Let us start by quickly making a point here: we're talking about the best time of the day for deer movement, not the best time of the year. Obviously, with the onset of autumn, whitetail deer change their summer habits and begin the cycle of breeding that we all know as the rut. In the northern states, whitetails breed exuberantly in October and November, even into the early winter. Moon phases come into play, particularly a full moon, a waxing moon, and a waning moon (first quarter and last quarter). Still, since we can only hunt during the daylight hours, we've got to ask ourselves: when do deer commonly move in a typical setting? And, when we say normal, it's all relative. Still, we mean mainly during bow season (September and October) and the early and late parts of firearms season (November into January).
Anyone with a good deal of deer hunting experience knows once the rifles and shotguns begin to go off everywhere the deer are, the animals become skittish. For most deer, that means they only move during the night hours. Whitetail deer have an internal clock that goes off when the days become shorter and the nights become cooler. They feed more regularly wherever crops grow before the harvest. Their movement patterns range from fairly typical (using familiar trails and bedding areas) to less predictable as the season continues. In other words, the time of day you stand to see the best success still depends on the time of year or the seasonal progression you're in.
Solunar tables have a well-deserved place as a tool for sportsmen and women, whether we are in the woods or on the water. Feeding times may vary based on food availability. They vary even during the peak of the rut, as bucks begin to pursue the does. This time of year, does have to try and grab a mouthful of food, all while being chased down relentlessly.
Once the hunting season has started, deer movement will change based on the hunting pressure. Deer hunters should understand the hunting hours they spend in their treestands now have major and minor movement times. This is the foundation of whether you should be in the woods. The best hunting times for big game hunters, especially whitetail deer hunters, are rather obvious but change like the wind once the pressure is on. We know all about scent control, wind direction, movement, sound control, and camouflage. Still, nothing matters when you're on the stand and nothing is coming your way.
A big part of knowing when and why deer move through an area is sometimes most important before you ever hunt archery or firearms season. Your state's wildlife commission chooses the season dates because deer activity is at a fever pitch in the fall. Taking deer during this time is one of the best ways to control the herd's population-simply because they are breeding and are quite preoccupied at that time. Let's look at some of the four obvious times of the day that seem to be the best time to hunt deer and discuss each one's benefits.
1. First Light
The early plan in any hunting season is to be in our stand well before daylight to ambush deer moving out of feeding areas and into bedding areas. As the season moves into full swing, deer that haven't been pushed too much tend to use familiar routes. But that's if they haven't encountered any hunting pressure yet, even if it's just a smell, movement, or sound they don't like.
Once this happens, deer will be much more aware of their surroundings and will only move in a slower, much more discrete fashion. A feeding deer will play games with our heads, lifting their heads at indiscriminate moments to try and get you to move or make a sound. Deer are constantly on the alert. Even though virtually everything begins to come alive and move at first light, the whitetail knows what should be there and what shouldn't. The trickiest part of successful first-light hunting is getting to the specific location. If you can quietly travel (in the dark) without causing a commotion, you're increasing your chances. You might consider alternate options if that's harder to do without getting busted.
This is a paramount hunting time for any serious, serious deer hunter. I've probably shot more deer in my life mid-morning than at any other time in my hunting career. Most of them are specifically between 9:00 and 10:00 in the morning, to be exact. It's a proven time, and it could have a lot to do with the common perception among deer hunters that things slow down once early morning is through. Hunters head home for a mid-morning nap or an early lunch, and in many situations, this can open things up for the hardy ones who stay on stand. It's also a productive time for deer movement that it's not worth sabotaging. If you need to survey land, scout a specific site, or do some non-hunting activity, don't do it during the mid-morning.
Bucks are ramping up the chase by mid-October (in northern climates), antler sparring is happening, and the does are on high alert. Wandering in the woods to check a camera or look for signs at this time of the day can leave you exposed to deer. A mature buck may not return to the area after spotting you.
It's said that even mature bucks will move readily at midday, and many good deer hunters would agree. But bucks act as individuals, and everyone is different. Since deer are crepuscular (most active during dawn and dusk), you may think that noon, or thereabouts, might not be the right time for finding one on its feet. According to many, you would be wrong.
Breeding season is the great equalizer. Studies have shown that a buck's home range size is highly variable and is not firmly correlated to age. So daily movements are based on traits found in all age classes of male deer.
This means that even older deer will chase during the rut, find a bedding area to rest, and then rise to move again after a short time. As deer season moves forward, look to your calendar for the next new moon. Deer cannot use the cover of darkness to find food or move around. This creates a need for even rutting deer to stop and rest during the night, meaning they will be more willing to move during the sunlight to chase does.
4. Late Afternoon
Since deer are active during the twilight hours, around dusk and dawn, it is no surprise that we see them move at the end of the day. By planning to hunt for the entire day--packing plenty of food and drink--we can still be there at the end of the day when many hunters have given up.
Deer hunting videos often show the hunter shooting a buck right at the last minute of light. Either it's "movie magic," or hunting the last light s legitimately a good way for many hunters to fill their tags.
A treestand set up on a trail that leads to an afternoon food source can keep deer in your sight until it is too dark to see. Play the wind right, and you'll be on your way to finding success. Setting up 50-75 yards away during bow season may have a buck walk right by you, even one that tends not to follow other deer on the same trail closely. During firearms season, the same stand could be 100 yards away from the same path and still give you a shot.
Stand Locations and Timing
The correct evening treestand is not always the proper morning stand and vice versa. The same stand can often be an excellent midday cruising area for bucks searching for doe bedding areas adjacent to food sources. As the rut progresses, bucks no longer search for food as much as they are searching for does that have become estrous. The difference? They are still actively feeding and attempting to use the same areas they've been using all summer. Two things cause a doe to change her habits: breeding and hunting pressure, the latter being the most critical factor. That leads us to timing.
We try to get to our favorite stands under cover of darkness to defeat some of our quarry's senses: sight, sound, and, most importantly, smell. Since we all believe in scent control, that should be a given. We can do other things to tip the scales in our favor and make a difference. Many deer hunters use this method, only leaving an evening stand when it's dark and using the late hour to get out of the woods. By hiding their motion and sound under the darkening skies, they're lessening their chances of ruining the spot. The bottom line is that you can be in your tree before sunrise, but you should be on the ground just after sunset and walk out the same way that you walked in: quietly.
Whether on private land or public, hunting with a bow, or during the muzzleloader season, timing is everything. We, deer hunters, love to sweat the details (probably because we know it's our best chance). Understanding when and where the deer will be and getting ahead of them is where the real hunt begins. It's integral to putting meat in the freezer and antlers on the wall.
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