It’s almost a rite of passage for any hunter to spend sunup to sundown in a tree stand or roam the hills looking for deer or other elusive quarry, but it doesn’t have to be that way for every hunt when you better understand the best hunting times and what makes some times better than others.
Knowing what hunting times are best, particularly for whitetails, will give you more confidence in the field and increase your chances of success. Essentially, we’re looking for the times when deer are on the move, and the factors that get deer moving are tied to finding food, water, a mate, or bedding.
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Best Time To Hunt Deer
Whitetail deer are crepuscular, meaning they are most active in the twilight hours, but that does not mean they are only active at dawn or dusk. Crepuscular animals are also known to be active on moonlit nights, overcast days, or when competition or hunting pressure demands it. However, in their most natural state, whitetails will be on the move in the mornings and late evenings.
But many hunters understand it goes beyond that, and to find success in the field regularly you want to find the best hunting times by knowing what conditions and natural patterns affect when deer are on the move. Let’s consider some of the most important ones.
Deer move to look for the things that satisfy their basic needs: food, water, safety, and creating offspring. They will move at odd times—day or night—to find those things, but when we break it down to explore why deer are looking for these things we can discover where those are and when they will get to them.
Cover, Safety, and Sleep
Deer use cover for bedding and to feel safe from predators, both animal and human. They prefer thick cover, especially in the daytime, to keep them hidden, and bucks, particularly, will have three to five different beds they prefer using over the course of a year.
When deer bed at night they are finding places to take advantage of prevailing winds and thermals. Of course, bucks don’t lay down and sleep all night; they get up and feed. The common pattern for deer sleep is dozing off for 30 seconds to several minutes (rarely more than 10 minutes), followed by brief periods of alertness, and then standing and stretching every 30 minutes or so.
While does tend to bed closer to water, in the fall bucks are looking for high ground that’s easy to move in and out of. As creatures of habit, when deer find good bedding areas they’ll stick with them until they get pressured out or it’s the rut.
The best time to hunt deer around their bedding areas is to watch the weather and know where the food sources are in relation to the bedding area. Wait for a warm morning forecast that follows a very cold night. Deer will stay bedded longer if it’s cold, but knowing the day will warm up quickly you can count on those deer moving out toward sunnier, warmer spots sooner. Also, a deer’s first priority after sleeping or bedding is food (before water), so getting near their travel route between cover and a quality food source will put you in the right place at the right time.
Food, Water, and Frequency
Food is extremely important to deer and deer hunting. Their feeding habits define most of their daytime activity and help us pinpoint the best times to find them. Deer feed about five times every 24 hours, usually among three different food types, and they typically won’t eat plants down to the ground. Instead they nibble and bite off the most palatable, nutritious parts of plants (known as selective foraging) before later regurgitating and chewing their cud. This means the move around to different sources.
Especially if an area is pressured, deer (and this is very true with big bucks) will eat in staging areas over big food plots. These staging areas are small pockets of land that offer ample food, and they are usually between their bedding areas and major food sources. Mature deer will wait until nightfall to venture out to major food plots, and unlike does and young bucks, they won’t get there using the most direct route. Instead, they meander.
Deer are habitual animals, though, and unless something like the rut or other pressures change things, they will maintain a rhythmic feeding schedule that includes feeding during the day, in the afternoon, and at night.
The best time to hunt deer around their feeding schedule is one hour before dark. This feeding typically occurs at a food source that is between a deer’s daytime and nighttime bedding spots. You can try to be in position as they move to the food source, find them at the source, or as they move along their preferred route to their night spots.
Whitetail bucks are known to have at least one bed near water. Since deer drink roughly three to five quarts of water a day (or 1 ½ quarts per 100 pounds they weigh), they need to be near that source several times a day. Deer can go longer without water because they get a lot of their water needs met from the foods they eat. While many think that hunting near water sources on hot days is a sure golden ticket, keep in mind that deer will often move a lot less in the heat to conserve energy. Instead, look for smaller water sources closer to known bedding areas when it’s hot.
The Rut, The Moon, The Heat
Here’s where we see a deer’s routine get disrupted because of biological, meteorological, and lunar factors. It reminds us that the only constant in life is change, but to some degree even change can be predicted and there are a few hunting times we can pin down when deer are in the rut, or it’s hot, or the moon is waxing, waning, or full.
While most deer won’t move midday if it’s hot, bucks certainly will during the rut. In fact, most experts agree that a hunt can turn successful nearly any hour of the day in rutting season. Bucks are looking for does and they will travel to great lengths to find them. They will even eat and drink less during these days or weeks.
You’ll have a lot of flexibility here for finding the best time to hunt bucks during the rut, but the one tip that should help is falling back on your pre-season scouting and getting out when you know does frequent the area.
Early season hunts are usually hotter hunts. For the first several weeks of the season, the best time to hunt is the last two hours of the evening. Warm mornings and hot days cause deer to spend more time feeding at night, so by dawn they are bedded down and will be less active during the day. As the evening cools, they’ll move around for food and water.
By mid-season, or before the rut is in full swing, the best hunting time is the first 45 minutes of light in the morning, catching bucks moving back to bedding after night feeding or as some get up from their nighttime bedding. Especially, as we noted earlier, if the nights are cold and the morning will be warm, deer will get up and get active. Bucks will be feeding to store energy for the pending breeding season.
When it comes to moonlight there is much debate. One study by Marcus Lashley of North Carolina State University, in which he compiled over 22,000 GPS fixes on live deer, found that deer move mostly at dawn or dusk regardless of the moon phase. However, in the same study he did note a slight uptick of midday movement during full moons. To even more minor degrees, Lashley found deer movements were greatest during late afternoon during the last-quarter moon and were greatest at dawn during new moons. This all comes with the caveat that they were minor variances; none were major increases.
Other Factors Affecting Deer Movement Times
There’s a lot of deer biology that factors into what makes them move, but it’s vital to know what other factors affect deer movement, most of which are human-caused.
- Human/Hunter Pressure: Deer don’t like to mix with humans when possible. During hunting season, having a working knowledge of where other people might be hunting or recreating can help you rule out where deer might be scarce. One tip is to use onX Hunt to find the easiest access points on public land and assume other hunters will use those points. If you can find an alternative entry point, you’ll have the advantage.
- Human Presence: Yes, it sounds like what we just covered, but this is different. If you’re sitting in the same hunting spot multiple days and not seeing deer move through, they’re likely on to you and your presence has altered their patterns.
Also, pay attention to the hunting times of your neighbors. Do they just hunt weekends? Are they prone to hunt evenings more than mornings? How do deer react when the neighbors crank up and ride to their stand? Are you taking advantage of escape routes on private property the same way successful public land hunters do? On average, it takes about five days for deer to be comfortable returning to a hunting stand site after they were busted from that location.
- Motorized Travel: From noise and scent factors alone, 4-wheelers and side-by-sides are disruptive to deer and affect their movement patterns. Consider your own ride or what other hunters in the area are doing to get to their tree stands, check their game cameras, retrieve game, or fill feeders. More and more hunters are looking at electric transportation (think golf carts with a lift kit) to minimize distractions and disruptions.