October 01, 2023
From what I could tell, the situation should have been a slam-dunk. A certain mature whitetail buck I’d been keeping tabs on throughout the last couple weeks of September was exhibiting a very predictable evening feeding pattern. Making the situation even better was the fact that a fair amount of the big deer’s activities were occurring during legal shooting hours.
So, as one might imagine, I was convinced this was as close to a sure-thing as I’d ever seen. But then October arrived. And like a lot of best laid plans involving mature whitetail bucks, my sure-thing plan turned out to be a terrific flop.
Now, I would have understood the buck’s sudden disappearance had I been careless during my final days of September scouting, but I hadn’t been careless in the least. In fact, I’d been extra careful and super cautious. Nonetheless, it was if my target buck had suddenly dropped off the face of the earth. Gosh, how I began to dread hunting October whitetails!
The Dreaded “Lull”
I’m sure almost everyone reading this has heard the age-old saying regarding the month of March. According to the way that saying goes, March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. I’ve often thought that us whitetail hunters could view the month of October as being somewhat the same, only in reverse. When it comes to mature buck activity, the month comes in like a lamb and goes out like a lion.
During the course of my hunting career, I’ve had the great pleasure of speaking with literally hundreds of serious whitetail hunters from many parts of the U.S. and Canada. The vast majority of those hunters are in agreement that trying to ambush big whitetails during the month of October can be a real famine or feast situation.
More than anything, the pressure factor needs to be taken into consideration whenever the topic of October bucks comes up. Unfortunately, I often neglected this important factor during the early days of limiting my pursuits to mature bucks, and it proved to be a costly mistake. Rather than backing off when a big deer suddenly went underground, I did just the opposite. I’d spend even more time stomping around their core areas and putting out even more scouting cameras to figure out what had happened to “my bucks.” Looking back on that approach now, I realize just how costly it had to have been.
So what I’m getting at here is that there are times when it’s definitely in our best interest to just back off for a bit. And while it may be difficult to disregard the old saying about not being able to shoot big bucks if we’re not out there trying, there definitely are times when not being out there is the exact approach we need to take. And early to mid-October can be one of those times.
As I’ve become fond of telling fellow hunters during some of my seminars, mature whitetail bucks often adopt super reclusive, hypersensitive personalities during what I’ve come to call the October lull period. Which means that, if you do feel the need to hunt, it’s imperative you employ your best sneaky Ninja hunting skills.
Now, I realize that not everyone has the option to pack up and leave close-to-home hunting areas when the Lull sets in, but for those hunters who do have the capabilities to do so, I strongly suggest giving it serious consideration. Believe it or not, there are select places across the whitetail’s range where the Lull isn’t as bad, and mature bucks aren’t nearly as skittish.
There’s another important factor regarding hunting October whitetails that I’d like to briefly touch on here. That factor is the somewhat sudden shift in feeding preferences that often occurs this time of year. A perfect example of this occurs every year in my home state of Wisconsin. While our resident whitetails really key-in on lush alfalfa fields during the early part of the month, the feeding attentions of our local deer often shift to corn and soybean fields as the month progresses. And this transition really becomes pronounced as daytime high temperatures begin to drop.
Focus on the Late Pre-Rut
I remember well a big 9-point buck that taught me a valuable lesson regarding being patient and waiting for the right time to strike. I’d first learned about the big deer’s existence during an early October bowhunt in some rugged bluff country near my home in Wisconsin. And though that one brief sighting was very encouraging, it was like the buck then dropped off the face of the earth.
So as was my nature back in those days, I immediately increased my scouting efforts in an attempt to pinpoint the whitetail’s new patterns. In looking back on that approach now, it’s plain to see that I had become my own worst enemy. Thankfully, I eventually came to my senses and completely backed off from invading the trophy whitetail’s turf for a while. That approach proved to be a huge blessing.
It was sometime around the 25th of October when I returned to do some mid-day scouting in the buck’s area. By then a major leaf drop had occurred and the woods had “thinned out” dramatically. As a result, it took me only about a half-an-hour to find and briefly follow a steaming-hot rub line located between the deer’s bedding area and a distant soybean field. I quickly and quietly put up a portable stand in a large oak that stood approximately 20 yards from the rub line, and then immediately exited the area.
Though I was strongly tempted to do otherwise, I waited four days before returning on a frosty late-October morning to hunt from the tree stand. If memory serves me correct, only about 20 minutes had gone by when I heard a loud grunt off to my right. I grabbed my bow from its hanger and then took a look in the direction where the grunt had come from. Unbelievably, it was a big buck, and he was walking along the rub line that passed right by my stand site!
Waiting until the buck was directly in front of me, I slowly drew my bow and then let go with a soft voice grunt that immediately stopped him. The hit was near perfect, and the big whitetail crashed to the ground after going only 75 yards. His 9-point rack had a gross typical score of just over 140 inches, while his field dressed body weight came in at a whopping 214 pounds.
A Deadly Pre-Rut Strategy
While some might hold the notion that the strategy of hunting over a decoy is effective only during the rut, I reserve the right to strongly disagree. And that’s because I have solid proof that decoying can work for taking big bucks during October; it’s an especially effective strategy toward the end of the month. A past Kentucky bowhunt is just one of several that can prove my point.
The time was late October, and the spot I was hunting was located along the edge of a large, freshly picked cornfield. Despite the fact that the field encompassed close to 100 acres, one mid-morning scouting mission provided plenty of evidence to show that I needed to concentrate my efforts in one particular part of the field.
To begin with, that part of the field was located in a hidden back corner, well away from the closest town road. But almost as importantly, the field narrowed down dramatically at that spot. The fact that it was only about 50 yards to the far side of the field made it ideal for a “pinch-point” decoy setup.
After quietly hanging a portable stand in a large hardwood that stood along the edge of the field, I decided to add some enticement to the setup. Before climbing into my tree stand, I placed a buck decoy in the picked corn approximately 25 yards in front of the tree I’d be hunting from. I then climbed to my chosen ambush spot and settled in for the afternoon hunt.
I’d guess that only about an hour passed before deer began filtering into the cornfield directly in front of me. The first group that appeared consisted of a half-dozen antlerless deer and a couple small bucks. That number continued to grow over the next half-hour. In fact, I’d have to estimate that close to two dozen whitetails ended up feeding directly in front of me at one point.
Then, just as the sun was sliding below the western horizon, that entire group of deer suddenly snapped their heads up and stared hard at the spot in the timber from which they’d all initially appeared. Something about the way those deer were staring prompted me to grab my bow from its hanger. That proved to be a wise move, as the next deer to enter the field was a definite shooter. It was immediately apparent the big whitetail had already spotted the decoy and was heading straight for it.
I’d seen my share of big buck/decoy interactions on previous hunts, but I can’t think of any that were more classic than this one. As was my habit, I’d placed the buck decoy in a position that had him facing directly toward my stand site. I’d done so because dozens of past experiences had taught me that mature whitetails almost always circled to the head end of a buck decoy first. Once there, they’d usually stop, bristle up and stare at the new intruder. Of course, the fact that their attention was drawn directly away from my position pretty much assured I could come to full draw undetected.
And that’s exactly how it went with the big 9-point in Kentucky. The fact that my decoy was placed about 25 yards from my stand meant the trophy deer was somewhere around 20 yards. I hadn’t missed many bow shots like that over the years, and I didn’t miss this one. The buck barely made it out of the cornfield before going down. Just an incredibly memorable hunt for a stud Kentucky whitetail!
Amazingly, I used my tried-and-true decoy strategy a year later to take another big Kentucky whitetail from the very same spot. That deer, a long-tined 9 -point, exhibited pretty much the exact same behavior as the buck I’d killed the previous year. Ironically, the buck ended up expiring just a few steps from where that first 9-pointer had gone down. Talk about some great memories!
I’m sure it’s apparent by now that I have a real “thing” about hunting late October whitetails. As mentioned, it’s my opinion that this is one of the best times of all to arrow mature bucks. To begin with, those deer are still going to be residing within their home ranges. What’s more, they often get into predictable patterns. Most importantly, and much to our advantage, mature bucks will be increasing the amount of time they spend moving around in daylight.
As I’ve become fond of saying, our chances for success on mature bucks rises dramatically when those deer are still residing within their core areas and walking around during daylight hours. To my way of thinking, there’s not a better time when hunters can take advantage of such behavior than during the final week of October.