I’ve been blessed to have hunted Idaho whitetails in late August, Wisconsin deer in mid-September, Texas bruisers in December, Alabama bucks in January and deer at several other destinations in October and November.
And during the past 40 years, I’ve photographed whitetails in many locations throughout North America.
The take-away from my four-decade pursuit of Odocoileus virgitiianus is this: Although whitetails might look the same, they are different in many ways.
Human pressure, food sources, available cover, sex ratio and the time of year they’re pursued play an important role in whether you will be successful.
But in my experience, understanding how whitetails live and survive from velvet peel to the end of the year is the most important of all those factors.
A by-product of the almost 2,000 whitetail seminars I’ve done the past 35 years is the questions I’m asked by attendees.
One comes up repeatedly: “When is the best time to harvest a nice buck; during the pre-rut, rut or post-rut?”
Early in my career, my answer was always the same: the rut. Nowadays, my response is no longer so quick.
Let me explain, because all three periods can offer incredible opportunities for pursuing the buck of your dreams.
For the purpose of this article, I’ll refer to white- tails that have a November rut.
Time line: The last week in August to the last week in October.
Behavior: By late August, bucks and does are rapidly transitioning toward November.
From the last week in August through the first couple of weeks of September, velvet peel occurs.
During this time, summer hair is shed, and a deer’s winter coat grows in. Though quite thin at first, the fur will become thicker each day as temperatures become cooler.
Between Sept. 1 and early October, a buck’s testosterone level begins to increase. Throughout this period, bucks that made up a summer bachelor group spar a great deal to determine which will be the dominant buck. In addition, rubbing and scraping behaviors increase as the days inch toward October.
Rubbing behavior associated with velvet peel should not be confused with the rubbing that occurs after velvet peel. By the end of September, rubs along well-used travel corridors should be noticeable if there are mature bucks in the population.
During summer, the home ranges of most bucks encompass less than 600 acres, and in some cases less than half that if food is plentiful. For the first half of September, bucks remain in the
bachelor groups they formed during summer. But by the end of September, they begin to wander, with some bucks doubling and tripling their summer range.
As September progresses, scraping behavior increases. However, scrapes are difficult to detect because the pawing-of-the-ground aspect of scraping seldom occurs during this time.
Rather, in the early pre-rut, a buck will only work an overhanging branch to leave scent on it from his nasal, preorbital and forehead glands.
When done, a buck will occasionally urinate at the location before moving on.
This September scraping behavior is short-lived, because when October arrives and testosterone levels continue to increase, bucks will begin pawing the ground under the licking branch when they work a scrape.
In most regions of the North, pre-rut scraping behavior will be more obvious by mid-October.
Even though testosterone levels and rubbing and scraping behavior increase daily, a buck’s interest in does is limited to non-existent from late August through the first week in October.
During the pre-rut, it’s common to see bucks and does feeding together at prime food sources, especially during September.
As the calendar nears mid-October, a buck will occasionally bluff charge a doe when he encounters her.
This behavior usually occurs at common feeding areas and amounts to little more than a buck lunging at a doe.
Typically, the buck will not pursue the doe, which will run only a short distance before continuing to feed.
Food consumption: Throughout the pre-rut, food dominates the lives of bucks and does.
I raise whitetails, so I know they can easily increase their body weight 20 percent from mid- August to mid-October. Whitetails are eating machines during this time, consuming 10 or more pounds of food a day.
When they’re most active: In early September, bucks are pretty much on their summer schedule.
As a result, they are very predictable. Because of the thickness of their fur, which grows thicker by the day, and the warm days common in September and early October, most deer activity occurs at night, when air temperatures are much cooler.
Most daytime activity occurs two hours before sundown. By sunrise, most whitetails have bedded for the day.
Attempting to hunt in the morning during the pre-rut is difficult because most deer will be bedded before sunrise.
Time line: From the final week of October through the end of November.
Behavior: By the end of October, a bucks testosterone level and a does estrogen levels have peaked.
As a result, a buck will resemble a weight lifter. Maxed out on hormones, mature bucks become scent-leaving machines, telegraphing their presence by the rubs and scrapes they make.
Bucks can also be expected to cover a lot of ground, especially if there’s a low doe population. When this is the case, it’s not uncommon for a mature buck to cover 4,000 or more acres in his search for an estrous doe. This is why it’s so difficult to hunt a specific buck during the rut.
Fighting is common throughout the rut, especially when two or more bucks encounter a doe in estrus. I’ve witnessed many such fights, and they are impressive to watch. Some can be extremely vicious, especially when two fully mature bucks go head to head.
Food consumption: If not heavily harassed by bucks, a doe’s food consumption will remain quite high during the rut, except for the 24-hour period when she is in estrus, during which she consumes little or no food.
The best way to describe the feeding habits of bucks during the rut is that they eat on the run.
They take a few bites here and there but typically have little interest in food because their minds are constantly focused on finding a doe to breed.
When they’re most active: During the rut, a buck is so maxed out on hormones and so intent on breeding that he seldom beds longer than two hours.
About the only way this behavior changes is if human pressure makes him go nocturnal.
Does, on average, feed every four hours, so they have the potential of moving throughout the day, with the first and last two hours of daylight being their most active period.
Time line: Dec. 1 through January
Behavior: In most regions of the North, post-rut deer activity is marginal at best because of the human pressure encountered during firearms seasons.
During this period, sex is no longer a buck’s focus; food is. A landowner who has great food will have deer when the post-rut arrives.
Post-rut rubbing and scraping behavior will occur, but it’s only a fraction of what it was during the rut.
In most regions, up to 10 percent of the does will breed in December, with most of that occurring the first half of the month.
However, breeding behavior will not be nearly as intense as it was during the rut.
There are three primary reasons: There are fewer bucks after firearms season has ended, so competition is not as intense.
Also, the testosterone level of bucks has decreased to pre-rut levels.
Further, bucks are exhausted from the rigors of November’s rut. Therefore, most rut-worn bucks can be expected to bed more than 80 percent of the day.
Food consumption: When the post-rut arrives, bucks will have lost up to 20 percent of their pre-rut body weight.
Tired and hungry, they gravitate to whatever food sources they can find to gain weight. If food is available, bucks can be expected to eat up to 10 pounds of food per day.
Does will continue to feed as they have since summer and in most cases have substantial fat reserves.
Unfortunately, many parts of the North have significant snowfall by December, making it difficult for deer to get the amount of food they need to build fat reserves for winter.
When they’re most active: Can you kill a buck at daybreak in the post-rut?
Yes, but dawn is not the period most whitetails are most active.
Midday and two to three hours before sundown are the prime hunting times during the post-rut, especially the last hour of daylight.
When is the Magic Time?
As mentioned, I used to tell hunters the rut was the best time to kill a buck.
In most cases, I still feel that way if you’re just trying to kill any buck. For me, there is no more exciting time to hunt whitetails than when the rut is boiling.
I love to hunt bucks that respond to the sound of my rattling antlers and grunt call.
The downside of hunting the rut is that most mature bucks cover so much ground that it’s nearly impossible to predict where they will be.
Because of that, attempting to kill the buck you’ve scouted all summer and early fall is a crapshoot at best during the rut.
I’ve realized that if you want to kill the buck at the top of your hit list, doing so during the rut takes a back seat to doing it during the pre- and post-rut.
What I’ve learned from five decades of pursuing whitetails is that in most areas, the pre-rut is the best time to kill the buck that keeps you awake at night, because he’s predictable and hasn’t had hunters pressuring him yet.
Until the 1990s, the primary hunting strategy in my region of New York’s during firearms season was drive hunting, which made all whitetails extremely nocturnal.
Also, that strategy was so successful that few bucks lived to see the post-rut.
Consequently, hunters who took to the woods during the post-rut seldom encountered an antlered buck.
In 1991, things began to change when many landowners in my area began practicing quality deer management.
In the process, drive hunting became rare, yearling bucks were allowed to walk and landowners began planting food plots.
This launched the great late-season hunting we now have.
The post-rut is an exciting time to hunt because bucks and does are more easily patterned than during the rut.
Though deer aren’t as active in December as they were in November, the two hours before sunset can be magic, because deer that have been bedded since dawn are eager to eat.
Top Strategies For Hunting Pre-Rut, Rut And Post-Rut Bucks
• Hunt primary food sources.
• Keep your scent to a minimum. This is critical.
• Map the wind in the area you intend to hunt to determine proper stand location.
The best time to hunt is during the last two hours of daylight.
• Have an exit plan. If you hunt a food source where deer will be present, have someone pick you up with an ATV at the end of the day. It’s better to scatter deer this way than by climbing from the stand. If you are hunting alone, use an electronic predator caller (stashed in brush a distance from your stand) to spook deer off the food source so you can exit. Emitting three or four coyote howls from the caller will work every time and won't educate deer to your presence.
• Set up along a transition zone trail (funnels and pinch points) between the primary bedding and feeding area.
• Don’t even think of hunting the location if the wind is not in your favor.
• When hunting in transition zones, it’s important to have an entry and exit strategy. This can be improved if you use a yard rake to clear a path to your stand.
• Hang mock licking branches every 50 yards along the trail where you are set up. Using an attractant lure is not necessary, as bucks will begin leaving their scent within 24 hours if you’re in a good location.
• Hunt all day if possible. The first and last two hours of the day will be prime time.
• Master calling techniques. Use rattling antlers and a good grunt tube capable of making doe bleats, doe grunts, guttural buck grunts and tending grunts.
• Hunt close to — or even on — the primary food source.
• Make sure the wind is in your favor at all times, because bucks will be bedded near the food source.
• Your calls of choice are a grunt tube and bleat can (use the biggest can you can find) to mimic doe sounds, because there will still be a few does that have yet to breed when the post-rut arrives. Though rattling can work during the post-rut, it will not be as effective as it was in the rut.
• Midday and the two hours before sunset will be the prime post-rut times to hunt, especially the latter.
• You can't afford to educate deer during this time, so use the same end-of-day pick up strategy I mentioned for the pre-rut. It works well and keeps deer from turning nocturnal.