Adapt or fail – that’s the name of the game when it comes to hunting whitetails. As a hunter, you must always be one step ahead of the bucks you are chasing or else you’ll be in for another cold bowl of tag soup come season’s end. Whitetails’ habits are ever changing as the season progresses from the lushness of September to the drabness of January, and it’s incredibly important to change your tactics as they change theirs. In this guide to hunting whitetails throughout the season, we’ll provide some excellent setup locations for each time period so you can always be one (or two) steps ahead of that mature buck’s next move.
The best way to describe the whitetail’s world from September 1 to October 1 can be summed up in two words, what’s next? Whitetail patterns undergo a rapid change during this time as you combo ramping testosterone levels with major habitat changes. In much of the whitetails range, September 1-15 you’ll see a lot of bucks still in their bachelor groups and behaving as such. A summer of relatively low hunter pressure has these bachelor groups out feeding in bean and crop fields during the evening hours. If you hunt a state where the season opens around September 1, you have a great opportunity to harvest a velvet buck, as their patterns are still reliant on evening chow down session.
During the early season, the most obvious place to hunt is the preferred feeding areas. It may be a green bean field, lush clover plot, or alfalfa field, that’s for you to figure out through scouting.
As we creep towards mid-September to the early parts of October, buck’s testosterone levels keep climbing causing them to shed their velvet and become not so fond of their once summer time buddies. If your state’s season is open during this time frame, the aforementioned spots are worth scouting, but some other spots to consider would be water sources, near an acorn laden oak tree, or even tight to their bedding. During the early hunting months, acorns are sure to be everywhere in much of the U.S., and deer LOVE acorns. Use this to your advantage! Scout for trees that are plentiful with acorns. Carefully set yourself up around them to try to catch your buck while he’s feeding. Ideally, you want to pick out some of the most fruitful acorn producing trees before the early season. The crop field action is likely to decline a bit as crops begin to dry and brown out.
The “October Lull”
Myth or fact? Whatever you may believe, there’s a reason for the quotation marks in the subheading. Though action may be subdued, don’t think for a minute that you can’t kill a mature buck during this timeframe – you just need to hunt different. A big reason the “October Lull” phenomenon exists is simply because hunters are afraid or unwilling to adapt. Many will still sit field edges because one, its easy, and two, they don’t want to mess things up by being too aggressive with the rut on the horizon. Don’t get me wrong, bucks absolutely move less than they did in the early season (as science shows) and for good reason. For one, they ditch their summer coats for a much too warm winter jacket when temps are still relatively high. How would you like running around with a winter parka on in 60-degree temps? You wouldn’t. And neither do they, especially considering they have no sweat glands to help them cool down when temperatures rise. In addition to them being too hot to move, hunting pressure is now a real thing and bucks are more apt to travelling long distances in the cover of darkness or simply resort to moving less.
If you want to capitalize on the “October Lull” phase, you need to be willing to go where others don’t and utilize the knowledge you gain from scouting. Ideal areas during the “lull” period include bedding areas, acorns, and interior transition lines. Utilize sign and hunt accordingly. Rubs and scrapes will start to pop up more frequently and may only be hot for a couple days. If you’re hunting a piece of unpressured private ground with the likes of food plots and what not, success still can be had over fields and food plots, but the fur factor is ultimately going to suppress movement no matter where you are to the last hour or two of daylight. In opposition to the warmer weather, October cold fronts provide for some of the best hunting conditions of the season. Period.
With each passing sunset a buck’s testosterone level increases and by the end of October his T- level is twice what it was when the month began. Simply put, hormones are the primary trigger of the different types of rutting behavior exhibited by a buck. Their stimulating effect can be seen in amped up rubbing, scraping and breeding behaviors. By mid-October, shortening day length and near peak testosterone levels cause bucks to travel, scrape, and rub more as the rut approaches. For most of the whitetail range in the U.S. (above the 35th parallel) significant scraping activity begins around October 15th each year. By the 25th of October more and more rubs show up in prime travel corridors and new bucks show up on your trail cameras, signaling an end to “the October lull”.
Since bucks are travelling more and seemingly working overtime to scent check and mark their territory by making scrapes and rubs, this is one of the best times to be in the woods. If daytime temperatures are at or below normal, bucks will be very active the first and last two hours of daylight. Keying in on active scrapes and travel corridors can land a daylight buck right in your lap. Also, food sources like bean, corn, and alfalfa fields are again heating up, as bucks will frequent the fields to check if any does are in heat. Couple any of these spots with a late October cold front, and you’ll be in for an exciting hunt!
Hang on to your trousers, the rut is here! Now, I don’t need to sit here and tell you why you need to be in the woods during the rut, you just do. Again, in most of the whitetails’ range, this occurs during the first three weeks of November. Bucks are roaming large areas during daylight hours in search of a hot doe and if you’re in the right spot you can be in for some unforgettable action. Since bucks are moving A LOT, placing yourself in prime travel corridors is great tactic. Places like funnels, pinch points, ridge tops, saddles, and creek bottoms are all preferred travel routes during the rut because they often provide the easiest means of travel from point A to point B. Getting tight to doe bedding areas and thick cover is also an excellent strategy during the rut as bucks will scent check these areas for any does in estrus and are also the preferred areas for bucks to tend their does while they breed. Bottom line, now is the time to get aggressive.
Post Rut/Late Season
Once December 1st arrives, about 90% of the breeding will be complete (above the 35th parallel). Stressed from the rigors of the rut bucks now move into the recovery stage. Rather than searching for estrus does many bucks will cover little ground and spend most daylight hours bedded until a few hours before nightfall, when they gravitate to prime food sources. From this point on food drives whitetails, with the last two hours of the daylight being the prime time to see deer. This period can be either very fruitful or frustrating. For the hunter who has prime winter food to hunt over, the late season is one of the best times to capitalize on the strict patterns bucks often adhere to. For the small property hunter or public land hunter it can be very tough time to get on a mature buck, especially since they’ve been pressured by hunters for nearly three months now. Food and bedding should be the core areas of focus for late-season hunts. If you can find any type of secluded food source like a locust tree that’s dropped its pods, an oak tree that still has acorns under it, or any other natural browse areas bucks may prefer during the late-season, you should monitor and hunt those areas. Obviously, if you have a winter food plot or standing crops to hunt, you’ll want to monitor and hunt those as well.
As you can see, whitetails continue to change patterns throughout the season and as a hunter, you must be willing to adapt. Yes, it will require more work on your end, but I can assure you the results will be worth it. So long are the days of setting up one stand and hunting it the entire season – this is banking on luck, not probabilities. Get yourself into the right positions and adapt with their every move so you can always be one step ahead. Then, practice your shot because it’s only a matter of time!