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Archery season is a very different animal than rifle season. The weather is different, the animal behavior is different and, of course, the weapons are different. But as juxtaposed as the two seasons are, there is an equal amount of variety within archery season itself. Many hunters who have found success in the past have stuck to that one tactic in order to try to repeat their bounty. What these outdoorsman may not realize is that every day is like a new recipe: animal movement, food interest and stages of estrous all contribute to the approach that is going to pay off. As the hunting season matures, these factors seem to shift as elusively as the deer we pursue. Simple progressions of many of these factors can be recognized in order help determine the best course of action in the field.
The food stage
As October begins and the season opens, deer are just getting ready for winter. They understand the days are beginning to dwindle and they tend to behave very predictably. During this food stage, hunters want to attempt to hunt near food plots such as apple trees and other areas where deer are found browsing. Deer at this point in the early season have not yet come into heat and are primarily focused on food. Bucks are just finishing with cleaning off their antlers and have little to no interest in sparring with one another. Additionally these bucks aren’t actively chasing does. Doe and buck alike are still in their normal routines, traveling established trails to their typical feeding areas. This is where hunters who have set out a game camera are able to rely on the information they’ve been collecting in order to know where and when the deer will be in a certain area in order to set up for a kill.
The bachelor stage
About a week or two into October, depending on the year, this stage begins when cleaned up young bucks begin to spar lightly. They aren’t very serious at this point but they are beginning to anticipate the upcoming mating season and may even be seen chasing some does around. Older bucks are going to begin to separate from the herds and become more hesitant to appear, coming out to feed later than does and younger bucks.
One myth that I’d like to address is the reason older bucks aren’t seen as much: People believe it’s because they have a bigger territory. This is not true. In fact, the older a buck is, the smaller its circle becomes. During this stage of the season, hunters will be able to capitalize on bucks they have been tracking for a while, as a hunter who has done his homework will understand where to find them prior to dark. Be warned: older bucks that are bumped or spooked from these areas early in the season may not return to their typical behavior for the remainder of the year.
This stage is also a great stage for hunting the young and the dumb. Few hunters ever complained about a dumb deer; they’re typically the ones that fill your freezer first.
It’s almost that time that every hunter waits for every year, but don’t overlook this critical time before the rut to hunt. The pre-rut is that week or so before the rut begins where particularly the young bucks are getting into the game and searching for any doe that might have come into heat early. The season is really ramping up during this time as deer begin to break their predictability just a bit. During this time, most does will still have yet to come into estrus or heat. What this means is that it is the perfect time for hunters to use estrus of their own. Why is estrus so effective now as opposed to any other time? Bucks are looking for estrus at this point, hoping to breed. At the same time, there are very few does who will actually be ready. Cue the liquid lure.
Now, if you are a hunter who is going to try to make good on this, I recommend that you don’t be stingy. Lots of folks will buy a small bottle of estrus that runs about $10 a pop. I’s understandable to want to save it and get your money’s worth, but on the other hand, a doe doesn’t relieve itself just a few drops here and there throughout the woods. When she goes, there is at least a small bottle’s worth put out. Think of it another way: is it worth it to you as a hunter to spend $10 and possibly harvest the buck of your dreams? Even for you fishermen out there, do you spend $10 on a stick-bait in the hopes of catching a nice bass? Just some food for thought, but my recommendation will always be to use about a bottle’s worth of estrus on each set up during this stage.
Hunters who choose to hunt over estrus should also take a few steps to make the most out of this. First of all, they should give the wind to the deer. Typically, when hunting, you want to be downwind of your prey so that the wind carries their smell to you and not your smell to them. However, if you know where the deer are coming from, you want to place the estrus in such a way that the deer will pick up on the scent beyond where you are sitting—let the wind flow from the estrus, to you, then to the deer. This way, they will walk closer to you before reaching the estrus, which will give you the best chance for a kill. Secondly, you are going to need to place your stand higher if possible. You want to be higher where the deer are less likely to identify your human scent and see you move when you make that giant motion of drawing back the bow.
Rut is considered to be primetime for most hunters. This is right around the end of October, beginning of November. Using estrus is less effective because you are competing with all of the does who are by now coming into their own estrus. During this time, it is recommended that hunters stay out throughout the day as opposed to trying to hunt during selective times of the day when they have predicted deer traffic. Hunters will want to attempt to hunt with the wind again rather than forfeiting it to use estrus. During the rut, deer are at their most unpredictable, as they are very focused on their objective of breeding. Think about it, they only really get to do it once a year; you can’t blame them for not paying attention to anything else for a little bit. Just because they are preoccupied doesn’t mean you can’t be busted or spotted, though. Take your time and hunt with the same stealth you ordinarily would. Just be prepared to whistle for those bucks that come through like a bloodhound on a trail to get them to stop for half of a second.
Another myth that should be dispelled is the idea that the rut has a peak day. This is false. The peak time of rut is about 10 days and will plateau. After this point deer will begin to taper off in intensity and begin the next stage of the season.
Post rut is typically a week or so into November. Rut is cooling off and deer will begin to seek their food cycles again. This is helpful for rifle hunters who would now be starting the season and seeking that predictability that only early archery hunters get to enjoy. Archery hunters sometimes get more out of this time though because they have become familiar with the progression of the behavior of their local deer. At this point the majority of does have been bred and older bucks will be content to appear later and later, some simply sleeping the day away in a hidden patch somewhere.
Late season rut
A little-known stage of the season is what is called the late-season rut. During this time, any does or yearling fawns that are late in coming into heat will do so and bucks will pick up on that. This provides another period of time when deer can be hunted as they would during the prime, initial rut. This rut is notably less intense than the main rut. However, for those still needing to fill a tag, this provides a much-needed opportunity for hunting bucks with irregular patterns in search of un-bred does.
Many hunters have experienced their best success in the last weeks of October and beginning of November. Bad weather pays dividends during this time, as this tends to get deer moving. Deer can be mapped according to this general set of stages, but ultimately every hunt is unique to the animal and you the predator. While rifle hunters and archery hunters alike can benefit from understanding these stages, archery hunters need to be that much closer and therefore that much more dialed in to exactly where the deer will be. By understanding what motivates these deer to go to different areas and putting in a bit of time, any hunter can improve their chances of success.