By Don Higgins
As the rising sun crested the horizon, it revealed a heavy frost on the vegetation surrounding my stand. It was one of those early-November mornings a bowhunter never forgets, the images etched into his or her mind for life. The countryside sparkled like diamonds, and I was about to discover its treasure.
My stand was nestled in a giant bur oak in the corner of an old cattle pasture. The pasture hadn’t seen bovine inhabitants for several years, so its lush grasses were slowly giving way to weeds, briars and saplings. A few yards to my left was a harvested corn field, and I could see a yearling buck making a nuisance of himself to some does and fawns. They were oblivious to my presence and simply moved past my perch unalarmed.
Ahead and to my right was the prime bedding cover I hoped would attract a wandering buck looking for love in all the right places. Everything was perfect: the stand, the wind, the date . . . and even the time of day. Yes, I’ve come to expect magic on those clear, calm, frosty early-November mornings.
My attention was soon directed toward movement within the sparkling weeds, saplings and briars. It was a deer — and when it raised its head, I was treated to a sight I’ll never forget. There in the glistening vegetation was a mature, chocolate-racked buck standing in stark contrast to his surroundings.
My heart raced. Even though this was the first time I’d ever laid eyes on the deer, I knew him and had set my sights on killing him. Just a week before, I’d gotten a single trail camera photo of him, and though it had been taken at night, it nonetheless had betrayed his presence. Now here he was.
I actually wasn’t all that surprised the big deer had kept our date and showed himself in daylight, as all the ingredients were in place for him to do so. To make a long story short, he soon had closed the 100 yards between us, and a well-placed arrow allowed me to place my tag on this mature 170-class 10-pointer.
This hunt took place over 15 years ago, but it still serves as a perfect example of the point of this article: November mornings are magic. Most experienced whitetail hunters recognize this, but have you ever wondered why it’s true? Let’s delve deeper into this and see if we can come up with some ideas.
WHAT EXPERIENCE HAS REVEALED
This fall marks the 40th anniversary of my first whitetail kill. Back on another frosty November morning — Nov. 16, 1979, to be exact — a 9-point buck walked into my world and started what would evolve into a lifelong passion. I’ve been consumed with whitetails ever since. What really turns my crank these days is figuring out some little nuance of mature buck behavior I’ve never read about or heard talked about. Then if I can test my theories and see them play out multiple times in the wild . . . well, that’s what I live for as a hunter.
Right out of high school here in Illinois I started a job at a local factory, where I then worked for 20 years. During that time, I saved up all my vacation time and sick days so I could go deer hunting in November. As a result, most years I worked fewer than five days during November, and a lot of years I didn’t work a single day of it. Ask any former coworker and he’ll tell you that during November, ol’ Don was always MIA.
When I finally started my own business, I continued my pattern of November absence from work. As a result, I dare say that very few fellow deer hunters on the planet have hunted more days in November over the past 40 years than I have. This fact certainly doesn’t make me an expert, but it does give me a pretty solid foundation for what I’m going to share here.
Today I spend as much time as ever in the deer woods, but the time spent actually hunting has decreased substantially. I hunt so much smarter today than I did years ago, and part of hunting “smarter” is picking better times to be out there. Four of my top five bucks have been killed since 2012, so there’s something to be said for learning as we go.
Here’s another interesting fact: Of my top five bucks, only one was killed in November. That 180-inch 12-pointer was taken one morning in ’15. I often score in early or late season but am out there observing the rut regardless.
I share these details with you not to brag but to show I’m not throwing out wild ideas I dreamed up last week to fill an article. Attention to detail has allowed me to reach a level of success I never dreamed possible. It’s also allowed me to reach this degree of success while spending less time actually hunting.
A STUDENT’S QUESTION REVEALS THE ANSWER
Last spring, I started offering a Whitetail Master Course on my own property. During this course, I detail some of the biggest bucks I’ve shot, show video footage from those hunts and look at aerial photos of the locations. We then go to the very stands where these bucks were killed, so students can get a firsthand look at the exact situation, how I played the wind and what the bucks were doing when I shot them.
During one of these classes, as I was showing photos of some of the big bucks I’d killed during different months of the season, it dawned on me that I’d never shot a huge one on an afternoon hunt during November. I’d shot some 130- to 150-inchers on November afternoons, but never a deer that in my area would be considered a true giant. I couldn’t believe that fact had never crossed my mind. But then, just as difficult for me to comprehend was how in the world I could have hunted so many days in November for 40 years and still never shot a buck over 150 in the afternoon!
During my class, I explained why I never hunt mornings in October or during late season. For nearly 20 years now my only morning hunts have all come in November. (Remember: Hunt smarter, not harder!) Why I don’t hunt mornings during other times of the season is fodder for another article, so let’s stay focused on November and why I believe mornings then are so special.
During one of these classes, I was explaining that because most buck activity takes place at night, most buck sign also is made then. What’s more, often the best locations for stands are devoid of sign. After all, we want to hunt bucks where they are during the day, not during the night. A bedded buck doesn’t leave much sign — but where he beds is at least close to where we need to hunt him.
As the students and I discussed how this all ties into the rut and rutting behavior, I noted it’s fair to conclude that most of the time when a buck hooks up with a “hot” doe, the encounter happens at night. After all, that’s when deer are most active. At that point, one astute student, Scott Fenendael of Extreme Custom Food Plots in Wisconsin, threw out an intriguing question: “Would it also be fair to conclude that when a buck leaves one doe to go in search of the next, this also probably happens at night?”
Wow! Scott’s question really got the wheels turning in my head. But before I could even begin to sort it all out, he revealed another gem: “Maybe the reason bucks are more active in the mornings than evenings in November is that in many situations a buck has just left one ‘hot’ doe and is on a search to find the next one when the sun comes up, catching him on the move.”
I’ve now had a few months to dissect Scott’s comments and compare them with my own observations over the past 40 years. When viewing all of this against the background of my knowledge of mature buck behavior, I think it all makes perfect sense.
When writing or speaking in public about whitetails, I try to come up with a human analogy to explain their behavior. So let’s think of rutting bucks as people in their teens. A lot of teenagers find themselves in trouble when they don’t make it home by the assigned curfew time. This is similar to a buck that doesn’t make it back to his bedding area before the sun rises.
If a teen wants to have a longer date, why not start earlier in the day instead of staying out past curfew? And why doesn’t an eager buck get on his feet earlier in the afternoon to start searching for does before dark? I think in both cases, those involved simply get caught up in the “heat of the moment” and stay out later than they should. They throw caution to the wind, taking a chance they can get away with it this time.
A mature buck knows moving in daylight is dangerous. Thus, he’s reluctant to get moving too early in the evening, even during the rut. Sure, it happens some, but not to the degree many hunters believe. Have you ever noticed that the mature bucks you see cruising on November mornings are often covering ground at a pretty good clip? It’s as if they know they’re out past curfew and are in a hurry to get home. When you do see a mature buck on an afternoon hunt in November, he’ll be moving much more slowly and alertly. He rarely will be covering a lot of ground.
So let’s look at how things might go for a mature buck during the rut. He’s found a receptive doe and has pushed her into an area where they typically don’t spend a lot of time. It might be a drainage ditch or a fencerow in the middle of nowhere. He knows he’s unlikely to encounter humans in this out-of-the-way spot, but he also wants to get away from other bucks. After 36-48 hours the doe has been bred multiple times and is no longer in standing heat. The pair stay hidden until dusk, when the buck spends a bit more time trying to get the doe to stand for breeding again. At some point after dark he realizes the party is over, so he moves on in search of his next mate.
Throughout the night the buck likely will cover a lot of territory in his search. If he finds another mate before the sun rises, the whole cycle repeats. However, if daylight comes before he finds one, he very well might push his luck and keep the search going for awhile. He might also find himself in some part of his range where he isn’t comfortable bedding and has to cover some ground to get back to where he feels safe.
If the weather happens to be cold or at least cool, he’s even more likely to remain on the move. This could very well be another reason for decreased afternoon movement. A rutting buck is wearing his winter hair coat and is less likely to move during the warmest part of the day.
To take all this a step farther, a mature buck knows hunters are less likely to be in the woods during midday. Thus he might also chance a trek in search of does then. This well-documented behavior also is more likely to happen on colder days than warmer ones.
PUTTING KNOWLEDGE INTO PRACTICE
So how does this help us tag a mature buck? I think it’s very simple, really: I’ll be even more dedicated than before to hunting every morning I can in November. If I have some commitment that forces me to miss a half-day in the woods this month, I’ll do everything possible to make sure the hunt I miss is in the afternoon, not the morning. Again, hunt smarter, not harder.
I’m sure some of you have killed your best bucks on afternoon hunts in November. Good bucks get killed during every hour of the day during every day of the season. But hunting smarter means doing things to improve your odds. A huge part of this is being in your best stands during those times when you’re most likely to encounter a mature buck. Again, I spend less time actually hunting these days than I once did, yet I’m seeing and killing bigger bucks than ever.
It’s no secret among serious hunters that November mornings are magic. We’ve known it for decades. I’m just not sure we realize how much better they are than afternoons.
A wise Amish friend once told me, “Knowledge without mileage is worthless.” To put it another way, my friend Gene Wensel is fond of saying that you can read all the books you want on the subject of riding a bicycle, but until you get your butt on one and start peddling, you’ll never know how to do it. The same can be said for hunting the rut.