October 15, 2021
By Mark Demko
As a diehard football fan, I look forward to the pre-season previews that come out every summer. It’s exciting to see sports writers, former players, retired coaches and other experts pick the top teams, best games to watch and predict who will win the championship. It gives me hope this may be the year my team finally takes home the trophy, even if by the first month or two of the season, I know they won’t even be in the running for the playoffs.
In many ways, trying to predict the upcoming deer season is similar to those football forecasts. You can look at things well in advance and make your plans, but it really isn’t until you hit the woods in earnest that you get a good sense of how everything might shake out.
Like football, deer season sometimes goes exactly like you hoped for “Team Whitetail,” and you end up scoring on a nice buck. Or, the ball takes a funny bounce or two and instead of tagging a wall hanger, you end up with tag soup. The only difference between the two sports is that with football, you have to watch helplessly and hope for the best for your team, while with bowhunting, you actively participate and influence the final results. Yes, scouting new hunting spots, cultivating food plots, hanging stands in killer locations and keeping tabs on trail cams to see if you can identify big-buck travel patterns all play roles in shaping our success. Add them all together, and just like dreams of your football team finally winning it all, you know — at least right now — this is the year your efforts will help you down that 170-class buck!
To help with your planning, and get you stoked for the upcoming season, we’ve combed through forecasting data, surveyed our resident whitetail experts and come up with our “Must-Hunt” dates for the 2021-22 season. We started our research with the DataSport Fish & Game Forecaster — the book and app that predict peak wildlife movement periods each day based on a complex computer algorithm — to ensure we’re in the stadium for hunting season. Then, we turned it over to our four panelists with a combined 130-plus years of bowhunting experience to do a deeper dive into the data while also factoring in their personal observations. While some of the picks, such as those in late October and early November, are no-brainers to be on-stand, a few of the dates may surprise you. In the end, however, it’s important to remember the main point when deer hunting: There really is no bad day to be in the woods!
Bill Winke: One of the most well-respected names in deer hunting, Bill has been archery hunting for more than four decades, taking numerous trophy bucks during this time. He also owned a farm in Iowa for 18 years, allowing him to observe a number of unpressured, mature whitetails during that time. In 2012, he harvested his biggest-ever buck, a monster that grossed 205.
Eddie Claypool: An Oklahoma resident, Eddie specializes in DIY, public-land hunting in multiple states each year. He has nearly 50 years of bowhunting experience, harvesting more than 80 Pope and Young-caliber animals during this time. His largest buck is a bruiser taken in Kansas in 2009 that scored in the high 180s.
Clint Casper: Born and raised in Ohio, Clint cut his bowhunting teeth on whitetails and turkeys before his love for Western game took off. He has been bowhunting for two decades and has harvested multiple bruiser bucks, including a 191-inch Ohio monster he arrowed in 2016.
Christian Berg: A self-described whitetail nut who enjoys spending time in a tree anywhere big bucks roam, Christian has been bowhunting deer for more than 20 years. His largest buck to date is a 182 6/8-inch Kansas brute taken in 2017.
Early Season: In places where bow season opens in late August or early September — think states such as Idaho, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska and South Carolina — an early-season hunt offers two distinct advantages. First, it’s an opportunity to harvest a deer in velvet; something that definitely appeals to many bowhunters.
Second, it is a significant advantage to target bucks while they’re still in their summer patterns, especially if you’re regularly keeping tabs on them. The Fish & Game Forecaster predicts good wildlife movement periods during the prime morning and evening hunting times Sept. 6-8; however, the timing of moonrise and moonset on Sept. 6, coupled with the New Moon, make it our pick for this week.
Christian: With the arrival of the New Moon, you should expect an increase in daylight deer activity this week. Further, on this day, a setting moon coincides almost perfectly with the setting sun. Add it together and you have the makings for a dynamite evening hunt set up along the edge of a preferred food source such as a clover plot or soybean field. This evening pattern will continue to a lesser extent on Sept. 7 and 8. So, if you aren’t successful on the 6th, make plans to be back in the tree the next evening or two.
Bill: The big challenges of using the prediction algorithm during the early season is that buck activity is really hard to pin down as velvet sheds, bachelor groups break up and bucks begin to disperse to their fall ranges. Simply re-locating the bucks you’ve been tracking all summer will be more important to your success right now than just knowing what part of the day they will be moving. A few bucks will remain in their summer ranges now, but most will disperse. If you know where they spent the prior fall, that will really help you find them now, as they will likely be heading in that direction.
Pre-Rut: Tuesday, Oct. 26 — We’ve passed that October lull, and it won’t be long now until deer movement picks up and buck sightings increase. With the decrease in daylight, colder weather arriving in many areas and the first few does coming into estrus, this can be an extremely good time to be afield. Although the Forecaster doesn’t predict off-the-charts animal movement periods this week, it does suggest good activity coinciding with times around sunrise and sunset. Pay close attention to weather, as a cold snap or approaching front/changing barometer can pique deer movement and increase the odds of a nice-sized buck wandering by your stand.
Eddie: This is an excellent time/day to harvest a pre-rut buck. Bucks are finally starting to move for short periods of time during daylight hours, though usually only close to their bedding areas. Combine an intimate knowledge of your hunting location with a well-planned hunt into a travel route between doe feeding areas and buck bedding areas. Evening hunts are usually easiest to accomplish, though morning intrusions can be productive too, especially if you can quietly access thick cover near a buck’s sanctuary well before daylight.
Clint: Monsters come out at night, or so they say, and that certainly holds true for evening bowhunts during this last week of October. Although the moon phase and peak times may not correlate the best this week, smart bowhunters will definitely be in the tree during this latter phase of the pre-rut, when buck movement can explode at any moment. I like to key in on evening hunts in transition zones between doe bedding areas and the hottest food sources, and also secluded agricultural fields, as bucks will be looking to find that first hot doe.
Peak Rut: Sunday, Nov. 7 — For the vast majority of hunters, especially those in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Midwest, there’s no better time to be afield than early November as deer approach the peak of breeding season. The Forecaster predicts good to excellent movement periods Nov. 4-8, a timeframe when bucks are often more active in daylight — provided the weather isn’t unusually warm or miserable — as they look for receptive does to breed. While any of these days can result in a bit of whitetail magic, if you only have one day to hunt, we recommend Nov. 7. Not only should the action be good, it’s also the weekend, so work can’t get in the way!
Bill: Nov. 7 has historically been the very center of what I believe is the best week of whitetail hunting in a normal year. As long as the weather is seasonal — not too hot —this is the time to be in your best stands. Hunt all day, with a focus on being close to doe bedding areas. Breeding is just getting started, so not all bucks will be locked down with does; many will still be on the move looking for hot does. Hunting near typical doe feeding areas can still be productive in the afternoons, but soon the does will stop coming out in the open because they get harassed non-stop. When you see the doe activity start to drop in normal areas, focus all your efforts back in the cover away from open areas.
Christian: It doesn’t take a genius deer hunter to predict the first week of November will produce some excellent hunting. After all, peak rut will be at hand, and every buck in the woods will either be breeding a doe or covering ground in search of a receptive mate. However, a closer look at the data provides even more reasons to be optimistic about this date. For starters, Nov. 4 marks the arrival of the New Moon, meaning extremely dark nights this week are likely to spur an increase in deer movement during the peak morning and evening hunting hours. Second, the moon will be directly overhead in the afternoon, providing another boost to wildlife activity from 3-5 p.m. Add it together and Nov. 7 has “all-day sit” written all over it.
Secondary Rut: Sunday, Dec. 5 — Peak breeding season has come and gone, but now is not the time to hang up the bow, as unbred does will come back into estrus, creating a window where a hunter can score on a big buck on the prowl. Depending on the state you hunt, you may have competition from firearms hunters, but setting up adjacent to or just inside some thick, gnarly cover with solid deer sign can often lead to success. While our pick is Dec. 5 (due to the New Moon on the 4th and moonset time), Dec. 6-8 also looks promising, so it’s definitely worth sneaking out a few times.
Eddie: This can be a great day and timeframe to harvest a mature buck that is still seeking a rare doe that has not yet been bred. Mature males know a few does will cycle at this time, and they will be cruising brushy perimeters near doe feeding areas, especially in the evenings. Find the main late-season food source that your does are focused on, and then “hunt your way in” to a location that will provide a kill shot.
Clint: Many bowhunters have the wind taken from their sails and lose all confidence once the calendar flips to December, but that is a vital mistake. Some of the most intense rutting action takes place during this time as bucks seek out those last, hot does. My plan here is simple, doe bedding areas in the morning and the hottest food sources in the evening. Play the wind and make good entry and exit decisions, as these deer have been hunted a few months now. Be where the does and best food sources are and you'll find the bucks.
Late Season: Monday, Jan. 4 — If you haven’t filled your tag yet, don’t fret as the New Year can still offer some outstanding opportunities, especially if you hunt areas where pressure is minimal. The key is focusing on those late-season food sources, whether they be food plots, good browse or any late-falling mast that deer key on. If weather and winds are favorable, all things being equal, Jan. 3-5 should all offer great potential, at least in the late afternoon.
Clint: I’ve killed some of my biggest deer during the last few weeks of the season and for good reason — patterns kill big bucks! The job now is to find the pattern between the hottest food source and what wind direction he likes best. Scout food sources that are still standing, or have recently been harvested, as these spots will have the most available feed. Also, don't overlook late acorn-producing oaks, as these areas will still be hit hard by the local deer herd. I use trail cameras to do my homework and figure out when a buck is moving in daylight. Be sure to write down the daily weather and wind directions, as this will showcase his pattern. Based off the moon phase and peak times during this week, evening hunts should be fantastic, so buckle in early in the afternoon and get ready for a great sit.
Bill: Hunting pressure is going to dictate movement times more than any other factor (at this time of year). However, if it gets really cold, the deer will sometimes move in daylight despite some moderate hunting pressure in the area. The perfect storm for late-season success: quality food, low hunting pressure and a high-pressure event on the back of a cold front. When that happens, late season can be good even for a bowhunter.
DataSport Fish & Game Forecaster
Now in its 48th year, the Fish & Game Forecaster ($11.95, book, and $4.99, app; datasportinc.com) is a handy, inexpensive resource designed to predict peak fish and game movement periods daily. The forecast, which comes out in November for the following year (November 2021 for 2022 calendar year), is generated via a complex computer program that compiles data like sunrise/sunset times (light variations), moon phases, the moon’s position relative to the Earth (gravitational forces) and more. The program also factors in other research and historical data, ultimately generating daily tables suggesting the best times for fish and wildlife activity.
“The (original) program was written by two or three guys who worked for UNIVAC, now Unisys, and it was in the very early days of computers,” says DataSport President John Lehman. “They were computer programmers…and they were hunters and fishermen. They were asked how much information could be put into these computers before the computers blew up. They thought about fishing and hunting and what things were most important in determining when the activity was.
“They had read (Solunar Theory developer) John Alden Knight and his Moon Up - Moon Down [book]. He was, to my knowledge, the first person who put into writing the thought process [about how] animals, birds and fish and all those things react to the moon and other relative positioning, like how the Earth is related to the moon and the sun and other things.”
While the Forecaster can be helpful for long-range planning, the important thing to remember is that it’s just one piece of the puzzle when trying to determine the best days and times to head afield. The guide is best utilized by combining its data with the personal knowledge you have of your hunting area, deer herd and their patterns. Weather and wind conditions on the days you’ll be hunting, as well as an understanding of the available food sources and the impact hunting pressure has, will all play key roles in movement, patterns and ultimately how many or how few deer you see.