Celebrating October: How to Hunt Before the Rut
Rut-crazed bucks can wait.
October is awesome, featuring the year’s best weather if you love the outdoors. All species of wildlife are active. The fall foliage is gorgeous, and the hunting season is fresh, new and full of possibilities. Despite these great qualities, however, October is largely overlooked by many whitetail hunters. Like children waiting for Christmas, we tend to focus all our thoughts and plans on the November rut. In the process, we wish our way right past the most enjoyable month of the year. As soon as the first cool day of late summer arrives, we begin thinking, “If only it were November … This is my plan for November … I can’t wait for my November vacation …” and so on. In looking ahead, we forget to enjoy what is right there in front of us.
The older I get, the more I love October. There’s something about November’s cold northwest winds and steel-gray skies spitting snow that tugs at my sense of adventure. I even created a digital video series named Chasing November in its honor. Despite my fascination with the rut, though, there’s also something very appealing about October’s comfortable 60-degree days with low humidity and gentle breezes. It just feels good to be in a tree in October, even if the deer never show up. I’m not saying I would give up November in favor of October, but in my mind, the gap between them is shrinking each year.
In this article, I intend to celebrate October and offer some thoughts on how to make the most of this great time of year.
A Word of Warning
Before we wholeheartedly embrace October like a prodigal son that has just returned home by running to our best stands, we better take a step back and talk about what October isn’t. October isn’t the time to hunt aggressively. The bucks just aren’t moving much in daylight throughout most of the month. It’s never a good idea to hunt bucks that aren’t moving in daylight, because you risk educating them with very little hope of reward, and that only serves to keep them nocturnal. Better to let them show a chink in their armor and then make a move.
You only get a few good hunts (sometimes only one) in a given spot before the deer know they’re being hunted. You want to save that first hunt for the time when the bucks are at least somewhat killable. So, you have to play the game very conservatively in October. You probably aren’t holding the winning hand, so don’t go all-in.
There are exceptions that offer opportunities for green-light buck action in October — I’ll get into those in the next section — but let’s start by figuring out what the bucks are doing right now.
I never really understood deer behavior until I started running trail cameras. There was plenty of research out there, but the context of nearly all of it was academic, not based on practical hunting situations. Trail cameras changed that. Now we are all researchers, and the context is totally practical. We can learn what the deer are doing on our properties at the times we’re hunting them.
Despite the assertion by researchers that there is no October lull, my cameras show otherwise. Most of the bucks I track on my farm through September either drop off the map in October or stop moving in daylight. It has nothing to do with hunting pressure, because I haven’t even started hunting by that time. It’s something physiological that bucks go through each year as their testosterone levels rise, leading them to become hermits.
That’s not to say all bucks do this, but on my place, at least, most of them do. Those that are still moving in daylight are few and far between, which is why you shouldn’t just dive right in on your best spots, or your best bucks, without a very clear green light indicating that the time is right.
Here is the typical timeline of buck behavior that I’ve seen on my farm since I started running trail cameras back in 2008.
Early September: Bucks are very daylight-active in late summer and easy to find where they feed in open fields. They stay that way until about Sept. 5-7, roughly when they start the transition into their fall ranges.
Mid-September: Bucks have lost their velvet and broken up their bachelor groups by now and are dispersing into their fall ranges. Fall ranges are usually different from summer ranges, so your trail cameras have to grow legs to find the bucks again. Bucks are still reasonably daylight-active, but most of them have moved.
Late September: Bucks are now more or less settled into their fall ranges and moving noticeably less during the day. Possibly (probably) they are moving deeper into the timber as they feed more aggressively on acorns at this time, but I never run my cameras in these places (too much risk of bumping the bucks), so I’m only guessing.
Early October: I almost never get a daylight photo of a buck during this time period. When I do, they’re infrequent and sporadic — one here and maybe another a quarter-mile away on a different camera three or four days later. It’s nothing I can count on for a pattern. Very rarely do I find a mature buck in one place moving in daylight frequently enough to make me want to risk pushing in and hunting him. I’m guessing that I’ve found the right buck in the right situation in early October only three or four times in the past 11 years.
Mid-October: Things are really dead on my farm by this point. I’ve only shot one mature buck during the middle of October during the past 30-plus years. I keep monitoring the cameras just to be sure, but the information is almost useless in real-time. It does serve to tell me where bucks are moving at night, though, and that will be useful when the next green light flickers on.
Late October: This is when I start to see a real ramp-up in mature buck activity on my cameras, even during daylight. It’s especially noticeable when a cold front is passing through; I might get five or six good bucks on camera one afternoon, all in daylight. After the front passes, though, the bucks go right back to their nocturnal behavior.
That’s the backdrop for our October hunting decisions, the downside, what we are up against. You can see that from a mature buck standpoint, October is generally not super accommodating. However, there’s more to this month than just shooting a big buck.
I mentioned green lights earlier. There are three: First, when a buck exhibits consistent daylight activity. Second, when a cold front is passing through. Third, the very end of the month as the rut approaches. I hunt those events every time they occur, but I’ve written about this passive-aggressive style of hunting a lot here in the past. Basically, you monitor and wait, watching for one of these green lights. When it turns on, you hunt the biggest bucks as close to their core areas as you dare to go. Then you pull back to watch and wait again.
This approach keeps your hunting area fresh throughout October and prevents you from burning out your best stand locations before the best days. However, it can get pretty discouraging when all you do is wait and don’t hunt. That’s why you need to have a second agenda.
The real opportunity of October is even more overlooked. While we wait for the green lights to hunt our best bucks, we slide right past the ideal time to shoot does. Many areas need to have does removed each year to maintain a healthy herd level, and October is the perfect time for that task. It’s super fun to hunt does, and they taste great on the grill!
Just don’t hunt does in the same places where you’re waiting on a good buck to turn killable, and don’t hunt them in the areas you plan to hunt during the rut. That’s it. Everything else is wide open. I have a number of spots on the farm each year that don’t have good bucks anywhere near them. I love hunting those spots in October just as much as I love hunting my best spots during the rut.
There’s just something relaxing about doe hunting. There’s no pressure to perform, and no stress that you’re going to make a bad decision and screw up your hunting area for the next two weeks. You can wing it a bit more and take a few more risks. It’s also refreshing to just go deer hunting without a specific target or goal in mind besides filling the freezer.
A friend of mine (a very serious deer hunter) once told me that he would rather have five or six doe tags in his pocket than one buck tag. I know the feeling. Granted, not all areas have abundant populations of deer that permit aggressive doe hunting, but even shooting just one doe in October makes those stand sessions very meaningful.
Not only is it generally good for the herd to remove a few does, but they produce high-quality organic meat for the freezer. Filling a doe tag or two in October will also increase your confidence and steady your nerves for the buck hunting to come in November.
How to Hunt October
Again, you can divide October hunting into two categories: going after the bucks you have on your target list and just going out for a great day in the woods. The first category requires a careful plan; I’m going to leave that discussion for another day. The second category only requires one thing: a good food supply. If you find the food, you’ll find does; then it comes down to either hunting the edge of the feeding area or hunting a heavy trail leading to it.
Again, the downside for making the wrong decision is limited. You aren’t messing up your best buck hole; you just move on to another spot while the one you messed up recovers. Does are much more daylight-active in October, so if you find a good food source, you’re almost guaranteed some action. That’s refreshing given the knowledge that we may hunt the entire rut and not even see the buck we’re after. It’s always fun to hunt in a target-rich environment.
You can go back to these prime feeding areas fairly regularly as long as you have a great way to get out of there at the end of legal shooting time. The best approach is to set up on a downwind trail and then sneak out after dark. The next best strategy is to hunt the feeding area itself and have someone drive up at the end of legal time in a vehicle or ATV and move the deer off. Then you simply climb down and slip out. There’s no reason why just two or three good feeding areas can’t keep you busy for most of October.
It’s possible to enjoy success in the mornings, too, but you have to focus on oak trees that are dropping acorns back in the timber. While I would never just randomly do this in the area where my number one buck is living, there’s no long-term risk in doing this in a few doe bedding areas well away from where you plan to hunt bucks. And you never know, there’s always the chance that a good buck may also show up there.
Don’t look at October like it’s the red-headed stepchild of deer-hunting months. October can become a favorite of yours if you approach it with the right plan and realistic expectations of what it can produce — comfortable weather, beautiful scenery and fast action. As a bowhunter, what more could you want?