So often do we trophy deer hunters get caught up in finding a better spot. Same as with real estate, it’s been pounded into our heads that “location, location, location” makes all the difference. Nothing else matters unless you’re in the right place.
I’d be the last to criticize that mindset. You must be where a big deer is to shoot him. But isn’t there always a place better than where you now are? I don’t just mean a better tree to hang a stand in, but a better piece of land. And if there’s a better piece of land, couldn’t it be just about anywhere, whether across the road or in another time zone?
Of course it could. But a lifetime of chasing whitetail hotspots has reinforced that there’s more to it than simple location. No matter where you hunt, you’d better pay just as much attention to when.
A KEY ELEMENT WE ALL CONTROL
Focusing on certain pieces of the season is a tool every hunter carries. Use it well and you’ll maximize your chances; use it poorly and you can turn even a great location into a dud.
Everyone’s situation is different. But what if your total hunting allotment for the year couldn’t exceed all or part of 30 dates on the calendar? That’s a reasonable amount of hunting time for most folks, even those with many personal and work responsibilities that take priority over hunting. How would you spend that month to maximize your odds of shooting a trophy?
For purposes of this discussion, let’s assume you aren’t completely limited to weekends or hunting before/after work. Those days naturally will factor into your plan, but ideally you also can take off some days from your job as good hunting opportunities arise.
Also, I’m not including scouting in this total. I realize that part of the process can easily consume even more time than hunting does, but it can be spread out over the rest of the year and confined to weekends and periods of just a few hours here and there. For our purposes, let’s focus on the 30 days maximum we can have a bow or gun in hand.
So when are we going to hunt? It all starts with the year’s earliest legal opportunity and goes from there.
DEPEND ON THE ARCHERY OPENER?
Everyone but the game warden loves the first day of deer season. There’s excitement in the air, for it’s been many months since anyone could try to shoot a whitetail legally. In addition, some bowhunters feel it’s their best chance of the year to kill a big buck.
Whether they’re right or not depends on several factors. A growing number of bow seasons start when bucks are still in velvet, though most kick off several weeks after they’ve stripped. If you have a late-August or early-September opener, for sure try to take advantage of it. All else being equal, late velvet is a far easier time to hunt than the first few weeks following removal.
If you know where a velvet bachelor group is congregating, chances are you can at least see a good buck on opening day or very soon thereafter. That daily pattern is about as reliable as any other. The only real downside is that you might find yourself having to avoid detection by multiple bucks as you prepare for a shot. But that’s a “First World” problem, as they say.
In an area where bow season opens so early, I could be talked into spending up to six of my allotted days hunting during this time. Of course, that assumes I’ve patterned a deer I want to shoot. In our scenario, unproductive days wasted early can’t be made up later.
Hunting bucks that stripped out before the opener radically changes the game — and rarely for the better. They seem to become more nocturnal by the day. To me, the only real advantage of a “late” bow opener is that by then the bachelor groups have fractured. This might not sound like a plus, but if you didn’t have a big buck in your hunting area all summer, perhaps the bachelor breakup has sent one your way.
AFTER THE BOW OPENER, THEN WHAT?
I’m not ordinarily a fan of burning many days in late September or early October. Early-season travel patterns are notoriously short, often being only a few hundred yards long between bed and food/water locations. So you need to hunt tight to have a chance; just picking a random “deer trail” isn’t likely to get it done. Trail cameras and good scouting are key at this time of year.
One tactic that can shift the odds into your favor is baiting. Of course, it’s not universally allowed, but where it is, it accounts for a high percentage of early bow giants. And that’s the case even where the opener falls several weeks post-velvet. Of course, crossbows and trail cameras also have boosted the success rate in many areas. All that has made some places reliable producers of early-season archery trophies.
States and provinces without baiting tend to be more weather-reliant. And there might never have been a better example than here in 2020, when unseasonably cool to downright cold temperatures pushed deep into the middle of the U.S. around Oct. 1 and kept coming. Coinciding with the bow kickoff in Iowa, Illinois, Pennsylvania and some other major states, it made for a great start. Many of those places gave up an unprecedented number of trophies in the first half of October this year.
The flurry of early success is easy to explain, now that it’s come and gone. Planning for it well in advance would have been another matter entirely. That’s why being flexible in your hunt schedule is really smart, especially in bow season. Although the right weather can result in golden opportunity, it doesn’t come along often, and certainly not on command.
While weather models continue to improve, they still don’t give us much more than general trends over 10 days ahead of time. And we don’t always get much warning on when crops will be harvested, cattle moved, etc. So go into the season planning for “normal” conditions, but stay ready to adapt. Jump into a stand if things suddenly turn “right,” but don’t be afraid to back out and save days for later if the weather, crop harvest or whatever else turns against you.
Let’s say you hunt opening weekend of archery season but don’t punch a buck tag. There went two of your 30 personal hunting days for the year. Do you take vacation and keep trying? Do you go again the next weekend? Unless you have fresh intel that a shooter is active in daylight, I’d consider saving the rest of my days for the late pre-rut or beyond. Again, 2020 was a distinct outlier; I wouldn’t wager that 2021 will be a repeat, though we’d naturally all love to see it.
In most states and provinces, more big bucks are shot on the gun opener than on any other day of the year. If you pooled every opening-day gun buck in North America each fall, the annual total might exceed a million. And sprinkled among them would be many genuine monsters.
But does that mean it’s a great day to hunt? If rut and weather line up right, it can be. But overall success also can be more a product of sheer hunter density and disturbance than of elevated natural movement.
One year back in the 1990s, I hunted opening day on private land in Ohio, where gun season opens at the last gasp of the rut. It was a farm belonging to a friend of a friend, and I was told it hadn’t been hunted hard, so I was optimistic about my chances.
I sat all day but didn’t shoot a good buck. I didn’t even see one. However, I did come away with a memory: of having been within earshot of what sounded like a Civil War reenactment.
The first shot from another property reached my ears about 15 minutes prior to legal light that morning; the last one sounded shortly after legal hours ended that evening. Over that span, from my tree I counted right at 500 shots. And no, I wasn’t hunting across the lake from a duck camp. Those were slug guns and muzzleloaders.
Unless you’ve lived through them, stories like this might seem preposterous. But once you’ve heard such a flurry of shooting, you know what a melee the gun opener can be.
As noted in this month’s “Gear Wise” department, I don’t have great hearing. So it’s generous to think I heard every shot within a radius of four miles. But let’s just say I did. That size circle encompasses 50 square miles, meaning I heard about 10 shots per square mile — just on that one day.
If that strikes you as a typical opener, you’re in an intensely hunted area. And if you’re stuck there, I can see why you’d never skip the opener: You figure there will be no bucks left by Day 2. It’s the whitetail parallel to “Black Friday,” with folks swarming stores in a shopping frenzy. The difference is that a toy store can restock; once a buck gets his bar code read, there’s no age-for-age replacement coming next week.
My Ohio example might seem extreme, but that opener was hardly unique. To varying degrees, such blitzes occur in many other places each fall, especially east of the Mississippi River. Understandably, they’re most common in areas with short gun seasons. Giving gun hunters just a few days to get it done reduces overall harvest, but the urgency of a brief opportunity also makes opening day a circus.
Now that I’ve warned you about how bad it can be, I’m compelled to say it also can be as great as hoped for. Sometimes it’s because of being really dialed in on a hunting spot, but other times it’s because of the effects of surrounding hunting pressure.
The first buck I ever shot for our TV show many years ago ended up in muzzleloader range of cameraman Mike Clerkin and me mainly because other guys were making a racket setting up on the next farm down the creek. By shooting light, they’d stirred up the woods so much that the non-typical and a wad of does had fled them and walked right to us. A few Illinois gun openers prior, my wife, Catherine, had shot her first buck because guys on an adjacent farm bumped him her way in mid-morning.
The smaller a place you hunt, and the more pressure there is around it, the more attentive you have to be to such random occurrences. We don’t know when a neighbor might freeze out and head to his truck to warm up. Nor do we know when a doe might streak down the creek bottom with a huge buck behind her. Especially if you hunt small spots and are short on days, be patient and stay ready.
Of course, our odds depend on so many variables. Is the rut on? How many other hunters are in the area? Are they doing drives, or sitting all day? These questions exist in addition to all the usual ones concerning the impact of weather and available food sources (natural or agricultural) on deer activity.
You might find, especially in states with late ruts, that the gun opener is way more miss than hit. The best action comes later. When you see a local guy with a big one taken early, it does make you want to hop into a stand yourself. But we’re playing the percentages here. A mere 30 days of annual hunting time can be stretched just so far.
GO ALL IN ON THE RUT?
We know a big buck’s urge to breed is often what secures him a free Uber ride to the taxidermy shop. So it makes perfect sense to do whatever you can to clear your schedule for hunting the rut. For our purposes here, I’ll consider the late pre-rut to be part of this magical time in the woods.
As noted, warm, windy weather can thwart your plan. I’ve been in the Midwest in what should have been prime time, only to have deer shut down due to 80-degree air ushered in on strong southwesterly winds. That said, it’s still the rut, and does are getting bred, so anything can happen. One of my biggest bucks trailed a doe past me in mid-morning on a South Texas day that topped out at 88 degrees.
So when bucks are on does, just go. You might not shoot one, but any day with a halfway receptive doe in the woods at least gives you a decent chance. This sweet spot of the season is too short not to hunt all of it you can. If I had all or parts of 30 days to hunt in a year, I’d try my best to invest at least half of them in this period.
It’s not easy to quit chasing the rut. But being able to recognize when it’s over and then refocusing your efforts helps you make the most of your remaining days.
Much depends on how healthy the herd is. Where there’s a well-balanced buck:doe ratio, the rut is short but intense; the does all tend to come into heat within a short window, and there are enough bucks to breed all of them as they do. There’s a big frenzy, then a swift falloff; the woods turn on abruptly but then turn off the same way.
In many places, of course, the rut isn’t so well defined. The sex ratio is lopsided, the deer aren’t in peak physical condition, and there’s been enough hunting pressure to make the herd frustratingly nocturnal. That’s a recipe for mediocre results even in “prime time.”
But regardless of which type of herd you have, when activity falls to the point you just aren’t seeing older bucks in daytime even on camera, you need to recognize the situation and tweak your approach. That tweak could include taking a few days off. Doing so not only lets you save the rest of your hunting time for a more productive period, it can give your spot a needed break from many days of pounding.
SAVE SOME DAYS FOR THE END?
Ideally, you won’t get through the rut with a tag still in your pocket. But what if you do? You still want to make something good happen before the season ends. That’s why I like to reserve a little hunting time for later.
The weather will get nastier. Food supplies will dwindle. And whether it’s because they’ve tagged out, frozen out or burned out, a lot of folks will vacate the woods. All this can create better late-season trophy opportunity than many hunters realize.
If left alone for a week or two, rut-worn bucks often will return to a more reliable feeding pattern. It might still be highly nocturnal, because that’s just the way such deer tend to be — but any fair chance of a good buck moving in legal light is reason for a hunter to have continued optimism.
Ideally you’ll have pinpointed or even developed a great place for deer to feed while recovering from the rut. If so, and you’ve left it undisturbed, devote at least a few afternoons to hunting trails leading to it. You might have trouble locating much fresh buck sign, but with cameras and track study you often can determine if bigger deer are using the location much.
Perhaps this look at hunt scheduling will help you maximize your time and fill more tags. We all can agree that the more “good” days we hunt and the more “bad” ones we dodge, the more efficient we’ll be. Only a fortunate few people can hunt every day that seems ideal for mature buck movement, but we all can choose not to waste precious days when the odds are stacked against us.
Some years, 30 days of hunting is more than enough to fill all your tags. Other years, doing so would be a challenge even if you could hunt every day. But one of the enduring appeals of chasing big bucks is not knowing which way it will be until you get out there.