It’s been a hot, dry season across much of the whitetail’s range, but the summertime blues have done little to dampen the enthusiasm of deer hunters anticipating the approaching fall. With the first high-mercury days of bow season starting to give way to cool mornings and increasingly-on-the-move bucks, it’s time to put your game face on and get serious about the quickly approaching rut. While November is considered primetime for many rut-focused hunters—most of them toting firearms—October is like the special preview for members only, providing serious whitetail chasers with that first true crack at a trophy on the hoof and an opportunity to make this the season of their lifetime before the bulk of hunters have even stepped into the woods. The following tips will give you that edge at this unique time of year and ensure that your chance to jump-start the 2012-2013 deer season isn’t squandered.
Hunt Fields Early
As a buck’s attention transitions from feeding to breeding and the summer heat lingers into fall, food will still be on does’ minds, which means bucks will still head for the fields. You should, too. These hunts are most productive in the afternoon, and with daylight savings time still in effect, you can still catch quality stand time even after putting in a near full day of work. Soybeans, alfalfa, and peas are great, as is corn if it’s cut (or even better, only partially cut with some rows standing), as the availability of high-protein forage will draw deer better than any food plot or natural browse (except maybe white oak acorns). Spend a few days before your hunt glassing open areas from your truck so as to not disturb the natural patterns of the deer. If you can’t be there or for smaller openings, set out a trail cam with a time-lapse trigger, such as the Moultrie Game Spy M-100 or Bushnell X-8. Photos snapped at regular intervals (say every five minutes during daylight) don’t need a deer to be close enough to trigger a motion sensor and will let you know when and where deer enter a field even at a distance. Wait until the wind is right, make sure the sun is at your back, and hang and hunt a stand where the biggest buck prefers to make his grand entrance each afternoon. Note when the first deer enter the field and be settled at least an hour earlier.
Work the Water Edge
With dry conditions predominating much of the weather to this point (see sidebar), isolated ponds, still-wet deeper holes in dried-up swamps or stream beds, a stock tank, and even a small, flowing creek or water-filled ditch can attract deer to stop and drink in the mornings before going off to bed or in the evening before beginning their feed. Scout the water edge to confirm ample hoof marks in the mud and hang a stand within bow range, mindful of prevailing winds in the area. A pond or single isolated water source is easier to target, particularly if surrounded with cover. If a winding creek or ditch is what you have to work with, walk its length, find where the muddiest, most worn deer trails intersect the water, and set your stand off the most visited spot.
Be A Nosy Neighbor
Whether you hunt your own property or share leased land with friends or a club (or even hunt public land), hunter pressure builds as the rut and gun season approach. While it’s easy to track the influx of hunters on your own land, it’s just as important to get to know the people who hunt surrounding properties as well. Find out how often and when exactly they tend to hunt. Do any of them bow hunt? If not, deer that roam both properties will be less spooky. If a lot of them bow hunt, then play that to your advantage knowing that, if they mostly hunt every Saturday, you can count on them pushing deer your way. Be in the woods first and set up along likely escape routes such as a gap in a fence or the closest patch of woods if the boundary is open meadow or field. Study satellite images of neighboring properties to determine how hunters access the land and anticipate how deer will react to that pressure.
Feel the Pinch
As deer movement picks up, bucks will travel routes where they feel safe, which means sticking to the edge of cover or crossing the open from point of woods to point of woods on a field or clearcut. Like humans, they also prefer unimpeded travel routes, meaning gaps in fences, around points or bends in creeks, along the bottom edge of a bluff, or old abandoned roadways. These will also force deer to a predetermined spot. Look for these locations to heat up the last two weeks of October as pre-rut activity puts more deer seeking and chasing and really light up with the crisp arrival of November. Look for areas and natural formations that will funnel deer within a short bowshot that are also laced with well-worn trails and an abundance of scrapes and rubs. Most serious hunters that I’ve interviewed over the years abandon virtually every other stand location at this time of the rut phase to focus solely on pinch points.
If there is ever a time to use calls, now is it. Bucks are as aggressive as they’re going to get, so they can be challenged with grunts and snort-wheezes and attracted by rattling. A lot of guys believe blind grunting is a waste of time. Maybe so. Do it anyway, especially if you hear a deer walking but still can’t see it. Hit the grunt tube with a few deep grunts or even short-noted tending grunts every 10 or 15 minutes. It might be enough to catch a passing deer’s attention that you weren’t even aware was there. Even better, work the rattling horns. If both of those fail to bring a buck in that you’ve spotted, hit it with a snort-wheeze. A dominant buck will be hard-pressed to ignore the challenge
Choose Scents Wisely
As eager as a hunter might be to pop the cap on his premium doe estrous scent in the hopes of making a buck think a doe has come in early, he’s basically, well, pissing it away. Instead, Code Blue’s Mike Mattly suggests sticking with regular doe urine and buck urine for now. Bucks are challenging each other and checking scrapes often, so intruder buck urine placed in a scrape, when combined with rattling, can prove to be a deadly combination. Doe urine is good because it puts deer at ease. It makes them think other deer have just been there so the area is safe, and a deer at ease is an easier deer to arrow.
Light It Up with a Smokepole
If your state has a special muzzleloader season between archery season and gun season and you’re not hunting it, it’s time to start. Most blackpowder seasons are set as the pre-rut is about to transition to the rut, which makes it without doubt the best time to be in the woods. And a muzzleloader’s range and accuracy will put a buck in your truck that you could only watch while using a bow.
Thank a Logger
Few things look more hellish than a lush stand of deer woods leveled by a crew of loggers. And while the loss of longstanding hardwoods can be tough to stomach, give these areas two years to grow and you’ll have one of the best deer hunting spots imaginable. The sudden infusion of sunlight generates an abundance of natural browse. The new cover will be low and thick, providing enough cover for deer to bed in and feel safe on the go, but not so much that a hunter can’t easily spot them. A ground blind works fine the first couple of years if no suitable trees are available for a stand, but after the third year you’ll need to get high, so seek out trees on the edge or put up tower stands. The best spots are along the edge where either mature woods or a grown up former cut borders the newly opened land. Deer will work these edges both morning and evening; the does feeding, the bucks looking for does. Like a field, watch the cutover for a day or two to identify where deer bed or enter the clearcut. Before the rut kicks in, they’ll move through reliable spots each day, which will help you determine where to set up. As the rut heats up, use a decoy and rattle to draw a wallhanger into range. The short cover offers the perfect mix of visibility and cover for a hunter.
Bring a Wardrobe Change
It can still be warm at this time of the season, and nothing can compromise a hunter’s scent-minimizing efforts quicker than soaking hunting clothes with sweat. To avoid this, always tote jackets or extra layers tucked in a backpack—scent-proof preferred. Never wear them while walking. To minimize getting overheated and extra sweaty, leave early so you can walk slowly to your stand, keeping your breathing and heart rate, and ultimately sweat, down. If it’s really warm, wear just a single layer of breathable clothes and either on stand or just before getting there put the rest of your hunting clothes on. I’ve even swapped out shirts once I got to my stand, tucking the wet, dirty one into a small scent-safe or resealable plastic bag and then placing it in a pack. Wear a different set of clothing each hunt so as not to build up odor in the garments or wash them between each hunt if possible. Always use scent-free laundry detergent and dryer sheets. Another important point to remember is avoid wearing hunt clothes in camp. The cooking and human smells are too numerous to combat. Remove clothes as soon as you get back from the woods, hanging them outside to remain fresh.
Time Your Hunt
It only takes one good hunt to define a season as successful, and for the hunter willing to do his homework, a well-timed hunt can pay big dividends. After all, for a true trophy, a hunter often only gets one chance, which means hitting him when conditions are right. If a hunter has identified where a bruiser is likely bedding by catching the beast on trail cams or spotting him in action and identifying his travel routes between bedding and feeding areas as evidenced from rubs and scrapes, he can pull this one off. The window of opportunity will typically fall in the last week to week and a half of October and the first days of November, depending on where you live. You want to catch the bucks immediately before they begin really chasing. Find a day where the wind is right, the humidity low, the temperature preferably dropping with a waxing gibbous moon rising in the afternoon, and slip as close as you dare to the bruiser’s bedding area using either a climber or hanging stand with sticks (whatever you can hang without making noise) three hours before the end of shooting light. Sit silently and wait. If you don’t see the deer you want, in the final hour of light hit the rattling horns about every 20 minutes. If you’ve set up near where your identified monster lives, he should be ready to prowl and come running to your calls.