The start of deer season is very close indeed. In fact, many south western states have already started hunting velvet muleys and coues deer. Many states across the midwest to the east coast won’t start hunting whitetails until mid to late September. That brings up a question that I am asked time and time again: When is the best time to hunt a big buck?
First five days
The first five days, in my opinion, are the best time to kill a big deer or any deer for that matter. Deer are predictable and patternable, more than any other time of year. The closer your season opens to September 1st the better. Let’s break down the month of September through the second week of October.
Bucks are still feeding during daylight hours in the evenings. Alfalfa and soybeans that are still green are your main targets. Fall food plots are starting to see deer activity. Trail cams and long range viewing will give you the info you need on where and how to setup. If the buck you’re after is still in velvet, don’t mess around. Get him killed! Once the velvet sheds, they become a different animal and he is one wrong move away from becoming nocturnal. After shedding their velvet, some bucks will start transitioning to their “normal” home range, which may be an area you can’t hunt.
Alfalfa and soybean fields are still good places to see and kill a big buck. But bucks are in the transition from velvet antlers to hard horn and fall food plots and acorns become a preferred food if they are available. Too much pressure or one wrong move around any of these areas could ruin your chances for the year. Be smart and make sure you are hunting with the right wind. If the wind is wrong, stay home or glass from a safe distance. Entry and exit routes from your stand are just as important. If you can’t figure out a way to get in and out of a field edge stand without bumping deer, don’t hunt it. Figure out where they are coming from and try hunting them away from the edge. This is still very much an evening time of year. Very few stands or places will allow you to get in them in the morning without spooking deer. But by all means, if you are lucky enough to have such a spot, take advantage of it and hunt it.
Sept. 22-Oct. 1
Food plots and acorns are the places to be set up. Once again trail cams will give you the edge on just where to hang your stand or which of your stand sites offers the best chance at a mature deer. Weather plays a bigger role in this time frame than it did the previous three weeks. Warm or hot weather will keep daytime movement to a minimum. A cold front this time of year is a no brainer. Leave work early and get in your best stand (as long as the wind is right). This could be one of your best hunts of the year. I will hunt mornings during such a cool/cold snap. This is when the rattling antlers get put to use. Only when the wind is right and I can actually see the buck will I tickle the horns together. Something about a cold snap and the end of September gets bucks into a sparring mood. I have rattled in more deer during this time frame than October and November combined! Just don’t overdo it.
This is a tough time frame to figure out. If your season opens between these dates, I would definitely be hunting because of the lack of pressure. My focus would be on acorns and edges. The more edge the better. A place where corn meets a bean field and borders a woods or thicket is where I like to be. Chances are he won’t move until late in the evening. The more cover around said food source the better. Again, if it’s hot and a cold front hits, get your butt in a stand. It just might be the night he shows himself during daylight.
Late season is a close second for me in terms of being able to pattern and kill a mature deer. This time frame generally occurs when gun season ends and the cold, cold temps begin.
All my hunting this time of year starts with my Zeiss binos and spotting scope. I’m glassing edges of standing corn or bean fields. If no crops are left standing, then it’s stubble fields along good thick cover, preferably cedars or nasty thickets. Once you find the buck you want to go after, watch him for a few days before making your move. As long as there’s no other hunting pressure and it stays cold, he’ll stay put. Don’t attempt to kill him till it’s absolutely right. This is a one and done opportunity. Maybe not, but treat it as such. Big deer this time of year are very predictable but also very spooky and nervous. Hunt with the wrong wind direction or get caught sneaking in during the afternoon and the game may very well be over until next season.
I know, everything you read says the rut is the best time to kill the buck of your dreams. It’s very true that a lot of big deer make their last romps through the woods during November. I can’t disagree with that. But a lot of them are killed on a whim, right place-right time kinda deal. That’s great and it is an exciting time of the year to be in a tree. But it’s also the hardest time to pattern a big deer. You have no idea when or where they’ll show up. You could kill a mega giant you never knew existed or more often than not be left scratching your head wondering what happened to that deer you had on trail cam back in August and September. That’s why The Rut is third on my list.
Any time you can hunt where big deer live you have a chance of killing one. Time of year, stage of the rut or whatever other circumstance you want to throw out there, as long as you are hunting, it’s possible. But remember, sometimes not going is still better than going. Big deer are smart animals. Once they reach maturity, they become a different breed. I’m all for hunting hard, but not all the time. Only when it’s right. Above all else, if what you’re doing works for you, keep doing it! No one or nobody has these critters figured out the way we believe they do. Every year they will do something “stupid “ that we never thought possible or expected. I don’t claim to be an expert. These are just some of the things I’ve learned or witnessed over the last 20 years hunting and guiding hunters. As a matter of fact, I look forward to hunting season as much for the education as I do for the hunt itself.