Every year magazines, websites and hunters across the whitetail’s range try to look into their crystal balls and determine what days will be the best for scoring a big whitetail buck. Vacation days are after all a precious commodity and in the fall, few of us want to squander them on an uneventful day when nothing is moving. But predicting those best days can be tricky and often it comes down to a mix of deer patterning, science, weather forecasting, timing and a little voodoo.
High-profile big buck chasers Mark Drury, Michael Hanback and Adam Hays all swear by the effects of the moon on deer movement, though to differing degrees, as does wildlife photographer and whitetail researcher Charles Alsheimer. Others, such as top biologists and game managers Grant Woods and Neil Dougherty, look more at historic rut patterns and weather, while the rest of us just take off from work when we can and hope the hunting will be good.
Indeed, research from North Carolina State Ph.D. candidate Marcus Lashley is casting some long-needed scientific research on the effects of the moon on whitetail movement, while Drury, who has long hunted in accordance to the moon and phase of the rut acknowledges, “the weather patterns of the last few years have blown out everything I’ve ever believed or followed with regards to deer movement during the rut. Weather trumps all whitetail activity.”
Regardless of which factor plays the biggest role in deer movement, I’ve talked to them all or reviewed their research and have come up with the times you need to be in the woods this fall. But rather than pull the favorite trick of publishers and try to nail your season down to five or six individual “best” days—predictions that often crumble as soon as an unexpected warm front moves through—I’ve provided the best windows of time to get out there (with an irresistible suggestion of which day in each window might be the best to hit if you can choose only one).
Oct. 5 to 8
Call in sick NOW! We know this is short notice, but this is the first big weather system to move across the country this fall, bringing temperatures that will plunge the mercury as much as 30 degrees over the next few days and even bring snow to some parts along the U.S./Canada border. Drury says bowhunters need to get on their stands now. With such a big plunge in temps, the weather will kick start deer movement like nothing early season hunters have seen to this point. Combine the cooler weather and predictability of evening feeding patterns in early October with Lashley’s findings that deer move the most the last hour of the day during the last quarter moon (Monday) and you may have the perfect storm for knocking down a big, unsuspecting buck before most of your gun-toting brethren have even hung their stands. For even more icing on the cake, Jeff Murray’s Moon Guide predictions, based on moon overhead/moon underfoot times that coincide with dawn and dusk, shows the moon will be underfoot within those last hours of daylight, spelling out what could be off-the-hook early season hunting.
Oct. 7 will find the moon overhead at dawn and underfoot at dusk and cool temps rocking from the Midwest to the East Coast.
Oct. 25 to 28
Drury and Hanback both like hunting the late afternoon the five to 10 days prior to a full moon, or as Alsheimer calls it, the rutting moon, which is the second full moon following the fall equinox and the event believed to ultimately kick rutting behavior into high gear. As the full moon draws near, each evening hunt gets a little better. Lashley’s initial research supports the notion that bucks move earlier in the evening during a full moon and suggests hunters get to their stands earlier. I’m going to recommend focusing on those four days preceding the full moon and getting to your stand at least three to four hours prior to dark. Bucks are beginning the seeking phase of the rut where they are on the prowl and about to bust in anticipation of the first estrous does. So focus on funnels with well worn paths between feeding areas and set up on the downwind side of plots and fields where bucks will drift, scent checking for does feeding in the open.
Oct. 26 is just two days out from the full moon and long-range weather forecasts are calling for unsettled, a.k.a. cooler, nastier weather to roll in and peak on the 27th, meaning you want to be in a great evening stand on the leading edge of the front.
Nov. 2 to 5
The 10 days following an autumnal full moon are favorites for Drury to hit the woods in the morning, and Hanback suggests that if cold weather rolls in late October, big bucks should drop on Halloween and the days immediately following. But looking at long-range weather forecasts (a type of voodoo in its own right), the fact that rut activity is heating up by the day and the moon overhead/underfoot times, I’m going to push the best days for action back to a window of Nov. 2nd to Nov. 5th. Temps should drop sharply along the upper whitetail range and underfoot times (not believed to have the same affect as overhead times, yet it still generates above average deer movement) will coincide with the evening hunt, perhaps delivering some balance to the day following the activity seen in the morning—when hunting is best during the post-full moon period. Watch the weather as the date draws nearer and pick the two or three days in this time frame that promise the coldest, most unsettled weather.
Nov. 5 will boast a moon overhead the hour before sunrise, providing the double promise of an active morning hunt. Get in the woods well before daylight and be sitting on your best deep woods travel corridor. Hunt all day if you can.
Nov. 9 to 12
The only moon advantage during this period is that you’re coming off a three-quarter moon when Lashley says deer movement increases in the afternoon. But if the weather is cool, I’m throwing the moon charts out and going with the simple fact that more record book bucks die within this timeframe than any other during the year. The first does are coming in and bucks are chasing like crazy. There’s no patterning now. The hunt is simple; get in your best spot and park it all day, keeping alert since anything can appear at any moment. If I can only hunt a few days all season, I’m hunting now.
Nov. 11 accounts for more record bucks than nearly any other day. It’s a Sunday, which stinks for those guys who live in the few states that still don’t allow hunting on Sunday, but if your state does, pack a lunch along with the grunt tube and rattling horns and get on your stand early with the plan to work it all day long.
Nov. 24 to 27
With luck, cool weather will have begun to settle into many areas—at least in the early morning and late afternoon, and with the rut winding down if not completely kaput, bucks are turning their attention back to the food. With the dry summer and poor food availability throughout much of the whitetail’s range, everyone I’ve spoken to says the big winners this fall will be the guys with nice, green late-season food plots. The full moon falls on Nov. 28, and Drury says the days leading up to it should provide the most likely action in the afternoon. “Those days leading up to the November full moon, hunters need to be on the greens,” he said. If you have multiple plots planted in brassicas, leave one or two untouched going into this part of the season to lessen the impact of hunter pressure and provide a feeling of sanctuary. Then, when the winds, weather and time are right, slip in early on one of these afternoons and remain vigilant until the last minutes of shooting light. The big ones should move just before shooting hours conclude.
Nov. 27. It’s late season and while the hunting is slower, lots of big bucks die this time of year. Sleep in, hope for nasty weather and go sit your best food source the final two to three hours before dark.