When planning an out-of-state trip to hunt whitetails, one of the first questions to be answered is when to schedule the trip. There are four weeks that I believe offer the best chances of success. Let’s examine each of the periods and provide you with some information that will help you better plan the timing of your hunt.
The first week of the season
The first week of the season offers the opportunity to catch deer totally off-guard. Their daily patterns are somewhat predictable in late summer and early fall. Bucks are often still keeping to bachelor groups and are quite visible during daylight hours. They are focused on feed and water during the night and finding cool bedding cover for the daytime.
Another important factor is the length of the daylight hours. Their stomachs are growling and sending them to the fields well before dark. The opening week gives an advantage to the hunter.
Pleasant weather is another advantage to early season hunting. There are no worries about getting cold on stand or toting a heavy coat that you will pull on once you get into the stand and settle in.
Sweat can be an issue with early-season hunts, and odor control can be a nightmare in the heat. Bugs can be another negative. Until the first frost knocks the population down, mosquitoes can make your hunt miserable. I never leave home on an early season hunt without a ThermaCELL in my pack. These units have changed hunting in warm weather forever.
Another disadvantage of warm-weather hunting is caring for your game once it’s on the ground. Forget about hanging your deer for a day and skinning it out and processing it at your leisure. With temperatures in the 60s and 70s, you have a few hours to get the meat cooled or frozen ASAP. If you don’t get the cape off and cooled the fur will slip and you will have a poor-looking mount. The heat also puts some pressure on you to recover your deer more quickly. A questionable shot must be followed up quickly.
The last week of October
The pre-rut in the Midwest can be a very good time to be in the woods. Bucks seem to be on their feet later into the mornings at this time of the year. They are checking scrapes and cruising between the doe bedding areas. Daylight activity is increasing and this is the time of the year when hunting scrapes and rubs has a reasonable degree of effectiveness.
There have been several studies done to learn about when bucks visit scrapes. Most of these are done by counting tracks in the evenings and mornings or by using trail cameras at the scrapes. These studies have consistently shown that bucks—especially mature buck—consistently visit scrapes at night. In my opinion, this premise is flawed. These studies are only counting the bucks that actually step into the scrape or enter the detection range of the motion-sensing camera.
I believe a lot more bucks are actually checking these scrapes than these surveys indicate. Rather that walk right up to every scrape, bucks can easily check the scrape on their way through from 30 to 50 yards downwind. If they smell something that intrigues them, only then do they actually approach the scrape. Keep this in mind when selecting your stand site.
Calling and rattling works very well at this time, too. The bucks are not totally focused on breeding yet, but they are actively looking for opportunities as their hormones are surging through their veins, and they are vulnerable to any simulated breeding or interaction both vocal and through scent.
The second week of November
As long as I am physically able, I will be hunting whitetails somewhere in the Midwest from November 5 through 12. I look forward to this time not necessarily because it is the best time of the year to shoot a buck (although it’s a great time for that), but because it is the best time of the year to see a true giant whitetail, and have a realistic chance to wrap your tag around one.
During the rut, the deer are moving. There is no better time to park yourself in a stand and stay put for long periods. Find the right spot and stick it out.
You want to pick a high-traffic area where bucks will be passing through. Look for long-running barriers that funnel movement. Seek pinch points and other areas of cover that cause the travelling deer to be funneled into a small area by their unwillingness to cross open country in the daylight.
Ridges are good places to look, especially those that have established trails already on them. If you can figure out where the does tend to be bedding during the day, find trails downwind of bedding areas or trails between known bedding areas. Bucks will be on a “milk route” of sorts, continually checking these areas.
Find where the does are feeding in the evenings. The bucks won’t be far away. If the does are feeding in open fields, the bucks are most likely back off the field edges in thicker cover, waiting until full dark to come out. They may be using trails that parallel the downwind side of the field to scent-check the does in the field.
The last week of the season
Most states have seasons that run at least until the end of the calendar year, and many have seasons that offer bowhunting well into January. Gone are the helter-skelter movements of rutting activity and the deer have settled back into a normal routine. In fact, this may be the best time of the year to find a buck in a daily pattern. The key is the understanding that the deer have different needs during cold weather than they do during the rest of the hunting season.
High-carbohydrate foods like corn are magnets to the deer at this time. All the deer in the area may be bunched up around the quality food source. Find the food and find the deer.
At this time, they will spend their days in predictable spots. The trails between the available food and the daily bedding areas are often well-defined and very visible, particularly if snow is present.
On sunny days, the deer tend to look for south slopes with more open timber where they can take advantage of the sun’s warming rays. I call these areas solar bedding areas. On cloudy, windy or snowy days, they seek out the thickest stuff they can find to protect them from the elements. I call this thermal cover.
Because the deer are hungry and run down from the rut, they often visit the food sources well before dark. This is a great time to get on a deer quickly when on a hunting road trip. Bundle up and go get one.
Follow Bernie’s bowhunting adventures on his blog, bowhuntingroad.com.