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Nocturnal Deer: Fall Phenomenon or Year-Round Reality?
Rue’s chart of daily deer activity — which uses standard time — shows a moderate peak about 2 a.m., a higher peak at 6 a.m., a moderate peak at 11 a.m., the highest peak at 6 p.m., and a moderate peak at 11 p.m.
In the 1997 edition of Rue’s book, he writes: “These [times] should be taken only as rough guides, and are appropriate from late March through October… The times apply especially to does, fawns and 1- and 2-year-old bucks. Mature bucks with large racks tend to appear at just about sunset, when there is only a half-hour of daylight left. In the morning, older bucks head for their beds at first light and are usually gone by sunrise, 30 minutes later. During the deer hunting season, the biggest bucks tend to move only at night, unless they’re forced from cover.”
Because mature bucks are active so little in daylight during most of the fall, it shouldn’t take long to realize you should hunt closer to potential bedding sites than open feeding sites. Even then, a buck might only move a few minutes during shooting light. If your tree stand isn’t nearby, you’ll never know he was on the move during daylight.
Get Off the Perimeter
That largely explains why veteran trophy buck hunters seldom hunt near or along woodland openings or agricultural fields before the rut. Sure, it’s fun to watch does, fawns and young bucks feeding in fields as dusk approaches, but chances are you’ll be back in your truck and buckling in for the ride home about the time the first mature buck walks into the open.
If you hunt agricultural areas and you haven’t had much luck along fields, it’s time to step up your off-season scouting. Start with your favorite field-side tree stands and walk 50 yards straight back into the woods. Now walk around the field, paralleling its edge, while looking for trails, buck rubs and deer scrapes, and paying attention to places that could be staging areas — sites where bucks rub, scrape and generally hang out at the edge of day while awaiting darkness.
Once you’ve made that circuit, walk 50 yards deeper into the woods and make another loop. After that, consider making yet another 50-yard probe and corresponding loop. Eventually, you should locate sites that give you a chance to catch a buck on its hoofs during daylight.
One big challenge is finding that happy medium where you’re far enough into the cover to possibly see bucks in gray-light, but not so far in that you spook them in their sanctuaries. Assuming you’ll hunt this area most of the fall, be patient. Hunt progressively deeper into the woods as you get a feel for when bucks might be moving.
Even though valid research shows a bump of activity at midday, some deer hunters don't hunt this time period unless they arrive shortly before dawn and plan to sit until dark. And they usually don’t make that commitment unless it’s the rut or they're hunting areas where they expect human activity. When you've seen pre-rut deer get up and move around on their own during midday, they seldom strayed far from their beds. Your chances are slim to none of getting that close to their beds undetected when walking in at midmorning. The only time to try is on wet or windy days, and then you can usually stay the rest of the day.
Remember, the reason you’re back in there is because deer know they’re being hunted. If you reinforce their fears with a clumsy, misguided approach, you might never catch them moving in daylight no matter where you set up. The best strategy centers on patience and lots of it.
The Rut and Post-Rut
Much like human-forced deer movements, whitetails in rut move during daylight only because hormones give them no other choice. Their natural duty to procreate temporarily overrides their 24-7 fears. Until fatigue, frustration or reward forces a rest, they do whatever it takes to answer their species’ summons.
During this time, concentrate on cover and terrain features that could funnel a buck past at any time of the day. The beauty of the rut is that deer activity is unpredictable. Of course, that’s also its curse. Unless you are sitting over a deer decoy in a field, you might prefer hunting internal sites where a buck takes shortcuts between doe groups or where a doe might burst through while taking a shortcut of her own. These sites can be saddles in a ridge, the inside woods edges near fields, or gradual inclines leading to main ridgelines.
At this point, we should discuss another possible cause of poor daylight activity: low deer densities and/or abundant food sources. If deer densities are low, causing them to seldom stress food sources, they feel little urge to start their feeding walks early or extend them into daylight hours. They don’t need much time to look for food, so they spend more time in cover. The same goes for areas with more food than the herd requires. If they know there will be ample food when they arrive at farm fields or bait sites, they can wait until dark to go eat it. There’s no need to race to beat the competition.
Those factors can change as the rut fades from memory and whitetails — especially bucks in Northern climates — suddenly sense the need to pack weight back onto their frames before winter . Once again, deer face a life-threatening choice: Stay where it’s safe or expose themselves during daylight to relieve hunger.
This is when some deer hunters are most inclined to hunt field edges, especially at dusk in mid- to late December in the northern Midwest’s cornfields. It seems the first real nose-burning cold front inspires late-day feeding runs. After that front passes, however, the bigger bucks seem to settle in for the winter, and no longer feed with as much urgency.
You still can get lucky and catch a trophy buck in the open after that first cold snap, but be subtle. It doesn’t take much pressure to push him back into thick cover for good. Granted, fewer deer hunters brave the deer woods in December, but you still must take the low-impact approach to have much luck.
Nocturnal Deer Conclusion
By now you’ve probably recognized a pattern that’s consistent: Most deer activity occurs at night year-round. The small amount of activity that occurs in daylight dries up as deer hunters — be they bowhunters, grouse hunters or fall turkey hunters — invade the deer woods. After that, deer move during daylight only if prodded by overriding concerns for their own well-being or the herd’s long-term survival.
But those deer movements do occur, of course. How else can we explain the many “happy-hunter photos” we see in magazines and newspapers? Remember, too, that most success stories arise from persistence, knowledge and some luck. Those deer hunters usually earned their deer. They weren’t discouraged by the fact most deer activity is nocturnal. They just kept telling themselves, “Well, they gotta move sometime.”