On the Whitetail Clock

posted on October 14, 2013

If you want to make deer hunters squirm like politicians at press conferences, ask them to pick their favorite time and day to hunt whitetails.

“Well, it depends,” they’ll say. “You must consider the month, your location, the region, habitat type, hunting pressure, food availability, winds and weather patterns and how well you know the property.”

Yeah, we get that. Just answer the question. Please. Pretend you’re starving, and you won’t even get a raisin until you specify the time and day you feel luckiest.

Okay. I’ll go first. It’s Nov. 8 during the 10-o’clock hour. If that’s not precise enough, make it between 10:15 and 10:20 a.m. No, I can’t cite peer-reviewed research to back me up or unveil a spread sheet with times and dates of every deer I’ve killed in 40-plus years of hunting. All I know is that when I’m hunting in November, I feel especially optimistic as 10 a.m. nears.

That’s my magical time to hunt deer. I can recall shooting everything from a 6-month-old doe to a 5-year-old non-typical 9-pointer during that hour. And several deer fell in that short five-minute window starting at 10:15 a.m., including a symmetrical 10-pointer in northwestern Ontario. Just as memorable was the doe that trotted past me at 10:20 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day 1989 as I prepared to head home for my family’s turkey feast.

The 10-o’clock hour wasn’t always my top choice. If you asked me the question during my first 15 years of deer hunting, I would have said 8:15 a.m. on opening day of gun season. That changed when neighborhood deer drives faded away and hunters started building enclosed stands or bought large, comfortable ladder stands. Combined with better clothing and air-activated handwarmers, hunters today are better equipped to sit all morning compared to those of previous generations. And because most now last longer than two hours on stand, they don’t wander as much during hunting hours.

The other change is that most of my November hunting shifted to the North Woods of Ontario, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula after 1986. When hunting the big woods, it’s rare to see other hunters. When you see forest deer running around in midday, it usually means a buck chasing a doe. In fact, though I insist on hunting from dawn to dusk in Northern forests, I’ve seldom connected on—or fumbled away—sunrise or sunset shooting opportunities.

Clearly, multiple factors affect our favorite times and days to hunt, but we still have our lucky days and times and use them for motivation when things look bleak. To learn what others consider prime time for deer hunting, I contacted 16 hunters and one full-time guide. Not unexpectedly, the favorite days for my Southern hunting friends varied wildly from late August in South Carolina to mid-January in Texas. As you’ll see, most dates and times pooled for this article came from hunters from Maine to Montana.

Activity PeaksWhile trying to validate my hunters’ observations with deer-harvest data from wildlife agencies, I noticed another complicating factor: Hunting activity peaks on weekends when the masses hit the woods. Obviously, peak hunting activity differs from peak deer activity and might skew perceptions of the best times to hunt.

For example, when analyzing daily buck-kill data for bowhunters in Wisconsin’s famous Buffalo County from 2005 through 2009, the Friday nearest Nov. 3 recorded the highest buck kill of any day all five years, whether it was Oct. 31 or Nov. 2, 3, 4 or 6. Further, the earlier these peak Fridays occurred, the more likely the following Friday also ranked in that year’s top five bowhunting days.

Buffalo County’s other top days most years were the Thursdays and Saturdays bracketing the peak Friday. In contrast, Sundays and Mondays nearest those peaks were relatively quiet. The Thursday preceding the peak Friday outperformed the following Monday every year. This suggests bowhunters consistently arrive Thursday and head home Saturday night or Sunday.

That’s no surprise to Kris Johansen, who spent eight years as the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ wildlife biologist in Buffalo County. Hunters often asked Johansen the best time to hunt.

“I always told them to get here about October 28, stay through November 6 and spend as much time as possible in a tree,” Johansen said. “Personally, I’m partial to the 9 to 11 a.m. hours, but any hour during that 10-day window has great potential, especially when temperatures fall below freezing at night and only reach the low 40s during the day.”

As with most hunters, Johansen considers the rut the best time to hunt bucks. Two hunters I contacted disagreed, preferring to target food sources in early winter. A third chose food sources in early to mid-September before deer abandon late-summer feeding patterns. A fourth hunter couldn’t choose between the rut and early-winter feeding patterns.

How about the best times? The “foodies” prefer the last minutes of daylight. In contrast, rut fans usually picked midday hours, generally 10 a.m. to 11 a.m., with some extending it until 1:30 to 3 p.m.

Maine’s Dick Bernier still-hunts northwestern Ontario’s forests each fall and believes most of its bucks spend the first couple hours of daylight “on their bellies.” His favorite day is Oct. 30 and his favorite hour is 10 to 11 a.m., but he can’t stay out of the woods between Oct. 26 and Nov. 2.

“I’ve witnessed high levels of activity from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. those days—moreso than the day’s first and last hours,” Bernier said. “I eat my lunches on the move or in strategic locations.”

Late or Early?But not everyone fits that mold. Tom Blais of New Hampshire spends most of November on the road, hunting from northern Minnesota to northern Idaho. He bases his response on his favorite region: the forested mountains of Idaho’s Panhandle and northwestern Montana.

“If I had to pick a day, it would be November 20, but the best week is November 18 to 24,” Blais said. “Big-woods deer see little hunting pressure, but they still don’t move much in daylight until the rut gets hot after November 15. Once November 18 arrives, things get better by the hour. But by about November 25, bucks vanish again while they breed does.”

Blais and his son, Deven, spend a lot of time scouting and still-hunting national forest lands to locate mature bucks and hang treestands where they find fresh sign. “Last year my son and I got our bucks from treestands on November 20 and 21,” Blais said. “Both bucks were at least 4½ years old. He shot his at 11 a.m. and I shot mine at 3:30 p.m. But if I had to choose the best hour, it would be the last hour of daylight. Big, old bucks move more during that special time when day turns into night.”

Kyle Rustick, however, thinks the best hour for buck activity during the rut is shortly after night becomes day in the forests of north-central Wisconsin. His favorite day is Nov. 8, but he focuses on the week of Nov. 3-10.

“My dad and I have bowhunted the rut for years, and the biggest bucks we’ve seen, shot or photographed with our trail-cams were in the 7 to 8 a.m. range,” Rustick said. “Not only do bucks move more during the rut, but that’s when they’re most vulnerable to ploys like scents, decoying, rattling, grunt calls, doe-estrous bleats, etc. You can draw them from as far as they can see, hear or smell.”

Back in Buffalo County, longtime guide and outfitter Tom Indrebo said Oct. 29 to 31 stands out, but his favorite is Oct. 26. “That’s the day big bucks get on their feet and make kind of a trial run, often around noon,” Indrebo said. “They make a route that takes them downwind of their primary scraping areas so they can check them out. Older bucks don’t waste time during the rut. They’re deliberate. Based on what they find on that trial run, they’ll pretty much retrace that route when the rut kicks into high gear a few days to a week later.”

Another key day, in Indrebo’s experience, is Oct. 28. “That’s when morning hunts become as good as evening hunts,” he said. “Until then, evening hunts out-produce morning hunts. Bucks are getting antsier. They stay out later in the mornings. It starts paying to stay on your stand all day by the 28th.”

Lunar ImpactsNew York’s Charlie Alsheimer, meanwhile, believes the best days of the rut depend on the “hunter’s moon,” the second full moon after September’s autumnal equinox. Alsheimer doesn’t specify a favorite day, but he thinks the best period begins three days after the hunter’s moon and ends nine days later. Based on trail-camera photos and personal observations, Alsheimer pinpoints 7:45 a.m. as the best time to hunt, followed by the final 90 minutes of daylight. He thinks the third-best time is between 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.

“I’m in contact with 35 people across North America who track deer activity,” Alsheimer said. “They’re hunters, trackers and outfitters. They’re using trail-cameras and are in constant contact with other hunters. I also collect data on deer-car collisions. It’s unbelievable how the numbers tie to the days following the second full moon. Everything is calm until after that moon peaks, and then things go nuts.”

Paul Conley, meanwhile, lives and hunts in the mature forests of far northwestern Wisconsin, where there are far fewer deer than most parts of the Great Lakes states. Even so, Conley is known for consistently finding big bucks each November. He, too, tracks the full moon, keying on the three days following the full moon closest to Nov. 1.

“I always see the best big-buck movement during the waning gibbous moon phase,” Conley said. “That seems to produce the best activity every year.”

When forced to choose a favorite day and time, Conley pinpoints Halloween (Oct. 31) and 8 a.m. Conley’s father, Al, doesn’t cite the moon, but he has no doubt about his favorite day and time—Nov. 2 between 1:30-2:30 p.m.—or the week and weather. “Deer come out of the woodwork from October 30 through November 5,” he said. “Just when you think deer numbers are down, they materialize that week and then disappear again. Fair-weather days produce the best activity. The bluer the sky and brighter the sun, the more sightings you’ll have.”

The Food FactorThis brings us to the other big factor in deer activity: food. Indrebo likes the first week of archery season, which opens in mid-September in Wisconsin, the tail end of summer feeding patterns. Soon after, bucks become solitary and seemingly vanish for about five weeks.

The best time for targeting specific bucks, however, is probably after the rut. That’s when snow, cold temps and depleted fat reserves drive mature bucks to feed. “I can’t pick a best day for this because it all depends on weather,” Indrebo said. “It’s usually early-to-mid-December. When daytime highs reach only 10 or 12 degrees, you can just about pattern bucks to a half-hour of when they’ll arrive. They take risks they’d never take any other time to reach that energy supply.”

Neil Dougherty of North Country Whitetails in New York agrees. “Forget the rut,” Dougherty said. “Rut hunting is the great equalizer. Anyone in big-buck country can sit in a decent funnel all day and have a decent chance of having Mr. Big walk by. It’s more luck than anything.

“I like hunting the specific bucks we identify,” Dougherty continued. “It’s impossible to pattern them during the rut. Your choices are the very early season or post-rut when bad weather sets in. Bucks are bruised and battered late in the season. They can’t stay away from food sources. When temperatures drop 10 degrees below normal for a couple days, bucks become incredibly vulnerable.”

What are Dougherty’s favorite days and time? “If I have to choose, it’s December 10 in New York and January 5 in Ohio,” he said. “The best hour is the very end of legal shooting light.”

So, then, what’s the most favored day and time to hunt bucks? The best we can conclude, based on this sample, is Nov. 3 for Northern states, and the 10 a.m. hour during the rut. When keying on food sources early and late in the season, hunt the final minutes of daylight.

Even so, something tells me the best time to hunt whitetails remains the same as always: Whenever you can.



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