I was listening to a hunting-related podcast recently. The guest was a well-known western hunter. He and the host got onto the topic of whitetails, and this hunter (who should know better) said something I’ve heard a lot. Basically, he went on a little diatribe about how a mature whitetail has no weaknesses outside of the rut.
He stated something to the effect of how a mature buck is infallible, aside from a few weeks in November when he is starry-eyed over picking up as much female companionship as possible. As someone who has obsessed over whitetails his whole life, I just wish people would stop saying stuff like that. It’s bunk, and it needs to stop.
First of all, whitetails aren’t mythical creatures. They are oversized rabbits with antlers, and while they can be among the most challenging game animals to take with a bow, they are far from infallible. They get hungry every day. Thirsty, too. They are prone to running away from danger, which has resulted in plenty of them getting killed. They sometimes get hot, so they move to shadier spots. Or they sometimes get cold, and they move to geothermal cover.
Sometimes, they want to fight a stranger, or simply socialize with a few of the boys from the neighborhood. They aren’t, for the most part, neurotic loners who are completely nocturnal. Even public-land bucks are killable in the right situations, well outside of the rut.
Even right now, in October — in the worst part of October when we all just know that bucks don’t move and there is no reason to sit in the woods. As you can guess, that’s not true either. You can kill a buck now, you just need to hunt him where he is going to want to be. And I’ll give you a hint as to where that’s going to be — not on a field edge.
Forget The Field Edges
That gimme’ September spot over a beanfield where the deer showed up like clockwork might be a deer desert now. Many of us will use that observation to infer that the deer have stopped moving during daylight. They haven’t, they’ve just stopped moving there. This is most likely due to hunting pressure and nothing else.
By October 1st, most bowhunting seasons have been open for a few weeks. In states with an October 1 opener that’s not the case, but it doesn’t mean there hasn’t been an increase in foot traffic in the woods as hunters check trail cameras and hang stands. They have.
All of that adds up to deer that are probably not as comfortable stepping into the open as they were just a week or two ago. It also means that if you want to run into them, you’ll have to back off of the destination food sources as well.
Set The Stage
I’m into staging areas. Of all of the places I feel like I have a chance to arrow a mature buck, no matter the season timing, it’s staging areas. There is something about getting into the cover where the bucks feel safe that results in shot opportunities.
That may seem like an oversimplification, but it’s really not. Most of the hunting pressure occurs in the easy spots with good visibility. It doesn’t take the deer long to understand that, and so they hang out where the hunters usually aren’t. In many cases, it’s a matter of setting up off of the destination food source maybe 100 or 150 yards, sometimes less. Sometimes more. It basically boils down to identifying how the deer are getting to the groceries and then backtracking to a spot in the terrain that gives them a security advantage.
If this seems overwhelming, it’s not. Take a look in the woods and pay attention to fresh sign. Where there is a concentration, that is a good place to start.
As your sussing out the best staging areas, you might notice that there is an awful lot of deer food in the woods. This year, in many places where whitetails reign supreme, both hard mast and soft mast are plentiful. That means that the deer can often travel where the hunters aren’t while filling their bellies with their favorite food sources.
Why wouldn’t they do that? This, I’m convinced, is a major driver behind the myth of the lull. Just because we aren’t seeing the deer moving doesn’t mean they are all holed up. And just because your cameras aren’t filling up with images of daylight travelers doesn’t mean they aren’t traveling in the daylight.
It’s much easier to get a bunch of pictures of bucks in a secluded corner of an alfalfa field in September than it is to photograph the same bucks on an oak ridge where they could feed under any number of trees.
Now, once you’ve backed off of the field edges into the timber, you’ll have to pay attention. The odds of getting your stand site perfect the first time are slim.
Observe. Pay attention to the deer movement, and remember that nothing is random. The deer that seems to be just working his way through the woods without a destination isn’t. He’s onto something, even if it’s just a loose travel plan through the oaks.
If you don’t see any deer, move. But also consider that you might be spooking them with your entrance route. If the fresh sign is there, but the sightings aren’t, that is often the case. It takes some tweaking usually, but if you’re willing to pull a stand and hang it somewhere new every day, or every time you hunt, you’ll experience some activity when conventional advice says you won’t. Oftentimes, a move of 50 or 75 yards will get you to where you need to be.
If you’re looking for an excuse to not hunt in October, feel free to buy into the lull. If you want to keep hunting, and to have a chance to arrow a buck when the rest of the hunters are staying at home, dive into the cover. It may take a few setups and a scouting trip or two, but eventually you’ll realize that the bucks are still moving and there is good hunting to be had.