Is it the rut? The early season? We polled the Realtree pro staff on the best time to be in the woods. Their answers may surprise you.
The rut gets all the glory, but I don’t know why. In reality, it isn’t the best time to hunt whitetails. At least, not for the hunter who prepares, scouts and patterns deer. For those hunters, it’s actually the worst time to be in a tree. Bucks aren’t very patternable during the rut, especially once does begin entering estrus. When this happens, your patterning efforts go out the window.
To confirm, we asked some of the Realtree pro staffers to tell us their favorite phase of deer season. The rut (15%) and late rut (3%) received the fewest votes. Here were the top three responses instead.
No. 1 Pick: Early Season
(Backwoods Life photo)
Percentage Chosen: 41%
The Window: September 1 to October 20
Essential Gear Recommendation: Prime bows
For pro-staffers like Bone Collector’s Nick Mundt, the first weeks of deer season are the best.
“Hunting early season bucks has always been one of my favorites,” Mundt said. “That’s one of the best times to target an old, mature buck in velvet. At this time of year, bucks are visible and patternable on food sources. Long-range scouting can tell you exactly where bucks live and where they enter and exit the food.”
Specific food sources and preferences vary by location. But one thing remains constant: whitetails will always concentrate on the most nutrient-rich and palatable foods available to them. Scout to determine what these are in your area, and you’ll oftentimes find a mess of deer. This time of year, that’s where you’ll find the gang, too.
“Bachelor groups are common, and they will typically be visible during good shooting light in the mornings and evenings,” Mundt said. “This time of year, alfalfa, clover and soybeans are usually the only green foods available. They become magnets for bucks fattening up for winter. Tread lightly, though. Don’t take chances on wind, and sneak in and out of your location in total darkness so as to not alter their patterns.”
Choosing good entry and exit routes takes careful analysis of the terrain and how deer use it. Use drainages, ditches, creeks, standing corn, walls of cover and other shields to visually conceal your approach and retreat. Keep the wind in your favor while traveling to and from stands. When possible, reduce ground scent by walking through shallow creek beds. Everything you can do to minimize pressure is worth the effort. That includes during your scouting efforts, too.
BuckVentures’ Jeff Danker stresses this as much as anyone. “After I collect trail camera inventory, I stay away from the farm and let deer feel comfortable,” he said. “I start glassing from the roads or from areas of the farm that do not add any pressure to deer.”
While much of the scouting occurs closer to food sources, feeding habits aren’t the only piece of the early season equation. Analyze bedding habits, too.
“I can locate bachelor groups coming into beans, milo or alfalfa and get an idea of where the deer are bedding,” Danker said. “I carefully observe how they get to the destination fields. Observe during morning hours to watch as they head back to bed.”
Be careful if you plan to creep in tight to their beds, though. Bucks are notorious for using advantageous terrain for their daytime hideouts. It’s common for them to bed close to water sources — even small ones — so they have safe, easy access to H2O during daylight. Still, other bedding habits to consider include bucks facing downwind, watching their back trail and using objects to conceal their profile while bedded.
All things considered, carefully compile as much pre-season information as you can, drill down on bed-to-feed patterns, and pick your stand locations accordingly. If stands aren’t already in place, wait until opening day and pack in a lightweight stand and sticks — or even a climber — and pull off the ultimate surprise attack on that monster buck you’ve been watching all summer.
Don’t Miss: Kill an Early Season Stud in 5 Days
No. 2 Pick: Pre-Rut
(Red Arrow TV photo)
Percentage Chosen: 21%
The Window: October 21 to November 2
Essential Gear Recommendation: Excalibur Assassin crossbow
This is the second phase of deer season and the second favorite among Realtree pro staffers. By this time, deer are still on patterns (albeit different patterns than observed during the early season). But now a little testosterone has worked its way into the mix. Those two things can be a deadly combo for hunters who know how to take advantage of them. And that’s exactly why Heartland Bowhunter’s Shawn Luchtel prefers the pre-rut.
“It’s my favorite time to hunt, period,” Luchtel said. “The anticipation of the rut is at an all-time high. The bucks are beginning to make their rounds, hit scrapes and look for that first doe to come into heat. They can be patternable on scrape lines and are susceptible to showing up in daylight based on weather patterns. If you can get a high-pressure system following a cold front, you better be in the stand. It won’t be long after this time period when mature bucks become less predictable and sometimes harder to kill because does start coming into heat.”
Other key times to be on stand include during minor weather events, after significant temperature swings, when the moon is overhead/underfoot, and when deer have the wind somewhat in their advantage (but not enough so that they get your wind).
Another key time to go? When you have time off work. And Canada in the Rough’s Keith Beasley suggests you save those sick days for late October to early November.
“The best five days to be in the woods are October 28 to November 2,” Beasley said. “I would call that [peak] pre-rut.”
He also likes to use aggressive tactics during this period.
“By late October, the pre-rut feelings and emotions have kicked in,” Beasley said. “They fully understand that breeding season is close and start making rubs and scrapes in their small core areas, but begin searching for bedding areas and groups of does outside of it, too. The best part? Does are not ready for them, and the tending phase is still a week or two away. Therefore, these bucks start to compete with each other, spar and show dominance. They will be on their feet far more as testosterone continues to build. We also pull out all the aggressive tactics and use doe bleats, buck grunts, tending grunts and rattling horns to fake a fight. The combination of all these tactics seems to fall right in line with this timeframe.”
Like a longbeard in spring, it isn’t uncommon for bucks to hang up out of range when you call, though. Add realism to your calling sequence when possible.
“Carry an apple or potato in your pocket for when bucks hold up 70 to 80 yards out,” Beasley said. “Throwing it out the back of your treestand discreetly gives the extra sounds and rustling in the leaves they oftentimes need to hear in order to close the distance.”
To sum it up, deer are susceptible during the pre-rut, but not stupid like they can be during the peak of the breeding season. You still have to hunt smart. But with a little thoughtfulness, you can tag a pre-rut giant.
Don’t Miss: Kill a Pre-Rut Monster in 5 Days
No. 3 Pick: Late Season
(Melissa Bachman photo)
Percentage Chosen: 20%
The Window: December 1 to January 31
Essential Gear Recommendation: CVA muzzleloader
The Realtree pro-staff skipped the rut and went straight to the late season in the poll. Carl Drake, co-host of The Break, hunts all season long, but relishes the late season.
“My favorite time of the year is from December to January,” Drake said. “The big mature bucks that made it through the rut and gun season come out of their holes to fatten back up for the winter. I put several trail cameras on standing food sources to start patterning these deer, just like I did in the early season. They are hungry, tired and beaten up from the rut. Mature bucks sometimes let their guard down during this period. But be prepared for brutally cold weather and snow. These elements can be extreme, but they produce some of the best deer movement, and help make deer easier to pattern.”
The hardest part about the late season? Finding where the bucks are. Begin in areas that received less hunting pressure. That’s where the smartest deer will be. Also, find the best food sources in the area, but don’t expect deer to hit them during daylight unless severe weather conditions force them to.
Crop fields with waste grain are good, but so are native food sources. Deer survived long before beans and corn arrived in North America. Find remnants of forbs, mast and browse (saplings, buds, branches, etc.), and you’ll locate late-season whitetails.
Places to find late-season monsters include unpressured pockets of security cover, near major (and minor) food sources, close to open water sources, and areas that offer advantageous bedding cover (swamps, ridges, oxbows, etc.). Focus on both solar and thermal bedding areas. Thermal bedding areas offer thick cover — such as cedars and early successional habitat — that hold more heat. Solar bedding areas are south- and east-facing slopes that receive more sunlight. The best wintertime bedding offers both types in the same location.
Once you find where the deer are and where you need to be, don’t rush in too fast. There’s little cover this time of year, and bucks like to pick beds that allow them to scope things out from a distance. Choose entry routes and stand locations that won’t give you away.
Beyond that, don’t be afraid to get a little crazy with your tactics if the situation calls for it. Realtree pro Art Helin likes using vocalizations during the late season, too.
“Whitetails are vocal animals,” Helin said. “A few things are happening during the late season. Bucks are congregating back into bachelor groups along with a short secondary rut. So, first concentrate on social vocalizations (social grunts, light rattling, doe grunts and fawn bleats). These pique their curiosity and bring them out to check and see which deer are still around or have moved into the area. Don’t be aggressive with the calling, though, as it is more of a curious time rather than an aggressive time of year. Also, if you happen to be out and see some late rut activity, hit that buck with a trending grunt or some estrous bleats.”
Don’t Miss: Kill a Late-Season Stud in 5 Days
(Bill Konway photo)
Even though I prefer the early season over the rut, I was surprised to see it fall outside the top three. But it isn’t shocking. There’s a common thread among the top responses: predictability. Bucks aren’t as patternable during the rut. But they are during the early season, pre-rut and late season. Realtree pro-staffers have taken notice. Maybe you should put more stock in those phases of the season this year, too.
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