By Bill Winke
Few hunters like to get out of a warm bed and head into the cold, dark woods before sunrise. Beyond the fear of getting lost in the woods or spooking a bunch of deer or getting chilled to the bone, hunters find other reasons to avoid the kind of self-abuse that comes with early-morning hunts.
There are even some statistics that would support hitting the snooze button a few more times. For example, the Pope and Young Club record book lists the time of day when many of the entries were taken. Fully 58 percent of the whitetails so listed were taken between 2 p.m. and sunset. That alone suggests deer move best during this short three- to four-hour window. Or maybe all it suggests is that more hunters are in the field in the afternoon than during the morning and midday hours.
As tempting as it may be to sleep in, be forewarned: You skip the morning hunt at your own peril. If I had to give up either morning or evening hunts, I would give up the evening hunts, without a doubt.
In fact, I helped coach high school football for four years. I was a full-time coach who attended every practice and coach’s meeting. During that time, we had some very good teams that went deep into the playoffs. Other than Saturdays, I never hunted an evening during those four seasons prior to about Nov. 8. I still enjoyed it and shot several very nice bucks. I don’t remember feeling like I had given up too much.
Mornings are the true magic of November; I don’t get the same feeling as the sun sets as I do when I watch it rise. When I think of the rut, I think of frosty mornings.
The Dream Rut Hunt
My dream goes like this: It’s a cold morning, with temperatures in the high teens. The first breath after stepping out of the house is like an Aqua Velva slap in the face — it wakes you right up. There’s ice on the puddles as I open the cold steel gate and pull into my hunting area. A lonely breeze rattles the last dangling oak leaves just enough to cover the sound of my approach. It has a very somber, almost workman-like feel to it. You don’t dance into this dream; you sneak into it!
As the yellow sun starts to rise, it shines across a picked cornfield on a big buck that has just stepped from cover. He pans his blocky head from side to side, obviously trying to decide what to do next. The grunt call hits my mouth and punches out two guttural notes.
Between us are 200 yards of frosted stalks. The buck snaps his head around and stares, then begins the slow and agonizing walk. Through the binoculars, I can see a heavy layer of frost on his back; his chocolate antlers are glazed to a shiny white by the same thick coating. Steam rolls from his nose with every breath, and his heavily muscled neck ripples with each step. That is the vision that gets me out of bed on those cold November mornings!
Even mature bucks move freely after dark during the rut, and their nighttime wanderings tend to spill over into the morning hours. It probably has to do with comfort levels. The normal human activity in most areas is higher right before sunset than it is right after sunrise. This can keep the bucks in their beds until dark in areas with moderate to heavy hunting pressure, but by morning, those same deer have been in a safe setting for nearly 12 hours. They’re not quite as wary and are a little more trusting. They’re tired, and maybe their guard is down just a bit. Most importantly, though, they’re moving during daylight — a rarity in the world of whitetail bucks.
I also think this morning movement has to do with their search habits. Does spend a large portion of their nighttime hours bedded in their feeding areas. They keep a pretty low profile at night, traveling very little, but just before daylight, they mobilize as they begin picking their way back toward their bedding areas. In the process, they start laying down scent trails again. This activity spurs a renewed cycle of buck movement.
I see it every morning: The does come past, and then an hour later, the bucks come past. The right stand is critical to take advantage of this behavior; I’ll get to that later.
Temperature is another reason I believe bucks move better in the morning than the evening. Think about it in human terms: Put on all the layers of clothing you own, enough that if you lie down on a patch of snow for several hours the snow won’t even melt. How much running around are you going to do if it’s 60 degrees out? It’s the same with deer; they’re wearing their super-warm, hollow-fiber-filled winter coats. Because it is almost always cooler during the first few hours of morning than during the last few hours of the afternoon, deer naturally feel more comfortable moving during the morning.
The final reason I now like mornings best is because my morning stands have gotten better. I don’t hunt the same stands in the morning that I might hunt in the afternoon, and that improvement in my understanding of deer hunting has definitely helped me be more successful.
3 Morning Hotspots
During the rut, there’s very little in a buck’s behavior that allows you to pin down a pattern. How can you hope to predict where he’ll be next when he probably doesn’t know himself? You can count on one thing, though: Bucks will be looking for does.
Here are my top three morning stands, ranked by effectiveness.
Doe Bedding Areas
My favorite morning stand during the rut is one located carefully on the fringe of a doe bedding area. Normally, the does will start to arrive at their bedding areas first, and then the bucks will filter in. If the morning is cool, it is likely that buck movement will be good for hours — I have seen the action at secluded doe bedding areas last until early afternoon!
A word of caution: You can’t afford to educate many does. If they catch on to the fact that you are hunting, they will stop using the bedding area, or at least give your stands a wide berth. Either way, your chances for taking a buck go down.
To keep the does in the dark for as long as possible, it pays to hunt stands only when three conditions coexist: You have to be on the downwind edge of the bedding area, and you have to be on the side of the bedding area that is opposite the nearest feeding area so you can sneak in through the back door. Finally, you need to be able to sneak out at midday without alerting any deer.
To satisfy all three conditions, you may have to hunt a conservative location at the very fringe of a bedding area. That’s fine; as long as the does remain unalarmed, you will be able to hunt the stand often enough to fine-tune its location. As the old saying goes, “Discretion is the better part of valor.” Live to fight another day.
I’m a huge fan of hunting small openings in the cover near bedding areas in the mornings, but micro-plots are a very close second — some years, I would rank them above doe bedding areas.
Keep these openings small — half an acre is perfect. To sweeten my micro-plots, I usually plant clover or a brassica blend so the deer have one more reason to use them. These small openings tend to be the last places a buck will be in the morning before heading into nearby thickets to bed down or look for more does. Does file through these spots, too, nibbling at the clover and just hanging out before leisurely bedding down in the cover nearby.
I have a couple of these micro-plots on my farm, and they are my go-to spots for morning action during the rut. If you think about your hunting area (even if you are hunting via permission), you will find a couple of these small openings that you can clean up and plant.
Funnel stands between two doe bedding areas are easier to hunt than the bedding areas themselves because the deer don’t linger in these corridors. Therefore, it is less likely your location will be discovered. You can find a really good example of a funnel between two bedding areas at the top end of an erosion ditch that separates two ridges or points. (Does often bed on ridges and points.) As the bucks move from one ridge to the other, they have to circle around the top of the ditch (assuming it is steep and deep) and come past your stand. This kind of terrain feature is fairly common in many places where whitetails are found.
Another example of a bedding-to-bedding funnel is a simple brushy fence line between two woodlots. I killed my very first good buck hunting such a spot. Even the hourglass-shaped place where two larger blocks of cover contact each other can make for a great morning stand locale during the rut.
What About Evenings?
Doe bedding areas aren’t nearly as effective in the evenings as they are in the mornings, because the does are heading away from these spots. If you have learned nothing else from this article, I hope you at least take away the fact that bucks are looking for does. So, you don’t want to hunt where the does were; you want to hunt where they are or will be.
Given the fact that a small food source will always attract does when they first rise from their beds, micro-plots can still be very good in the evenings. There is no reason to abandon them once the sun starts dropping.
Funnels between two doe bedding areas, however, are similar to the bedding areas themselves — they aren’t as good in the evenings as they are in the mornings because, again, the deer are heading toward food.
When bucks start moving in the middle of the afternoon, they’ll naturally gravitate toward where does feed. They know the does will show up soon, and that is where they’ll find the action. There are lots of ways to hunt these places, but if you go back to the title, this article is all about mornings and why they are so awesome. (I’ll save the best evening stands for another day.)
So, this November, set that alarm and don’t hit the snooze button. You’ll be glad you got up early!