Three days were all that remained in gun season. I had no family or work obligations, so my focus on filling a tag was as clear as the mountain water described in a John Denver song.
Even so, I had my doubts about success. The property had been hunted hard in the early days of gun season. An overabundance of rainfall had limited access on the greasy farm trails. And reports from the landowner indicated his crew might be moving cattle through the best whitetail cover for a grazing rotation. But there was no turning back now. I’d taken time off to hunt the last days of the season and didn’t have a backup plan.
Do you labor with the decision on whether to hunt the opener or the tail end of gun season? That’s actually a common question, and answering it involves numerous considerations. Family, career, season dates, rut timing, land access, deer density and hunting pressure all can factor into the ruling.
Most critical of all, of course, is your own situation. How much time can you put into the hunt? Few of us can be out there every day.
U.S. Department of Labor statistics show the average American employee gets approximately two weeks off of paid vacation per year. That figure has held strong for decades, and most workers deliberate hard on how to divvy up their time off. They have to. The family vacation is likely to eat up one week of that chunk, and then you need to add in unexpected family travel, away games for kids, a three-day weekend getaway and even a surprise home disaster. Oh, and don’t leave out hunting. You might want to squirrel away four or five days for a rut hunt near home or even out of state.
Let’s say you now have just a few days of annual leave left and your spouse green-lights a hunt. Your next big decision could also cause a migraine: Do you hunt the opener or plan on a hunt that closes out the season? Each time frame has its pros and cons.
Of course, your decision might already have been made for you, due to a school concert or some other obligation. Nevertheless, if you’re trying to get the most out of your days off, it pays to think this decision through. Make the wrong call and you’ll have to wait another whole year to rectify that choice.
OPENING DAY GOOD NEWS
You can’t go wrong with opening day if you want to surprise deer. They might have felt the subtle pressure of bowhunters, but the echoes of firearms and orange armies are the real game changers for whitetail behavior. Research results vary, depending on hunting pressure and regional differences, but in most studies whitetails have been shown to alter their behavior to avoid hunters. They either relocate or simply move more under the cover of darkness.
Breathe easy. If you’ve scouted diligently, opening morning can be a boon to your hunting success. You might get a crack at a lackadaisical buck still following a routine that’s about to change, due to surrounding pressure. Get in your stand early and hope for the best.
And then take another big breath. Even if the deer don’t cooperate on the opener and you burn up some vacation time, you still have the rest of the season to make it right. You might be limited to weekend hunts, but unlike planning a hunt during the closing days of the season, there’s still a glimmer of hope for additional days afield.
Whenever possible, even in places with a longer season I try to hunt the opener. I like to target bucks that are still on a timetable. One season a landowner granted me the privilege to hunt his remarkable property. Around 9 a.m. on opening morning I spied a beefy buck with a non-typical frame boasting a lot of mass. He was walking across a hay field without a care in the world, even with shots ringing out on distant, neighboring properties. I flicked off the safety and called it a season.
Honestly, though, I’ve only shot a handful of good bucks on the gun opener. Most of my success has come later.
CLOSING DAY GOOD NEWS
Planning a hunt in the waning days of the season might add stress, because when it’s over, it’s really over. But there are some positives.
For starters, in most states and provinces with extended gun seasons, you can expect fewer hunters afield. That obviously equals less pressure, which — given enough time — can result in deer slowly transitioning back to normal patterns.
You also could be hunting a gun season that includes some part of the rut. Especially in the Midwest and parts of the East, many of these seasons traditionally overlap the waning days of the rut. If that’s true where you hunt, pay close attention. Often mature bucks slip up in their last effort to breed a doe. They sense the end is near and go into overtime, even abandoning their home areas to get the job done.
And don’t overlook new hunting opportunities. Fewer hunters in the field might prompt a local landowner to let you on his land after the usual hunting crew leaves. Offering to trim some does on a deer-heavy property could lead to a repeat visit next season.
My buddy Levi hunts the entire season whenever possible, but if he only had one part to hunt, it would be the last few days of the season. He knows many hunters are burned out, and where he hunts, the Thanksgiving holiday also removes many who are spending time with family. Bucks don’t take that holiday off, though — so whenever possible, Levi joins them for a quick run at late-season success. Some of his best whitetails have fallen during the last two days of the season.
OPENING DAY BAD NEWS
When hunting the opener, hopefully you’re able to connect before hunting pressure alters the mental state of local whitetails. But if not, going early can be a negative. How quickly deer adjust to hunting pressure varies, but it’s a sure thing that they will. On public lands it even can begin days before the opener, as deer sense the increase in truck traffic and the noise of people setting up camps. In this situation, even your best-laid plans can go to pot immediately.
If worrying about what the deer will do weren’t enough, you also have to wonder where the other hunters will be in the woods. Even if you hunt a private farm, it’s to be expected, as you’ll often be sharing the property with other hunters. Unless you have a detailed plan with outlined hunting zones everyone stays in, expect some infringements as rambunctious hunters go after whitetails in an opening-day fever.
And unlike what you have in the last days of the season, finding a private hunting property is highly unlikely. Like you, every other hunter is anticipating the opener. Most landowners have a waiting list of hunters hoping for access. Take a number.
But there’s a glimmer of hope if you’re overrun on the opener. The intense hunting pressure can create what essentially is the largest deer drive in your state or province. Find a funnel leading to a guaranteed whitetail refuge and wait for the deer to slip by in escape mode.
I took up a position like that one season with my Bergara bolt-action in cover so tight my Mathews compound would have been just as effective. At midmorning, a buck slid through the timbered shadows in obvious escape mode from hunters pushing upland hideouts. He caught my movement as I swung to aim but never figured it was a hunter in the thick cover with him. I ended another opening weekend of madness with help from surrounding hunters prodding a buck right into my lap.
CLOSING DAY BAD NEWS
Your drive to your hunting area revealed fewer hunters along the route. Despite that bit of encouragement, you still have some adverse elements to contend with. There might be some last-minute rut help, but overall, deer are spooked. Your attack will require a dose of clandestine ops combined with luck for a mature buck to cross your path. They’ve escaped the normal blunders of nimrods for days, and unless a romance sparks, they’ll continue to use a covert lifestyle to survive. Hunting near buck bedrooms or even putting on a deer drive could be your only option.
You don’t need to be an Einstein, either, to understand that there’s often a big population difference between the opener and the closer. According to Quality Deer Management Association tallies, nearly 4 million whitetails are transformed into white freezer packages annually. At the end of the season, we’re just hunting fewer deer. That alone accounts for some of the difference in sightings, though most of it is due to the effect hunting pressure has on movement of the deer still out there.
Finally, waiting longer, especially in northern portions of whitetail country, increases your odds of inclement weather. An Arctic surge could shut down the area with blinding snowstorms and/or freezing rain for several days. You might catch up on camp poker but miss out on a winter of venison.
Keep your fingers crossed on that Arctic blast. My buddy Greg had been trying all season to shoot a Kansas giant, but warm weather and hunting pressure had that buck mimicking the lifestyle of an all-night truck driver with nocturnal moves. That is, until a massive snow and ice storm pummeled the area. When the storm broke, Greg was back in his stand overlooking a food plot. He knew deer would be hungry. Just as it appeared that only the does were hungry, the bruiser stepped from the shadows. Greg ended his season with a massive buck grossing over 170 inches.
As for my hunt described at the open, the first couple days went as expected. Deer sightings were minimal, and from the scant few I observed, it was obvious they’d been pressured. With closing weekend now upon me, I chose to watch a funnel leading to some of the gnarliest cover on the property. I set up in the dark overlooking the pinch point, and even before shooting light could hear the rumble of vehicles around me; other hunters also were taking advantage of the last days of the season.
Minutes into shooting light, I caught sight of a whitetail blur racing through the pinch point and heading to cover. It was a buck, and at first glance he appeared to be a good one. I was already prone on an open knob looking down into the escape route. I picked up the buck in my scope reticle and kept it on him as he bolted up a hill to survey his getaway options. That pause gave me fleeting seconds to steady up for the 300-yard shot with my rifle and anchor him. On this particular occasion, I’d made the right choice to hunt the season’s final days.