My vigilance broke under the distraction of quaking leaves tinted in a chroma of amber light. Fractals and flutters moved in rapture as the combination of late-day October sun and a chilly northwest wind expressed the onset of fall’s embrace. The contrasting fluid movement of an advancing brown silhouette broke the visual cadence — snapping me back to reality.
Just moments before, I watched as a young buck thrusted and thrashed a nearby licking branch, pawing the ground with incredible might while asserting his presence in the area. With this scene on the top of my mind, I couldn’t help but presume the deer striding in my direction was him. A screen of foliage concealed a full visual of his body and rack. Moving across the broken flag of sticks and leaves, I finally got a glimpse of the buck’s trophy-sized antlers as they contrasted against a backdrop of deep-green cornstalks. It sent me to my feet in preparation for an impending shot. Clearly, this was not the same deer.
Slowing his tempo, the buck nipped and browsed along a narrow break that separated the skinny strip of timber in which I was perched and the edge of a large cornfield. To my surprise, the buck diverged from his linear path into the timber strip and selectively picked at browse and a fresh crop of acorns. As he closed the distance, I came to full draw and settled my aim on his broadside form. The arrow went, and as if in slow motion, I watched as a cardinal ribbon erupted from his side, landing on the ground and disrupting the contoured lines created by the tapestry of yellow and orange leaves blanketing the forest floor. As he ran out of sight, I listened intently for the ensuing crash. It was October 18, and I had just arrowed a mature buck for the fifth straight year, well before the calendar flipped to November.
Less than an hour later, I followed a wide spoor of carmine beads glistening under the bright light of my headlamp’s beam. Coming upon the fallen dark-antlered buck in just 75 yards, I knelt in the cool evening air to both pay my respects to the fallen beast, and to marvel at another consummation of October success. As I gripped his nine-point rack, I was reminded of words frequently penned by my now late friend, Craig Dougherty: “The rut can either make you a hero, or a zero.”
Many bowhunters still overlook the virtues that October presents to fill a tag in lieu of the intense movement and high-paced chase periods November delivers. I’ve always found November great for regularly seeing shooter bucks footloose and free-moving at all hours of the day, but struggled to perennially punch a tag. Conventional thinking embraces the notion that November presents the zenith of the season’s opportunity. Although this may be the case in some instances, there’s a long list of reasons October is the perfect month for consistently killing big bucks.
October presents long days — especially earlier in the month. Because of this, opportunities to get into the field have the potential to be increased, giving hardcore hunters more time than just weekend outings. If you live or work close enough to the ground you hunt, it’s not unrealistic to get into the woods after work during the week. This time of year, bucks tend to move closer to darkness, providing a greater buffer that allows you to arrive at your chosen hunting spot with enough time to settle in and let the woods calm down. My aim is to be in my stand or blind for the last 90 minutes of daylight this time of year, for as many days as my schedule will allow. If time still remains an issue and you work a nine-to-five job, try to forego a traditional lunch hour, or find other ways to leave work earlier to realize more stand time. This may mean starting earlier in the morning, or shifting your schedule in an effort to grab an extra hour at the end of the day. The more days you can stack in the field this time of year, the more opportunity and information you’ll have to help you find success. It’s a lot easier to pull this off in October than once the calendar turns to triple ones. Investing time in October can also save precious vacation days to use on other hunting opportunities throughout the year, or to bone up on family time.
We’ve often heard that bucks will maintain their summer rituals in the early parts of the month until they’re disrupted by the “October Lull.” Information presented by the QDMA in 2016 suggests such restrictions in movement do not exist, and that it’s more commonly a change or shift in food sources and how the deer are utilizing core areas rather than the actual activity itself. Finding the right areas through this transition can be one of the greater challenges, especially as bachelor groups of bucks break apart and become less visible in open terrain. However, in lieu of this, those who find success tend to take an aggressive approach to their October hunting tactics in an effort to make the most of the predictability the month presents.
Visual data is a critical component to success this time of year. Between scouting cameras that act as your eyes and ears when you’re not in a certain location and your own observation data, October is an ideal time to use that information and make dramatic moves to find success. If a buck appears in an area once in October, there’s a very high likelihood he’ll do it again, but you have to act fast to catch him in the pattern. Don’t wait a week; move in the next time the wind is right, and don’t wait for him to come to you. I wasted years hoping a buck would eventually walk by me. These days, I go to them. If I have a single sighting of a shooter buck in an area, I will keep strategically working that area until I either have an opportunity to kill him, or I feel absolutely certain he’s on a different pattern. Sometimes this means hanging back and watching through glass if the wind is wrong — either from an observation stand or from your vehicle, if the area allows. If it’s a spot where you have the ability to sit stands or blinds for different winds, don’t be afraid to hang in there and keep picking your way in. There’s a good chance your paths will eventually cross and you’ll get a shot.
Early season food sources can be some of the most consistently hit all year. Early dropping oak varieties, apples, green browse, persimmons, pears, or plots of clover, alfalfa, or beets are all favored by whitetails during the warmer October days. If you hunt in an area that has agriculture, it’s a good idea to look at corn as cover rather than food while avoiding beans, unless you have consistent visual data to suggest deer are eating them on a regular basis. I have a friend who consistently arrows good bucks during early October under a cluster of apple trees. He waits for the right wind, heads in, and so long as he doesn’t disrupt the bucks’ patterns, he keeps hitting that location until a big buck shows up.
Because you may be hunting more open areas this time of year, it’s important to take your entrance and exit routes into consideration. The last thing you want to be doing is blowing a group of deer off an oak flat, ag field, or other food source every time you’re coming or going from a stand. Over time, I have come to believe this is one of the greatest contributing factors to a change in deer behavior and their use of an area. If you can’t get in and out relatively undetected, you’re better off waiting for the one day that presents the absolute best possible scenario, and then make the most of that one hunt. If possible, it can be helpful to have a friend, relative, or hunting partner drive in and pick you up in a vehicle or ATV. In recent years, I have started using an e-bike to enter and exit the zones that hold my stands and blinds, which the deer don’t seem to relate to human presence. It has been a true game-changer.
Although much of the previously mentioned advantages to finding success in October revolves around consistency, another enormous advantage is an inconsistent weather pattern that can bring dramatic changes in temperature or other conditions as a front comes and goes. Generally, as a weather front moves in and the barometric pressure drops, being a slave to their stomach, deer will feed heavily on desired food sources, making them susceptible to your advances. The same holds true after a strong weather front passes, especially when giving way to clear, high-pressure days after strong rains or a significant drop in daily ambient temperature. These have become some of my favorite days to hunt, and I will work diligently to arrange my work and family schedules to take advantage of them based upon the long-term weather forecasts. Although this type of tactic will work during any portion of the hunting season, I find that fronts that come in the first half of October provide the most reliable results, especially when deer are working a food source that’s easily identifiable that time of year. This may be a short window of just a couple days, but if your favorite weather or hunting app is showing a big swing in temps in October, it’s time to make arrangements to be in the woods.
October can mean late nights, long days, and many dinners alone, but the work and time can be worth it when your hands wrap around a larger-than-average set of antlers. The key is to make your best effort to find balance among all the aspects of your life, while maximizing opportunities to spend time in the field. One of the easiest things you can do is just show up and believe that the possibility exists. All too often, bowhunters take to the field with diminished hope that exciting opportunities can even be presented in a month analogous with a weakened sense of opportunity. However, speaking from firsthand experience, October is fraught with exciting opportunities at big bucks and has proven to be anything but a lull.
The author is a real estate agent and business and branding consultant who lives with his wife and two daughters in the Finger Lakes region of New York.
My equipment on this hunt included a Mathews Traverse bow, Carbon Express Maxima Red SD arrows with Nockturnal FIT lighted nocks, Rage Hypodermic NC broadheads, IQ Pro 1 sight, QAD Ultrarest, TruFire Synapse release, Sitka Gear clothing, and a Bakcou eBike.