A good day to hunt whitetails this fall is any day you can get off work. But knowing that some days will be better than others, we went through the calendar, analyzed moon phases, predicted the weather as best we could, took into account the historical breeding patterns of whitetails, and predicted when the rut hunting will be best in the two big months of October and November.
Plan your time off to include some or all of these days and get ready to tag a bruiser.
One morning in October 2009, Minnesota bowhunter Scott O'Konek ran his climber up a tree in the dark and waited. Soon after daybreak, a doe crossed 120 yards from his stand. The sight and smell of her caused a giant buck (Scott never knew he was there) to rise from his bed and follow.
The doe and buck moved closer but then vanished in brush. Scott shivered and worried the monster was gone. But then, there he was, quartering-away at 44 yards! Scott had one chance, and he made it count with a perfect arrow. The amazing 32-pointer with the massive brow tines net-scored 227 3/8.
After weeks of lazing around and fattening on crops and acorns, mature bucks get antsy and start to move a bit in mid-October. If you study the historical "rut curves" assembled by biologists for the northern two-thirds of North America, you'll see that five to seven percent of a herd's does are bred around October 21st. That's not a lot, but for the bowhunter, good things can happen when bucks start to prowl for the very first estrus does. Just ask Scott O'Konek.
A huge bonus: There's little hunting pressure in the woods as compared to November. I'd rank October 21st as ninth best in our survey, but it's definitely worth a shot if you're a hard-core bowhunter who can get out to your stand that day.
Indian summer in many areas, and bucks will move only marginally well in the warmth. But if you get lucky and the first significant cold snap of the year blows in from the northwest and drops the temperature 20 or 30 degrees: perfect. The cooler weather will be a harbinger of things to come for the deer, and their activity will pick up.
The moon will be big and bright on October 5th. Don't like that? Think again. The latest science from a North Carolina State University study finds that during a full moon deer move less at night and more in the day than you think. Bucks are active earlier in the afternoon, too, so get on stand early after lunch.
Hang a stand on a hardwood ridge within 100 yards or so of a corn, soybean, or alfalfa field. A pond or creek makes the setup all the better. Set up near a trail, green edge or the like that might funnel a buck for a bowshot. Some does and bucks will browse on the ridge before moving out to the crops at dusk. Plan a quiet, hidden, and downwind route to your ridge post so as not to blow any deer out.
Set two wicks near your stand, one doused with tarsal, the other with hot doe. When bucks start to prowl, they may circle in to either lure, to fight a rival or love on a gal. Have your grunter ready and call to any buck you see out of bow range. He might hear it and veer over.
"Halloween is magical for us and kicks off some of the best action of the year," says big-buck expert and TV star Terry Drury. On this day most every year, Drury sees one or more beasts on the move on his Midwestern farm – like the 280-pound, 6-year-old buck he killed a few years back.
During the two hours before he shot the buck, Terry spotted a dozen jittery does and small bucks. A thick 8-pointer rolled out into the field, ran off the teenagers, and ripped a scrape. "Just as I was fixing to draw on him, a 10-pointer ran 35 yards beneath my stand, grunted and gave me the perfect shot." Cool stuff happens on Halloween, so dress up in camo, paint your face, and go.
A cold front followed by high-pressure weather, a light northwest wind, temperatures in the 35- to 45-degree range.
"If you're really lucky and those things come together, you'll see deer rutting all over," Terry says. Too much heat will knock things back (true every day of the rut from now on).
The moon is in the last quarter on the 14th, which should enhance the magic. The NC State study found that during this last phase the deer movement may be "extreme," with the last hour of the day especially good.
A killer spot is in or near the corner of a woodlot where an overgrown pasture and a crop field come together. Bucks will run that diverse edge and nearby fencerows, rubbing and scraping as they make for the feed in the afternoon. Some does and bucks will cut out across the weed pasture, especially in the mornings, so watch for tines and flashes of hide out in the brush.
Grunt and/or rattle to any bucks you see, especially out in the weeds. Calling remains a hot if uncertain tactic for the next three weeks. Maybe try a doe decoy here. Stake her where she's visible in the cut crops 25 yards below your bow stand.
November 5, 6, 7, and 8
November 6, 2012: Wisconsin bowhunter Dusty Gerrits sat and waited on a 150-class buck he called "Tiny."
"We had pictures of Tiny on a scrape the morning before, so I set up right there," he says.
Two small bucks showed early, but no Tiny. All of a sudden, and out of the blue, a giant rolled in! "He pushed an 8-point off the scrape, but no shot," says Dusty. Finally, he saw his opening and fired. The buck crashed 50 yards away. The monster netted 189 and change, the new state record archery typical.
Regardless of weather or moon, the vast majority of does in the northern two-thirds of America will be bred between November 6th and Thanksgiving. That was true 10 years ago – will be true this year – will be true 20 years from now.
Historically, November 5-8 have been some of the top big-buck days within this window.
A random check of the record book reveals that 15 Boone and Crockett bucks were killed across North America on November 8, 2003, alone. That many monsters are apt to be killed November 5-8 this year.
Why so hot? Most bucks haven't bred a doe for a year. They wander around in a testosterone stupor, rubbing trees, checking scrapes, acting ornery, waiting on that first wave of does to pop into estrus any day now. These four days are some of the best of the year to see a giant on his feet in daylight. Take off if you can!
Ditto from Halloween – the cooler the better, with a light to moderate wind out of the north or west. But since the bucks are out of their gourds and the sweet smell of does is so powerful, you are apt to see a big deer on his feet even if it's in the 70s.
On a new and dark moon, as we'll have on October 17th, the NC State researchers say to expect deer to be most active first thing in morning, and that aligns with my field observations. Cool, still mornings are best for hunting this stage of the rut, so get out there super early.
Scout back in timber, 100 to 150 yards off a corn, bean, or alfalfa field, and zero in on spots with rubs, scrapes, and doe trails. Set a stand where one or more ridges, points, and draws converge and drop into a cover-lined creek bottom.
Many of your resident bucks, as well as some cruisers from a mile or two away, will swing though these corridors and funnels either trolling for does or chasing them – if not on the 5th, then maybe on the 6th or the 8th. Hunt a spot like this for two or three days in a row and I'll put down money you'll see a shooter.
While scrape hunting is always iffy, these are good days to try it, especially if you have recent cam pictures of bucks hitting a really hot scrape. It's prime time for rattling, which works best in the mornings. Grunt at any buck you see, and he might turn into range. Hanging hot-doe wicks can't hurt and will help cover your scent.
November 15, 16 and 17
If you're off the week of November 9-14, hunt like mad because you might spot a big buck cruising or chasing anytime. It's the rut, man, and it's all good! But these are the days of major "lockdown" in many places. Older bucks hook up with does and seem to go underground to have fun for three or four days. Shooter buck sightings decrease noticeably. If you hit it wrong, the woods can be like a tomb.
This season I think you're better off to push your vacation back a few days if possible, until the 15th. Bucks that were locked down with does begin to free up and start roaming again.
Keep in mind, though, the pressure. This is a big hunting week. There will be a troop of bowhunters in the woods in some areas, and an army of gun hunters in many other places. Obviously, the less pressure in your spot the better your chances.
For simple but effective gear in the rut, carry your grunt call and use it every day. Hunters grunt in and shoot many giant bucks each November, and most any tube will do the job. You can rattle in bucks with a bag or box, but I prefer real antlers.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, you want it cool to cold. But don't let a heat wave stop you. A few years back in November in South Dakota, I hit this phase just right. With the sun burning the prairie at 80 degrees, I stalked and sweated and shot a 5½-year-old 8-pointer tending a doe out in the open grass at 2:00 p.m. When you hit it just right, the power of the rut is amazing.
This season the moon waxes to full on November 4th, and this should make the hunting even better. With a big moon in the sky, the bucks prowling after lockdown should move well at midday and early in the afternoon. I predict some of the best action of the year if you hunt ground with minimal pressure.
Look for a timbered ridge flanked by a crop field on one or two sides and CRP, a cattail marsh, or other heavy cover on the other sides. The more buck sign on the ridge, the better. Heavy cover near your stand is crucial because with any pressure at all in the area old bucks will move in or near the thick stuff.
I back off rattling now because bucks have heard clashing antlers (both real and fake) for weeks. But keep grunting because those calls won't spook deer and, to the contrary, might pull a buck anytime. Don't freeze out or burn out too early. Plan on getting to your post by 8:00 a.m. and hunt till dark; remember with the full moon, bucks should move best from 11 o'clock on, either on natural movement or pushed by a hunter.
Most does have been bred, and bucks are tired and run-down from chasing does and eluding hunters. But those survivors know the chance to breed a doe won't come around for another year. They prowl for the last five percent or so of does that might still be receptive. They move mostly at night and in cover, but a good buck might slip up at dawn or dusk, so be out there.
The day before Thanksgiving is one of the biggest hunting days of the year as hunters fan out across the woods. This is another reason to hunt. You never know where and when that pressure might drive a giant into your lap.
Hope for daytime highs in the 20s to 40, with lows in the 20s or teens. Light snow would be great. One thing in our favor is the last-quarter moon that will hit this year on November 10th. Remember, the NC State researchers found this phase best for extreme deer movement, especially the last hour of the day.
You'll likely have a cold west or north wind, so set up on the east side of a hill or ridge where the wind is right and where you can cover a wide swath of thick woods, marsh, and/or a weed-choked field below. Watch for a buck cutting from one thicket to the next, hoping to run across the last hot doe – or sneaking away from pressure.
Keep your grunt call handy. But now the best and only real tactic is to get set and be ready. Stay positive and poised to react the second you catch a flash of thick tines in the cover below. Your chances of tagging out on the tenth best day of the rut are better than you think.