Art Lander’s Outdoors: Changing deer patterns can result in the ritual ‘October Lull’ for hunters

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Most bow hunters will tell you the most difficult time to hunt deer during Kentucky’s 136-day archery season may be the so-called October Lull.

In early-to-mid October deer seem to disappear into thin air. Early season stands where hunters saw lots of deer suddenly go cold, as if some mythical switch has been flipped.

In fact, there’s no drop off in deer activity. The October Lull can be explained by changing patterns — where deer feed, bed, the trails they use, and how they associate with one another.

Deer still eat, drink water, and escape hot or cold on a daily basis. Hunters just have to figure out where the deer are, and what’s going on.

In October, bucks move to heavy cover where they feel safe. They spent less time on their feet during daylight hours, and enter fields later, usually at dark to scent check does as the rut approaches. (Photo by Mark Wallner)

That means heading into the heavy cover, scouting trails and looking for fresh sign. Rainy days are good scouting weather because a hunter’s scent is washed away.

Here’s some observations to mull over, during the lull over, leading up to the onset of the rut, the whitetail’s annual mating season:

* When bow season opens deer are still in their summer pattern. They are primarily feeding on clover, alfalfa, and other green plants. In fact, deer feed on hundreds of grasses, forbs, and mushrooms, even some that are toxic to humans.

They forage in open fields, especially late in the evenings, and are very visible. Usually the best hunting is from a treestand or ground blind at the edge of a field, where deer enter or exit.

All that changes as October approaches.

* When acorns ripen and begin to fall, deer head to the woods to pig out on the hard mast, packing on fat for the coming cold weather.

One key to success in October is deciphering these “in the cover food patterns.” Mast production has a big impact on deer movement, and consequently, hunter success. In years of heavy mast crops, deer move less, “camping” on food sources. In lean years they are forced to look around more to find food.

Gabe Jenkins, deer and elk program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources said the 2017 Mast Survey results showed poor to good mast production across Kentucky. Of the white oak trees observed by biologists in the field, just 31 percent had acorns (poor), as opposed to 63 percent of the red oaks (good).

For bow hunters, now is the time to key on areas where there are white oak trees, since their acorns are the deer’s first food choice. Find a white oak that’s dropping acorns and it’s likely deer will be feeding there at some point during the day.

If you can’t find white oak acorns look for red oak acorns.

A climbing treestand is ideal for this type of hunting because it’s easy to be highly mobile, moving around from day to day, hunting on the edges of likely feeding areas. Pick a tree to climb based on wind direction and prevailing light (rising or setting sun).

White oak acorns are the deer’s preferred food choice in the fall. The 2017 Statewide Mast Survey results showed poor mast production for white oaks , just 31 percent of oak trees observed by biologists in the field produced nuts.

* Soft mast, what we’ll call fall treats, are also magnets that pull deer away from their normal travel and food patterns.

Apples are a favorite fall food and old trees around abandoned homesteads are a good place to hunt. And don’t overlook persimmon trees. When these tasty and tart fruits begin to ripen and fall to the ground, it’s standing room only. Deer will visit fruit-bearing persimmon trees daily.

* As bachelor groups of bucks break up, individual bucks move to heavy cover where they feel safe.

Increases in foot traffic from hunters alert deer, especially bucks, making them less likely to step into the open. They spent less time on their feet during daylight hours, and enter fields later. In summer, these buck were visible in fields. Now they only visit fields after dark, usually to scent check does as the rut approaches.

A good strategy, if hunting for a buck on a destination food source such as a winter wheat field or cut corn field, is to backtrack the trails that lead to the field. What you are looking for is a staging area that may be 100 to 150 yards from the field. It’s a place where terrain offers security, where a bedded buck can both see and smell any approaching predator (deer hunter or coyote). A bench on a hillside is a prime location.

For more outdoors news and information, see Art Lander’s Outdoors on KyForward.

If there is fresh sign, a well-travelled trail, droppings, depressions in the grass or leaves (deer day beds), antler rubs or scrapes in the dirt, you’ve found a good spot to hang a stand.

* As vegetation thins and temperatures fall, deer bedding areas change. In warm weather deer bed in shade, close to water. In the fall and winter they seek out the warm of the sun, bedding on south-facing slopes, or ridgetops where thermals being warm air to them as the sun rises.

* While does and their fawns typically live in the best cover, close to prime bedding and feeding areas, bucks have summer and winter home ranges, that expand or contract throughout the year.

Every hunter has seen a good buck during the summer, and then never again, during the season. Home ranges of different bucks overlap, so the good news is a shooter might appear during the season that’s you’ve never seen before. That’s deer hunting.

Don’t use the October Lull as an excuse not to hunt. Just head for the heavy cover, and hunt on fresh sign.

1Art Lander Jr.

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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