It’s a question every dedicated whitetail hunter has had to tackle at some point. Most of the time it’s on the fifth straight all-day sit without even a hint or a sniff of that monster buck you’ve been seeing on the food plot all fall (this has happened to me twice in the last three years).
He’s gone, the trail cameras are quiet, and no matter how many times you move your stand or adjust your setup, he’s not coming out to play. You might as well cash it in and wait for his rut-inspired reappearance.
It’s not as if this is some mythical happening. We know the general parameters in which the lull occurs, but even so, there’s no magical formula or code that will crack this case. I put down the treasure map long ago; this “X” is a moving target. And without hunting your property (which I’m completely willing to do…I’m a dedicated journalist), I can’t give too much advice on any particular conundrum.
In general, though, this is a question of cause and effect. We’re all aware that there is a period of time in mid to late October in which big bucks become less visible. Some hunters just simply take a break during this time of year, leaving the woods unpressured, while others have consistent success.
Whether it’s luck or strategy, if you want to navigate the October lull with success, you must first determine how much of the conventional “wisdom” about deer movement is backed up by tangible evidence.
It’s time to stop attaching our own rationale to unexplainable big buck behavior and look to some data for answers.
There are several factors contained in theories explaining this decline in buck sightings. These are generally the same reasons why whitetails alter their movements or patterns any other time of year: food, breeding cycles, hunter pressure, and herd dynamics. It just so happens that in October all or most of these variables begin to change at once.
In the early season and during heavy scouting in July and August, whitetails can be rather predictable. Biologists know that deer are crepuscular, meaning that they move and feed primarily at low light (dawn and dusk). They travel from bedding areas to meal spots on a schedule, with bucks convening in bachelor groups. Deer are consistently visible (and huntable) near open food sources during this period.
As the season progresses toward October, primary food sources (row crops like soybeans) are no longer a lush, replenished snack for bucks. Much has been harvested, and other sources are yellow and dry. Acorns are starting to fall, and other mast crops are dropping in the timber. As food sources change, so do deer patterns. Bucks are moving into fall ranges and preparing for the rut.
Archery seasons are also in full swing in October, and hunters are beginning to pour into the woods. Many believe this uptick in human activity is another reason for the lull. Bucks become nocturnal, moving at night to avoid the ire of hunters and other increasing pressures.
But are all of these variables really contributing to the lull? Or are we just doing our best to categorize the symptoms of a problem we can’t explain?
The lull is based on buck movement, or lack thereof, so tracking every step a buck takes from the beginning to the end of hunting season is logically the best way to tackle this problem.
That’s what researchers around the country have begun to do over the past few years with varying levels of success.
Andy Olson conducted one such study in 2012 as a part of his thesis for his master’s degree at the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. Olson, who studied under the direction of renowned biologist Dr. Karl V. Miller, used GPS collar technology to study spatial and movement ecology of big bucks in northern Pennsylvania. The study’s objectives were to “document and compare fine-scale temporal movements during breeding and hunting seasons.”
Olson and his colleagues were able to collect significant data from three different bucks from January to December. Other studied deer were killed by hunters, lost, or simply had an interruption in data collection.
The GPS collars provided data points every hour until October 1st, when they began to provide movement updates every 15 minutes. Olson deemed breeding activity to begin in October, determining from previous data that this month can be categorized as the pre-rut, November the rut, and December the post-rut. My first question was simple: Inside the three months of your designated “breeding” phase was there any lull in buck movement?
“No, not at all,” Olson said. “My data does not support any lull theories. There was no significant lower movement during the month of October for any of the deer we studied.”
How would he describe the tracking data?
“The movement for the three bucks mirrored a simple bell curve,” he said. “It began to pick up in early October and continued to rise through November and dropped back off to similar levels through the post rut in December.”
Olson went on to explain that he saw no real uptick in nighttime movements until deer began chasing and searching for a breeding partner in November, and even then, the bucks’ movements increased across the board.
“The only significant change was daytime buck activity increasing four to eight times during the peak rut,” he said.
Nothing in the study lent credence to assertions that bucks go nocturnal during October or adjust their home ranges due to increased hunting pressure.
“We had hunters that encountered these bucks during the season, and not one buck changed his home range,” he said. “If a buck detects you, he’s not going to leave or stop moving, he’s going to travel differently within his area.”
From the outside looking in, it seems that Olson’s study backs up most of the conventional wisdom about big buck movement (the rut increase, home range identification, and others) except the October lull.
“My biggest take away was that bucks don’t disappear or go silent,” he said. “If you’re not seeing him, don’t give up. If he’s alive, that trophy is still around and on the move …very close.”