A Week-By-Week Guide on Ways to Target White-Tailed Deer
September marks the beginning of a new deer season. It's the month where some hunters begin pursuing whitetails, and others eagerly wait for October to bring their own personal opening days. Similar to September, the month of October is full of change in the deer hunting world. But as for that “October lull,” it’s a big pile of nonsense. Instead, it’s actually a misinterpretation of perceived deer behavior. When reality is much different. The month of November is arguably the best time of year to kill a mature buck. It can be argued that other times are better (depending on circumstances), but in general, it’s hard to beat the month of November. Then comes December. Christmas. Decorative Christmas trees. Cheesy Christmas songs. And late-season deer hunting. That pretty much sums up the final month of the year. And the same story goes for those hunting in January and February. It's easy to say there’s a lot of constant change in the deer woods from the beggining of the season to the end. Here's your week-by-week playbook.
Photo Credit: Brad Herndon
The first week of September is an incredible time to capitalize on summer patterns. Most deer are still running in bachelor groups and moving about the landscape as they have for the last few months.
That big buck -- or group of bucks -- that you've been watching is still hitting the green food sources they have been all summer. Figure out what their preferred feeding destination is and set up in a staging area between their bedding and feeding.
This time of year, bucks often bed close to where they feed. So don't set up to far from the food. It's best to start closer to the food source and gradually work back toward the bedding area with each hunt if deer aren't making it there in daylight.
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Continue hunting as you did the first week or so of the season. It's possible that bucks could be starting to come out of velvet. But even if they are, they should remain in their bachelor groups and on their summer patterns for at least another week. Maybe two.
Acorns and other hard mast might begin hitting the ground this week. Most soft mast has already been doing so, or soon will, too. These can be great food sources to focus on, but don't forget the greens. Most soybeans will still be green and palatable at this point. They shouldn't begin to turn for at least another week or two (unless they were planted very early). Also, remember other food sources such as alfalfa, peas, milo, and natural vegetation. The woods is rich with food right now.
Rubs and scrapes could potentially start dotting the landscape. If so, incorporate any findings into your game plan. You should pair that with trail camera and other scouting intel to help make hunting decisions.
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Things are probably changing now. But will do so fairly soon (and rapidly) if they haven't already. Bucks have lost their velvet. Bachelor groups are busting up. It's the oh-my-gosh-where-have-my-bucks-gone week.
Buck behavior isn't the only thing changing either. So are food sources. In areas with good mast crops, hard mast is the food source of choice. Find a good stand of white oaks with acorns and you're in the money. In years with less of an acorn crop, red oaks might prove hunt-worthy, too.
Chances are soybeans aren't drawing as many deer now, but they could be if they were planted late. Other green food sources are mostly still viable, though. Study your hunt location and determine what the deer are keying on at the time.
For those who began hunting in early September, pressure is almost certainly starting to become a factor. Don't over-hunt. And if you or someone else has, consider targeting new locations -- especially if you're seeing less deer or experiencing a lack of daylight activity.
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It's a whole new ball game by now. Bucks are starting to settle into their fall ranges. For some bucks, this will constitute a move of a mile or more. For others, it won't mean a single alteration from their summer pattern. Which way it will go for each buck is anyone's guess, but if you have history with any deer, always pay attention to what they did in previous years. They'll likely do it again this season.
Rubs should be popping up in good number as bucks begin revealing their travel routes. Scrapes are possible, but less so. Finding this sign will result is good information you can use to home in on a deer. Mark all findings on an aerial map to help paint a picture of deer behavior.
Some hunters might feel like the "October lull" is beginning to take affect a little earlier than normal. I say nonsense, though. Studies reveal there is no such thing. Statistics reveal daylight deer activity continues to increase through September and October (even in hunted areas) and peaks in November. Honestly, this period is just a period of great transition, leading to a very large misinterpretation of deer activity.
The ticket to beating this tough time during the season? Transition with the deer. Locate the new food sources they're hitting. Scout to find bedding areas. Find bucks that have relocated to their fall ranges.
Photo Credit: Bill Konway
We might as well still be hunting in late September. Things haven’t changed much from the last week. Or have they? On the surface, it’d appear as if they haven’t. But I assure you that isn’t the case. The wheels are turning, bringing us closer to the rut.
There hasn’t been a huge change in food sources. Deer are still transitioning off some of the lush, green food sources they’ve been feasting on and are now seeking out pockets of hard mast and other fall food sources. Transitioning with the deer is key to success.
The biggest change? Bucks relocating to their fall ranges. About half of all bucks will spend the fall in a different location than they did summer. This behavior started happening in late September and should continue to occur until the middle of the month.
Rut sign is also becoming more prominent across the landscape. Now is the time to really get out there and (carefully) scour the landscape for fresh rubs, scrapes and tracks. Use what you find to help paint a picture of what the deer are doing at the time.
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Things are a little more heated now than they were a week ago. But we’re still a couple weeks out from the real October action. That said, it doesn’t mean you can’t score during the middle of the month. I killed a very mature 8-pointer toward the latter end of this week last season.
My advice for hunting this period? Continue to focus on food. That’s key regardless of the week or phase you’re hunting. Don’t camp out over rut sign unless you know deer are frequenting it during daylight. Instead, use it to help connect the dots.
Also, think about the weather and temperature. The first true cold front and temperature swing of October can be a prime time to kill a reclusive deer. There’s just something about it that gets deer on their feet. Be prepared to sit in the tree when you see these conditions on the horizon.
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Again, things are ever-so-slightly warming up. I said it’s a slow progression. And most years, a slow progression it is. Patience is the key when hunting during the month of October. Don’t rush things. Don’t get super aggressive. Bide your time. Move in and strike when the conditions are right. Stay back and observe from afar when they aren’t. Truly successful hunters are incredibly adept at recognizing a window of opportunity.
By now, most bucks have relocated to their fall range. And interestingly enough, most bucks are loyal to and won’t leave their home range by mid to late October — even if pressured and bumped by hunters. On the flip side, I’ve experienced numerous times that the same amount of pressure can uproot a buck prior to the middle of October. I don’t fully understand why this is the case. Maybe they’ve invested in the area and don’t want to leave it this close to the rut. Maybe they feel as if their security measures were successful since they detected you before you killed them. Regardless of the reason, the results are often the same.
During this week, continue to focus on food. But avoid the major feeding destinations and focus on smaller, more secluded food sources. I also like to set up in or near staging areas. This has proven to be a very useful tactic throughout my years in the deer woods.
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Now we’re starting to see a little action. Younger bucks are starting to chase does. Big bucks haven’t really started chasing, but they’re certainly up on their feet more — checking scrapes, freshening rub lines and searching for that first estrus doe.
The end of October (and beginning of November) is generally when you’ll see the most rut sign. Bucks are completely frustrated by now. Their testosterone levels will soon peak, but does haven’t become very receptive just yet. It isn’t uncommon to catch bucks on their feet in daylight because of it.
Personally, I continue to hunt during this seven-day period exactly as I did the week before. Things haven’t really changed except the likelihood of seeing deer in daylight has increased. And remember, continue to be patient. Things are about to bust wide open within the next two weeks.
Weather and temperature permitting, these are the best three days of October. Halloween day hasn’t received the grand reputation it holds for nothing. This is the time to be in a tree if you’re a bowhunter. Bucks are on the move. And if they aren’t, it’s likely because temperatures are higher than average and the weather has been stagnant.
In most places, bucks still haven’t ventured far from their home ranges or core areas. But the likelihood of seeing them in daylight near their core area is high. You just have to be in the right spot at the right time to intercept them. And don't be afraid to implement tactics including decoying, calling and rattling.
For those who have kept tabs on a specific buck, now (and the first few days of November) is the time to strike. It won’t be long before bucks start covering every inch of their home range, and even venturing outside of it. If you have a deer pegged, and the conditions are right to move in, do so. If you don’t, it won’t be long before you run the risk of another hunter killing it on a neighboring property.
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The first week of November is likely the best week of the year. Bucks are on the tail end of the pre-rut. Rubbing and scraping are peaking. Bucks are starting to look for does, but the ladies aren’t very receptive yet. Things are cranking up.
Now is likely the best time to hunt near scrapes. It’s likely the best time to use calling tactics, too. Set up in staging areas, near buck or doe bedding areas, saddles, pinch-points, funnels, etc. This is a great time to be in a treestand.
An important reminder — just because we’re in the rut doesn’t mean you should forget about the food. Food is still king even during the rut. Why? Does eat. Does will be where the food is located. And the bucks will be with the does. Grub is the key to your success, even during the rut.
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Things are about to get interesting if not already. Some does have entered estrus. During these seven days is generally when the infamous lock-down phase takes place. That’s not a fun time to be a deer hunter, as most bucks don’t move outside a 100-yard stretch while with the doe. It’s tough hunting. And unless you somehow plant yourself in the action, all you can do is hunt through it and wait for it to be over.
Despite the lock-down phase, I still hunt like I did the latter half of the first week. Eventually, those bucks are going to leave those does in search of another. And when they do, they’ll be doing and behaving just as they were before — acting silly. If you do decide to try to fight the lock-down fire with fire, dive into some of the edges of the thickest brush in the area and hope a buck pushes a hot doe by your treestand.
All in all, the second week is pretty darn good. Personally, I’ve probably had better luck this week than any other in November. That said, it’s hit and miss. So don’t be (too) disappointed if you don’t immediately get in on the action. Be patient.
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If the lock-down phase hasn’t happened yet, it’ll surely happen this week. But it should be over for the most part. The best thing to do during this week is the same as week No. 1. Use that same game plan. However, pressure has most certainly started to become more of a factor. Because of that, be extra careful not to alert deer.
During the rut, it’s all about improving the odds. The best way to do this? Be where the deer will be. Some additional good stand locations to sit are leeward (the downwind side of) ridges, crossings, trail intersections and near pockets of cover (brush piles, etc.) an around old homesteads.
Once the biggest wave of does are bred, bucks will revert back to more seeking and chasing behaviors as seen in late October and early November. They’ll also start checking scrapes more than they did during week No. 2. Keep that in mind as you continue to try to fill your deer tag.
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The last days of November are here. It’s bittersweet. It’s bitter because we don’t want to see the rut leave us for another year. It’s sweet because everyone is dog-butt tired and ready to sleep in for the first time in a few months (unless you’re a late-season go-getter). Nonetheless, there’s still a little time left.
Interestingly, if you look at the trophy buck records, a very large portion of the largest bucks are killed during this period. Why? I’m not sure. Logic would suggest it would be the first or second week. Regardless, this is a great time for big-buck activity. Movement seems to wane with the younger 1½-, 2 ½- and 3 ½-year-old bucks. This is most likely due to the fact that they haven’t learned to pace themselves yet — it’s a long rut. But if you’re after truly mature deer, it’s a good time to be you.
I know I sound like a broken record, but the plan is the plan, and it’s an effective one. During the first half to two-thirds of this period, I generally operate the way I do during week No. 1 and 2. However, bucks have been pressured, so I often try to slink deeper into cover to help combat the slight decrease in daylight activity.
The last few days of November is a slightly different story. You can still get in on some good rut activity. But if you aren’t seeing any, it might be time to switch to your late-season plan. Or at least, it might be important to use a combination of your rut and late-season plans. Read the deer behavior and what they’re doing to get a feel for how you should hunt.
It takes grit to hunt hard throughout the rut, especially in tough, cold, grueling conditions. But you can get it done. You have to keep your head screwed on, though, or it’ll be easy to wave the white flag and declare the whitetail the winner. But even if you do, they gotta win sometimes, right? After all, it’s the challenge that keeps us coming back.
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Photo Credit: Bill Konway
This is likely the toughest week of the season to hunt. You’re coming off the tail end of the rut. Deer have been pressured all season long. Bucks are rutted down and have slunk off to the few remaining pockets of unpressured ground that haven’t been fouled by hunters during the season. And you’re likely seeing little from the stand and on your cameras. In essence, as for your game plan, it’s time to regroup, reanalyze and recharge.
Now is the time to find that deer you’ve been after all season. Deer have predominately left their rut ranges and are shifting to their winter ranges. For many bucks, this will be the same area(s) they used during the summer and early season. For other bucks that received a lot of pressure during the early season and pre-rut, it might be a different location. Nonetheless, whether bucks you’re familiar with or new bucks that have moved in are inhabiting the ground you hunt, seek out the best, thickest bedding cover you can find. Locate those late-season honey holes that haven’t been hunted very hard this season. Those mature bucks will get the pick of the litter when it comes to quality bedding locations. Find them. Focus on them. Set up between them and the best late-season food source you can find.
To find these spots, look at an aerial map. If you aren’t seeing the deer you think you should, cross off areas that have been hunted hard thus far. Look at what remains. Then connect the dots between thick bedding cover (that also offers thermal/solar advantages) and the best food sources. That’s where you should hunt the first part of December — bed-to-feed patterns.
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Unless you’ve landed yourself in a stockyard full of deer, the hunting is still likely pretty tough this week of the season. That said, it’s getting better. Deer are starting to relax a little more as the hard pre-rut and rut-hunting pressure they felt a few weeks continues to gradually fade. Furthermore, hopefully the temperature is cooperating and the cold snaps we pray for all season long are hitting hard and bitter, getting those stubborn whitetails up on their feet in search of food.
I prefer to build on what scouting and hunting information I gathered during the early part of December. The rut basically trashed what scouting efforts you conducted during the pre-season and early season. However, the good part about the late season is much of what you learned then becomes relevant again. As previously mentioned, some bucks will return to their early season lairs. Other deer may move in, too, especially if there are adequate food sources available.
Another factor beginning to come into play is the second rut. Does that were missed during their first estrus cycle (generally between November 5 and 20) will come into estrus 28 days later. That will likely land a few receptive does right in the heart of this week. So, while you might be focusing on bed-to-feed patterns once again, don’t forget to incorporate some rut tactics in your game plan as well.
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We’re still experiencing (however minuscule in some places) a second wave of estrus does. The good thing? Most of these are younger does and can even be doe fawns — as many as five to 50 percent of them will breed their first year in the North. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not age, but weight, that dictates whether or not young does breed their first fall/winter. Percentages are higher in areas with better food sources, better soil and with more accommodating genetics.
Most of the older does have been bred by this point — even those that were missed in November and entered into a second cycle. Now, it’s mostly young does and doe fawns entering estrus. This is good for deer hunters because they aren’t as smart as older does. Instead of dragging trailing bucks into heavy cover like more mature does, younger ones will mosey on out into food sources with bucks in tow. This late-season behavior gets a lot of big deer killed where they wouldn’t have been killable otherwise.
So how do you take advantage of this behavior? Hit up those staging areas. Back off the buck bedding areas you’ve been hugging tight to the last couple of weeks and transition to those staging areas close to food sources. Or, if you think the conditions are right, maybe even set up in a location where you can watch those open food sources. You never know what might come walking out behind a receptive doe.
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We’re getting to that point where hopes of even a late-rut doe are withering away or already altogether gone. It’s possible one might pass through. But best focus solely on bed-to-feed patterns now. And unless you are very confident in your entry routes, only hunt afternoons. Hunting mornings can have a negative effect during the late season.
Try to determine where bucks are bedding — even the very bed they lay in. Having this information will make killing that deer much easier. Having his information allows you to get just close enough (but not too close) to put yourself in good position to intercept the deer as it rises and head toward the food source late in the afternoon. Personally, if bowhunting, I like to get within 100 to 125 yards of the bucks bed. Obviously that number varies depending on terrain, specific conditions and much more. But that’s a good ballpark, generic number to shoot for, because older deer rarely move far from their beds until after legal shooting light has ended.
On the flip side, if your hunting and scouting efforts reveal deer moving more during daylight than anticipated, primary food sources, secondary food sources, edge cover and staging areas can work well this time of year, too.
All in all, December is a tough, but great, time to be in the deer woods. If you still have a tag in your pocket, best get out there. The freezer won’t fill itself. Make the effort few hunters are willing to make — hunt late-season deer. You might find out you were missing something pretty great all along. After all, if the weather cooperates, end-of-year hunting can be pretty darn good.
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Photo Credit: John Hafner
The late season is driven by food, so your first scouting goal is to find just that. Expect deer to concentrate in big numbers around the best food sources — old bucks included — since they can lose up to 30 percent of their body weight during the rut. Don’t count on seeing late-rut activity, but if you do, it’ll be because doe fawns have come into estrus for the first time. Those fawns will be on the food same as the other deer, so that’s where the bucks will look for them.
In the North and Midwest, late-season food means corn, soybeans, and milo as well as hard mast and brassica plots. Further South and in the East, you can still count on the row crops and hard mast, but also look for “green stuff” like wheat and oats, clover, and a variety of soft mast and browse. Much of that stuff stays palatable all winter long. Regardless of where you're hunting, grain fields such as corn and soybeans receive more attention when it’s bitter cold. Green fields such as wheat and brassicas tend to be more attractive when temperatures are rising.
After you narrow down some food-source options, begin picking apart the terrain, starting with aerial images and topography maps. It’s just as important to know where deer are bedding as where they are feeding. Focus on areas that’s received less pressure, really thick areas, and south- and east-facing slopes. In general, does bed closer to the food source. Bucks typically bed farther back in the cover and higher up on the slopes.
It’s also important to take every advantage you can get. There are a few key conditions to watch for in the forecast when chasing whitetails. First, a strong cold front is big-buck kryptonite. A temperature swing of 10 to 15 degrees in a 24-hour period will get deer on their feet. But don’t overlook warm fronts, either. A chilly, dreary afternoon with steady rain (or snow) often gets deer on their feet early. Also, remember barometric pressure. The best window is between 30.00 and 30.40. The deer should be on their feet with a barometric pressure in this range. And remember to consult the moon overhead, moon underfoot concept chart. Look at it. According to it, deer activity peaks at two points during each 24-hour period. The days where it peaks closest to dawn and dusk are best.
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If you’ve narrowed down likely spots to focus on, but are still having trouble finding deer, try new areas. Sometimes it’s the spots that look less attractive (to hunters) that are most attractive to deer — those areas received less pressure throughout the season. Scout food sources and trails for fresh tracks, droppings, and even buck sign. It’s not at all uncommon to find fresh rubs and scrapes weeks after the rut peaks. When you find the sign you’re after, hang cameras right away.
But don’t dally, either. Start dialing in on a specific hunt plan if you’ve found a killer area. If the food source allows for distant observation, spend an evening glassing from an observation stand or simply a good vantage point. If the weather conditions are favorable, your buck will probably step out just before dark. Take in every detail you can about where it comes from and where it goes. Move in to kill the deer the next day.
That’s in a perfect world, of course. Sometimes there isn’t a smoking-gun food source, particularly if you’re hunting in the timber or if the area hunting pressure is especially high. In that case, focus on overlooked sanctuaries. Consider sanctuary or refuge areas that have been untouched all season. Late-season bruisers seek refuge in brush piles, blow-downs, swamps, drainages, old farm machinery piles and fencerows. They’re smart. They know where to avoid hunters. Check these areas for big, fresh tracks, and maybe a rub or two. Hang a camera and hope for the best.
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If you don’t have photo or visual confirmation of a buck yet, climb a tree wherever you’ve found the best, freshest sign and just see what happens. Leave your cameras out, and return to check them around midday. Remember — and this goes for deer hunting at any time — cameras can’t capture a fraction of the intel that you can from a stand.
Something else to note — I’ve noticed a pattern in my hunting career. More than half of my top 10 bucks were a product of hunting the same spot for consecutive days. Sometimes it was in the same stand. Sometimes it was spent between two stands in close proximity due to wind changes. I’m not encouraging stand burnout, but this late in the game, you don’t have much to lose. You’ve put in your scouting time to this point. You picked a spot for a reason. Hunt it.
Sure, a buck isn’t going to do the exact same thing every day, especially not in a pressured area. Therefore, it reduces odds significantly to “stand-hop.” If deer are there, hunting the same spot several consecutive days will put you in position when that buck finally slips up. Of course, being there when conditions are right increases your odds. One day with great conditions beats several days with poor conditions. It helps to stack the odds in your favor.
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You’re hunting hard now, and time is running out. But don’t get sloppy. You can’t afford to bump deer. Undetected entry and exit routes to your stand are critical. Make sure your walk to and from the stand is low-impact. This might mean walking right across an open field to access your stand, but sneaking out by way of a creek in the timber after it gets dark.
Afternoons do tend to be more productive during the late season, but you shouldn’t discount the morning sit. My trail cameras have shown mornings aren’t as terrible as some hunters believe. Granted, deer are much easier to spook of a morning because they tend to be up and moving while you’re getting to your stand. But when you only have a few days, every minute of daylight is time you could be in a tree. If you’re hunting one of those sanctuary thickets mentioned earlier, morning sits can be especially productive.
By now, hopefully you’ve figured out some kind of a pattern. If you’ve spent some time on the food source and the deer aren’t showing up until dark, move 50 to 100 yards closer to the bedding area. Chances are those deer are staging in cover, just out of sight. It’s risky, but also the end of the season and your best play.
We’ve already discussed morning vs. evening hunts, but don’t overlook midday, either. We think we pattern white-tailed bucks. Reality shows us it’s often the other way around. Some studies suggest that buck movement between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. increases during the late season.
Lastly, if you don’t get your deer before the final bell rings, don’t worry. Hunting isn’t just about killing. And you’ll likely get to hunt that big deer again next season. Until then . . .
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Photo Credit: Shutterstock / Ed Garleespe
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