A Game of Inches

Now's the time to pattern a buck, but it requires a few measures of exactitude.

Field & Stream Online Editors

A lot of hunters spend October waiting for November. After all, compared with the wild ramblings of bucks drunk on testosterone, October's deer activity is slow at best. But when it comes to learning the daily routine of a particular buck, this month has some clear advantages.

October bucks are homebodies whose movements are still fairly predictable. It's true, the same bucks are secretive critters that tend to move only at the edges of daylight-which makes patterning and killing an October buck a game of inches. But it's a game that can be won-and one best played before the rut sends bucks roaming.

  • At the creek bed, carved neatly in wet sand beside scattered acorns, the track measured almost 4 inches.

On an early-October morning, about a week before the muzzleloader season, I found the first piece of the puzzle. The creek trickled through a gully shaded mostly by red oaks and beeches. The only white oaks leaned over the water in a row, and beneath them, the leaf litter lay trampled and churned. Tracks of all sizes pocked the edge of the creek, but a large one caught my eye.

This was a near-perfect feeding area. With October bucks fueling up ahead of the rut, I could expect them to return regularly to a place offering a preferred food, such as white-oak acorns. The creek was a plus, because deer often need drinking water in warmer weather. And the oak stand offered cover, an important consideration in October. Bucks feed heavily this month, but not conspicuously. This oak stand-like a standing cornfield, abandoned apple grove, or hidden greenfield-would allow a secretive buck to feed inconspicuously.

  • A fresh rub exposed the orange flesh of a tree 8 inches in diameter.

I walked in widening arcs away from the feeding area, looking for a travel corridor. I asked myself where I'd walk if I didn't want to be seen. The question led me to a swampy lane of tangled alders and cattails that split two hemlock stands. It was just the sort of place you expect to find a rub line-shaded, thick, and cut low between rock-studded banks. Just a few feet into the alders, the rubs started turning up-some fresh and some from the previous fall.

The rubs, both old and new, drew a line through the thick stuff, precisely marking at least one route commonly traveled by one or more bucks. The fresh ones told me the route was in use. And one particularly large rub tree told me I was probably onto a good buck.

  • When the woods fell quiet again, I knew, almost to the inch, where the buck slept.

Still moving away from the feeding area, I followed the rub line to where a pair of wooded ridges rose on either side. Here and there, hemlock boughs swept low, shading thick patches of young pines and birch saplings. Halfway up the right ridge, a deer blew and scrambled over the crest. I walked over to the area and found a good cluster of rubs.

This was the last big piece of the puzzle; I'd pinned down the bedding area, and it didn't bother me that I'd spooked the buck to do it. The fact is, bedded bucks are occasionally spooked by hikers and bird hunters. And we deer hunters inadvertently spook more bucks than we think during preseason and in-season scouting. As long as the intrusions are isolated and low-keyed, a buck isn't apt to give up a prime bedding area. Just be sure to rest that buck before hunting it.

  • If my watch's minute hand hadn't traveled an inch too far, I'd have been dressing a buck in the mid-October moonlight.

I rested my buck for a week. Then, in a stand overlooking the rub line and shaded slightly toward the bedding area, I watched the deer that had burned the last minutes of shooting light milling behind a screen of bushes finally tiptoe down the rub line and stand directly beneath me. There he lingered broadside, rotating his heavy head while bits of moonlight bounced off eight tall tines.

I left empty-handed but happy. I had a good buck pegged. Our timing was a just little off. And it continued to be. October bucks are prone to showing up just a little before or after shooting light, and that's when it pays to know exactly where a buck sleeps. I sneaked in closer to the bedding area after dark, put a stand up, then rested the area for two days.

  • One more step, maybe 18 inches, was all I needed.

I went back on the last morning before I'd head north to hunt a different area. And finally, my buck was coming toward me with a legal amount of light in the sky. I heard his footsteps, then saw his antlers moving above a cluster of low pines not 40 yards away. I swallowed the lump in my throat and raised my gun as he stopped a little short of the opening. One more step would do it.

Suddenly, the buck spun his head toward the rear and trotted back the way he'd come. The woods went quiet for several minutes, then echoed with the clicking of antler on antler. It wasn't a serious fight, but it was the end of my hunt. I waited in vain till the sun rose straight overhead, and by the time I hunted the area again, the rut had sent my buck gallivanting to other parts.

There's a good deal of satisfaction in pinning down an October buck and putting yourself in position to kill it. Actually making the kill is never a given, though, because there's also one small downside to any game of inches: _Sometimes you lose by an inch. _