Is there a specific hour on the clock when deer magically turn active offering every hunter in your team a dream broadside shot?
Ask people with more mud on the boots and you will be greeted with a bunch of differing opinions.
Morning hunters won’t be dragged dead to an afternoon hunt.
And the afternoon guys will bet their lives on it, but wouldn’t budge from their opinion either.
What makes things even more confusing is that most of these arguments seem valid in different scenarios.
How then does a rookie hunter fill their tag without numbing their butts all day?
We’ll cut the crap and give you the answer straight away.
And the answer is….(drumrolls)…’It depends’
Well, sorry to disappoint you. Unfortunately, there’s no secret recipe to whitetail glory.
It depends on a lot of variables, like the time of the year, the location of the hunt, the type of terrain (woods, tater fields, river bottoms), the type of hunt (baiting, stand, spot and stalk), the wind, the temperature, the barometer and of course, the individual deer in the area.
Big bucks are incredibly smart animals and the only way that they got that big is by avoiding hunters like you who’ve been glassing the area season after season.
So rather than trying to find the best time of the day to hunt deer, try to understand deer behavior and the pattern changes that occur with different seasons.
Then utilize that information to be in the stand at the right time and in the right place and more often than not, you will have a successful hunt.
- 1 Decoding Deer Behavior
- 2 Early Season
- 3 Mid-Season
- 4 Late Season
- 5 Closing Thoughts
Decoding Deer Behavior
Whitetail research has advanced by leaps and bounds in the recent past, thanks to bug-sized GPS devices.
Today, we know a lot more about these shy animals than ever before.
But without making it sound like a sermon straight out of the national geographic, this is what it all boils down to.
Dawn and Dusk Are the Best Times to Hunt
Deer WILL move around just before sunset and right after sunrise. That’s the only thing in the world that’s constant. Oh wait, there’s taxes too. And death. Okay, so deer are crepuscular. It’s hardwired into their DNA and they will be most active during the dawn (bedding) and during the dusk (feeding). There’s a reason why those hours are called the ‘magic hours’. That does not mean that deer just lie around all day. They do move around and feed during the day time too. There have been successful hunts during midday and there will continue to be. But if you are looking to hedge your bet, be at the stand at the crack of dawn and just before you take it indoors, depending on state limits of course.
During the Day
Once the deer return to the bedding sites after foraging all night, which will be between 6 to 10 am in most parts of the United States, they bed down until noon. After 1-2 pm, they rise for a mid-day stroll and a quick snack. Then, they bed down again until it’s time for their evening snacks (Envy). Bedding sites will be close to food and water, unless they are pressured into moving to remote locations. Deer usually bed with their backs to the wall or a tree with their faces downwind and their noses upwind to avoid predators. So, if you are going to attempt a spot and stalk, you better be downwind.
The breeding season is when the does go into Estrus (heat) and the bucks get locked down, skipping food and even water, following the doe all day to breed. This is called the Rut. The timing of this season differs in different parts of the country. In the North, the Rut is at its peak in the first part of November following which there’s a lull. In southern states like Mississippi, it can extend all the way into January. All the rules that you’ve heard or read about deer hunting go to a toss during the rut. You can witness deer behavior that would otherwise seem completely abnormal. Stick close to a bedding site where the does congregate and you can land yourself a buck 9 times out of 10 during the Rut. Oh yes, stay downwind.
Deer behavior is influenced by hunting pressure. Some deer start to use the topography to their advantage by sticking to thicker cover and by travelling less during hunting seasons. Others turn completely nocturnal. So you’ll have to try and find spots that aren’t heavily hunted to maximize your chances of tagging the buck during peak season.
Based on anecdotal evidence, it is believed that deer tend to be more active on colder days with a strong wind. Minimal cloud cover greatly increases your chances of sightings with rainy days being the worst.
Hunting deer during different times of the season
Whitetail hunters typically have their personal favorite times of deer hunting season when they like to venture out into the woods.
Some hunters prefer hunting early in the season despite the hot and buggy weather. Others prefer hunting the Rut, which is a no brainer really. While there are some, who like spending their days hunting in the cooler months.
But what if you can’t afford to be choosy? What if you only have a week during the mid-season to hunt? Or during early season?
Here’s a cheat sheet into deer behavior during different times of the season.
Early season begins in the first week of September and lasts through few weeks of October. In some states though, you can find hunters in the woods as early as August.
There are many advantages of hunting early season. In fact, many experienced hunters call it ‘The second rut’. That’s because deer behavior patterns are extremely predictable.
They are less weary. There’s no hunting pressure to alter it.
Bucks are looking to gain weight for the upcoming rut and they will spend a lot of their time close to feeding sites, which makes it reasonably easy to tag one.
But again, the big question beckons. What time of the day do you take to the field in the early season?
Set up a trail cam in the travel routes between thick cover and the probable food sources. See what time the deer shows up in the camera. If it’s close to daylight, you are in luck, as the bedding site cannot be too far away. But if the buck shows up in the cam at 3 am in the night, you’d probably have to cover some ground to get as close to the bedding site as possible.
Deer follow a food to bed pattern early season. They will feed, drink water and head to a bedding site close by which makes mornings a great time to hunt. Even better if you are close to an agricultural area with abundant crops. Deer prefer the smorgasbord of younger and tender shoots of alfalfa and clover as they are more nutrient dense. Ditto with fruit trees which are the perfect treat for large groups of bucks. You will have to ensure that you sneak into the stand an hour before dawn at least to avoid spooking the deer.
Most bucks spend their days in bedding sites during the early season. They hate moving around during the warmer hours and during full daylight. The only reason that they’d probably break the routine is to quench their thirst or to relieve themselves. This makes day time the least productive to hunt. Reserve the all-day sits for the Rut. Concentrate all your efforts towards the first and the last few minutes of the day. By the way, the days are considerably longer during early season which makes it possible for you to put in more hours.
Evenings are the best time to hunt, as the deer will return to the feeding site like clockwork each day. If you are careful enough, you can sneak in from the direction of the food source and set up a stand somewhat inside of the woods. Stand placement will be critical as you do not want the deer to pick up your scent before you start hunting. Also, fawns will be the first to approach the site as larger bucks allow the younger ones to feed first. Never make the rookie mistake of shooting the first deer that appears.
Depending how late you get out there, a night vision scope might be a worthwhile investment.
Early Season Hunting Tips
- Keep the scouting to the minimum: Try to be as discreet as you can when you go into the woods to scout. Use a scent removal mechanism and try to be as scent free as you possibly can. The reason why the deer use a feeding site routinely is because they feel safe. If they detect your presence, their patterns will change completely by the time you set up the stand.
- Try and detect the direction that they come from: Most new hunters jump in glee at the sight of the first buck in the trail camera, completely ignoring vital clues that the pictures can provide. What direction is the buck coming from? What direction does he travel to? What time of the day does he most frequently appear on the trail? Try to identify as much as you can from the trail cam pics.
- Hunt the wind: Take the wind into consideration when you set up the ground blind or the stand. You have to be downwind when you enter and leave the blind as well as when you move. You are in it to hunt an animal that has a much superior olfactory sense than you do. Respect it.
- Be Aware: Hunting early season is limited to archery in many parts of the country. At least for some part of the season. Be aware of the laws before you begin scouting. If you are a novice, no amount of YouTube videos will teach you what an experienced hunter can. So piggyback with someone experienced until you get a hang of things.
Mid-season is when most hunters experience the melancholy of dwindling deer sightings. That’s partly caused due to the over pressure of the hunt during the season opener.
Call it the pre-rut blues or the October lull, how do you make the most of the time in the field if you can only hunt mid-season?
The fact is that despite the numbers and the sightings being low, mid-season can be as good a time as any to hunt whitetail.
Mature bucks in particular are easier to find during these days than early in the season. Did we ruffle some feathers?
However, you’ve got to adapt to the changing deer behavior by implementing what a lot of hunters call ‘pre-rut’ hunting tactics.
But before you go all gung-ho into strategy, let’s take a moment to understand the changes in deer behavior during these months.
The Deer Have Caught On
As soon as bow hunting season begins in most states, there are hordes of bow trotting hunters and their hoodlum buddies in the woods trying to shoot everything that they are legally allowed to.
Being the smart animals that they are, deer catch on to the hunting behavior and change their patterns to adapt to it.
So, you will find that the big bucks just sit tight in bedding sites during the day making the most of the night for their foraging needs.
Also, deer transitions from early season behavior to their fall patterns.
The large bachelor groups of bucks are starting to break up to establish dominance as they approach the rut.
Even if you can’t see the deer, you can always find telltale signs of deer activity, like scrapes and rubs on trees.
This means that the deer are still using the same timber trails that they did when you were scouting before the season. They just aren’t using it at the same time.
Dressed for winter in the hottest phase of summer
Another reason for the sudden change in deer behavior that is often overlooked, is the swapping of the summer skin for the thicker winter coat.
That’s in the middle of October, mind you when the day time can be unbearably hot.
Naturally, the deer prefer to sit out the warmest hours of the day in the shade, moving around only in the late evening or night. Dang the nocturnal curse.
Changes in Terrain
They are not using the AG fields and the vast open spaces that they did early in the season. They have moved on to spots where they feel safer. Some have already transitioned to their fall ranges.
Last but not the least, their food preferences and sources begin to change as well. You are likelier to find them closer to acorn fields or other mast crops.
Now that you know what’s happening in the buck’s world, it’s time to use that information to maximize your chances of tagging one successfully.
Mid-Season Hunting Tips
There are many ways that might help you put an end to that mid-season lull, once and for all.
- The good old way: Find the bedding spot, which should be close to an acorn field or soybean or standing milo or whatever the deer’s favorite food source seems to be. And camp out in some timber close to this. With some luck, you’ll find deer moving towards the food source late in the afternoon, particularly in the early days when the crops are being rotated. This gives you at least one good week of bow hunting before the deer disappear into the fields of standing corn. They usually don’t step out of the corn until its harvested or until the rut hits.
- Hunt in the corn fields: If you are willing to step down from the comfort of the stand, then corn-field hunting is one of the most exhilarating experiences ever. You may not rack up record-breaking trophies using this method. But it’s definitely better than numbing your backs in all day sits, spotting nothing. Move perpendicular to the rows, checking to your left and right when you enter each row. Wind helps to mask the sound that you make while moving as it will be covered by the rustling of the corn stalks. Densely packed rows upon rows of corn aren’t the easiest to navigate through nor spot an animal easily. Many a time, you will only see a part of the deer. Like an edge of the antler or a curve of the leg. Figure out a way to get downwind and as close to the deer as you can before you take a shot. Many experienced hunters who regularly hunt in corn fields during the October lull mention that the deer appear to be more relaxed in these fields as compared to the woods.
- Use the harvest season: Come harvest season, you want to be ready for all the deer that come scampering into the woods when their safe haven, the tall crops are being harvested by large combines. This is one of the best times to tag a buck mid-season. The only thing that you need to do is ask the farmers when they plan to harvest the crop and find a suitable place close to it. Many a time, you will find that the does and the fawns are the first ones to leave the fields when they sense the machines. The biggest bucks are the last to leave. So waiting might be fruitful.
- Monitor weather conditions: Remember what we mentioned earlier about cold and windy days being the best days for hunting deer? Keep an eye on the thermometer and the barometer. If a steep drop in temperature is predicted, it might be the window that you were looking for. Similarly, an increase or a drop in barometric pressure tends to draw the deer out towards feeding sites. A rising barometer is usually coupled with a drop in temperature. A falling one usually indicates a storm. As surprising as it sounds, there are hunters who have landed 140-inch bucks in extremely stormy weather.
You’ll find that even the most productive stands, hunting techniques and deer trails can go ice cold during the October lull. But if you are a savvy hunter, you can put this phase to good use. It’s not as populated as early season or late season are.
You can easily distance yourself from your pesky neighbor and find yourself a good spot with ample activity.
We won’t go too much into hunting during the rut because as we mentioned earlier, there are no rules to it.
You can find the biggest of bucks in unlikeliest of places at improbable times. But the rut will also be the most populous time of the hunting season when the entire county is out to get their stock of venison for the year.
The best hunting spots will be reserved months in advance. And remember, there are no guarantees to deer hunting.
If you are fast approaching closing day with an unused tag in your pocket, then here are some late season hunting tips that might get you that elusive buck that you’ve been chasing all along.
Low Hunting Pressure
You need to understand that in the late season, you are up against the smartest (or the luckiest) deer of the lot. These are deer that have been harassed for close to two months. Many have been shot at multiple times and survived. So they will be extremely cautious and make every attempt at avoiding high pressure hunting sites. A lot of late season hunters work all year to create the perfect late season food and cover on their lands. But they get undone by the hunting pressure created by their neighbors. To sum it up, you need to have low hunting pressure areas, good food, cover and great weather. Not the easiest of variables to conjure. But sadly, that’s how it works.
When you do get the chance, make sure you shoot the deer in the proper region.
Come late season, deer movement will be dominated by their hunger and their will to survive. This is the post-rut season when the deer are looking to rebuild their body mass and fat and they WILL come out to forage. The food choices are dominated by high carb food sources like standing corn, standing wheat, brassicas, turnips and soybean. But to be honest, you will find deer in almost any vegetation that isn’t covered under thick snow.
Stick to a distance and glass the travel routes. If you can spot buck activity, put out those trail cams to know if there’s a shooter buck that shows daylight activity. Get intel about what routes the buck uses to enter the field. What trees they usually pass by. Find a spot where they will be most vulnerable. That’s the money shot right there for you.
Morning Hunting During the Late Season
Once again, this seems to be more subjective than anything else. But the general consensus seems to veer towards late evening hunts as they tend to be more productive than morning hunts. In extreme cold weather, deer activity is very less from dawn to say, 10 am. Also, the lack of leaf cover and crunchy ground make it very difficult to enter or exit a stand without the risk of spooking deer. Only attempt a morning hunt if you can set up and access low impact stands close to bedding areas without spooking deer.
The season opens up the perfect hunting window for you during the afternoon when the deer returns to the feeding sites and there’s ample time to enter and exit the stand without the deer knowing about it.
Muzzle Loader Setup
A lot of hunters get hung up over the right time of the day to hunt and overlook other factors that might be equally important. For example, swapping the bow for a muzzleloader setup that extends the reach and allows them to target the deer from long ranges. This works exceptionally well especially if the deer are behaving too skittish. Let’s face it. Drawing a bow with all the added bulk from the winter clothing isn’t going to be a cakewalk.
Ambushing the Bed
If it all boils down to the last few hours of the season, where you have nothing to lose, then it’s time to bend the rules a little. Observe as the buck leaves the food field and pick up the tracks to ambush their bedding area. It is extremely risky, mind you. You might spook them so bad that you wouldn’t get even a fleeting glimpse for the rest of the season. So only use this as a last resort. If you have hunted the parcel before then you should have a pretty good idea of where the buck rests. Follow the tracks and take a crack the moment you set eyes on it. That’s your best chance of tagging it.
Here is a guide on tracking in the woods.
Here is a guide on staying camouflage during your hunt.
Now you know that there’s a case for all probable situations and it comes down to a blend of some of the variables that we mentioned earlier.
And of course, your skills as a marksman above anything else.
What are your favorite deer hunting strategies?