It felt as though I were chasing ghosts. Each morning I'd sit on stand and watch ruffed grouse sneak around, songbirds flit through the woods, and leaves blow in the wind. Then I'd consult every hunting app I have and check a string of game cameras to see where the deer were. And as I scrolled through nocturnal image after image, I'd cross my fingers at the prospect of finding a buck picture taken in daylight.
I wasn't just looking for a big one - I hoped for evidence of any buck in daylight. Not my highest standards, but northern Wisconsin has kicked my butt more often than not. Low deer numbers and high predator numbers, coupled with legal baiting, make it one of the toughest places I've ever hunted. And as my hunting area is 2 1/2 hours from home, I rely on trail cameras to do much of the heavy lifting when it comes to scouting.
Last year, they didn't lift enough. Not that it was the cameras' fault. It wasn't. It was mine, for relying too much on technology, and not enough on simply going hunting. It's a scenario I've faced before in October, and though I'd like to think I've learned my lesson, I might face it again when the cut of last season scars over and the passing of time allows me to forget my follies.
Twice I drove to Wisconsin for long weekends of deer hunting, and twice I crossed the big river back to my home state with my tail between my legs. That whole "hindsight is 20/20" saying might not apply perfectly to deer hunting, but it's not far off. A fair amount of reflection on my part revealed what I didn't care to admit.
I knew it would be tough hunting, and I knew that I needed to carry stands into new areas and look for sign like those indicating staging areas, or simply fresh tracks in the muddy trails through the vast swamps of the area. I didn't do that, though, and I ate tag soup because of it. It stings eating any tag, but to do so when you know better is especially bitter.
Sometimes it's best to rely on the one gadget all of us have at our disposal: the gray matter lying between our ears.
Deer Hunting: Forget What You Know
If you're looking to make good on a buck tag in October, sometimes it's best to forget what you think you know. When faced with tough hunting, it's pretty easy to preach that the bucks will be nocturnal and not likely to show their faces, so not filling a tag is nothing more than what should happen. The deer aren't all nocturnal, but they aren't usually as careless about risking their necks as they might have been in September or will be in November.
I'm convinced an awful lot of the blame for tough October hunting, or more specifically what many hunters call "the lull," is changing food sources. If you're in an ag-heavy area, October can alter the buffet in major ways. Big-woods deer will change as well, though the reasons will be less obvious than a suddenly clean-shaven corn field.
Food, in at least the first three weeks of October, is important. What's even more important is finding food the deer want to eat during daylight, which often means less-than-obvious sources of calories.
Acorns are probably the most common of those food sources, and I've never found a better way of knowing the deer were all over them than walking underneath oaks and looking for sign. Occasionally I'll find a spot where I can glass an oak ridge, and a single morning or evening spent watching what the deer actually do is invaluable.
Aside from that option, you need to take a walk. Fresh deer droppings ringing a certain mast tree will tell you all you need to know, as will a collection of "random" rubs that don't appear to be part of a rubline. A patch of fresh rubs in an oak flat can mean that at least one buck has spent some time chomping acorns and dallying around.
My first bow buck that ended up as a shoulder mount was doing just that when I got him. It was my first year of specifically hunting mature bucks, and my typical spots had gone dead. So I carried a lightweight portable stand into an oak flat on Oct. 11 and walked until I found enough deer sign to get me looking for a suitable tree.
With the stand on my back, I started to screw in steps. When I was 10 feet up, I realized I could hear something walking in my direction. I peeked around the tree trunk to see four does, noses to the leaf litter, feed on by without noticing me.
After the stand was set, I waited anxiously for the sound of footfalls - and that didn't take long. A good buck, his spread nearly out to his ears and a true giant for me at the time, walked straight in. At 35 yards he made a rub, then bedded down. It was maddening, and the situation was made worse by the gnats that formed a cloud around my eyes. My brain told me I couldn't move, because the buck was facing me, so I just sat there and endured the torture.
Finally, a younger buck trotted in and stopped next to the bedded buck. The latter stood up, and the youngster took off. After a few steps, the big guy was inside 30 yards and angled perfectly. As soon as my arrow passed through his ribs, I knew I'd be a small-game hunter for the rest of the season.
October is the time for the "surprise" hunt. Sneak into a new area, look for sign and get into a tree. Use your "spidey senses" to guide you to a spot the deer might pass through. If they do, you've done well. If they don't, you've at least scratched some dead woods off your list. Keep looking until you've found an area with fresh, active movement.
Go to the Fields
Blanket statements are dangerous, especially in our current everyone-gets-offended-quickly society. But I feel I can say this about bowhunters: We're obsessed with field edges. The wide-open views, the easy walks to and from stand, and the promise of hungry deer draw us to these setups all season long.
I love field edges as much as the next hunter, but not as much in October. This is especially true for the first three weeks of the month. I'd much rather sit in the cover somewhere, as deer sign suggests. Exactly where might depend on what I see in a field. I'm not talking about deer sightings, however - I'm talking about tracks.
I can remember, as a neophyte bowhunter, following my father all over southeastern Minnesota during scouting missions. In those days we didn't have trail cameras, so we had to look for tracks, rubs and scrapes. We loved rubs and scrapes, but we really loved finding big tracks and following them.
Tracks are most evident in fields, of course, but there are other places where you can find and follow big ones. River crossings, wooded trails, fence crossings and two-track roads all can show the prints of passing bucks. Better yet, they'll show the direction in which a buck was heading, and - if fresh - might show where he cut into the woods or where he left the woods.
Tracks and how to interpret their clues represent a lost art to many bowhunters. Too many of us walk through the woods with our eyes up, looking for a good place to hang a camera, when we should be staring at our feet for the sign of mature buck comings and goings.
If I'm slumping in October, I'll pick a few food sources that are likely to draw bucks during the night and will walk them during mid-morning after a recent rain. If I spy a track of at least 3 1/2 inches in length, I'll follow it. If I get lucky, I'll find which trail it either originated from or headed to. If I find the trail it originated from, it's time to work on an evening plan of attack. If I find where it leads to some cover, I'm looking at a morning situation. Either way, this tells me a good buck did something recently that might expose a flaw in his pattern. And I'm actively scouting during hunting season, which is very important.
Pinpoint Buck Sign
Rubs are always exciting to find on a scouting mission. In fact, I'll take them over scrapes any day. Well, that's not always true. From about Oct. 10-20, I'll take scrapes. This wasn't always the case, but a few bucks changed my mind.
The first deer, a beautiful northern Minnesota 8-pointer, strolled confidently through the cover on his way toward me several years ago. He had a smaller buck shadowing his movements, and when the big one got to within 40 yards of me, he stopped and made a scrape. Then he checked another scrape. And then he made yet another scrape. I watched this unfold and realized he was also grunting very softly, in a "whistle-while-you-work" kind of way.
When the 8-pointer finally offered me a shot, I was about as calm as a paint mixer. His eyes grew wide as I drew, and when I released he left the scene educated and unharmed.
A different mid-October buck didn't get so lucky. This deer, a mature public-land 9-pointer, gave me a lesson on scrapes as well. The first evening I saw him, he worked several field-edge scrapes out of range. The next evening, with absolutely nothing else going on in terms of deer activity, I set up for him. He returned, and I arrowed him at seven yards as he reworked those scrapes from the previous day.
If you have nothing going on in October and are just looking to hunt, consider setting up downwind of a few scrapes. This is hardly a guarantee, but there's some communication going on in the deer herd then via scrapes. And that tips the odds slightly more in your favor for seeing buck activity.
Combine fresh deer sign with an attractive, coming-into-season food source and a scrape or two and you've suddenly developed a plan for finding bucks when other bowhunters might say you can't. And you didn't use much more than old-fashioned woodsmanship to figure that out.
I'm not anti-technology in the deer woods — in fact, far from it. What I am, however, is pro-woodsmanship when the going gets tough. Although I occasionally forget my own advice and overvalue a trail camera, I plan on not giving in to that game again this fall.
In fact, a huge shed antler and several spring scouting missions have led me to look forward to this October. I know there's an island in the swamp, a public-land ridge that juts out into a wetland, and a few other areas that will host a few October bucks. All I need to do is sneak in, look around for the right stuff, and be ready to hunt if anything catches my eye.
It might work; it might not. But either way, come October I'm definitely going old school.