October 06, 2023
The giant whitetail was approximately 50 yards away when I’d first spotted him. He had his head down and was moving very slowly, which had me a bit confused initially. It was early October, and the rut was still a good month away. I hadn’t seen any other deer pass through that spot before the buck showed up. With my curiosity piqued, I slowly reached for my binoculars, so I could more closely study exactly what the big deer was doing. After watching him for a bit, I was able to determine that the buck was feeding on something. And just about that time he raised his head, and I could clearly see that he had a mouthful of maple leaves.
The above experience occurred in the big woods of northwest Wisconsin more than 30 years ago. And though I’ve had dozens and doz- ens of additional encounters with big whitetails since then, that experience remains stuck in my memory. Because, before having that particular encounter, I wasn’t aware that white-tailed deer had a sincere craving for freshly-fallen maple leaves. My morning encounter with that big woods deer forever changed my approach to hunting “transition time” whitetails, specifically during late September and early October. Because, in my part of the world, our maple trees typically begin losing their leaves just about the same time that we’re suffering through this oft-touted “lull” period.
CASES IN POINT
In my part of the whitetail world and in many areas across the Midwest, in early October bucks really aren’t displaying any sort of rut-related behavior. They will be increasing their intake of nutritious foods in preparation for the upcoming hectic days of the pre-rut and rut. Obviously then, it's imperative that we figure out exactly what mature bucks most prefer to fill their bellies with during this time period. However, the kicker here is that mature bucks often can become extremely wary about wandering around during daylight hours.
I well remember an Oklahoma bowhunt that my son, Jake, and I went on some years back. Because of the timing of the hunt, which was the first week of October, we both knew it was likely that we’d be dealing with some tough hunting conditions. And that’s exactly what we discovered after arriving at our hunt destination. As one might expect upon hunting totally foreign ground, the first few days of our trip were less than productive. But after some extensive midday scouting trips and a slight relocation of our hunting efforts, we eventually zeroed in on a couple areas our trail cameras had shown were holding some good bucks.
The area I’d selected to hunt consisted of a large chunk of cover that was completely surrounded by cropland and pasture ground. After doing a bit of midday scouting in the chunk of cover, my cameraman, Matt Tande, and I had decided to place our portable stands in a large hardwood tree located along the edge of a small and very lush fallow field that was being used as a feeding area.
We saw a fair number of deer during our time on that stand, including a couple decent bucks, but I didn’t consider any of them to be shooters. More importantly, although we’d been hunting the spot for three straight evenings, I truly felt that we’d been able to enter and exit the area without causing any real disturbance.
So, with the wind holding steady on day four, we decided to hunt our food plot stand once again. Now, I should mention here that, along the way, we’d also captured several scouting cam photos of a very good-looking 8-point that was frequenting the plot just minutes after we’d climbed down from our tree stands. So, as you might imagine, Matt and I had made up our mind that we were going to continue to hunt the spot as long as conditions were favorable.
Deer began appearing at the food plot a good 45 minutes before dark, and the procession continued right up until sundown. And that’s when the buck we were after finally made an appearance on the far edge of the plot, some 75 yards away. Long story made short, the 8-pointer eventually fed to within 25 yards, which was way more than close enough. I waited until the big whitetail moved into a good angle and then put a broadhead-tipped missile through his vitals. He made it only about 100 yards before going down.
Interestingly, I found out just a few minutes later that my son, Jake, also had scored on a big Oklahoma whitetail the very same evening. Apparently, a very mature 7-pointer had appeared with another big buck as they browsed through some scattered underbrush. As was the case with my deer, the 7-pointer made it no more than 100 yards after the hit.
Our decision to hunt food sources during this transition period had proved to be a good one. Continuing to hunt based on wind direction helped us keep human pressure low, and it paid off two-fold for myself and my son.
FIND THE FOOD, FIND THE DEER
I also remember a big 9-point South Dakota whitetail I arrowed during the early stages of the October transition period. As it so happened, my good friend, Pat West, and I had observed the buck while doing some pre-season visual reconnaissance on an evening just prior to the opening of his home state’s archery season.
Based on what we’d determined from that observation, we deduced that the buck was bedding in a stretch of nearby river bottom cover. After arising from cover, the buck was making his way to a distant hay field in early evening. What was of most interest, however, is that the big deer was walking through a thick shelter belt just before reaching the hay field. With this information in hand, we were able to determine that our best option was to attempt to ambush the 9-pointer somewhere within the shelter belt. But after doing some midmorning scouting, I wasn’t so sure we could get the job done there. While a part of the shelter belt hadn’t been pastured and was fairly thick, the trees were very small in diameter. In fact, they were tiny.
I honestly didn’t believe we could hang two portable stands in any of those trees and not instantly get “picked off” by the first deer that walked by. But after talking it over with my cameraman (Matt Tande once again), we decided we really had no other options, and nothing to lose. So, in the end, we picked out a tree for our tree stands that provided a lot of cover and would keep us downwind of the main travel route.
Now, to get you to appreciate the situation, after we finished getting set up, I climbed down from my stand, reached up and actually grabbed the platform of that stand. I seriously doubt it was more than seven feet from the ground. And I well remember how Matt chuckled about it as we walked out of the shelter belt that morning.
Based on what we’d learned in previous days, Matt and I knew we had to be on our stands fairly early, as a good number of antlerless deer and small bucks were passing through the shelter belt well before sundown. I must admit to being both a bit curious and more than a little nervous about our setup. The way I saw it, if we didn’t get picked off by any of the antlerless deer and small bucks that walked by prior to the big 9-point showing up, we’d be golden.
Lo and behold, that’s exactly what happened! After having a number of deer walk by without blowing the whistle on us, I started to believe we just might be able to pull our trick off. And that’s just about the time the 9-pointer appeared on the far side of the shelter belt walking in our direction. The big deer ended up walking to within 25 yards of our stand site, which was a fatal mistake for him. That South Dakota whitetail will forever remain as one of my more memorable archery kills.
Without doubt, one of my most favorite transition time bowhunts took place in northeast Wyoming a number of years ago. Thankfully, my long time run & gun videographer partner, you guessed it — Matt Tande, was accompanying me. And he perfectly documented the hunt on film. Prior to our hunt, Matt and I had spent a couple evenings sitting back a safe distance and watching a very lush alfalfa field during the last couple hours of daylight.
Normally in that part of the country, which is considered semi- arid, ranch owners never know what sort of crop growth they can expect to see. It could be good, it could be bad or it good be so-so; or, on rare occasions, it might even be excellent. In this instance, however, it was slightly better than excellent. Now, I’d have to estimate that, during our first observation trip, we saw no fewer than three dozen whitetails walk out of some surrounding cover to feed on the alfalfa. And while we did see several definite shooter-sized bucks, one really caught our attention. Though we were watching from well over a quarter mile away, Matt and I could clearly see that the buck was the most mature of the bunch.
And despite being “only” an 8-pointer, the fact that he sported a wide and heavy dark-colored rack immediately put him on the top of our hit list. But even more importantly, that one observation trip told us all we needed to know about the buck’s feeding pattern. As it so happened, the rancher who owned the property had left a good number of round bales lying in the field. Because of this, Matt and I were confident we’d be able to get away with popping up a ground blind amongst those bales without having to worry about the resident whitetails freaking out at the sight of the blind.
Midmorning the next day found Matt, me and outfitter, Mike Watkins, back at the alfalfa field. Due to the wind direction we’d be dealing with later in the afternoon, we had no choice but to place our ground blind a fair distance from where the deer were entering the field. Matt and I climbed into the blind a good 2 1/2 hours before dark — and we were glad we did, as deer started pouring into the field just a half hour later. True to what we’d witnessed previously, the herd was feeding toward the center of the field, which is exactly where our blind was located.
The entire herd of whitetails continued to feed towards us for close to an hour before finally feeding within bow range. Fortunately, the 8-pointer was close to the front of the herd. And when he got within 25 yards, I whispered to Matt that he was plenty close enough. I took my shot, and the stud deer barely made it out of the field before cashing in.
While I have arrowed bucks that boasted larger racks over the many years I’ve been chasing trophy whitetails, taking that mature Wyoming. This photo perfectly captures what can happen when a plan comes together on a transition time hunt. The author and his son, Jake, pose with their Oklahoma trophies taken just a few minutes apart from totally different areas. Setting up near preferred feeding areas was the key. Photo courtesy of Greg Miller whitetail will forever remain one of my more special memories. We’d done our homework, put together a game plan, and then executed that plan to perfection. It just doesn’t get much better than that!
So, the main theme of this article should be apparent by now. Simply put, find the most preferred foods during the transition period and you will find the deer. And then it’s just a matter of setting up in the right spot and hoping the plan comes together.