October 14, 2022
By Steve Sherk
They say the best time to kill a buck is whenever you can get in the woods, but there are certainly better times to hit the deer woods than others. Factors such as weather, time of year and hunting pressure can play a huge role in whether you even see a deer, let alone have success. Last year, many deer hunters across the country ended their season scratching their heads — especially those who put all their time and money planning their hunts around the month of November. Generally, November is considered the best month to hunt whitetails in North America. But last season was far from a complete bust for those who got an early start in October.
Beginning in mid-October and running through the end of October, whitetail hunting was on fire. The so-called October lull never seemed to happen. Although October is often an overlooked deer hunting month, this past October is one many of us will never forget.
TRAIL CAM DATA/STUDY
My guide service ran over 100 trail cameras in northern Pennsylvania during the 2020 deer season. We recorded daytime buck data from October 1 to December 15 based on our trail camera findings. What we found was exactly what most hunters throughout the country witnessed: peak daytime buck movement was indeed during the latter part of October. If you were in the woods from October 24 to November 3 this past season, you likely witnessed the best stretch of daytime buck activity.
We also saw some banner days in mid-October as well. Our cameras were on fire from October 17 to the 19. This three-day stretch was during the first prime cold front that hit northern Pennsylvania in October. I was fortunate to get out and bowhunt on October 17. Although I didn’t fill my tag that day, I had incredible action. Just following those days, the woods were ripped up with rubs and scrapes. In years past, we’ve noticed that the first cold front usually arriving around mid October really seems to increase buck activity. And if it stays fairly cold from then on, the bucks will continue to be more aggressive and daylight active.
From November 4-10, we saw a major decrease in daytime buck activity and deer activity in general; but the night movement was heavy. What we found was that a major warm front hit the northeast during this time period and had a huge impact on daytime movement.
When temps dropped during night hours, the deer activity would pick up, according to our trail cameras. Then another cold front hit during mid-November, and daytime activity was somewhat similar to what we saw back in October, but it didn’t last long. By November 20, most rut activity was over. From then until December 15, daytime buck activity was at its lowest during our study. I was able to talk with some of the guys from Exodus Trail Cameras. Being in the trail cam industry, the Exodus crew runs over 200 trail cameras across several states. These guys also get a lot of feedback from customers all over North America.
“When a front hit a Midwest state like Illinois, we could basically follow that weather event west to east on our cameras with increased activity,” says Chad Sylvester, co-owner of Exodus. Jake Hofer, also from Exodus, does most of his hunting in northern Illinois. Illinois is a state that normally has a reputation for November. However, Jake also agreed that even Illinois likely had its best days of deer hunting during October.
“In 2020, late October proved to be the most intense time for mature buck activity on trail cameras between bedding areas and community scrapes,” says Jake. “In Illinois, from October 23-31 was the peak of daylight activity on various farms throughout the north central region of Illinois. The intense weather fronts only magnified the already strong annual buck activity in late October.”
In Pennsylvania, I was fortunate to be in a deer stand on the evening of October 28 when a nice 4-year-old, heavy-bodied 8-point passed in front of me that I couldn’t resist shooting. That buck was in full rut mode and headed for a group of does about 75 yards from me. Had it not been cool, crisp evening, I’m not sure that buck would have been quite that aggressive. All in all, it seemed like the best weather conditions fell in October. I don’t believe the rut happens based solely on weather, but the intensity level of deer movement seems to coincide entirely on the weather, especially daytime movement.
OCTOBER COLD FRONTS
Throughout the last decade, I’ve planned the majority of my October deer hunting around cold fronts. October can be brutally slow when the weather is warm, but if you throw in a 10- or 20-degree temperature drop, you’ll likely see deer activity as good as it gets. Some of my best archery bucks have hit the dirt just because of a temperature drop. Last season, many states were blessed with multiple cold fronts throughout October, making it one of the best Octobers for deer hunters in a long time. In my chat with Chad, he also agreed that last October was one of the greatest he has ever seen.
“In 20 years of whitetail hunting, I can’t ever remember an October with strong cold fronts every five to eight days,” Chad says. “It seemed as though every week we had double digit temperature drops with relatively stable weather between those fronts.” In Pennsylvania, our archery season usually opens the first Saturday October. Over the years, I’ve found that it doesn’t matter what part of October a front arrives, you’ll still see increased daytime activity any part of the month.
This past season I noticed a lot of nocturnal buck activity during late September. Then a mini front arrived the first weekend of October, and bucks were on the hoof all throughout the day during that weather front. One of the biggest bucks I had on camera all year scent checked a mock scrape I had made around 11:00 a.m. on October 3. This supports my observation that bucks also seem to range more during these fronts, venturing further away from their bedding areas. You don’t have to be tight to buck bedding during a cold front. They love covering ground, checking scrapes and working rub lines well outside of core bedding during these cold snaps.
Being an outfitter, I’ve always told my clients the best way to schedule deer hunts is to pray for cold weather. The date or month is not as important as the weather. It doesn’t matter what state you hunt, poor weather conditions often lead to poor hunting. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to book deer hunts according to the weather. But for DIY hunters, that’s the best approach when you don’t have money invested with an outfitter for a certain time period. At times during major warm fronts, I’ve told clients to reschedule if possible.
I don’t know of a deer hunter who hates cold weather. I’m not the biggest fan of shoveling snow, but I’ll sit in a tree stand all day during a snowfall. There’s no better way to get deer to naturally move during the fall than cold weather, specifically cold weather fronts. Over the years, I’ve noticed that the best seasons have been what I call “rollercoaster seasons.” This is when you have variations of warm and cold weather. Anytime it goes from unseasonably warm to moderately cold, you’ll see dramatic increases in deer activity. The key is being able to take advantage of those prime weather changes. If you are able to do that, you will be in the money.
DON'T OVERLOOK OCTOBER
In close to a decade of whitetail guiding experience, the majority of my clients have booked hunts in November. But in the past two years, we’ve seen a trend in late October hunters. What we find during late October is a peak window of buck activity; specifically, a cruising type phase. This is a time when you have very few does in estrus, so there’s no lockdown at all. The ultimate key for rutting buck movement is to have bucks searching endless miles for that first hot doe. And that’s exactly what we often see in late October. It seems those latter days in October are indeed the best days to catch cruising bucks.
Those who know me or follow me on social media know that I’m a big fan of late October. Particularly from October 20-31. Since 2014, I’ve harvested six Pennsylvania bucks during that time period. Some of them were Pope & Young class deer. In my opinion, this is the best time period to hunt whitetail bucks in Pennsylvania and likely a lot of other states. Once again, the key is the weather. If it’s unseasonably warm, I’m probably not hunting. But anytime I catch the right weather conditions during that time frame, I take full advantage of it and hunt.
TARGETING A SPECIFIC BUCK
October is also a great time to pursue an individual buck. Once the peak of the rut starts, there’s no telling where he will be. I’ve observed a lot of mature bucks in October consistently working the same scrapes and rub lines. This is a time when they are more patternable. One of my favorite bucks I’ve ever taken was a buck I called the “Scrape Lover.” This buck was hitting the same scrape several times a week during daylight hours, according to my trail camera. He didn’t love that scrape anymore after my first time hunting him. That was all it took to kill him!
It’s hard to say what the 2021 season has in store for us. But if it’s anything like 2020, the key will be those prime weather fronts. Autumn cold fronts may not be good for gardeners and casual outdoor lovers, but they are a deer hunter’s best friend!