Gerald Almy: The challenge of bow hunting during the ‘October lull’

Gerald Almy

Each year in mid to late October, many Shenandoah Valley bow and crossbow hunters start singing the blues. Deer that had not been pressured all spring and summer long start to feel the effect of hunters coming and going into the woods every day and don’t move as much as they did during the first weekend or two of the season. The early bear firearms season in many areas this year also made the deer more wary, at least mature bucks.

The tactic of targeting deer groups feeding in food plots and agricultural fields suddenly goes cold as deer move to the woods to feed on acorns raining down from oak trees. Deer sightings dwindle. Success rates plummet. And to top it off, the rut still lies a few weeks away.

There’s a phrase avid archery hunters have come up with to describe it: the October lull.

Surprisingly, though, the sudden drop in success rates isn’t due totally to buck activity dropping off. Recent telemetry studies in Maryland and Ohio show buck activity actually increases steadily through October.

So why do deer sightings decline? And what are the solutions? Four major changes take place, and there are solutions for each of them. Let’s look at the reasons why late October can be a difficult time to harvest a whitetail buck, and how you can cope with them.

One. Bachelor groups break up. It’s easier to miss seeing a single deer than a herd of bucks. And when the groups of bucks that hung out together during summer and early fall suddenly disperse, they stake out new hideouts in thick cover–spots previous trail-cam reconnaissance wouldn’t show.

Two. Hunter activity spooks mature bucks, making them nocturnal. The culprits are morning hunts and careless exit from stands in afternoon. Just days into the season, bucks start to sense the human pressure and know their survival depends on moving near or after dark, unlike early fall when they might feed in sunlit fields half an hour before dark.

Three. Available foods shift. Look carefully. Alfalfa may be cropped short. Soybean leaves have yellowed, making them unappealing. Clover is often dried and withered. In short, fields are not so attractive now. But two major woods foods become plentiful — acorns and leaves. Bucks can simply rise from their beds and start feeding on mast and fallen leaves, which they readily eat in October. No wonder the fields are vacant.

Four. A few early-cycling does (5-10 percent) begin attracting bucks weeks ahead of the major November breeding period, drawing them away from their core areas that hunters have concentrated on. The biggest bucks shadow these early pheromone-exuding does, pairing up with them in remote spots in woods or isolated thickets adjoining brushy fields.

To succeed during the October lull, adapt where and when you hunt to fit these four major changes.

One. Pattern specific individual bucks instead of focusing on bachelor herds. Use trail cameras carefully to pin down new single-deer travel patterns that evolve after groups of bucks split and move into thicker, more scattered bedding spots.

Two. Don’t expect bucks to show early. Skip mornings, start later, and hunt until the absolute end of shooting hours. Then wait until full dark and slip out silently, circling around deer if necessary. Also hunt thicker cover closer to daytime bedding hangouts.

Three. Refocus where you hunt. Forget fields until the rut arrives. Hunt the woods. Pinpoint fresh tracks, droppings, rubs, and scuffled leaves, then set up. Even if the acorn crop is poor in your particular hunting area, deer will feed on fallen leaves, brambles, greenbrier and other secondary cover.

Four. Pinpoint the largest doe in your hunting area. Watch her for early estrous signs–a crooked tail, nervous demeanor, pacing a lot. Using her scent and behavior, she’ll draw the biggest buck to an isolated thicket or lightly-used area in the woods. Locate that spot, and be there waiting.

Remember: bucks are still active. You just need to adapt your game-plan to fit the changes: breaking up bachelor groups, skittish, nearly nocturnal bucks, abundant woods foods, and early-estrous does disrupting late-summer bed-to-field patterns.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.