Hunting pressure, changes in food availability, will make it seem like deer have disappeared, but they’re still around. You just have to adjust.
It’s fall, and that means deer hunting has finally returned in Mississippi, with archers excitedly anticipating the Oct. 1 opening of bow season in four of the state’s five deer zones.
Hunters have been busy for months, glassing fields in the evenings and checking their trail cameras to find and pattern the bigger bucks. Ambush stands have been strategically placed, with options for each wind direction.
Most bowhunters know they have a small window to get a trophy buck early in the season, before the most talked about, dreaded and frustrating part of the entire deer season begins: the “October Lull.”
It happens every year, usually a week or two into the season.
Deer sightings diminish, or as many hunters say, it’s like they disappeared or crawled into a hole.
It is especially true of trophy bucks, many of which even vanish from night-time trail-camera photos overlooking feeders.
So just what happens during the October Lull, and is it even a real thing?
There’s a lot of skepticism about the lull. Most hunters complain about it, but it could be that they don’t comprehend what is really happening.
The lull is real enough and can be simply explained. Deer naturally change their habits in October, plus the sudden arrival of human presence in their habitat can certainly impact deer behavior increasingly after opening day.
Yet the lull can be avoided. Jimmy Riley, manager of the Giles Island Lodge and star of the Deer Thugs television show, said hunters make a big mistake by giving into the negativity or perception of the lull, instead of realizing what is actually happening and adapting.
His point: deer don’t disappear; they just enter a natural transition period, moving from summer to fall patterns.
They are still doing what deer do: bedding, feeding, watering and traveling between the three. They simply start doing it in different places after the season opens and progresses a bit.
“Whatever doesn’t work today, try something different tomorrow,” Riley said, adding that the hunters who recognize what’s happening on their hunting property should be able to change tactics and adjust.
In southeast Mississippi, where the archery season opens Oct. 15, those seasonal changes may not begin until November.
The pressure is on
The natural seasonal transition can be hastened by human presence. Deer avoid contact with people, and if spooked or bumped, they will change their behavior and normal patterns. The influx of human scent into deer territory will change where and when deer travel. It will make deer go nocturnal, limiting or even eliminating all daytime movement.
Pressure doesn’t just come from deer hunters. Other early fall outdoor activities such as dove and squirrel hunting — and even deer-club workdays — can impact deer.
The Mississippi State University Deer Lab (MSUDeerLab.com) conducted a study in south-central Oklahoma to evaluate the effects of hunter activity on deer movements. It was enlightening.
“The results of the study show that deer recognize pressure after three days of hunting and alter movement behaviors to minimize their risk of predation from hunters,” said Steve Demarais, an MSU professor. “Deer observations decreased by two-thirds after opening weekend. We knew from the GPS collars that deer were in the hunted zones. They were able to avoid being seen.
“The use of cover increases once deer recognize pressure.”
Recognizing that fact is how White Oak Hunting Service, which specializes in duck hunting but also offers guided deer hunts in Tunica County, puts archers on bucks in the Delta.
“When the pressure is on, we target ditches,” owner Phillip Cagle said. “The deer here in the Delta farmland will run ditch lines and try to stay hidden. We’ve had a lot of success, both mornings and evenings, changing tactics and targeting ditches.”
Food sources change
Nature’s No. 1 contribution to the October Lull is changing food sources. Deer transition to a fall pattern of browsing, curtailing their summer ritual of hitting crop fields. A few unpressured deer will always frequent harvested row crops looking for anything left by the pickers, and even unharvested crops, especially if the land and crops are manipulated for that purpose.
“This year, we are going to have a lot more food than we normally do during archery season,” Cagle said. “While the crops of corn were harvested as normal, the beans were planted late, so we will have standing soybeans to hunt through the end of October. We will adjust our normal strategy to take advantage of this.”
If you’re not fortunate enough to hunt over cut beans or cornfields, don’t worry. Deer are selective browsers and will keep moving and feeding on whatever offers maximum nutrition in their home range. During October, deer start feeding on foods with more carbohydrates, getting ready for the higher-energy demands of the soon-to-arrive rut.
That means hard mast.
Deer prefer acorns, especially those from white oaks, over just about anything else. Other hard-mast crops to look for are hickory, pecan, beech and walnuts, and there are times each can offer a hunter an advantage.
“The pecans will start hitting the ground about mid-October here,” Riley said. “The deer will jump right on them, so we target those stands near early pecans.”
Soft mast — persimmon, crabapple, honey locust and domestic pear or apple — is another food source deer will seek in the October transition. If you can find some ripe soft mast, hunt it; it’s like candy for deer, and they will devour it.
“We hunt those sweet sources of food: persimmons and honey locust beans,” Riley said. “It’s happened many times at Giles Island during the lull; a hunter only sees 10 deer on a three-day hunt, but one of them will be a 150-inch hooking bull that came in to eat a persimmon and gets killed.”
Hunters need to learn where all the hard- and soft-mast food sources are on his or her hunting property. This is a key step in patterning bucks and does; bowhunters have to adapt quickly to the changing fall food sources.
“There’s an exceptional crop of honey locust this year,” Riley said. “I prefer honey locust over persimmon because the coons and coyotes don’t eat them. They’ll fall the first of bow season, and we will be all over them.”
Bumping deer in their bedding areas will cause them to seek new areas to rest. Deer will no longer bed in places where they have encountered humans, either by deer hunters on their way to a stand or checking trail cams, or by small-game hunters or other human activity.
Natural forces can also cause deer to relocated to new bedding areas.
As food sources change, so will bedding areas. Deer usually bed as close as possible to food sources. Bucks and does use as little energy as possible this time of the year, but they can relocate frequently in October. When the persimmons are gone, or their favorite acorn tree runs out, they’ll adjust and find new ones and bed as close as safely possible to that food source.
Even the rut can contribute to the October Lull, despite it being months away. As part of the normal seasonal change, bucks realize that the rut is not far away, and this causes a significant shift in deer patterns. The bachelor groups are busting up, and summer-long friendships are coming to an end.
Although you’ll still see some young bucks together, more mature bucks start spending time alone. This is when hooked trees and fresh rub lines will appear, and when sparring starts taking place as bucks begin establishing the pecking order.
Does and yearlings will still hang out in groups, and an occasional 1½- year-old buck will hang with them. By the very end of the lull, which can linger into November depending on the area, older bucks will start to frequent food sources at the same times and places the does do. On a good day, you may even catch a mature buck coming in to mix it up with the group.
Strategies for success
As deer change habits, hunters must be willing to adjust to be successful during the October Lull. Always be ready to move, and a climbing stand is a good way to be mobile. As food sources and bedding areas change, scout for fresh falling acorns, then hang your climber and hunt. The best chance to bag a deer is the first hunt at a new location.
Another good tactic Riley said is to hunt close to water, especially when the weather is hot and dry, as it has been in October in recent years.
“We set up stands on the edge of the lakes and sloughs over here,” he said. “Deer will come in during the afternoons when they get hot and thirsty.”
Most important, Riley said, don’t give up when hunting starts to get tough and deer sightings diminish.
“Stick it out,” he said. “We do. We may not be seeing very many deer, and then all of the sudden that 150-incher steps out. It only takes once, so stay in the woods and be there when the stars line up and you’ll kill him.”
Many factors change deer behavior every October, each as equally important as the others. The sudden intrusion of man into deer habitat, combined with changes in food sources and bedding areas, plus the on-set of the pre-rut, changes deer behavior dramatically. A hunter unwilling to abandon a favorite early bow season stand is more likely to create and suffer an October Lull of his or her own making.
When deer transition, adapt to those changes. It’s a hunter’s best bet at turning the October Lull from reality into a myth.