The toughest deer hunting conditions simply are the stuff of life and luck, and all you can do is make the best of any situation.
Whitetail lore is filled with sage advice suggesting the best possible periods to kill trophy bucks. Many of these treatises put forth the proposition that no other seasons than those under discussion are viable, or as often, that hunting during such periods all but guarantees success.
Of course, in whitetail hunting most especially, nothing’s ever guaranteed, but we all strive to improve our standing against an arguably superior chess player. We also under- stand, in broader terms, those ideal circumstances – conditions allowing you to climb into cold stands with cocksure anticipation – can prove as concrete as fairy dust.
I mean, really, how often do things actually click into place like a crossword puzzle you inconceivably have all the answers to? Obviously, seldom during the single week, or just a weekend, you finally have to yourself. In the real world we’re often plagued by scheduling conflicts verses rare winds that render your most productive stands off limits.
Add to that, Indian Summer heat waves, night skies filled with silver-dollar moons, farmers putting off harvest due to unseasonable rains producing muddy fields and competing hunters and it’s easy to see why whitetails have the upper hand. They play this game daily, while we play only when allowed to. Moreover, we’re oftentimes forced to play when the odds are stacked firmly against us.
This is the stuff of life and luck and all you can do is make the best of any situation. Situations such as these.
FULL MOON NIGHTS
Whitetails, under average conditions, vacillate between crepuscular and nocturnal tendencies;
haunting the edges of day, or deep night, depending on atmospheric conditions and security concerns. Add to those influences lunar weight. As the moon’s surface turns wide to bounce sunbeams around the curvature of earth, deer feed through the night, especially in areas where predators, human or furred, dictate daily survival. You know the drill: deer waiting till sundown before venturing into the open and then hustling back into cover, sated and drowsy, well before shooting hours arrive.
In parts of whitetaildom you’re suddenly dealt the brand of nocturnal deer those of us in lesser habitats address as a matter of course. Success depends largely on abandoning edges, specifically field-edge feeding points, and moving closer to bedding areas or into inside cover, hoping to catch late arrivals (mornings) and early departures (evenings). This requires more delving than typical field-edge stake-outs, beginning with careful trail-camera scouting well before hit with another full-moon curse, anticipating the inevitable.
In some habitats you might have a good idea where deer naturally bed. I set up stands under the cover of darkness, while deer are safely absconded in faraway fields. This requires arriving in those stands hours ahead of sunrise, and sitting tight until well after sundown to avoid spooking deer. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a deer running a bit late on one end or the other.
Mornings during a full moon are nearly always duds. Conversely, midday movement is often more common (when temperatures permit), though I’ve also observed early evening patterns. Deer have been bedded since dark morning. They can be understandably antsy to stretch their legs, get a bite or find a drink.
WATCH: No Standing Corn, But a Great Hunt for a Cornfield Buck!
Late rains and the sticky mud generated keep cumbersome combines at bay. Or, modern farmers simply have so much ground to tend they can’t get to it all before your hunt. The problem with stand- ing corn is it provides sanctuaries where there’s no need for deer to move at all and expose themselves to danger. Standing corn supplies everything a deer needs to live comfortably.
During the rut, bucks are also likely to have all the does they can handle – does drawn by the same security magnet. You’re left sitting on the outside looking in, and most likely peering in blind. When deer refuse to play, when they won’t come to you, sometimes you must climb down from your stands and take the game to them.
I recall strings of magazine articles during the late 1980s or early ’90s – most seemingly written by one guy – advocating stalking bucks in standing corn with recurve bows. The idea was to choose a breezy day, still-hunting cross-row, poking your head through each corn wall encountered and peering up and down open rows carefully.
Granted, dried, standing corn subjected to the slightest breeze is a confusion of moving pieces and clamorous rattling, making the stalking part entirely feasible to my mind. What I never could quite envision, having fought through a few cornfield corners in my time, was untangling my bow from all that herbage to get a clean shot.
Add a carbine, such as a Marlin lever .30-30 Win., or better, a scoped handgun such as a Thompson/Center Contender in the same chambering or Smith & Wesson .460 S&W, and I see huge potential, and waiting whitetail adventure. Time consuming no doubt, but so is sitting in stands.
Weather is something that goes on without you without you. Certain people, calling themselves progressive instead of the more accurate socialist, call this global warming – or climate change, conveniently encompassing whatever weather might come, because global warming begins to sound silly when the center-of-the-universe northeast suffers yet another record- breaking snowfall.
Be that as it may, warm weather happens, and sometimes at the worst possible time – such as during the middle of a long-awaited whitetail rut hunt. Like that time I drove into a central-Kansas town on November 15 to find the community bank’s reader board registering 68 degrees at midnight. Daytime temperatures climbed into the 80s, which made hanging midday stands sweaty business.
Yet I arrowed one of my best bucks that week. I accomplished this by burrowing into the thickest, nastiest brush I could locate and setting up in a small opening near water. Thick cover created shade and security, heat invites thirst.
Water-hole hunting seems completely logical during hot, early seasons, but I’ve used water to pinpoint deer movement in drier portions of whitetail habitat even when temperatures were approaching freezing – in Texas, in Oklahoma – and on that warm-weather Kansas bruiser. When cover’s sparse, like in Kansas, seek heavy cover. When cover is abundant, water is the ticket when weather turns unseasonably hot.
It’s true I’m granted the entire month of September in northern Idaho to ply my bowhunting passions, but it’s also true the rut, when the biggest bucks generally appear, sets smack in the middle of our general rifle season. So, given the choice of sitting it out or giving it my all, I bowhunt diligently. I’ve managed to shoot a few decent bucks, despite the seeming futility often experienced.
I’ve accomplished this mostly by hanging stands in places where rifle hunters will not venture. On a macro level this entails earlier wake-ups, longer ATV rides and mile-long treks into ridgetop or deep-saddle stands overlooking active scrapes. But I’ve a lot of national forest and timber- land ground to ply, literally tens of thousands of acres, which I understand isn’t exactly the norm in other portions of the whitetails’ range.
More practically, on a micro level this also means avoiding open areas long-range rifle hunters gravitate to – man-made clear-cuts, natural meadows, agricultural fields – or still-hunting pathways such as defunct logging roads or wind-swept ridge-lines making walking easier. Instead, I burrow into the thickest cover available, literally crawling on hands and knees at times, to reach inner staging areas where a small opening, survey line or burn allows 18- to 25-yard shots. Believe me, when the pressure’s on, this is where you will find deer in numbers.
THE OCTOBER LULL
Something happens to white-tailed bucks between the leisurely, bachelor-group days of velvet antlers and the frosty days of the November rut. From the perspective of many deer hunters, whitetail cease to exist; they simply vanish. It doesn’t have anything to do with something you’ve done, and it’s not something you can control. It’s the natural progression of every season.
The truth is post-velvet, pre-rut bucks don’t have a lot to do. Food’s more abundant now than ever so they have little need to travel. Bachelor groups scatter immediately following velvet stripping, and bucks lay low, conserving energy for the certain stress of the impending rut.
Your immediate problem as a hunter is deer just aren’t moving, or moving only sporadically. Near home where natural and agricultural fall feed is overly abundant, hunting October bucks is a matter of stubborn persistence. Food’s the magnet, so you concentrate on that, around here fodder with high nutritional appeal, such as garbanzo beans or field peas, or serving a sweet-tooth craving in the form of feral apples and pears.
As an obsessive trail-camera junkie, I’ve observed, year after year, an annual spike in activity – some- times early October, sometimes later – and always centered (in my case) around specific fruit trees. It’s unpredictable, but the bucks are some of the biggest appearing on camera each year. One of these days I’ll be present when it happens – if I can only remain stubbornly in the game no matter how few deer I see day after boring day.
Of course, the biggest secret to beating the October lull’s traveling to or living someplace where baiting’s legal and early season bucks can be lured out of hiding by something delicious. I’ve arrowed two handsome bucks in as many trips during early October bowhunting forays to Oklahoma. Texas friends always seem to rake some good ones out of the weeds, guarding feeders, during the so-called October lull. You must be present to win. Besides, what else have you got to do, watch pre-playoff football?
The old canard, “If there’s a will, there’s a way,” is just as true of making a living as tagging white- tailed bucks. You can cherry pick prime dates when whitetail success comes easiest, or you can play the hand your dealt and make the best of the time you have – or use that conviction to create more time afield. The choice is up to you.
— Patrick Meitin is a widely traveled bowhunter and former big game hunting guide. He hails from northern Idaho.