November 04, 2010
Even during the dead days of October, you can throw a serious bachelor party with these techniques.
WHEN I'M BOWHUNTING, NO SOUND cuts me deeper than the sound of the human voice. Like a saber to the heart, a voice can leave my hunt stone cold dead.
I took this North Dakota buck in mid-October 2003. He ignored the loud voices of passing horse riders and responded instead to my light rattling.
So you can imagine how I felt when the voices of a family on horseback began to slice through the air below my treestand in a North Dakota poplar. As I stood, waiting the last magical 30 minutes of daylight that October evening, the family enjoyed a sunset ride through the wooded hills of the National Grasslands. As they rode by, dangerously close to a whitetail bedding area, they never saw me. I thought one horse threw a glance at me from one of his huge brown eyes, but he didn't react.
As the family rode past, they discussed the young lady's first days at college that fall. All I could think about was how hard the hunting had been of late, during the so-called October Lull, when buck activity seems to wane. I considered getting down out of my tree. With all of that disturbance, no self-respecting buck would move until dark.
But then I remembered the previous fall, when I'd watched a 4x4 approach my decoy in spite of a pair of dirt bikes screaming down a nearby trail just 150 yards away. These were tolerant whitetails. I decided to stay put.
The rolling hills and swales were carpeted with scrub oak leaves, and not even a mouse could move around without sounding like a lame hog.
Still, the subtle cadence of two deer walking in the leaves surprised me. Though it was a doe and fawn, it was a good sign. Maybe I'd see action despite the talkative riders.
The sun had been out of sight for 10 minutes when I heard more leaf-rustling steps. They were agonizingly slow. This wasn't a squirrel, but it came from the other side of the ridge in front of me, and I couldn't locate the source.
Whatever it was, it was taking forever to come into view. I gambled that the unseen deer wasn't close enough to spot me using my rattling bag. Softly working the bag to sound like a couple of young bucks sparring, I followed up with a couple of grunts.
Straining to see what was now slowly moving toward me, I reached for my bow -- just in case. I always prefer to see the animal before moving, but with the waning light I had to take the chance and ready myself.
A buck with wide, light-colored antlers finally stepped into view, and I hooked my release to the string loop. For the area I was hunting, this was a shooter, especially since I also had Minnesota and Iowa tags burning holes in my pockets.
The buck moved very slowly, nibbling on grass and scratching for acorns. I carefully set my feet.
When everything seemed just right, I slowly drew. But the buck was still facing me, and before turning he glanced up and saw me. At 18 yards, we had a staredown, both frozen like statues. I must have won, because the buck turned from a facing position to a quartering stance, and then put his head down. With both the legal and ethical clocks ticking, only a handful of minutes were left.
Releasing the string, I lost track of the arrow -- and the buck -- as he plunged back into a hollow, out of sight. I heard him racing through the leaves up the other side of the hollow, and then it grew quiet.
During the prerut you want to challenge the manhood of area bucks, so lay down a scent trail or make a mock scrape with a buck scent to instigate an aggressive response.
Photo by Curt Wells photo
I lowered myself onto the stand seat and let my right knee go through its customary post-shot shaking routine. Sitting there, I contemplated the circumstances of that hunt and the inexplicable phenomenon known as "The October Lull."
I HAVE NO EXPLANATION for the lack of buck movement during the last few weeks before the prerut. In the Northern Plains, where I live, the lull begins in late September and runs into mid-October. Active bucks are hard to come by during this time. The lull seems to occur in other parts of the country as well, so it can't be tied to crop harvest or bird hunting pressure, because those factors don't exist in all areas.
All I know is, during those three weeks, it's typically a struggle to find bucks moving about. Yes, there are exceptions, but that's exactly what they are. Personally, I think mature whitetail bucks use a massive network of underground tunnels to conceal their movements until the rut forces them to go above ground and find does. If I could ever find the entrance to those tunnels€¦
Because that never seems to happen, the next best solution is to locate bachelor groups of bucks in late summer before the bucks go underground. If you wait until October when the lull sets in for good, you'll swear no bucks exist in your area at all.
Use optics during evening scouting trips in August and September to determine where the bucks are spending their time. They will be away from the does and fawns. Try not to intrude on their areas any more than you have to. An occasional walkabout may help you find rub lines and some of those early-season "pretender" scrapes. But generally you should just glass from a roadway or vantage point to watch bucks feeding in fields.
Even when they're in velvet, you'll see bucks posturing and positioning themselves in the hierarchy, spending the summer working out their pecking order. But as long as their antlers are in velvet and growing, the bucks will remain in bachelor groups and will feed in open fields where you can easily see them each evening. They have not gone underground yet.
However, once the testosterone starts to flow, the velvet comes off their antlers, and the gloves do too. Bucks grow less tolerant of each other's company and become more territorial. Young bucks are tolerated in the bachelor groups, but the mature bucks start picking fights and asserting rank.
You would think this increase in activity would make the bucks more visible, but, ironically, the bucks become less visible because they no longer spend long periods feeding in the open. They head to the tunnels, and that's when you begin to wonder if any bucks exist in your area at all. Trust your scouting. You saw them, and you know where they were...
That's your starting point for hunting bachelor bucks
during the October lull. You hunt where they were. They're still there. You just can't see them.
Since you really can't appeal to the sex drive of a buck during early to mid-October to bring him within range, you have to challenge his manhood. Watch a mid-October buck approach a group of deer, and you'll probably see him head right over to other bucks, passing by does as if they didn't exist.
You can capitalize on that attitude in several ways. One of the most obvious -- and best -- is to use a grunt call. A few years ago in Minnesota, I killed a Pope and Young buck on the morning of October 3. That bachelor buck was coming into a large cattail swamp, and when he was about 125 yards away I produced a challenging grunt with my call. The buck changed course and came directly to me, and I shot him at 22 yards. That early in October, that buck was interested only in another buck. Without the grunt call, I probably never would have got that shot.
In my experience, rattling loses its effectiveness once bucks are focused on does in November. But during October, when they're interested mostly in proving their manhood, rattling can be deadly on bachelor bucks. Real antlers seem to work best, but a rattling bag or similar device is much easier to pack. If you don't give yourself the rattling option, you'll eventually regret it.
Most of my rattling sequences are of the "blind" variety, when I'm not aware of a buck in the vicinity. Because my stands at this time of year generally are in heavy cover, any buck within my sight will be close. I don't like rattling at such close-range bucks, because they will quickly pinpoint my location -- and probably spot me in the tree. If a buck starts my way but loses interest and drifts away, I will rattle my antlers, but still only if he can't see me.
If you can scan a wide area, rattling to a distant buck works well because you can time your rattling to the buck's response. Stop when he puts his head up to look. Rattle when he turns away. Quit rattling if he starts to come. Make him look for you.
Scents will pull bachelor bucks to you. At this time of year, before does come into heat, buck scents such as tarsal glands will set off a territorial response in any buck that thinks he's the big dog in his woods. Other bucks may investigate scents purely out of curiosity. I've pulled bucks right to my stands with drag rags soaked in tarsal scent. Mock scrapes can be effective at this time of year, too.
A decoy also will produce good results during mid-October. Set your decoy up as a buck and use antlers close to the same size as the buck you seek. A 150-class buck isn't likely to waste his time with a little 4x4. However, encountering a strange buck about his same size could trigger an aggressive response. Even if a buck is just looking for company, you may get a shot you otherwise wouldn't get.
Besides using audio, olfactory, and visual stimuli, you can devise useful diversionary tactics. One of my favorite treestands sits about 30 yards from a riverbank, and a ridge runs between my stand tree and the water. Occasionally, deer slip along the riverbank, on the other side of the ridge, and get past me without offering a shot. If I leave my hip boots or an article of clothing at the point where I cross the river, when deer meandering along the bank come upon the item with my scent, they invariably turn and trot over the hump right into my space.
The same diversionary tactic could be used when you're playing the proverbial chess game with deer. You know the drill -- you sit in one stand, and the deer walk past your other stand 100 yards away. A strategically placed scent, whether an attractant to draw deer down your trail, or human scent to divert them away from an area you cannot hunt, can put a buck where you want him.
I've also spent time cutting down trees in one of my favorite woods, which otherwise has sparse underbrush. Taking down a few trees serves two purposes -- it lets more sunlight in for better growth, and it allows me to create funnels with the downed trees to divert deer traffic toward my stand. Unless pressured, deer usually take the easiest route. Simply positioning logs on trails can accomplish the same thing.
AFTER CALMING DOWN, I slithered from the poplar stand and went to meet my hunting buddy, Gene Harris. We found my arrow enveloped in blood, but the blood trail was meager. A trail of disturbed leaves led us up the opposite slope of the swale where we found the buck within 80 yards.
As we took photos, I remembered how we'd spent part of the afternoon hanging a new treestand on the south end of the bedding area. We had sawed limbs and made more noise than we like. I remember thinking it would be a good idea to hunt the north end. A bedded buck may have heard all the commotion. And logic told me that when a buck hears something unusual during the day, he'll likely head another direction when he gets up to feed.
Did our inadvertent diversionary tactic work in my favor, causing that bachelor buck to head north that evening?
Had my rattling and grunting drawn him in?
Was it purely a chance encounter fueled by good scouting?
Or was it those voices? I still hate the sound of voices in the deer woods. But I couldn't use them as an excuse for not taking a bachelor buck that day.
On this hunt I used a Mathews Conquest bow, Carbon Ex-press Terminator Hunter Select arrows, and a three-blade Muz-zy broadhead. Other gear included a Montana Black Gold sight, Tru-Fire release, and Day One Camouflage clothing.