Pre-Rut Whitetail Hunting Tactics
October 19, 2010
When hunting mature whitetail bucks, your best chance of tagging a true giant might actually come before November, during the pre-rut stage that comprises the "October lull"
The pre-rut phase in October can be a challenging time to hunt, but it also presents plenty of opportunity for patterning bucks and predicting their movements.
As the sun began to set in the western sky, a slight chill came over me from the first northwesterly breeze of the season. I had been patiently waiting for this particular wind since the season opener 18 days ago. The quarter moon peaked high in the evening sky, another sign the time had come, my agonizing wait was over. I wanted everything to be just right before hunting this stand for the first time, and tonight was the night!
As I surveyed the surroundings from my elevated perch, I felt confident that the giant buck I was after was bedded close by, somewhere in the high weeds that bordered the thin strip of cover I had chosen for my ambush. The rub line of freshly shredded trees and newly opened scrapes I passed on the way in to my stand reinforced in my mind that I was in the right spot.
As the setting sun neared the horizon, I picked up my rattling horns and began a short sequence, not too aggressive, but with enough force to let the boss know someone was messing around in his territory. I had barely set down my antlers and reached for my bow when I heard it -- the unmistakeable sound of an approaching deer -- and it was coming fast. I slowly turned to face the sound and positioned myself for a shot at the trail that passed directly beneath my stand. As the crunching of dry leaves underfoot became louder, I strained to see a flash of brown coming through the timber. As the deer closed the distance on my position, his whole body came into view, and atop his head was the biggest set of antlers I had ever seen in my life!
This is just one example of many that I have witnessed firsthand during the early days of bow season here in my home state of Ohio. Like myself, most hunters are anxious for deer season to get started and they would miss their own funeral before missing "Opening Weekend." Once the initial shock of the season opener wears off though, throw in some 80-degree days, then add the proverbial "October Lull" to the mix, and most guys are waiting for the rut.
October can be a difficult time to hunt, perhaps even unproductive at times. But after chasing whitetails with a stick and string for nearly 30 years now, I have learned that my best chance at harvesting a specific, mature buck is during October. All of my biggest animals have been harvested during this pre-rut phase. The main reason is that this is when they are the most predictable and patternable, doing virtually the same thing everyday, which makes them very vulnerable!
The catch is that a big buck will be using the smallest fraction of his territory now, less than at any other time of the year, making him tough to locate and even harder to close in on. In addition, when he sheds his velvet and enters this pre-rut stage, he can change his daily routine overnight, sometimes vacating the area altogether. This can leave some hunters scratching their heads, wondering where the velvet-antlered bucks they have been watching every night have disappeared to. Lets take a close look at what happens when this "change" occurs and what tactics you can employ to stay on top of the bucks in your area and hunt them effectively.
There are really three basic scenarios a hunter can face once a buck sheds his velvet. The first and possibly the best scenario for the hunter is that the buck stays put, right where he's been feeding all summer long. This is the easiest scenario to recognize and probably your best chance at getting a crack at him early. Second, a whitetail can abandon his summer haunt for a different food source, sometimes moving as little as a few hundred yards or even a few miles away. This can be the most difficult scenario, making it very tough to relocate a mature animal. Last and most common, a sneaky old buck will vacate the area, relocating to his core area, which is his favorite little hiding place. This option can play right into the hands of the prepared hunter who has wisely done his scouting ahead of time to know where these areas of security cover exist. Keep in mind that unlike the rut, deer are on a strict feeding pattern now with safety being a very important issue to a mature buck. He's a virtual homebody right now, traveling only as far as he has to. So, in order to get a crack at him we're going to have to be right on top of him without tipping him off to our presence, so lets take a close look at each scenario and how to approach it.
When I'm after a specific animal, I will keep tabs on him during the summer using observation stands. These low-impact stand sites need to be far enough away from feeding deer that I do not take a chance on spooking them, but close enough that I can see exactly where deer enter the field and the corresponding wind direction. If the buck I'm after continues using this food source right up to the opener, I know right where I need to be to kill him. Soybean fields seem to be the ticket here in the Midwest for early season, as long as they remain green. When all the bean fields in an area have dried up and turned brown, the last green soybean field in the area can be a gold mine during October.
If I've been watching a buck all summer long and he quits visiting the field during daylight, a strategically placed trail camera along his preferred trail at the field's edge will let me know if he's just moving after dark or if he's left the area. If I'm still not getting any pictures here, before giving up on this spot I will move my cameras back into the cover, close to any oaks that may be dropping. If he's still in the area, he will begin making rubs, and this is where your camera needs to be. If he continues to be a no-show, chances are he has relocated and it's going to take some low impact scouting and a lot of legwork to find him.
During October, bucks are often using the smallest part of their territory, making them hard to locate and even harder to close in on.
The worst thing you can do in this situation is stay put, wasting valuable time in an unproductive area. I have had bucks disappear on me overnight, only to find them days later in a different field a mile or two away. Start by checking soybeans that are still green, oaks that are dropping acorns, or even standing cornfields. No matter where he goes, he's going to be leaving clues behind as to his whereabouts, and nothing gets me more excited than finding some really big, fresh rubs to let me know where he's at.
More than likely, if a buck has left his summer haunt, he's probably relocated back to his core area. This is when the scouting you should have done in February and March comes into play. Late winter and early spring are the best times to locate a buck's core area. Concentrations of big rubs or shed antlers in thick cover are great clues as to where your buck will go when the velvet comes off. There is no substitute for scouting, and locating a big buck's core area is a crucial piece of the puzzle. If he has relocated to this area, a trail camera along a fresh rub line can help you determine if you have found him.
One trick I've learned over the years to help me keep tabs on a buck and any changes he makes to his pattern involves establishing two types of mineral sites and using trail cameras to monitor them. I will first establish a "summer site" close to where my buck is feeding during the dog days of summer. These sites are great for getting a lot of pictures during the antler development stage. I will also establish a "security area site" close to the buck's core area. If and when a buck disappears on me when he sheds, most of the time he will show up here, letting me know exactly where he has gone. Another little tip is the exact placement of these "security area" mineral sites, which I will discuss in a moment.
By the first of October, bow season is usually underway in most states. If I haven't been able to find the buck I'm after, as a last resort I will walk every bit of cover available until I bump him right out of his bed. This isn't the best scenario for harvesting a buck early, but it's still better than not knowing where he is and wasting valuable time in the wrong spot. If you have to resort to this method, you better be ready to hang a stand immediately and hunt it the very next day. A buck that has been busted out of his bed may return to that exact location, and if he does, you better be there waiting for him because once he has smelled your presence and observed any trimming of shooting lanes in his bedroom, he will not return! The upside to this scenario can be that if it was a temporary bedding area, you may very well have given him the incentive to head back to his core area.
Knowing where a buck goes once he sheds his velvet is vitally important to early success, but where you hang your stand can be the difference between success and failure. Once we know our buck's whereabouts, it's fairly simple to figure out his daily travel pattern from bedding to feeding. He's going to be using the safest route to get from A to B, and he's going to be leaving fresh sign behind on this travel pattern. What I'm looking for next is a weak spot. This is a tree somewhere along his path that allows me to get within bow range of him while he is using the wind to his advantage. If one thing has made a drastic impact on my success, it was when I switched from hunting when the wind was good for me, to when the wind was good for him. Think about it for a minute: the odds are against a mature buck moving during daylight early in the season. Your best chance to catch him up and moving is going to be when he feels safe, and that is when he has the wind in his favor.
The author considers the pre-rut phase, which usually falls during October, to be the best time for identifying, patterning and killing mature whitetail bucks.
Going back to where I left off earlier, If I know where a buck's core area is, I will establish my "security area" mineral site very close to where I hang my stand in this spot. When a mature animal relocates to this core area, my trail camera will let me know he's there and when he's passing by my stand during daylight. The only time I will hunt this spot before I think the time is right is when a buck shows up on camera during daylight. I have taken two of my best bucks by moving in immediately after I captured a daylight picture of them, harvesting both on the same day each of them showed up on my trail camera. Smart Scouter cameras are great for these areas because the pictures are sent to you via the Internet, leaving no reason to disturb the area.
Sometimes the toughest part of hunting a mature whitetail can be not hunting him at all, at least not until all the conditions are perfect. For me, this means having the right wind and having the moon in my favor! There are a handful of days every month, because of the position of the moon in the sky during prime time, that are the absolute best nights for seeing mature animals up early. I have spent nearly 20 years following the hunter's moon guide by the late Jeff Murray, and you owe it to yourself to get one. I could write an entire article about the moon and what I have learned from Murray, but let me just say that it has played an enormous part in my success and I will not hunt without one. When whitetails are on a strict feeding pattern, I believe their movements are dictated by the position of the moon in the sky.
Other than the wind and the moon, you need to take into consideration a buck's attitude. At the tail end of the "October Lull," usually around the third week of October in most parts of the country, a buck's attitude is starting to change. His aggression is building, there are no does to be bred for a few weeks yet, and he is on edge, just looking for an excuse to get up early. This is when rattling from a well-placed stand within earshot of his bedding area can really pay off. Don't forget how vitally important it is to be able to reach this stand undetected!
If it takes waiting two or three weeks for the perfect conditions, you have to be patient. The worst thing you can do is rush in and take a chance on a mature buck not showing up, then busting you on the way out after dark. Chances are when you invade this small area he's using during early season, he will know you have been there. This is why you have to get it done the first time you go in. Conditions have to be perfect! If I look back at my six biggest bowkills, all but one were taken on the first night in. Believe me when I say, the first time you hunt a stand is the best time.
In the first paragraph of this article, I described one of the most memorable hunts of my life. It was on that evening of October 19 that I harvested my first buck of a lifetime. Since that day, I have used the same early-season tactics every year to harvest some incredible animals. There's no reason why you can't do the same if you follow my game plan for hunting October. The mature whitetail buck is a master at the game of survival. He uses his incredible senses like a suit of armor to guard his very existence. He is also a creature of habit and during the early season, his travel pattern is as predictable as it will be all year. Figure out what little piece of real estate he's using, find his weak-spot and wait for that perfect wind, then move in when the moon is naturally telling him to get up early, and you too might harvest a buck of a lifetime!