Tracking October Deer Transitions
October 16, 2017
October lull: Fact or fiction? I'm still not convinced, though I have on occasion experienced a lull around the third week of October as many others have. But are the deer actually reducing their daytime activity, or are they merely moving it somewhere else? And how do you tell?
In many parts of the whitetail's range, October is a month of transition. It begins with warm temperatures. Leaves are still on the trees and deer are just starting to abandon their summer routines. Things are changing, and in order to stay on top of those changes, hunters sometimes need to double their scouting efforts. Fortunately, they can narrow their focus. In general, deer are on their feet during daylight hours for two things — feeding and breeding.
This time of year both food availability and preference change. With less need for protein, deer spend increasingly less time in those clover fields you've watched them in every evening. Instead, more time is used for seeking out foods high in carbs, like hard and soft mast.
Where I live, the white oaks drop their acorns first, and over a relatively short period. Deer will be on the sweeter, smaller acorns right away, but the bounty won't last much beyond mid-October. Then they move on to the more bitter, but larger red oak acorns. Sometimes the change is subtle and other times it can be quite dramatic.
I once did an early season hunt in Kansas where, based on the landowner's reports, we spent the first few days hunting the edge of soybean fields. But the deer seemed to have disappeared upon our arrival. "A typical October lull," we thought. Then somebody discovered a small grove of persimmons dropping fresh, ripe fruit. One of our party killed a nice buck that evening and I saw at least seven rack bucks the following afternoon.
Hunting crops can be hit or miss, as the aforementioned example illustrates. The deer weren't on the beans early, but I've had great luck hunting bean fields in December in Iowa. Corn can be similarly problematic. Hunting in and around standing corn can be tough, but you're going to want to be along the field edge the day after they cut the corn, particularly if it's not a super-efficient machine harvest. These are but a few examples. The deer where you live may go through other diet shifts as need and availability change; and you'll just have to get out there and study.
Things are also changing with regard to social interaction in October. The transition is slow at first, but the pace picks up as the month rolls on. Bucks open up a few scrapes in early October, but may not revisit them for a week or more. They're waiting for a trigger.
From reams of research we know that in mid to northern latitudes, most does enter estrus around the same time every year — mid-November. There are exceptions, including a couple smaller peaks, one occurring roughly 28 days before peak rut when a few early does cycle and their pheremones incite a sudden increase in buck activity. But if the does move away from where they were in early-October, so will the bucks — especially with love in the air. If you want to be successful you have to keep up with these transitions.
One way to try and keep up with changes in deer activity is to be in the woods as much as possible. But no one can be everywhere they want to be every day. You can't hunt every day, and even if you could, you wouldn't want to put that much pressure on one place. Additionally, you can't hunt multiple locations at once. But your trail cameras can.
I usually put mine out in late August or early September, mostly to take stock of this year's crop. It will give me a rough idea who is out there and where they hang out, but I know the latter can change over a relatively short period of time, based on the aforementioned factors. It's not at all uncommon for an early-fall spot to go dry. Then I start to move my cameras around and put more out to see where the deer are.
That info is valuable in and of itself, but it can be exponentially more useful when evaluated over time. If you use an app, like ScoutLook, you can plot activity around and between stands from your image files and look for patterns. Over several seasons you may also start to recognize trends using the time and date stamps on your images.
Every situation is different and it may take you several seasons to figure out what's going on in your area. And one year may be different from the next as farmers rotate their crops or natural foods like acorns experience cyclic variations, or environmental conditions like drought alter food availability. But studying your quarry is all part of the fun. The more you learn about the biology and behavior of the animals you hunt, the more enjoyable and successful your efforts will be.
Bob Humphrey is a certified wildlife biologist, registered Maine guide and an outdoor writer. He has studied and hunted white-tailed deer for over four decades across North America and is considered a leading authority on whitetail biology and behavior.