Being in the right place at the right time is the key to success in any endeavor, and bowhunting is no exception. Sometimes people are in the right place at the right time simply out of coincidence, indeed there are lottery winners out there. Although there are always a few hunters every season who manage to kill a mature buck simply by chance, this is akin to winning the whitetail lottery. Really successful people, and particularly really successful bowhunters, plan for success, and plan to get their timing just right. Unfortunately, too many bowhunters disregard timing in their hunting and just hunt. This mistake allows a lot of mature bucks to make through yet another hunting season unscathed. There are three areas in bowhunting where timing is absolutely critical: scouting timing, seasonal hunting timing, and daily hunting timing. If you can get your timing right, you will dramatically increase your chances of arrowing mature bucks on a regular basis.
Scouting at the wrong time clues a lot of big bucks to the upcoming season and causes them to become nocturnal. This is how the majority of bowhunters blow their chances at a big buck right out of the gates. To avoid this the vast majority of your scouting should take place post season, either just after you are tagged out for the year, or in the spring after the snow melts and before green up. Post season scouting allows you to get all the work of clearing out trees and trimming shooting lanes out of the way without fear of spooking the deer you will be hunting. By fall the deer will have grown accustom to any modifications you made. Doing this just before the season opener just alerts deer to the coming danger. When your spring scouting is completed stay out of the woods.
The next step to scouting timing is a last minute check of your stands. This should take place about a month before the season opener. The goal here is just to control your stands to remove any new growth that may have grown into a shooting lane, or, if you use treestands, to hang a stand. At this juncture the name of the game is to make as little disturbance as possible. This means practicing extreme scent control, and getting in and out as quickly as possible. Do not daudle, or do any unnecessary scouting or walking around. Do the work you have to do and leave immediately. You should also attempt your last minute touch up during a time with as little deer activity as possible. Try to get this done during a day with strong winds, or perhaps a heavy rain. The most common option at this time is scouting during midday, when it is really hot. The heat will be uncomfortable, but the deer will be doing exactly what you wish you were doing, lying low in the shade. Timing your scouting correctly can set you on the path to regular bowhunting success.
The general rule for seasonal hunting timing sounds simple: only hunt your stands when they are ready to be hunted. This is the axiom that most bowhunters ignore. The most common bowhunter behavior is to clear out a couple stands and hunt those stands all season. This is a terrible mistake. Every stand, or hunting spot, should be selected with one question in mind, “When will a mature buck pass through, and when do I need to be there to connect?” Answer this question and follow through with proper hunting and you will eventually be successful. This may mean clearing out a tree and setting a stand with the sole intention of hunting there a single time. Hunting once and killing a big buck may be better than hunting twenty times and not killing anything. My solution to this timing problem is twofold. First, you should have spots prepared for every portion of the season, and second you should only hunt your stands when they should be hunted.
I divide the season into several time frames and have trees cleared out for each. I start with the early season, and move into the mid October phase, then into the pre rut, the rut, post or late rut, and then the late season. Each time frame has to be hunted somewhat differently, while trying to maximize your chances. To be able to hunt each portion of the season properly you also have to understand basic deer behavior through the entire season.
In the early season the deer are still in a late summer routine. This means that their main objective is to feed and bed. Early season spots are usually funnels between bedding and feeding areas, and perhaps a stand for a particular buck if we have one located before the season. Before a buck is disturbed it is possible to intercept him here. The time frame for success is usually very short for such areas. A hunt or two will likely be enough for such spots. Mature bucks tend to disappear, become nocturnal, after a hunt or two in such areas.
During the mid October phase I like tend to hunt what I call secondary spots. These are spots where anything can happen, like funnels between bedding and feeding areas or out of the way areas that have potential but aren’t the best, such as a fenceline through big woods or a property where there isn’t too much buck activity. When conditions are right I will hunt a stand a time or two. Remember, you can’t kill a buck if you aren’t hunting. At this time avoid your best spots, and wait for the best time to hunt them.
Your most important spots are those where the chances are highest of encountering a mature buck. It is no secret that mature bucks move more during daylight starting in the pre rut and continuing on during the main portion of the rut. I consider my best spots primary scrape areas, staging areas, and funnels between bedding areas. Though these spots are ready to go in the spring, I completely avoid them until the pre rut (with the exception of our last minute touch up), which usually starts the last week of October. Avoiding them means absolutely no intrusion, and this means no trail cameras and no extra scouting visits. Every extra visit to an area dimishes your chances for success and is likely to push any mature buck using an area into a nocturnal routine. My typical hunting routine for a primary scrape area is to wait for the pre rut, when there should be buck activity. Then, on an afternoon hunt, I get to that stand as early as possible. Upon arrival I quickly inspect the scrapes. If the scrapes are not active, I turn around and leave. Yes, I completely leave the area, with the intention to return in a few days for another attempt. If the scrapes are active I will hunt that afternoon, and the following morning. Though I hunt most of my stands only a time or two a season, during the pre rut is the time to put in some long hours and it is competely acceptable to hunt a stand couple days in a row. You simply have to be there when your chances of an encounter are highest.
Continuing into the rut you should stick to the same kind of areas as during the pre rut. Though the rut is somewhat unpredictable, and a buck will follow a hot doe anywhere, there is still some standard buck behavior that can be taken advantage of. When a mature buck is not with a doe during the rut he will return briefly to his pattern of scent checking for estrous does. This will take him through the same areas that he used during the pre rut. Bucks also increase the size of their range during the rut, which can create overlap. While the particular buck you are hunting might not appear, another mature buck might just show up. Seasonal hunting timing during the rut means putting in as much time as possible, and hunting all day long.
The post rut should be hunted the same as the pre rut. By late November mature bucks have been on their feet during daylight for about a month. With most does having been bred, the bucks have to look harder for the few remaining does coming into estrus late. Your stand selection and timing should follow the same pattern as during the pre rut.
Daily timing is as critical to success as seasonal timing. Generally, the main timing mistake that costs bowhunters mature bucks is arriving too late on stand in the morning. Mature bucks are usually the first deer to leave their nightime jaunts out into feeding areas and return to the cover of the timber, even during the rut. This normally takes place just before daylight, when most bowhunters are just entering the woods, unwittingly pushing these bucks into thick cover ahead of them, and alerting them to hunting pressure. The only way to counter this is to get there first. I recommend being on stand and quiet at least an hour before first light, but earlier is even better.
You may be wondering what good it is to be in your stand early only to have a buck pass through in the dark before you can shoot it anyway? The reason for the early arrival is twofold. First, a buck that makes the woods just before daylight might not march directly to his bedding area, in fact most the time they don’t. Instead, bucks will either meander a bit until a bit after daylight, or, especially during the pre-rut and rut, stage up and wait to intercept does crossing into cover. When the does arrive the buck may get up and follow them. Secondly, if a buck does head straight for his bed there is a chance, if he is undisturbed, that he will rise and feed, just change locations, or scent check the edges of bedding areas and inner woods travel corridors for estrous does. This is the famous midday movement between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m.. The key is for the bowhunter to be on stand first, and allow deer to pass undisturbed. This allows for a chance to intercept that wary buck.
Midday and all-day hunting is also a matter of timing. Even on an all-day hunt you need to arrive at your stand well before daylight. Though, I do occasional all-day hunts throughout the entire season, if conditions happen to right, for instance I often hunt all day during rainy periods, most endurance hunting should be planned for the pre-rut and rut periods when the chances of catching a mature buck up and moving are the greatest. Timing during the rut means putting in serious time.
Afternoon timing is not quite as critical as morning timing. However, there are a couple timing elements to evening hunts that must be considered. It is important to arrive early enough so that you don’t spook deer on your way in. This seems obvious, but I don’t know how many times I’ve been on stand and had deer near me in the early afternoon, only to have them spooked off by another hunter entering the woods. If I have time I am on stand as long as possible. Why hang around the house when you can be in the woods? On days when I don’t hunt in the morning I am often on stand at around noon. The other aspect of evening timing that most hunters ignore is their exit. If there isn’t any activity leave your stand as soon as it is dark. If, however, there are deer around your stand stay put until the coast is clear to get out undetected. This also means having an exit route planned where you can avoid spooking the deer. Most bowhunters just climb from their stands when it gets dark seemingly oblivious to snorting or spooked deer. What these hunters are doing is simply broadcasting their spots to the entire heard. A couple episodes of untimely retreat will definitely reduce your chances of arrowing a mature buck from that particular spot.
Success in bowhunting is just like success in anything else. Hard work, determination, and proper timing will make you “lucky”.