When the calendar flips to October 1, whitetail bucks are not yet revved up by hormones like teenagers on prom night. They’re still in bachelor groups, keeping their distance from the fairer sex. But as the air grows crisper, the days shorter and the leaves brighter, bucks quickly morph from docile critters (during the first two weeks of October) to rubbing, scraping fiends (around the 20th) to wild-eyed, sex-starved beasts (by Halloween). This progression is as predictable as it is swift. That’s why you need to tailor your strategies to each phase of the rut to take full advantage of changing buck behavior. To help you do that, we offer four custom tactics for October–one for each week of the month.
Next issue we’ll do the same for November, with four more week-by-week strategies. No matter which week you plan to take off work, we’ve got you covered.
Week 1 Planner
–Whitetails are largely still loyal to their summer bed-to-feed routines. Traveling alone, in pairs or in small bachelor gangs, bucks creep along trails and funnels, moving mostly at dusk and dawn.
–Many old bucks stay visible until around the 10th of the month in crop fields, cutovers and other openings.
–The higher the temperature, the slower bucks move. If you were wearing a winter coat you wouldn’t jog down a sidewalk on a 70-degree afternoon either.
–Mature deer don’t travel far at this time. If you see an 8- or 10-pointer now, he’s almost certainly living within 400 to 600 yards of that spot for the next two weeks. Heck, he might stay there all season.
–Hang at least three stands near food sources that you can hunt on different winds. In addition to crops and acorns, look for beechnuts, apples, persimmons and other mast crops deer might seek.
–Note ridges and draws where you find the most acorns. You can expect a ton of rut sign there in a few weeks.
–Leave your rattling antlers at home. Rattle at a buck now and he’s apt to jump and run like you zapped him with a cattle prod. If you feel the need to knock horns, just tickle them together to simulate light sparring.
October 1-7 A Routine Is a Buck’s Weakness
During the first week of October your best tactic is to take a stand in the afternoon adjacent to a food source. A well-used deer trail near a field of alfalfa, corn or clover, or around falling acorns, is best. Find a spot where you can cover both natural mast crops and agricultural food sources and your odds shoot way up. If that trail offers good cover and a low-impact way to get in and out, you’ve found an ideal stand location.
The success of this strategy is predicated on your having previously glassed at least one or two shooters in a field or opening in the timber last month. If you didn’t do your homework, however, it’s not too late. Climb into an evening stand that affords you a view of a large feeding area (a crop field or open bench of white oak) and scout as you hunt. Or, leave your bow at home and move around glassing for big deer.
After you’ve completed your recon, head into the field around lunchtime, put the wind in your face and follow a major deer trail out of a field that you spotted a good buck using–a good run will look like a cattle path. Don’t walk on the trail. Parallel it on the downwind side. No matter how well the terrain and foliage hide your moves, do not penetrate more than 100 yards. If you push any deeper you’re apt to spook deer, because many does and bucks bed near feeding areas in early fall.
At some point within 50 to 100 yards of a field, the trail should splinter into two or three feeder paths. Deer drop off ridges and walk up out of draws, coming from all directions before funneling into a main trail near a feeding area. Stop right there–that intersection is the spot.
If you have a climber, you might shinny up 17 feet and hunt immediately. But if you wrestle with a fixed-position stand and you can’t help but rattle a chain or bang a buckle, you’d better hang the stand and then let it rest for a day or two.
After picking your stand location, decide on entry and exit routes. You don’t want to clamber down and bust deer out of the feeding area as you depart. Try to find a sneaky way out, and keep your eyes open during those last dingy minutes of dusk. Early in October a good buck might lollygag in on one of those trails, planning to arrive at a field behind you at dark.
To make the setup even stronger, look and listen for acorns falling within 50 to 75 yards of a trail junction. But again, don’t press too far back in the woods–you don’t want to ruin a good thing. If you find fresh white acorns, look for a flurry of rubs, sign that a buck is gorging there. Hang a stand in the mast, or along a trampled trail where the wind is better.
Week 2 Planner
–If a water hole doesn’t pan out, go back to your food-source stands.
–Scout for the last falling acorns. Play the wind, move in and hang another stand (or use a climber) along a trail where some does and bucks are sure to come to feed.
–On warm, still evenings thermals do funny things with your scent. Try to set up below a deer trail on a ridge, field or water hole. When the sun gets low and the air cools and sinks, your scent should flow down and away from where deer walk.
–Four big tracks with a monster standing in them is still the best buck sign. If you haven’t gotten onto a good deer yet, sacrifice one or two evenings and mornings to scout. Glass for deer like crazy, find a buck, pin down where he enters and leaves a feeding area and move in for a quick strike.
October 8-15 Thirst Can Draw Bucks In
On a stifling afternoon in the second week of October, I sat on the edge of a cornfield and glassed 30 deer piling into a distant copse of trees.
“What’s up with that patch?” I asked my buddy when he picked me up after dark.
“The farmer can’t cultivate that spot,” he said. “Not much in there. Just rocks, scrub trees and a spring-fed pond.”
The water was drawing the deer.
The next day I sneaked in there, hung a stand and watched 15 deer mill around the pond. The best buck was a 130-class eight-pointer–no monster, but a shooter in my book. I didn’t get him, but at least I got in the game.
Early October is a hot, dry time in many parts of the country, perfect for lying in wait near a cool, shady water hole. The tactic is so obvious that many hunters overlook it. Don’t. Studies have shown that when the heat stays on in the fall, deer may go to water two or three times a day.
Not just any agua will do. Scout and find an isolated hole–a beaver pond deep in the woods, the biggest pool in a trickling creek…you get the idea. If there is too much water–say a large stream or river–you can’t home in on a spot that concentrates deer.
A good water hole will be in or around a feeding area. The best ponds or pools are located within 100 yards of crops or mast and back toward thickets where deer bed. When the heat is on and the logistics are right, a good buck might get up 10 minutes early one afternoon and head toward a water hole to stage before moving on out to feed at dusk. Be there with an arrow nocked.
Hang a stand downwind of the water or along a trail that leads to it. Try to set up where terrain or structure will funnel thirsty deer within 30 yards of your stand. It might be a pond dam, a creek crossing or a wire fence near a stock tank. If you don’t see a good buck after two days of hunting over water, it’s time to change tactics. But if the weather turns unseasonably hot and dry later in the rut, don’t be afraid to head back to the water hole. When bucks are moving all day in search of does, they naturally get thirsty.
Week 3 Planner
–Go to www.weather.com, click on “Hourly Forecast” and check out the precipitation and wind data. Use that information to plan one or two days’ worth of hunting around an October cold front, or any time of the season for that matter. Keep checking the Web site. The hourly wind directions and speeds get more accurate the closer you get to hunting time.
–On a windy afternoon on the backside of a front, you won’t spot many deer in fields or on the tops of ridges. Choose a stand in a sheltered ditch, hollow or creek bottom that links a feeding and bedding area. Just hunt high enough to avoid swirling winds.
–Check a barometer every day. Whitetails tend to move best when it’s either falling or rising.
–As you walk to and from your stands, note ridges, draws and edges where new rubs and scrapes are being made. Cross-reference the sign on an aerial photograph and start predicting where the heaviest rutting action will happen over the next three weeks.
October 16-23 Cold Can Get Bucks Moving
On October 16 a few years ago, Mark and Terry Drury of Drury Outdoors were pumped. A front had rumbled in from the north overnight, dumping an inch of rain and dropping the temperature 30 degrees. The hunters had stayed out of one of their favorite Illinois spots all month, but now the time was right. They climbed into stands near a hollow where some deer always bedded, hoping to ambush a buck moving out to a nearby crop field. The plan worked. That afternoon Terry videotaped Mark tagging a 6 1/2-year-old 12-pointer that scored 160. It was one of the best bucks the Drury boys had ever shot in October.
“We live for the first cold front of October,” says Terry. “That blast of cool weather makes the deer move–remember, they’re already wearing their winter coats. Old bucks start to lay down more sign and begin to nudge does around.”
When you see a drop of 20 to 40 degrees forecast on the Weather Channel, take a few vacation days. Deer sometimes move well the day before a northerly front, but the two high-pressure days after a front blows through are best. You might have to deal with 15 to 25 mph winds, but it’s worth it, since bucks will finally move earlier and harder toward food sources.
Keep watching major trails into feeding areas, but tweak your setup in a couple of ways. Hunt downwind of a trail blazed with the most fresh rubs, and the first scrapes. This rut sign could be the work of a heavy-racked buck. Studies have shown that in an area where the age structure of the bucks is good, deer 3 1/2 years old and older lay down most of the first serious rut sign.
Set a stand where you can see out into a food plot or across an oak flat or ridge. You want to see and pattern any monster bucks that come out of the woodwork to push does around on a cool dusk. If you spy Mr. Big working the next ridge or cutting out into a field 100 yards away, sneak over there tomorrow and hang yet another stand.
Week 4 Planner
–Hunt as many mornings as you can. Cool temperatures and the dark moon on the 25th should cause bucks to move at dawn.
–Four or five bucks and some does might mill around one set of scrapes while scrapes 150 yards away go stale. If you sit two days without spotting many deer, stop wasting your time. Move your stand to a nearby ridge or draw where scrapes are bigger and fresher.
–Douse a scrape near your stand with buck tarsal scent every day. Your “intruder” scent might attract a prowling buck.
–With bucks cruising, looking to hook up with does, you should crank up your calling. Blow 10 to 12 deep, gurgling tending grunts every half hour or so. A buck might roll in to check you out. If you spot a shooter trolling 100 yards or so away, try a quick burst of rattling. He might turn your way.
October 24-31 Does Will Bring Bucks in Tow
A few months ago I summarized a University of Georgia research project that monitored the scraping behavior of whitetails [Whitetails, August]. The study determined that some of the heaviest scraping of the pre-rut occurs just after dusk each day. Now is the time to use that intel.
As bucks get up and paw to vent weeks of pent-up energy and sexual frustration, they create the most sign near their bedding areas and en route to food sources where they’ll scent-check does. Look for a hogback ridge, narrow strip of timber or similar funnel that connects a bedding area with a grain field or oak flat where you’ve spotted a lot of does. The best funnel will have a couple of trampled doe trails, a bunch of fresh scrapes and some big rubs. A six-pointer or a 150-inch brute might have made those scrapes, but only a deer with a powerful neck and a big rack can maul trees as thick as your calf.
To catch a shooter on a ridge or in a draw during the last wisps of light, hunt 50 to 100 yards off the feed and back toward a bedding cover. If you find a long line of scrapes and figure ol’ Mossyhorns is traveling a good distance between bed and feed, probe 50 to 100 yards deeper into the woods. The bucks are more aggressive now. You should be too.
When you find a midway point in a funnel, you’ll still have a dilemma: Should you set your stand close to a scrape line on a doe trail or downwind of it? I have sat and watched many good bucks prowl down a doe trail like they owned it, but I have also seen wary giants loop through cover as far as 50 to 100 yards downwind of scrapes, scent-checking them before circling up the trail.
I figure it’s best to set up 75 to 100 yards downwind of a trail or scrape line and hope a big deer circles into bow range. At least he won’t come in from behind and bust you from the get-go. If you spot a buck or two on a trail or scrape line a couple of evenings in a row, you can always move your stand in closer.
Up until now the best hunting has been in the afternoons. But the deeper into October you go, the hotter the mornings get. If on or around Halloween you can play the wind and slip into a hollow or onto a ridge blazed with hot sign, go for it. Sneak to your stand well before first light. If it’s cool–say, in the 20s or 30s–there’s a good chance you’ll spot a buck prowling around, trying to find a hot doe. If you don’t see him or don’t get a shot, don’t sweat it. There’s always next month, when the rut really rocks.
October Rut Timeline*
Wednesday, October 1 Summer buck bachelor groups of three to six bucks begin to break up in early October as young bucks disperse. Many bucks will still travel in pairs for the next two weeks. It is not uncommon to spot a giant traveling with a young buck.
Sunday, October 5 “Licking sticks,” begin to appear. These are 1-inch saplings snapped off 3 feet up on which bucks rub their scent. “They’re usually overlooked by most hunters–but not by deer,” Leonard Lee Rue III explains in Way of the Whitetail (Voyageur Press, 2000).
Wednesday, October 8 A research study at the University of Georgia found that bucks begin working licking branches and urinating at scrape sites at this time, but heavy scraping activity won’t begin for a few more weeks. Most of this early scraping will occur at night.
Thursday, October 9 The last acorns fall around this time in many regions of the country, giving does and bucks one last chance to gorge before the rut. Depending on this year’s mast crop, consider taking a stand near a grove of white oaks that is still dropping acorns.
Friday, October 10 The moon is full, but don’t expect the midday activity that you’ll see during the big “rutting moon” next month. It will seem like most of the older bucks have gone underground now. Look for them near mast crops early and late. They’ll be revved up soon.
Thursday, October 16 Bucks’ necks begin to swell. Some scientists say testosterone levels rise faster in 3- to 5-year-old bucks than in 1- to 2-year-olds, causing the old boys to make rut sign earlier. Mature deer really begin to maul trees and mark their core areas now.
Saturday, October 18 Many 1 1/2-year-old bucks begin dispersing to new core areas at this time. Solitary old bucks become more and more ornery and aggressive with each passing day, though they mostly stick to their core areas and move at night.
Thursday, October 23 The hard-core scraping begins in the last week of October. Multiple bucks may paw and rub-urinate at the same scrapes, mostly at night. Bucks gradually begin to expand their ranges to scent-check does. You’ll notice the change by the amount of rut sign.
Saturday, October 25 New moon. Pumped with testosterone, bucks should move well at dusk and dawn during this dark-moon phase. Old bucks can no longer suppress the young males, which jump hooves-first into the instinctive rubbing-and-scraping ritual.
Friday, October 31 Bucks begin to prowl hard, noses to the ground, looking for the first estrous does as the seeking phase of the rut gets started. If two big rivals cross paths near a doe feeding or bedding area, one heck of a fight might break out.
*Dates approximate for Central and Northern states