— By Tom Carpenter
When it comes to whitetail hunting in the Dakotas, do you believe in the October lull?
Here’s one way to define the term. October lull describes what happens to white-tailed deer movement during autumn’s peak month throughout the Great Plains. Late-summer movement patterns have ended, largely related to a shift in deer foods and their availability. But the rut’s action, followed by the more settled and patternable conditions of late season, are still a ways off. Dakota whitetails are in a time of transition in October, and it’s difficult for hunters to figure them out and get a good setup going.
Here’s another way to define the term. October lull describes what happens to white-tailed deer hunters during autumn’s peak month. Blaming decreased deer sightings on a perceived drop in deer movement, hunters approach the challenge in one of two ways — both of them lulls in their own right:
- Some October whitetail chasers either keep hunting like they did in the early season, praying for a change in luck or an uptick in deer activity.
- Other hunters just sit on the sidelines in anticipation of the upcoming rut, thereby wasting some prime weeks of hunting.
Which definition do you buy into? There’s truth in both concepts … but also some misconceptions.
The key words in those October lull definitions are time of transition and perceived drop in deer movement.
Deer movement isn’t depressed in October; it’s merely changing. The only real lull is what’s not happening at the same old spot you’ve been watching since the leaves were green. And there’s no reason for a self-imposed hunting lull “until the rut kicks in.”
Here are seven strategies for getting after your venison when autumn has settled over the Dakotas, the leaves are ablaze, and the whitetails are proving to be their usual wary, persnickety, hard-to-figure-out selves.
1. Hunt Like It’s the Rut
The farther into October, the closer you get to full rutting action. The last week of October is usually the beginning of rutting time in the Dakotas. So, what’s going on breeding-wise during the first three weeks of the month?
The answer is that bucks are warming up and marking territory. By mid-month you’re starting to see scrapes. In reality, the rut is all ready to go, and the bucks are ready to breed.
So hunt like it’s the rut. Figure out those rub or scrape lines. Set up in high-traffic areas or travel funnels. Grunt some. Rattle a little, but don’t try to imitate an all-out buck brawl yet. A little tine tickling is the ticket — just enough to get a buck curious. He isn’t quite ready to fight yet, but he’s willing to check out who is.
Finally, any time in October is prime time for using doe-in-heat scents. Some does are, in fact, starting to come into estrus now. It’s nature’s way of spreading out springtime’s whitetail “hatch” with a few early births next spring, in case the main fawn drop for some reason is a disaster. (This is also the biological reason there’s a late or December rut as well.)
2. Employ a Decoy
October is the perfect time to use a deer decoy. Your local whitetails probably haven’t seen one yet this year, and the first time can really grab their attention and play on their curiosity. Bucks are ready for breeding now. The curiosity factor and the breeding urge call for an antlerless decoy.
If you’re in the market to shoot an antlerless deer for the freezer, which I always am, a doe decoy can also do that job. Most groups of antlerless whitetails that are hanging around together in October are family groups. Adult does will come check out the newcomer to their territory, offering you a shot.
Place decoys on field edges and at other highly visible spots where traveling or feeding deer can see them. That visibility is key.
Also, set up so the wind is blowing from the decoy to you, but also make sure you can swing and shoot cross-wind, as bucks and does alike will often sidle in, trying to get the breeze in their favor, and you’ll need to make your shot before they circle downwind.
3. Use Deer Talk
You can also drum up some October action by making deer sounds. This approach works for two reasons. One, bucks are as attracted to audio breeding cues as they are olfactory ones. Two, doe talk can get antlerless deer coming in, if you a have a doe tag you want to fill.
As the month wears on, you might use more — and more aggressive — grunting and buck challenges. But earlier on, the goal is to make doe talk:
- Doe estrous bleats are sounds a doe makes when she’s ready to breed. October bucks are interested in some easy action.
- Fawn bleats are good any time, but especially in October, for calling in mature does.
- Fawn distress bawls may bring in curious does for a look.
4. Hunt Other Openers
Some bowhunters lament the start of pheasant, waterfowl, fall turkey and even other big-game seasons because all the hunting activity inundates the countryside with humans chasing other critters, which disrupts whitetail movements. But why not think of these small armies as your own personal pushers and use them to your advantage?
Think about where these pheasant and waterfowl hunters ply their trade. Set up in escape cover where whitetails will head, and be patient. While the initial push of duck, pheasant or turkey hunter activity might not result in a deer in your sights right away, the whitetails will often spend the rest of the day filtering back in after making their flanking moves.
In fact, South Dakota’s pheasant opener is the perfect day to take advantage of the army of pushers, and set up far back in some secluded whitetail hideouts.
5. Hunt Like It’s Hot
There is one legitimate reason that whitetail movement might truly be inhibited in early to mid-October: Deer are already sporting their winter coats, and even a day that seems cool to you or me might be way too warm for a whitetail to do much traveling. Bring out a warm October sun with balmy summer-like air and you could have the local deer herd going pretty nocturnal on you.
Anything below 50 degrees won’t depress much whitetail activity. Between 50 and 60 degrees there might still be some daytime movement. Anything above 60, though, is pretty warm for a Dakota whitetail in its thick winter coat.
Of course, there’s not much you can do to hunt deer that only move at night, but one solution is to hunt lowlands near water, such as river bottoms, creeks, wetlands and ponds. It’s cooler and shadier in these areas, and deer need the water, too.
Finally, keep your schedule flexible. Plan to hunt on days when a front blows through and the weather cools off. This can cause a big spike in whitetail activity. The deer will often stay out later in the morning and come out earlier in the evening when the air is cooler and more autumn-like.
6. Hit the Crop Harvest
In corn country, the crop harvest really shifts whitetail habits and movement patterns. This is good news in two ways.
First, chopping down all that corn eliminates endless acres of extra whitetail hiding places. The deer become more visible, and you have a shot at figuring them out.
Secondly, whitetails suddenly have a new and accessible food source in the stubble. Become a combine watcher, and hit it right after the harvest.
Spend an evening glassing where the whitetails approach a fresh-cut cornfield, then set up on their approach. You can also hunt the field itself, especially any secluded nooks, swales, crannies or corners where deer like to sneak out and start feeding a little early.
7. Play the Acorn Game
The deer have been hitting the green fields hard and then one day, poof, the whitetails vanish. What happened? One likely answer is that acorns are dropping somewhere nearby and the whitetails have shifted their feeding focus.
If there’s one menu item whitetails like more than their salad, it’s acorns with all their abundant protein (for energy and building muscle mass) and calories (for building fat) as deer prepare for the upcoming winter. While they’re not found everywhere, acorns can be a food factor in northeastern South Dakota, the southeastern corner, and the Missouri River and James River breaks.
So, do you set up right in the oaks, or on a travel corridor to or from them? It all depends on time of day.
October hunting is aggressive hunting. One option is to set up right in the oaks. That’s why afternoon hunts in the oaks are great — get there plenty early, set up, settle in, and quietly wait for the deer start moving.
A dawn hunt in the oaks is tough, because the deer may already be there feeding when you arrive. So hunt travel corridors coming out of the oaks, but don’t be afraid to move right into the oaks after a couple hours. A mid-morning stand among the acorns can be a fine place to arrow a hungry October whitetail.
It’s too easy to call October a wash and sit at home, waiting for South Dakota’s rut to begin. The whitetails are out there now. You just have to change your approach, get a little more aggressive and get out there with a plan to beat October’s supposed lull.
About the Author: Tom Carpenter is editor of Pheasants Forever Journal and a freelancer who focuses his outdoor year on the northern plains. His favorite thing to hunt or fish for is … whatever he’s hunting or fishing for.