It’s hard to argue that the rut offers the best window to waylay a whitetail buck. Or is it? A mental debate was commencing in my mind last fall as the fourth buck of the evening passed casually below my tree stand. Should I take this one or continue my patient wait, hoping for an even better buck to show before sunset? I let the buck walk, and he hopped a fence to the lush alfalfa reward beyond. It wasn’t the rut. It wasn’t even close to the rut. The hunt took place in September, more than a month away from the rut. Had I not stumbled across a trophy mule deer later in the hunt, I have no doubt I would have tagged a whitetail on my Montana hunt. The odds were just too good.
If you have September whitetail seasons in your backyard, don’t ignore the opportunity. Kansas has a September muzzleloader season and Iowa has youth and disabled hunts in September. Many states kick off archery opportunities for whitetails in the month when autumn arrives as well. Although the rut sparks whitetail bucks into some of their zaniest behavior of the year, September also provides hunters with whitetail traits tailored for ambush success.
I See You
Spying a whitetail buck firsthand provides proof of its existence and builds confidence that you might be able to set up for a shot with enough scouting. If your psychiatrist recommends that type of confidence booster in your life, then September is your month. In September, whitetails have two goals on their mind — surviving and getting fat. Survival is broad and ranges from perpetuating the species to downright evasion from feral dogs, mountain lions, poachers and even the deadly motor vehicle.
Survival takes unceasing vigilance, but in between surveillance scans whitetails focus on the next priority — packing on the pounds. Instinct tells bucks to hit the all-you-can-eat buffet. This drive for existence pushes them into agricultural fields that provide you with the perfect ringside seat to not only find bucks, but to judge trophy quality and note their behavior.
Although trail cameras can perform these chores, they represent a risk, especially for users who have an addiction to them worse than a Facebook junkie. Trail cameras should be a part of your scouting plan, but accessing camera sites too frequently can cause deer to change habits and possibly move to another food source.
Firsthand surveillance from a distance provides real-time information on deer without giving away your presence. Oftentimes deer can be viewed from county roads, highways and even public section line corridors well before the end of shooting light. I keep a spotting scope equipped with a window mount in my truck 24/7 for just that reason. Instead of checking trail cameras every other day, I check them every two weeks. For day-to-day information I use my spotting scope.
Following a buck’s voracious appetite is the key finding him. Although food is abundant in September, bucks have preferences, and to find the buck you want you need be savvy on what they prefer to eat at that time of year. You can manage their diet if you have access to food plots. Year in and out, the best crop to plant is clover. It’s more palatable and more digestible, and it lures deer not only in September, but throughout the hunting season as long as snow doesn’t bury it.
Alfalfa is another fan favorite of September bucks, and I know it well from my Great Plains and Western hunting locales. Dozens of deer often visit such fields in arid environments. As an added bonus, alfalfa is drought-tolerant. Cutting clover and alfalfa and freshening it with a rain shower gives it even more appeal, since deer are browsers and like nipping fresh shoots.
As another alternative, consider brassicas, including forage rape and turnips. They provide 30 percent or more protein levels and a lush green carpet that can attract whitetails throughout the hunting season as well. Of course some of us will have to rely on farmer-planted crops. Two I trust are soybeans and winter wheat. Although you can’t control the size of a field like with a food plot, these crops will still lure whitetails from a mile or more away.
Follow The Leader
Deer prancing around in the wide open well before darkness is a good thing. Want to hear an even better thing? They pattern. September whitetails return day after day to high-energy, nutritious food sources like those listed previously. Not only do they show up at the same fields, but they also use the same trails to visit these lunch counters. You can’t say the same for rutting whitetails. Once the pattern of the pre-rut passes and does come into heat, all bets are off the table. Whitetails roam on a whim and oftentimes the wind.
During the rut, bucks will stick their noses into the wind and move through their territory and periphery zones hoping to catch a whiff of a doe in heat. They might be a mile or more away from their primary home during the rut, and when they do find a hot doe, they likely won’t return for 36 hours or longer.
Art Helin, a Hunter’s Specialties and New Archery Products pro-staffer, believes September shouldn’t be shunned; both he and his wife Michele have scored on big bucks in September, including a 162-point Wisconsin buck Helin jumped on after he discovered a September pattern.
“September is hard to beat if you want to pattern a buck and then ambush him while he’s using that same pattern,” states Helin. “The only variable I see in September is the switching of trails, but you can bet they’ll stay on the same food sources throughout the month — and that’s a huge advantage you don’t get any other time of the fall.”
Long-distance glassing and trail camera evidence will direct you to the trails of highest travel, but don’t throw a stand up just yet. First, consider prevailing winds. Stands and blinds need to be placed on the side of the trail moving your scent away from incoming deer. A simple check of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website (www.noaa.gov) can give more than enough weather history details for the best stand placement.
Also consider cover. Oftentimes hunters place stands in the first available tree, but they neglect hiding themselves in the foliage. Trees with a brushy canopy and those in a clump provide a more camouflaged hideout. Don’t trim too much foliage, and situate your stand in the back of a clump to provide you cover to draw as deer pass in front of other trees.
When it comes time to hunt — especially opening day — don’t sit the stand if the winds are wrong. My avid hunting buddies and I have all been too eager and blown deer on the first setup. Trying to pattern them again becomes more difficult, if not impossible, after that scary encounter.