By Chris Eberhart:
A clear sky of brilliant stars slowly faded to gray and was replaced by burning orange sunrise. Awakening birds chirped, and distant turkey’s raucous morning rise let the whole world know the day had begun. Clouds of frozen breathe rose in front of my face from my comfortable slow breathing, and a coat of thick white frost covered the meadow grass below me. There is nothing quite like the magic of sunrise while bowhunting in the morning. The deer hadn’t shown up yet, but I was sure the soon would. As far as I’m concerned there is no better time to be in the woods after mature whitetail bucks than in the morning, and the intangible enjoyment of natural beauty is just a plus. Let me explain.
I have seen, and killed, more mature whitetail bucks during morning hunts than at any other time. Morning hunting for whitetails can be great for you to, but success on morning hunts only comes regularly if you understand what mature bucks do at that time, and if you plan your hunting accordingly.
Deer Movement Patterns
To understand what deer do in the mornings you have to begin with the previous evening. Most deer, mature bucks included, move from bedding areas to feeding areas in the evening. This is common knowledge. What doesn’t seem to be common knowledge is more detailed afternoon deer behavior. Generally, the young deer and does are the first to make their way to the feeding areas. Almost always the last deer to get up in the evening are the mature bucks. They allow the other deer to depart first and watch and listen for any signs of danger. If one of the first deer spook, the buck will often stay put until after dark, or may even decide to move in a totally different direction. Even if the other deer don’t spook, more often than not, especially in areas with any amount of hunting pressure, the buck will only rise and move right at dark. This happens to coincide with the precise moment most bowhunters are descending from their stands and leaving the woods. The ensuing encounters go mostly unnoticed by the hunter, but that particular buck is now certain he is being hunting, knows of a dangerous area, and has had his natural tendency to move nocturnally reinforced. This buck behavior has saved the lives of countless mature bucks, and is one of the main reasons you are less likely to arrow a mature whitetail on an afternoon hunt, than on a morning hunt. To say that hunters create nocturnal bucks is stretching things a bit, but not far from the truth. One of the first advantages of morning hunting is that you are hunting into the light.
After a night of feeding, deer return to their bedding areas in the morning. This too is common knowledge, but of course there is more to it. The return movement happens over a span of several hours. Usually the first deer to return are the mature bucks, often they make the security of cover by the crack of dawn. They are followed a little later by does, fawns, and younger bucks, not necessarily in that order. This is just the opposite order of the evening movement pattern, but there are some very important details that every serious bowhunter should be aware of.
One of the first important considerations is the deer’s demeanor. Deer returning in the morning are moving from danger to safety. Though they are still alert, they are simply more at ease during the morning. Their stomachs are full and soon they will be resting and ruminating in the safety of their beds. On the other hand, deer moving towards danger in the evening are always on high alert. Are you more relaxed driving away from your home to a new city, or when you are on the last few streets leading home? Deer too are simply more cautious as they move away from safety. The implication of relaxed deer for bowhunters is simply animals that might not be paying as close attention to their surroundings as otherwise. This may give that tiny added edge, that sometimes makes the difference between filling a tag, and eating tag soup. Comfortable animals are more huntable animals.
More important than demeanor is another normal behavior pattern bucks display, that is definitely a kink in their armor. If a mature buck enters the woods undisturbed he will often spend time in cover, but not quite in his bedding area. Sometimes he will just move about casually feeding, making a rub or two, just taking his time before bedding for the day. I like to call this behavior delayed return. Many bucks that would be considered completely nocturnal by most bowhunters are up on their feet and moving just after daylight.
Morning staging is another likely possibility. Mature bucks will enter cover before daylight and stage, or bed down, along the edge of cover where they can observe approaching deer, and approaching danger. These bucks are doing a couple different things. First, during all rut phases they are waiting for receptive does to cross their paths. If a hot doe does pass through all a buck has to do is follow her into the security of the bedding area. This conserves a great amount of energy during the rut, and allows a buck to inspect numerous does without leaving security. Second, they are keeping themselves out of harm’s way. If a predator, hunter, approaches the buck can simply slip into the bedding area undetected. It is a lot safer to follow a doe into cover than to chase her all over the countryside.
Yet another aspect of this staging behavior that is very important to bowhunters is what can happen a little later in the morning. If a buck has staged and no does come by that have attracted his attention, he may rise and cruise the edge of the bedding area for a hot female that crossed into cover elsewhere. His route can take him along the edge of bedding cover and from one bedding area to another by following funnels of good cover. Along the way he may visit primary scrape areas to check them for doe activity. This movement pattern is what hunters often see late in the morning into midday.
How to Use This Behavior To Your Advantage
When you know understand what mature bucks are doing during the mornings, you can put yourself in a position to take advantage of their behavior. These little fragments of buck activity are what I base most of my morning hunts on. The first thing you should have noticed is where the deer come from and where they are going, from feeding to bedding. You must position your stand accordingly. Attempting to hunt field edges, or food plots, in the morning is mostly futile. Your stand location should be along a travel route close to bedding, perhaps in a staging area, or near a primary scrape area. Another good option is a travel route between bedding areas.
Just as critical as your stand location is your entry route into the woods. You should have a way to get to your stand that will not spook deer in nearby feeding areas. This might mean walking through a swamp or up a steep ridge, or down a creek bed. Whatever the path, make sure you just don’t go tromping across the feeding areas you expect the deer to come from. Blow the deer off the feeding area, and the game is most likely over before it began.
Along the same lines you must be in your stand well before the first deer, mature bucks, begin their morning return. What does this mean for you? It means that you should be in your stand a minimum of an hour and a half before the crack of light. Being on stand so early may mean a buck will get past you before daylight. This happens often, but if that buck remains undisturbed there is good chance he will appear in front of your stand later in the morning, either through his delayed entry movement or as some aspect of morning staging. You simply have to be on stand before the deer return, and get there without spooking them.
This sounds elementary but most bowhunters still arrive at their stands just a few minutes before daylight and often with no regard for how they get there. By doing this they are simply pushing the mature bucks into the bedding area in front of them. Bucks pushed into bedding by a hunter’s careless approach generally will not step back out again that morning. This typical hunter behavior causes bowhunters to see far fewer deer on morning hunts than if they were more careful, and creates the illusion of totally nocturnal mature bucks.
To be able to intercept bucks cruising bedding areas later in the morning, you also have to be on stand. This means a proper morning hunt starts early and ends late. Most of the time I recommend sitting until at least noon, and if you want to get in all of the action 2:00 pm is a good time to climb down. By sitting late you not put yourself in a position to intercept cruising bucks, and you refrain from spooking them with your exit. The traditional whitetail bowhunting timeframe of disembarking at around 9:30 or 10:00 a.m. happens to coincide directly with this bucks rising from staging and cruising for does. They get up for the same reason most hunters leave the woods. The majority of doe movement is over for the morning. From a buck’s standpoint they can now scent check most of the does in a deer population in a single swoop.
One More Thing
Another aspect of morning hunting that makes it appealing is simply the fact that there are far more other hunters in the woods in the evening than in the morning. In most areas I hunt I have come up with counts of at least five to one, and in some places ten to one. Just drive around known hunting areas and compare the number of cars parked morning to evenings and you will probably come up with similar results. The reasons for this are clear. Most hunters work schedules allow for afternoon hunting only, if at all, and more times than not they are only able to hunt on weekends. And it is tough for a lot of people to get up early in the morning, especially on a day off work. You wouldn’t believe how many bowhunters I know who almost never hunt mornings simply because they don’t like to get up early. A lot of these guys are the ones who are convinced they see far more deer on afternoon hunts anyway. With fewer hunters in the woods there is a better chance that a mature buck makes it to you undisturbed. This is simple mathematics. In fact, a quick look at the record books will confirm this. Although there are far fewer hunters in the woods on morning hunts, the number of bucks entered in the “books” are split almost fifty-fifty between morning and evening kills. Perhaps those hunters going out of their way to hunt mornings have a secret they don’t want the rest of us to know about.
Following that magnificent sunrise not much happened for several hours. Then around 9:30 a lone six pointer crossed through about forty yards away and passed into the nearby bedding area. Shortly after that a doe and two fawns hurriedly swooped out of the bedding area, moving parallel to it, continuously glancing behind them. On their heels was a mature eight pointer that also emerged from the bedding area. With that big doe clearly on his mind he crossed into my shooting lane at just a bit over twenty yards. Without thought I drew my bow, aimed, and blatted to stop him. My arrow was on its way, before I knew what happened. The thick shouldered buck toppled to the ground just a stone throw away after a futile attempt to make the security of the bedding area. Indeed, there certainly was some luck involved, but I like to think there was little more to it than that. I’ll take mornings for whitetails anytime, and not just because I enjoy watching a good sunrise.