There's something magical about a morning hunt. Maybe it's the mystery. You go in blind, in the dark, settle in and wait. Ever so slowly the woods come to life. Dark, vague animal shapes gradually reveal themselves as stumps. Approaching footsteps in the dry leaves start your heart but it's only a tardy possum heading for its den. Maybe it's the anxiety. A short time before, you were sound asleep. Now you move hastily to your stand like the white rabbit, late for some very important date. The whole day lies ahead but you know the most productive hour is fleeting. The deer seem to know it too as they move purposefully toward their morning beds.
Afternoons are a more casual affair. You take your time getting on stand, and even more getting ready once you're there. It may be an hour or more before the deer start moving, and then they'll be in no great hurry to get anywhere in particular. Their numbers will slowly increase and there's no sense of urgency until the final few moments of daylight tick away.
Which time is better? If push came to shove I guess I'd have to go with afternoons; but I'd venture to guess you could find equal numbers of archery hunters on either side of the argument. Their justification may be based on conventional wisdom imparted to them by some local veteran, an accumulation of their own past experience, personal preference or merely what best suits their work schedule. But does one period really offer better odds than another?
Research from Georgia and Texas showed fall deer activity peaking at dawn and dusk. No big surprise there. The morning peak was more pronounced, with deer traveling farther distances--on average, almost twice as far as in the afternoon. However, morning activity was concentrated in a shorter time span, 6 to 8 a.m. whereas afternoons registered most activity between 4 and 8 p.m.
The Pressure Factor
Results from a controlled hunt in Ohio showed hunter success rates declined over the duration of the hunt. More precisely, increased effort (time) was required to be successful because of fewer shot opportunities. Part of this, intuitively, was due to fewer remaining deer. But the decline was greater than could be accounted for strictly by fewer deer. The difference was considered an artifact of hunting pressure. This too you would expect. Somewhat unexpected was that the decline was more pronounced in morning hunts than in afternoon hunts.
The biologists had a hypothesis for that too. They reasoned that deer, theoretically, would have been active during the morning hunts and resting during the early part of the afternoon hunts. The active deer would be more inclined to flee from approaching hunters by immediately leaving the area, thus making them less visible and less vulnerable.
Resting deer in the afternoon, they theorized, were probably not as "ready" to flee, "a stronger stimulus would be necessary to elicit flight during these resting periods." As a result they would be more likely to hide from approaching hunters by retaining their position until the last possible moment. The researchers concluded that, "... deer avoidance behavior probably played a large role in determining hunting efficiency."
Seasonal changes are also a factor. Various radio collar studies have shown that during the rut those bell curves of peak activity flatten out, particularly among bucks. They're on their feet more, and could be out and about almost any time of day, though data still show peaks at dawn and dusk. There are also geographic and anthropogenic factors.
Deer on Anticosti Island, which have no large predators, are active throughout the day. In places like Saskatchewan, where it gets real cold, deer tend to move more during the "warmest" part of the day, in what would be the doldrums most anywhere else. In Texas, they simply wait for the feeders to go off. And the more heavily hunted an area, the less deer movement during daylight hours. So many intrinsic and extrinsic factors influence deer movement that it's hard to generalize about whether afternoons or mornings are better.
The real issue may not be when to hunt but how and where. The fact that deer are traveling long distances over a short time in the morning strongly suggests that travel corridors might be the better option. Conversely, more localized movement over a longer period in the afternoon points toward feeding areas--the closer to bedding areas the better. This too will vary with local conditions but at least it gives you more data to load into your formula for success.
The morning versus afternoon debate will no doubt continue. Meanwhile, as my friend Mike Jordan likes to say, "the best time to be in the woods is when the season is open."
Tip of the Month:
Stalk Your Stand. You chose that location for a reason, whether it was heavy sign or ample deer sightings. If you chose your ambush location well, there's a high likelihood deer will be close by. Try to approach your stand from the downwind side and still-hunt the last 100 yards or so. This is especially important in the afternoon because deer may be bedded nearby.