As bowhunters, we can overthink and make hunting more complicated than it is. If your archery season opens in September, you hunt bucks coming to feed in hopes of fattening up. In November, the scent of does fills the air, the bucks start rutting and the fun begins.
It’s the month in between that can give us fits. Bucks can be unpredictable and reclusive, especially in early October. Yes, mature deer are summer-fat, wear heavy winter fur and are reluctant to move much on Indian summer days. But October is when archery season opens in many states, and it’s the month when the hunting is in full swing everywhere.
The simple fact is, you are a bowhunter. You live for this. You have waited another year for this timeframe to arrive, and you will be out there in a stand as many days as you can this month. To make the most of it, here are five things to keep in mind.
#1 Find the Rubs and Hunt the Maker
Numerous research projects have shown the first big, fresh rubs on trees 2 to 4 inches or more in diameter were blazed by an area’s mature bucks to mark their fall home ranges. One or two random good-sized rubs don’t tell you a lot. Cover ground and scout for heavy pockets of rubs, both large and small.
One of the nation’s top biologists found a correlation between the number of rubs in an area and the number of older bucks that live there. On one of Grant Woods’ management projects, his team started out finding 700 rubs per square mile, or about one per acre. After managing the property for five years and improving the age structure of the herd to include more mature bucks, that number jumped to 5,000 rubs per square mile, or around eight per acre.
#2 Put a Trail Camera in a Bad Spot
You’ve read hundreds of articles on the top spots to put your trail cameras. This is likely the first time you have been told to set one or two in the worst spots in your woods.
I learned the trick from big-buck hunter Mark Drury, who logically puts most of his cameras on the most productive fields, plots, edges and funnels on his Iowa farm. “But we also put a camera or two in places that, based on prior observation and hunting, we don’t have much confidence in,” he says. “Sometimes we find out that a giant buck has moved into one of those ‘bad’ spots, and it quickly becomes one of our best spots!”
Any week in October is a good time to try this. Say you had a big buck on a predictable feed-to-bed pattern in September, but he suddenly went dark. He could be holed up under your nose and not moving much. Or maybe someone or something spooked him, and he decided to move three-quarters of a mile to find sanctuary on a ridge or a thicket where you have never spotted many deer in the past. The only way to relocate, and then hunt a buck like that, is to hang a camera in an out-of-the-way spot.
#3 Hunt-Hidden Little Foods
Sometimes it pays to try something different. I typically check the edge of a nondescript hayfield or pasture, especially a few days after an autumn rain. While deer seldom eat grass, they still come out into fields to feed on forbs, the broad-leafed weeds with high protein content that thrive amid the grasses.
Biologists note that the whitetail’s diet is made up of 85 percent natural foods, and that deer will sometimes walk through and past planted grains to get to a preferred food like forbs. I have seen this happen many times in old pastures and hayfields.
Check field edges and corners for areas that have the least amount of thick grass, the most broad-leafed weeds and some fresh deer sign. I generally don’t spend time hanging a treestand on a pasture because I plan to hunt the area only a few times. Once I glass a few deer coming out into a pasture to feed one evening, I sneak over the next day and fashion a small, natural ground hide.
#4 Hunt in the Middle of the Week
Common sense dictates to hunt mid-week whenever you can, especially on public land. Now, we have some science to back that theory up.
Researchers at Auburn University recently tracked 38 GPS-collared deer on a couple of WMAs and monitored their movements according to hunting pressure in rifle season. They found that on weekends when most hunters were out, the deer moved 27 percent less in daylight than at night. Day and nighttime movements were essentially the same on most weekdays. The lowest (worst) deer movement was recorded immediately following weekends, which I take to mean Sunday afternoons and Mondays. The highest (best) movement for the collared bucks was on Thursdays and Fridays.
While this study was conducted during gun season, its findings are still pertinent for bowhunters. To a mature buck, pressure is pressure, and a bunch of people walking around and climbing trees on Saturday will cause deer to move more at night. But since the numbers of hunters and the noise (guns going bang) are not so severe in bow season, I believe we can tweak those days a bit. Tuesdays through Friday should be great days to take off work and tag your buck.
#5 Hunt October 20
I have dubbed this day the official kick-off of the “hard pre-rut.” After weeks of gorging and downtime, bucks begin to feel the testosterone and move more, cranking up their sapling rubbing and opening serious scrapes.
If you look at the historical rut curves assembled by biologists for the northern two-thirds of the nation, you’ll see that 5 to 7 percent of a herd’s does come into estrus and are bred around October 20. That’s not a lot, but if you get super lucky and hunt a spot where one of those first hot does is hanging, you might see one or two dandy bucks dogging her.
It might be sunny and warm on the 20th, but if by chance a cold snap blows into your area from the northwest and drops the temperature 20 to 30 degrees, risk a speeding ticket roaring to your stand. Lows in the 30s and highs in the upper 40s would surely provide a spike in buck movement, especially for those males that smell a hot doe.
This year October 20 falls on a Thursday, one of the best midweek days, so that is a plus. Might as well try to take off Friday too and hunt all weekend. With the last-quarter moon coming on this particular weekend this year, bucks should move well in the afternoons and especially the last hour of shooting light. Good luck!