The first few weeks of October are almost a season on their own. Everything changes, leaves are turning, farmers are harvesting crops, weather fronts are fluctuating, and bucks are easing into their fall patterns and ranges. It’s also the period known as the infamous October lull. Spending most of my time each fall on public land has taught me not to put much stock into this myth. A season is short enough as it is, and spending time in the woods is important. With plenty of scouting and the right conditions, mid-October can be a great time to put yourself in position for a successful fall before the crazy rutting activity and hunting pressure ensue.
Don’t get me wrong—public land or not, this is not the time to throw caution to the wind and dive into the deepest, darkest holes with hopes of catching a lucky break. Focusing on access routes, security cover, and weather fronts are essential. Consider every detail, hone in on the freshest sign, and find a few key areas to capitalize on daylight activity.
Here are three places you can kill a public land buck during the lull.
The Appetizer Over the Main Course It can be rare to have large destination food sources on public land, but chances are you aren’t too far away from a few. It’s tempting to sit close to these in the early weeks of the season, but it’s important to think deeper. Staging areas deeper in cover can be magic during the October lull. Whether it’s a lush ag field or a long, beautiful ridge of white oaks with deer sign everywhere, you’re probably not the only one that’s discovered these locations on public dirt. Even with slight hunting pressure, bucks are most likely not reaching these locations until dark. Follow the sign back to thicker cover. This often leads to some type of terrain or habitat transition.
Once you’ve located the thicker cover, look for signs of browse. In some of these internal areas, it’s common to find ragweed, pokeweed, and other native plants that deer prefer in dense grassy areas or CRP land. If you’re noticing the acorns are a hot food source in larger ridges or clusters closer to the parking lot, try to find small clusters back closer to cover, too. Focus on the heaviest concentration of browse and how the terrain, travel patterns, and wind directions relate to it. Considering access is vital. Think about how you can get in and out of the transitional cover area without affecting deer activity at the primary food sources. Expect does and young bucks to filter through before the more mature bucks show themselves. If you’re setting up for a do-or-die scenario this early in the season, spooking the first deer or two to come through could end your hunt before it ever really begins.
Finding these small, tucked-away concentrations of food in thicker cover where multiple habitat types come together is a big deal. Couple these features with a timely early-October cold front, and you could find yourself at full draw on a big mid-October buck.
Primary Scrape Areas Scrapes are one of my favorite October setups. They can be one of the most consistent draws for bucks before the rut phases begin. If you’re hoping to get the drop on a big one on a daylight visit, the location and situation must be right. To find one of these hidden gold mines, you’ll have to cautiously poke around a bit. Keep in mind the right spot usually isn’t the first big, fresh scrape you find. These scrapes just off field edges or along a big oak ridge can be tempting, but remember, these locations are visited primarily at night and if you’re on public you can bet others are setting up there as well.
The scrapes you’re looking for are interior scrapes known as primary scrapes or primary scrape areas. You may try following some of these perimeter scrapes back to security cover if there is a series of them. Otherwise, focus on thick cover with proximity to food sources that are adjacent to bedding. Look inside thick habitat transitions, creek crossings, or other travel corridors funneling movement. They won’t be too far from the bedroom, so be careful. Once you find them, they’re often big, like the size of a car hood, with multiple licking branches. Don’t spend long lingering, but do assess the situation. Think about travel routes to and from the site, most ideal winds for both his access and yours. It gets really exciting when you find a primary scrape area. This is a communication hub where you’ll see multiple scrapes from multiple access routes, all within a small area. These are rare, especially on public dirt, so they must go to the top of your list of spots to hunt when you find one.
Think of these areas like the breakroom at an office. It’s where all the quick conversations and relaying of information take place. Primary scrape areas help establish the pecking order for mature and immature bucks alike, but it’s also a concentrated area for communication for all deer. Laying scent down here is a way for deer to leave their calling card for the rest of the herd to know they were there. Of course, as October rolls on giving way to early November and the pre-rut, daylight visits will increase. Even though they may not be as frequented as they will be later in the month, hitting these spots during the October lull gives you a chance to beat other hunters back to the spot and punch your tag before the hunting pressure really ramps up.
Your access and ability to use weather conditions mean everything in this high-stakes strategy. You’re only going to get one or two cracks at a primary scrape before any mature bucks are on to you. If a cold front is in the forecast, you must be there. Even better if some rain accompanies the front. It seems like these secluded October scrapes become really active right after or at the tail end of a rain. Plan your access routes carefully and make sure you can shoot the most active scrape when you’re setting up. Trying to set up on the movement to and from a scrape can be too costly. Although this is a dynamite location to catch one in daylight, we’re still talking about mature bucks on public land outside the rut. If they show, you can bet it’s going to be right at closing time.
Secluded Creek Crossings During the October lull, I also look for concentrated travel areas in security cover, especially ones that coincide with a creek or waterway crossing. This is a great way to locate buck tracks and get an idea of overall deer activity. The moist soil leaves plenty of sign and it never hurts having a water source close by, especially during the often-warm mid-October temperatures.
After you find one of these creek crossings, spend some quality time with onX. Determine the most frequent direction of travel based on the sign you’re seeing, and then assess the surrounding region on your mapping app. Start wide and narrow it down. Find food sources and habitat that could make for good bedding. That’s your starting point. Think through the details carefully, especially wind direction. Timing this setup location with a welcomed cold front could be all you need for one strike and done, but at the very least, it’s a great way to start locating a buck in the area. Weather can draw bucks to these locations too. If temps are high, these creek bottoms are low areas that often offer cooler conditions. It may only be a few degrees, but that coupled with the cool, moist ground for bedding can be a magnet to hold bucks in one specific area.
Feature image via Matt Hansen.