Deer behavior changes throughout the season. Your hunting strategy should change, too.
By Dana R. Rogers
Deer hunting tactics and patterns revolve around many factors, such as weather, food, pressure and the specific needs of deer during that period. Given the print constraints this publication is now under, I’ll go over the factors I take into consideration and dive into the strategies that have worked for me in various situations.
Early Archery Seasons
Early archery seasons in September offer some great opportunities to locate bachelor groups on predictable feeding patterns. Scouting is critical, so I prefer to use trail cameras on water sources, fence crossings, and trails entering and exiting known feeding areas such as alfalfa and soybeans, if available. In more arid, open-country situations trail cameras on water sources work great, but glassing from a vehicle or on a ridge top are where I usually get most of my information.
During very early season, I prefer to spend the mornings scouting and glassing, trying to locate bachelor groups heading to bed after a night of feeding. Much of my September deer hunting is spot-and-stalk hunting, and knowing where a target deer is bedded down is where it all starts.
Glass your approach with wind direction and terrain ingrained in your memory. If the wind and terrain are not favorable for a stalk, I don’t even attempt it. I’ve lost count of how many stalks I’ve blown, and the majority were failed from the beginning because I pushed the envelope when the odds were stacked against me from the start. It can be time consuming for all the stars to align, but finding an animal where you can get close without being busted is critical.
Once you’ve found a target animal that you are confident you can approach within range and not get busted, the stalk is on. Using wind and terrain, move to your final stalking position hidden from view.
I sometimes take off my boots and use heavy socks or even stalking shoes over my boots. Knee pads and good gloves are valuable in cactus-infested western prairie country.
In broken country I almost always want to be above the animal depending on thermals. If you can get to 40 yards and find a location with enough cover such as sage, brush, shrubs, etc., to stay hidden, that’s the type of spot I try to get to so I can nock up, range and get ready for the shot. Obviously, all of that is easier said than done.
Another great tactic is hunting with a partner that can give you hand signals while you are stalking. In open country, having someone with good glass keeping you on track and watching your target is invaluable.
If I can get to that 40-yard position, then I feel my odds of getting an opportunity are pretty good. However, once in position, it sometimes takes a while for the deer to stand and stretch. Some hunters try to force the issue and get the deer up by throwing a rock or making a grunting sound. I’ve tried that dozens of times with almost zero success. I now prefer to wait it out, but it can often take an hour or two before the deer decides to rise. This is tricky, because the longer you wait, the more chances something out of your control can go wrong, like the wind shifting or another animal noticing your presence.
Spot and stalk is an exciting way to bowhunt, but it’s extremely challenging. More often than not, you’ll screw something up. However, the more you practice, the more you’ll learn.
In eastern locales with more timber cover, a time-tested bowhunting tactic is a stand or blind over water or a trail leading from bedding cover to a food source. Afternoons are where this tactic is often most successful. It’s not something I personally do much, but you can certainly do it effectively. These early season deer are very predictable and vulnerable if you can get the wind right and make it happen the first time or two you go after it.
The warm weather is a concern when it comes to salvaging meat, so please be prepared to get your animal dressed, cooled off and on ice quickly. Making a clean, quick kill is of the utmost importance, particularly in hot weather.
When the calendar turns from September to October, I still like to spot and stalk while spending tons of time behind the spotting scope and using binoculars to pinpoint animals. If I’m mule deer hunting, not a whole lot has changed with my tactics except most of the bucks are now starting to break up and spend a little less time together as the testosterone begins flowing more heavily.
Whitetails will react the same, and this is also the time when feeding patterns often change. If you are in soybean country where the bucks were all over them in August and much of September, you’ll notice a big change as the beans yellow and start to dry down.
As the days move on, you’ll start to notice more rubbing and scraping activity. If you’ve done much hunting on your property, note where you’ve seen much of this activity starting in past years. I still like to spend time on water and food-source movement patterns, but success is often fleeting in the middle of October until more rut activity kicks up. If you can locate good scraping activity, that’s a place to spend some time. Though I have to say the vast majority of scrape activity is done at night according to my trail camera observations.
One option that can be successful during this mid-October period is to locate a staging area just outside the bedding area where bucks spend time doing some rubbing and light scraping prior to heading off to their primary food source. This will have required some scouting from previous years, or, perhaps, the risky proposition of on-the-ground scouting close to bedding areas during the season.
In the eastern ag landscape of the Dakotas, things should start getting a little clearer as the harvest of soybeans and corn starts to limit the bedding and cover options available. One option I’ve tried sparingly that can be an active and effective method later during harvest is to stalk corn fields. By stalking across corn rows slowly, you can find deer bedded if the rows are wide enough to offer some visibility.
It’s a little-used tactic, but it allows you to stay mobile and find deer where they rarely experience any pressure. It’s going to take a really windy day to make it work, though.
As Halloween approaches, you’ll see more daylight activity and movement. The bucks will be feeling their infusion of testosterone and putting more time into opening scrapes and rub lines. A good late October tactic is to sit downwind of an active primary scrape and rub line. The movement pattern will mirror bedding areas to feeding areas and also open the possibilities of daylight buck movement as they start to search out those first estrous does.
Carry you grunt call and rattling antlers or bag. Light rattling and soft tending grunts are in order. If you are into using scents and mock scrapes, now is a great time to put those to use.
Hunting the Rut
For high-intensity rut activity with chasing, seeking and daylight movement, it’s tough to beat the first 10 days of November, in my opinion. Setting up in terrain features like funnels, pinch points, creek crossings or where steep ridges and saddles force deer movement into constricted travel corridors is where I spend a lot of time chasing whitetails this time of year.
Blind calling can work, but I like to use my grunts to turn deer I’ve already spotted. A more intense rattling sequence paired with intense roaring grunts and snort-wheezing is something I use a few times a day during this timeframe.
Don’t forget your decoy, either. From just before Halloween to late November, a decoy or pair of decoys can really help set the stage during your theatrical calling sessions.
I like to use decoys in areas that offer a bit more visibility — areas like field edges or waterway openings. A bedded doe and standing buck can really get the attention of a more dominant buck coming to check out your calling. They will also just come to check out the setup if they are visually stimulated, thinking they can come steal the fake buck’s date.
I like to set up the decoy perpendicular to my stand about 20 yards upwind or quartering up wind. Watching your decoy get blown up by a side-stepping buck with his hair all puffed out and ears back is something you won’t forget.
Moving the calendar on toward Thanksgiving, most rifle seasons will be open and running. The rut will be waning in most locations, and your tactics will need to adjust.
If you are hunting with firearms it’s hard to beat a good old-fashioned deer drive with friends and neighbors if seeing deer and filling tags is your primary goal. Those are great fun, but unless you control a lot of property, you are only going to push deer off land you can hunt, and the pressure will remain long after your drive is completed.
I like to retreat toward distant observation stands, glassing with a spotting scope or good binoculars like my Leupolds. Bucks will still search for the last receptive does, but the intense pressure of firearms seasons will start to take a toll, making safety and security their daily goals. Covering ground and glassing from high points or roads looking at food sources close to security cover should show you where deer are now spending the bulk of their time.
During very late November and on into December, deer focus on survival. Finding what food sources are left, as well as their proximity to any remaining security cover, are key locations. Large, broken country with river bottoms, creek bottoms and coulees or gulches can offer great sanctuary. Native grass stands enrolled in CRP or cattail sloughs not filled with water are also likely hangouts when the wind and freezing temperatures come from the north.
By glassing from a distance and noting entry and exit points deer use from security cover and where they wind up feeding, you can set up effective ambush locations. Trail cameras are now back at the forefront of my scouting. As the deer have gone through months of pressure, they are on high alert and spook easily.
By scouting from afar, you can note likely ambush points and slip in under the cover of darkness to set up a blind or stand. During the late season I rarely hunt mornings to keep pressure at a minimum and allow deer time to settle down. Deer often travel great distances during the late season to find food. Areas like alfalfa, winter wheat, harvested crop fields with waste corn or beans, as well as any late food plots you’ve left are absolute gold during this timeframe.
Once your blind or stand is set and settled into the area, make sure you have chosen a location you can get into and out of without being detected. Use screening cover like creeks or terrain features to hide your entry. Keep movement to a minimum and be ready to get in early and perhaps stay late during frigid conditions. I still utilize tree stands during the late season, but with the leaves gone now back cover is often very limited and getting skylined by passing deer is a concern. A good popup, commercial or homemade blind with 360-degree cover from eyes, noses and the elements can really be lethal now.
Another thing to be prepared for is layering your clothing and making sure you can remain warm for long stretches in freezing conditions. A Heater Body Suit and portable heater can really come in handy. With all those clothes, however, make sure you are still practicing with your bow or firearm to make sure your wardrobe doesn’t affect your ability to be lethal once your opportunity comes up.
The hunting season is here, and if you are a multi-weapon, multi-season hunter, the tactics and strategies will change and vary as the seasons progress. Make sure you keep scouting all year and become aware what all these changes mean for your hunting success. And last, always respect the Land, respect the landowner and respect the wildlife.
About the Author: Dana Rogers grew up in central South Dakota and now lives in the Black Hills. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.