ancillary benefits that pertain to deer. If you do this early enough in October, you'll greatly reduce the exaggerated risk of boogering all of the deer in your woods.
This time of year is all about the food. Well, not all about the food because hunting pressure plays a major role in deer movement. The food, though, should not be ignored. It might be a freshly picked cornfield, acorns, soft mast or something else that has triggered a feeding frenzy. Whatever it may be, figuring it out requires a speed-scouting mission or the use of observation stands.
Some fresh food windows start to close almost as soon as they open, so staying on top of the game is important. Remember, if you see does and young bucks hitting a food source hard, the bigger bucks will be there. They'll be much more cautious about how they approach and when they get there. Backtrack from that cornfield or oak ridge and ambush the big boys as they play it safe.