A 4- or 5-year-old mega-buck is tough to see, much less shoot with a bow and arrow, in the warm, stagnant weeks of mid-October. Already wrapped in his burly winter coat, the buck beds near a food source, pigs out at night and lies back down fat and happy. This old hoss needs a poke in the butt, and the first cool weather of the fall is the best prod. A cold front that rolls in from the northwest, dumps some rain and drops the mercury 20 degrees puts some skip in a big deer’s step.
The buck begins to move toward grain or acorns a little earlier in the afternoon. He mills a bit longer on ridges and in draws at dawn. He rubs more trees raw and starts to paw scrapes. Grab your bow, throw on some fleece camo and head for one of your best stands. The hunting is fixin’ to heat up.
Wait Till the Weather Changes
Your granddaddy might have told you, “Boy, get out there the day or two before a cold front, because the deer are gonna move like crazy.” Many whitetail authorities still advise it. In my opinion it’s a good idea for when the weather turns bitter and snowy in December, but it’s a big myth for October. I don’t believe bucks feel any urgency to get up and run to feed, even if they detect an approaching front in autumn. Why would they? Most of the males are already fat as pigs. Besides, there are grains, clovers, forbs, mast and green browse everywhere to munch on. What’s more, before a mid-fall cold front the air temperature ranges from slightly warm to hot, with accompanying high humidity, and it’s heat that shuts down the deer activity. I can count on one hand the big deer I’ve seen moving in pre-front heat from October 10 to 20.
Stay home the day a low-pressure system rolls into your area, especially if it brings heavy rain, thunder and lightning to the woods. But when the barometer starts to rise and the sky begins to brighten, head for a tree stand. Some deer will move on the cool, dry, high-pressure days on the backside of a front. Big temperature drops of 20 to 40 degrees are best. Say the mercury plummets from 70 degrees to 30 or 40 overnight. Some bucks will feel a jolt of testosterone and motor into motion. Even a minor front that dries out and cools the air only 10 or 15 degrees will put some deer on their feet in daylight hours.
I was bowhunting out on the Milk River in Montana recently when a front whipped down from Alberta and drove the temperature from a pleasant 60 degrees one day to a teeth-chattering 20 the next. Fired up and figuring the good bucks finally ought to move, I skipped to my best stand on the edge of a lush alfalfa field. An hour into the sit, an icy north wind came up and gusted to 30 mph. I sat shivering as I watched four does run into the field, grab a bite and skitter back into the cottonwoods. Then I glassed down into a marsh nearby, and my eyes nearly popped out through my binocular lenses. Six bucks with racks that would have scored 130 to 160 inches milled around and browsed green leaves and tips until I lost sight of them in the dark. Had I planned ahead and hung a perch 200 yards away and 200 feet below, in the cattails, I might have shot a monster.
One problem with hunting behind a front is that you’ll often have to deal with a moderate-to-strong west or north wind for a day or two before it diminishes. Not many deer will be caught out in fields or on open ridges or hillsides, where the breeze shakes weeds and leaves, kicks up dust devils and makes a lot of noise. Some dandy bucks will concentrate and feed in low, wind-blocked areas, however. A week or so before a major cold front is due, hang a tree stand on the east or south side of a bluff, in a deep, brushy hollow or on the edge of a corn plot in a sheltered bottom… you get the idea. The more food, cover and fresh sign in a low spot near where you hunt, the better.
Stick to Feed
On a cool, blue-sky afternoon when the wind dies down, return to one of your top stands where you can see a long way into a food plot or down an oak ridge. Choose a spot where, from previous experience, you know lots of does will show up to feed. If a shooter walks beneath your perch, thank the whitetail gods and take him, but mostly just watch any fat bucks that feel spry in the cool weather and come out of the woodwork to feed and push the gals around.
If you spot a giant 8- or 10-pointer working the next ridge or cutting through a field corner 100 to 150 yards away, consider sneaking over there the next day to hang another bow stand for a quick-strike ambush. If you can’t do that or don’t want to risk messing things up, sit in your observatory stand for a couple more cool evenings and watch and pattern the does and bucks further. Then you’ll know exactly where to move in and set up when peak rut kicks in.
Peek in a Bedroom
During the first few weeks of October the archery hunting in any part of the U.S. is best on food sources in the afternoons. But if a major cold front rolls into your region around October 20, the mornings will heat up fast. The bucks’ necks will swell even thicker, and the animals will maul more trees and start scraping near their bedding cover. While they’ll continue to blaze a lot of the sign at night, some mornings they’ll linger in funnels and near thickets after sunup, which at least gives you a chance of tagging out.
Hunting near a bedroom is risky business and not for the faint of heart, but it can pay off big-time if you do it right. Remember the three rules of engagement:
Carefully monitor the wind and make sure it blows out of a bedding area and toward or across a spot where you plan to sneak in and hunt. Since the wind is typically out of the west or north after a cold front passes, you’ll want to approach a thicket from somewhere to the east or south most days. Go to weather.com and click on “Hourly Forecast” to get the wind direction and speed for the two or three chilly, post-front days when the hunting is best. Use that data and your aerial photographs to plan your morning hunts.
Move in from downwind and check the terrain and cover for a stand location about 150 to 200 yards off a bedding area. Look for a good tree on a narrow ridge or in a brushy draw that will squeeze deer within bow range. The number of tracks, trails, rubs and scrapes around will let you know that you’re in the right neighborhood. Be quiet as you hang the perch so as not to spook any deer bedded in the cover. Sneak back out downwind.
When you come back to hunt, slip in at least an hour before sunup. Climb quietly into the perch and get settled. Most of the time an old, gnarly buck will circle downwind of a bedding cover and scent-check it for danger and ripe-smelling does before turning into the wind and walking in. You need to be set up and ready in hope that a big dude will circle within range. Even if you don’t get a shot, sit there for a couple of hours and check out the comings and goings of does and bucks for patterns you can use on future hunts.
Crank Up Your Calling
I’ve come to believe that in the warm weeks of early fall, most deer are just not ready for the sound of cracking horns. But the first 30-degree, high-pressure mornings of the pre-rut in late October just might be the best time to rattle up a buck, especially if it’s not too windy.
Set up downwind of a bedding area where you know a shooter or two are living. You’ve got a lot going for you. The last of the bachelor groups have just broken up, the cool weather has deer moving, bucks’ hormones are starting to rage, and, best of all, the animals haven’t heard any heavy rutting sounds for nearly a year, so they’re primed to respond to your first rattles and aggressive grunts. Wham! Crack and grind the horns for a minute or so, or use a rattling bag. Mix in some deep-pitched urrp, urrp, urrps on your call. Grab the bow off its hook, nock an arrow and get ready. A big 8- or 10-pointer just might come running.
WEATHER FRONT FACTS
You don’t need to be a meteorologist to shoot a big whitetail. But the more you know about an October cold front, the better you can plan your hunts around it.
A front approaches when a mass of cold air from Canada moves toward warm, humid air that has hovered over a region for days or weeks. A falling barometer will signal the imminent approach of the front.
During a major front, cold air and warm air collide to produce thunder, lightning, heavy rain, batches of showers and strong winds.
October cold fronts typically hit and pass quickly. On their backsides, the sky brightens and storms turn to light, steady rain and then scattered showers. The rain eventually stops, the barometer rises and high cirrus clouds give way to a few cool, clear, high-pressure days when deer movement ranges from fair to great.
Occasionally a reinforcing surge of cold air piggybacks a front and brings more showers and cooler temperatures to a region. Though the barometer is in flux, the unsettled weather extends the cool-weather pattern and can lead to a string of fine hunting days.
Some minor fronts are called “dry fronts” because they produce little or no precipitation. Hunt after they pass. When the cooler, drier air displaces the hot, humid air and drops the temperature only 10 or 15 degrees, some whitetails will still move better.
On the days immediately before a cold front, winds tend to swirl out of the south. Cooler winds behind the front are generally west to north. Choose access routes into the woods and tree-stand locations accordingly to ensure deer won’t bust you.