If you listen to the talk in your local archery shop about the supposed “October Lull” that hits the deer woods each fall, you might think it’s useless to get off the couch during this period. No doubt, a lot’s changing in a whitetail’s world at this time, and many hunters will have excuses as to why this “calm before the storm” happens. Perhaps you’ve said such things as, “There are so many acorns,” or “The leaves are falling, and the deer’s cover is gone.”
I’m here to tell you that if you plan for these changes rather than use them as excuses, October can be a very productive month to harvest deer, even mature bucks. On the flip side, if you’re looking for deer to be in the same places where you saw them in during August and September, it probably will seem like there’s an October lull.
Staying In The Game
A deer’s food sources, bedding areas and travel routes will all change to varying degrees during October, and it’s up to you to stay on top of them. Instead of being surprised when leaves fall off the trees, you should plan for it. Think about it: Acorns fall and leaves drop at nearly the same time each year, and it’s been that way since deer first walked this continent. Instead of cursing these woodland changes, use them to your advantage.
In addition to not adapting to changing habitat conditions, hunters sometimes see fewer deer during October than September for planetary reasons. During this time of year, the earth’s angle to the sun is changing, so there’s less daylight and therefore fewer legal hunting hours. On October 15 there are roughly 11 hours of daylight, but it’s fading fast. By October 24, just 9 days later, it’s dropped to approximately 10 1/2 hours of daylight. This also means deer will have 30 more minutes to travel and feed under the cover of darkness.
Still another factor that contributes to fewer deer sightings during October is the influx of humans—hunters and non-hunters—who enter a whitetail’s domain. As cooler temperatures arrive and bugs become less of a nuisance, more deer hunters head into the field. Some are bowhunters who don’t like the warm temperatures of September, others are gun hunters who are hanging treestands and building ground blinds in preparation for the November firearms season.
The brilliant leaves of October also lure hikers, horseback riders, berry pickers and anyone else who enjoys nature. Especially in public areas, this increase of activity can be a huge reason for the drastic decrease in your deer sightings.
I can tell you from experience that setting up on the edge of an agricultural field will probably make for a boring afternoon sit during this period of increased human activity. Don’t expect deer to make it all the way from their bedding areas to these destinations during legal hunting hours. Instead, set up closer to their bedding areas. You can still use these food sources as magnets in many instances, but don’t bet on deer getting to them until after dark. Instead, hunt closer to their secure areas, where your chances for a shot during legal hunting hours will be better.
When human intrusions in the forest are spooking whitetails on your hunting land, be prepared by having a deer stand already in place to take advantage of their escape routes. Let me give you an example from my hunting past.
Twenty years ago, I used to bowhunt a public area called the Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area in Minnesota. It’s the largest piece of public hunting ground in the Minneapolis area and is made up of more than 23,000 acres of oak ridges, softwood pockets, grassland and marshland with the occasional small island. When human foot-traffic in the woods increased during early October, I could bet that the deer, especially the older bucks, would move away from the prime habitat and onto islands in the middle of nasty marshes. When I approached such an island I could see deer legs scampering through the cattails and willow brush, then I’d hear splashing out the other side. Walking bellybutton deep in tangled cattails and “loon poop” while holding my bow over my head isn’t something I do much anymore, but it was a very effective way to get close to big October bucks back when I relied on public hunting ground.
On your own private or leased hunting land, even if you’re the only person who steps foot onto it, the pressure you put on the area can make a difference, especially to a mature buck. If you’re tromping through your hunting area to find one more rub on a tree that you didn’t see 2 days ago on your last scouting trip, I’d almost guarantee you won’t hold mature bucks on the property. If you wish to “house” mature bucks on your land, you must give them a sanctuary where they’re left alone.
Quite honestly, in the areas I’ve had a chance to hunt that have been relatively un-pressured—properties with dedicated sanctuaries—I really haven’t noticed an October lull. In fact, the largest buck I’ve harvested to date, a mature 5x5 with long tines and a wide inside spread, was harvested on October 21. I pursued this Manitoba buck for 3 weeks, but during that period I actually tried to hunt him on only three occasions. I spent the rest of my time glassing the area or hunting other spots because I wanted everything to be in my favor before targeting him. I didn’t want this buck to sense my intrusion and have my 3 weeks of work go for naught. All three times I?hunted him were from different setups on the property and each time I sneaked closer to the core of his home range. In between hunts I saw him several times while glassing from a distance. On my third attempt I arrowed him at 18 yards.
In the Midwest, October is arguably the most beautiful month to be outdoors, as the fall colors produce breathtaking landscapes. However, the same chlorophyll that’s dropping out of the plants—changing the leaves to those brilliant reds, oranges and yellows—is also changing food sources and forest cover. And whitetail bedding areas and travel routes are likely changing, too.
Persistent scouting and having a several year track record in the same area will help you keep on top of these changes. Here’s where spring scouting reaps rewards. I like to scout heavily from March through May. After the snow melts, all the sign made during the past fall and through the winter has been frozen in time for you to find. Many of the major trails that stick out at this time are the travel routes deer switched to after the leaves hit the forest floor. Knowing these major runways and having stands placed near them prior to hunting season is the key to keeping on top of October bucks as the leaves fall.
Taking Advantage Of Acorns
In preparing for this article I asked many hunters about the October lull, and almost everyone agreed it did occur, and most of them believed the presence of acorns was one of the major reasons for it. However, when I discussed the topic with noted whitetail hunting guru Myles Keller, he disagreed. “Yes, it probably does seem like there’s a lull,” he said. “The bachelor groups are breaking up, and food patterns are changing dramatically during October. But if you know where to look, there doesn’t have to be a lull. And actually, when bucks are slaves to their stomachs, which they are during October, hunting them can sometimes seem easy.”
Before the November rut kicks into gear, a buck’s need for food is a dependable dynamic when building a hunting plan. During a good year oak trees can produce up to 3,000 pounds of acorns per acre of canopy. An acorn’s protein content is only 7 percent, but they have huge fat content and are very high in carbohydrates. To us it would almost be like eating butter. For deer, acorns are a tremendous energy source. Studies show that during a good acorn year, deer will grow very fat and more twin fawns will be born the following spring. If acorns are readily available, a deer’s diet might be 80-90 percent acorns at that time of year. Deer can put on tremendous amounts of fat from this natural source of food.
Acorns that contain large amounts of tannins are very bitter, and this is particularly true of red oak acorns. In contrast, white oak acorns, which are much lower in tannins, have a nutty flavor that deer crave.
You could argue that acorns drop in August (at least they do in my neck of the woods in Minnesota), so why is it that hunters don’t see a shift in deer movement patterns right away in September? In September and early October, protein is an important part of a deer’s diet. Because of colder temperatures and other seasonal changes, fats and carbohydrates become more important to deer during October. I also believe acorns become more palatable after they dry for a bit.
A common practice of a few of my hunting buddies who live in the South is to enhance oak trees to their full potential. These hunters will pick a treestand tree in a stand of white oaks in the springtime and then fertilize every white oak tree within 40-50 yards of their treestand. These oaks will produce more, larger and seemingly more palatable acorns than the other trees in the lot. Since learning this trick, I’ve used 5-10-15 fertilizer on the white oaks on my Midwest hunting property and it’s made a big difference.
Take it from me: To be successful in October you need to stay on top of the acorn crop and use it to your advantage.
Aside from the changes in hunting locations that coincide with October’s changing landscape, many hunters—myself included—like to “make something happen” during October by using scents, calls and decoys. In the whitetail world, the early season is all about being social, even though they interact primarily within their own gender groups. For that reason, if you want to attract a buck by using scent, calling or decoys during September, you’ll probably want to use buck smells, social buck sounds or a small buck decoy.
However, when you get to the middle of October your bag of tricks becomes much heavier. You can still use the social tactics of the early season, but you can now start playing the breeding or competition cards as well.
I’ve had tremendous luck using scent to lure in mature bucks, and oftentimes nothing works better in October than placing doe-in-heat scent before a revved up buck. Think about it: A buck is ready to breed as early as September, but it’s a doe exhibiting the first signs of estrus that really kicks the rut into high gear. The odor produced by a doe-in-heat makes bucks do all the crazy, vulnerable things you see them do during the peak of the chase, and producing the smells of the first doe to come into heat in an area can turn the supposed October lull into an eruption.
September bowhunters have the luxury of pursuing un-pressured bucks, and November bowhunters have the benefits of the rut, but October doesn’t have to be a downer. By preparing for the month’s many changes and getting your stands set up in the right places well in advance, you can enjoy the fall colors while dragging out your next big buck.