I had my eye on a particular 10-point all summer, counting down to opening day. The buck came through this little funnel two or three mornings a week for almost three months. In that time, I’d accumulated literally dozens of pictures of the deer. It seemed all I had to do was put in my time, be patient, and I’d get my chance at him.
Well, that didn’t happen. The week before opening day, as many mature whitetails do, he stopped showing up on my trail camera. In fact, almost all of the good bucks I’d been watching all summer went missing, and all at about the same time. I’m not talking just one or two locations, either. I had 19 trail cameras out in almost a dozen distinctly different locations where there would be no population overlap, and I had located close to 30 “shooter” bucks, and all but a couple of them simply disappeared.
Most hunters I know talk about vanishing bucks, often lamenting their whereabouts or wondering if something happened to them prior to opening day. Truth is, those bucks are most likely alive and well. They’ve just transitioned to their fall ranges, and trying to relocate them can be quite a challenge. But if you have a plan, it can be done. Here’s a look at how to find bucks during the October transition this season.
Follow the Food
How many times have we heard that food is king? Well, there’s good reason for that, and at no time is it more apparent than in October. Many of the summer foods start to dry up and deer shift to better, emerging sources such as acorns and other mast. If you want to know why a transition even occurs, look no further than what food is available.
As I started analyzing the locations where I’d been getting so many photos prior to the season, I noticed they all had one thing in common: a lack of quality fall food sources. There were lots of greens, berries, and succulent browse, but none of the mast that is critical for a deer’s winter survival.
Many of the locations were also in transitional type cover between cuts of varying stages of growth and open mature timber. Deer love edges, but they love edges with food even more. If you want to get back on the trail of that buck, spend some time locating those fall food sources.
Terrain and Habitat
I love studying terrain features and trying to predict how deer will use them for travel. Points, ridges, low gaps – all of them funnel deer in specific ways. The most productive funnels, though, are where quality habitat and terrain features meet, and they play a huge role in the fall transition.
In one of the locations where I’d had trail cameras set all summer, I hardly got any photos of deer, despite the fact that the area just reeked of big bucks. This location had it all. It was a low gap in a north-south running ridge. This last detail is very important because bucks tend to bed on south-facing slopes during the fall and winter months. The habitat on the point to the south was perfect bedding cover, thick, high stem count, and almost impossible for predators, including hunters, to approach without being winded well in advance.
To make the location even more appealing, the corner of a fenced-in cut sat directly in the low gap, and the fence ran directly along the ridge to the north. In Pennsylvania’s mountain country, it’s common for the DCNR to erect these fences, known as deer “exclosures,” to allow the new forest to regenerate before deer can over-browse them. As if it needed anything else to attract deer, a scattering of oak trees were left standing in the unfenced areas surrounding the cut.
And yet the only deer I got pictures of all summer were does, fawns, and yearling bucks. Until mid-September, when acorns started hitting the ground. The first mature buck showed up, an 11-point that had it all, tine length, beam length, mass, and spread. The next good buck was a 10-point with a long drop tine off its right main beam. I have no idea where either of these bucks came from, but once they showed up, they were on the camera almost every night. Although it’s frustrating when the big deer you’ve been watching suddenly go missing, it’s a pleasant surprise when new ones show up to take their place.
I found this spot by studying aerial maps online. Even though I wasn’t getting any good deer pictures in the summer, I stuck with it because my gut told me that if an area has the right terrain features, quality habitat, and a potential food source, at some point in the fall that spot will become important, and it’s usually during the October transition.
The first rubs that show up every fall are pretty exciting. They’re physical proof that bucks are in the area. Same with scrapes. But how much do these early season signs mean when it comes to harvesting a buck? Not much if they’re made prior to the October transition because the buck that made them could very well move out of the area. A prime example of this is the first rubs made by the 10-point I watched all summer. I found two big rubs in close vicinity right before he stopped showing up on camera.
In that same location, and around the same time, I have video of a 7-point working a mock scrape that I’d made. That same 7-point, in fact, followed up my mock scrape by making a whole line of his own scrapes along an old logging road through the cut. It was all pretty exciting until he stopped showing up on camera, too.
On the other end of the spectrum, I located this great funnel between two huge, 8-year-old cuts that looked about as good as any spot I’ve ever found. Throughout early September, very few bucks showed up despite the fact that, when I scouted it, I found dozens of rubs of all sizes that had been made last year. Even when I was finding new rubs elsewhere, nothing fresh showed up in this location. Until first week of October.
Right around opening day of archery, it was practically a buck parade through that funnel, a couple of them I recognized from other spots several hundred yards away. Almost overnight, new rubs started popping up, some of them quite big. If last year’s sign is any indicator, this is going to be a prime location for the rest of the season. It’s not the first time I’ve experienced this, and it won’t be the last. Old sign can help you predict where bucks will be, or end up, when the October transition takes place.
New Bedding Areas
It’s common for bucks to switch bedding areas, too, during the October transition. Many times, they’re moving into thicker or more secluded cover where they feel safe. Sometimes, ground cover and foliage can change enough that where they bedded all summer just isn’t good enough for this time of year.
The 10-point I mentioned in the beginning of this article is a perfect example. More often than not, he preferred to bed under a small cluster of trees on the corner of a 15-year-old cut that was surrounded by waist-high weeds. Well, once the nights started getting colder, those weeds died off, and the deer was now exposed, so he stopped bedding there.
When the two bucks in the low gap, the 11-point and the drop-tine buck, started showing up, I immediately began my search for where they could possibly be bedding. In this case the deer exclosure actually helped me because it narrowed down the amount of available bedding cover. Bordering that exclosure were a series of shallow ravines that had been selectively cut within the past five years. Much of this had grown up into the perfect combination of thick undergrowth, small stands of huge pines, and a scattering of hardwoods. This area was about 500 yards from the stand of oaks and the fence corner in the low gap on the ridge, and it was the best bedding cover around.
I placed a camera at the intersection of two, grassy logging roads coming out of the thickest cover. I also hung a tree stand there, confident that this would be a hot spot. Sure enough, I started nailing daytime pictures of the 11-point. Also, much to my surprise, the “lost” 10-point was there, despite the fact that this location was more than three miles as the crow flies from where I’d had pictures of him this summer.
The first time I sat in that stand, on the evening of opening day, the 7-point that I had video of working the mock scrape decided to bed down less than 20 yards in front of me. Apparently, when the 10-point left his summer range, this 7-point soon followed suit. It’s amazing to me that they both ended up in the same spot.
Sometimes relocating bucks during the October transition all comes down to dumb luck. I hunt thousands of acres of contiguous public land, so I’m able to venture almost anywhere I want to in search of deer. Hunters who own or lease smaller parcels are at a handicap in this regard, and you just have to accept that some bucks will leave the property, but also enjoy the fact that other bucks might move in to take their place.
Some deer may travel miles during the October transition. Some may only travel several hundred yards. Either way, once they get out of their predictable summer patterns, they can be hard to find again. You have to have a plan that takes into account food sources, terrain and habitat, historical rutting areas, and available bedding cover. Once you put all of these pieces together, finding those transitioning bucks becomes a lot easier. Of course, that doesn’t mean killing them will be easier.