Most people simply hunt the way they were taught and never question why. Each year thousands of hunters rise in the morning before sunrise and make the trip to be in their stands at first light. But is this really the best time to take a deer?
There are other dedicated evening hunters. Most could never really tell you the reason why they believe that hunting those last few hours before dark seems to work for them. Is that the best time to find a trophy buck?
To really understand the best time to hunt deer we must look at deer behavior and how that changes as the seasons change. There may be no hard and fast rule but there are certain guidelines that will help you choose the best time to get a shot at that trophy buck.
Before we break off into best times to hunt, let’s take a very brief overview of a deer’s daily cycle.
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A Day in the Life of a Deer
Though much will change as deer change food sources through the year, this is a general guideline to the daily movement habits of a deer. Note that during the rut, all this goes out the window for bucks.
- Deer begin their day (so to speak) a couple of hours before dark. Depending on your location and the time of year, this could be anywhere from 3:00 pm to 6:00 pm for most of deer season.
- Food will be the greatest priority for deer when they first become active. Though they are often more alert, deer may move toward food sources recklessly. Once they have started eating, you can expect them to be very alert to any signs of danger.
- As daylight fades, deer will become more alert. Though they are primarily nocturnal, deer don’t have the best night vision. Of course, neither do hunters and most states have strict limits on the times you can hunt so take it indoors before dark.
- Throughout the night, deer will browse and graze, occasionally heading back to bedding spots for a few hours around midnight where they will remain for a couple of hours before heading out to eat again in the early morning.
- Deer will begin heading back to bedding sites anywhere from just before dawn until about 3 hours after sunrise. Generally, anywhere from about 6:00 am to 10:00 am for most of the country. At this time deer are often lethargic, especially those returning later in the morning.
- Deer will bed down until midday, often between 11:00 am and 1:00 pm when they will rise for a stroll and a snack. They will bed down again, sometimes in the same spot or sometimes a different one and will remain there until they rise for their evening feeding.
- Studies have shown that the least active period for deer is between 1:30 pm and 3:30 pm when deer are most likely deep at rest. Of course, during the rut bucks may continue to move at these times.
What can we make of this information on the best times to hunt? Well, we can see that both morning and evening are viable hunting times but that there is a period of mid-day activity that is rarely taken advantage of.
We can expand on this by looking at food sources, temperatures, and other variables that may affect a deer’s behavior. As hunters, we are most interested in the early to mid-Fall but for sake of thoroughness let’s get a good overview.
Seasonality of Deer Behavior
If we begin our year in spring at the first sign of the bloom when many does are either giving birth or are just a few weeks away, we can cover each season. Because it is of such interest, Fall will need a little more detail.
- Early Spring – If the winter has been hard, deer will begin moving earlier and will bed down later. Between those times they will ceaselessly look for forage. As fawns are weaned off milk, sleeping will be restricted to just a few hours just before mid-afternoon and activity will be greatest in the early morning hours and around dusk.
- Mid to Late Spring – This is a time of abundance and growth. Deer will move little and stick to areas around the best food sources. If the location is good, a deer may only move a few hundred yards a day. It is not uncommon for late spring deer to move in short spurts throughout the day and bed in different sites each time.
- Summer – Expect deer to bed down throughout most of the long, hot days of summer. They will forage mostly at night but younger deer may be more restless and venture out early in the evening or late in the morning.
- Early Fall – The time around September is known as a time of harvest and bounty, not just for people but for deer as well. Deer will eat voraciously and will move as far as needed to get to quality food sources like alfalfa fields, soybean, and other crops.
- Mid Fall – The mid-fall period is when the majority of hunters will take to the field. By this time deer have settled into a calorie game. They will eat and rest in spurts, often three cycles a day. They will eat just after dusk, very early morning, and around noon.
- The Rut – During the rut, all bets are off for any male deer. They may move at odd hours or almost constantly. They are easily distracted but prone to moving quickly and erratically. If you have been scouting a big buck for a few weeks before the rut, know that his pattern will likely change.
- Late Fall – Bucks will continue to behave erratically, does will also become restless and the smaller amounts of available food will become more valuable. Deer will follow the mid-Fall cycle as a general rule but if food is scarce, they may roam at odd times.
- Winter – As the rut ends and winter sets in, deer will often begin to forage over large areas. In especially cold conditions deer may even move in the middle of the afternoon to take advantage of the warmth. Winter behavior will carry us all the way into spring.
For most of the year, deer will hold a solid movement cycle of morning and evening but the time and direction of their movement may differ from season to season. Being mindful of what a deer is looking for and when it will be looking will give you your best shot at a trophy buck.
Other Factors Determining Deer Movement
Deer will move at odd times for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, most of these reasons will make it harder to hunt rather than something we, as hunters, can capitalize on.
- Weather is the year round most common factor that will cause a deer to move at times not normal to their pattern. Heavy rain or snow may keep them bedded down longer than usual or prevent them from moving at all. Hot days can have similar effects or drive them to move to more sheltered areas.
- The phase of the moon can have a dramatic impact on when deer feed. The old thought was that deer fed on nights the moon was bright and stayed bedded down when the moon was dark but there is evidence to challenge that belief.
- For the time being, understand that the amount of light will be a factor on how deer feed and that full moons drive deer to food, meaning that they will often seek forage later and head to bedding spots earlier.
- Temperature is a good guideline to how deer will move, especially in the Fall. If there is a cold front it will often drive deer out of bed early and keep them at forage for longer. On the coldest mornings, deer may head back to bedding spots much later in the day than usual. Sometimes as late as noon.
- How pressured a deer is by hunters or other human activity in an area will make deer move more often. A deer that feels safe without humans around will stay in bed longer and be less alert heading to and from forage. This can mean that the presence of hunters can completely change the activity cycle of deer.
- The last motivating factor of deer piggybacks off the previous one. A deer will move out of fear. If a deer is bedded and is startled, it will move immediately. Sometimes this will be the sudden bolt we all expect but deer can be quite stealthy and leave an area without a hunter even knowing they were there.
Breaking it All Down
Determining the best times to hunt with so many variables is a difficult science at best, especially without actual empirical evidence. We are making an educated guess based on recognized patterns of behavior and attempting to play some psychology games with the deer mind.
The following are some guidelines about how productive a specific time will be.
- Early Morning – Pre-Dawn will be most productive following nights with a clear sky and bright moon. It can also be a great time when a warm front is being pushed in by a storm and temperatures are unseasonably mild. Deer in the morning are often more lethargic than in the evening.
- Mid-Morning – If the day is cold, mid-morning will be the most common time to find deer moving. This is especially true from mid Fall until the rut. Deer can also be found around this time when the night has been overcast or moonless. As the year progresses and food becomes harder to find, deer will return to bed later. These deer will be very alert.
- Late Morning – The period when most people are leaving their stands, generally around 10:30 am or 11:00 am is often ignored as a prime deer hunting time but some late deer will still be returning to their bedding sites. This will be most common on the coldest nights or warmest mornings. If it rained late into the evening the previous day, that can also motivate a deer to stay out a little later.
- Noon – The period between 11:00 am and 1:00 pm sees a mass exodus of hunters from tree stands and the woods in general. Keep to your stand until around 1:00 and you can get a shot a deer that most people will miss. The act of hunters moving will startle deer and cause them to move. Keep quiet, these deer are hyper-alert already.
- Early Afternoon – This is your best shot at a break. No matter the weather, deer will most likely be bedded down from around 1:30 until nearly dusk.
- Late Afternoon – This time just before sunset will be most affected by weather and temperature. Cold nights or incoming storms will push deer out earlier. During the rut, bucks will be active earlier than normal but may not head to food sites as normal. They may linger in the woods longer. Take extra care when heading out to your stand.
- Dusk – Those last few hours of good hunting most deer will be active short of bad weather. If you are taking your stand very near sunset, be mindful. Your presence can greatly affect the path deer will take to get to food. What may have been a well-used trail at other times of the day may be vacant if you make too much noise or leave scent.
The Best Time of Day to Hunt – Finally
If you are looking for the most productive time to hunt overall without any of the variables, it is mid-morning to early afternoon. The best bet is to hit your stand just before daybreak and stay there until around 1:00 pm with most deer being taken between 10:00 am and 11:30 am with a few larger kills stretching into the period around noon.
The data illustrating this is available for various states from universities, wildlife organizations, and governmental agencies. If you can locate this data and look at it in conjunction with weather data, it can give you a good window into local deer behavior.
If your hunting times are cramped and you are looking at the perfect storm of conditions to get that big buck, here is what you need: A day where the preceding day was cold or rainy but the sun rose clear and warm, take to your stand at sunrise or a little before. Be patient and hold out till other hunters begin to leave the woods.
Your best time will fall between 10:00 am and noon. Statistically, that is the best bet. But deer don’t read the statistics, there is no guarantee that on that day the deer will even be where you are.
A constant study of the deer in your area combined with a history of tracking their movements and behavior can still leave your tag unfilled. The best deer hunters are the most vigilant and the most persistent. Everyone has an off season from time to time. The only guarantee is that you won’t kill any deer from your bedroom, get out there and hunt!