September 28, 2010
Do you take a mid-day break when you hunt whitetail deer? If you do, you might be missing out on a nice buck.
The year was 1989, and I was in my fifth year as a deer hunter -- barely past the novice stage and nowhere near knowledgeable about whitetail behavior. The rut was on, but I had to work half a day and wasn't able to enter the woods until past noon. No sooner had I sat down than a nice 7-pointer (that is, nice for someone of my very limited skills) came charging up to my stand site from behind.
The animal was in such a rush that by the time I turned and fired my .30/06, he was only 10 yards away. Later when I field dressed the buck, I noticed that he was wet and that he obviously had been running after does.
On that occasion, I didn't ponder at all about the time I killed my early afternoon whitetail, but as the years went by, I began to recognize certain patterns. From the time I began deer hunting, I have always recorded the date, time, distance and the location (habitat) of where I have shot every deer I have ever killed -- regardless of whether the whitetail was taken with a bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun.
Moreover, one of the patterns that data has revealed is that the mid-day period is an excellent time to hunt not only during the rut but also throughout the various deer seasons. Craig Fields, a veteran hunter and good friend of mine, was the first person I heard coin the phrase "noontime stroll," but this mid-day walkabout by whitetails can take place as early as 10:30 and as late as 12:30, based on Craig's and my experience.
"The term is actually 'noon stroll' and it was passed down to me by my father, Lee Fields," Craig told me. "I confess I didn't believe him until I started tagging deer regularly during that time period. As the old man used to say: 'You warmed up? It's about time to head out for the noon stroll.' Meaning of course, the deer are strolling, not the hunters strolling.
"The noon stroll does not translate into a general wildlife movement period. In particular, grey squirrel activity doesn't noticeably increase. Really, all it happens to be is recognition of the fact that deer normally do not stay in their beds the entire time between the morning and evening movement periods. They stretch their legs after a few hours with a stroll."
In any event, I now infrequently leave a morning stand (unless work or family beckons) until 1 p.m. to make sure that I don't miss this mid-day deer movement. Let's take a look at why deer move then and how we can take advantage of this knowledge, especially during the rut.
A non-biological reason exists concerning why deer move so frequently at mid-day: because hunters do. According to a recent Southeast Deer Study Group report, only 58 percent of hunters remain on stand into the early afternoon; the rest of them wander about still-hunting or head home to camp or a restaurant for a late breakfast or early lunch.
Dave Steffen, a research biologist supervisor for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), states that savvy hunters should be aware of this human movement and that this knowledge can pay dividends at any time but especially during the rut. He adds that some individuals are so regular in their departure from the woods that they can be patterned by other hunters and predictably will cause deer movement.
"The hunter going back to camp or to eat lunch can be the best friend of a stand-hunter," Steffen said. "This type of individual is a good reason why hunters should stay put until after noontime."
Whatever the reasons people arise from their stand sites, the result is the same -- deer will be forced to move when the parade of hunters begins to exit the woods. Ironically, many of these walkabouts will not even be aware that they have set the deer in motion, but here are some examples of what will transpire.
Hunter A will decide that it's just too cold, hot, windy or rainy to remain in the woods, and now would be a good time to go eat breakfast. As Hunter A walks through the woods, a buck that has bedded with a doe bounds away and heads to another covert where a dedicated stand-hunter has been resolute in his desire to stay put -- and this steadfastness pays off.
In another scenario, Hunter B has defied all of his inclinations and has remained on stand until 10:30 a.m. when he then determines that he should go to the local greasy spoon and beat the lunch crowd. Hunter B walks none too quietly back to his vehicle, and before he has strolled 100 yards, a buck that he passes suddenly jumps up and runs away. B is caught unawares and does not have time to even raise his gun. However, 150 yards away when the buck slows to a walk after his dash from danger, another dedicated stand hunter has his proverbial ship come in.
Hunter C is a fidgety individual but nevertheless perceives himself as an excellent still-hunter. Having remained on stand until 11 a.m., our hero decides that before heading back to camp, now is the time to go still-hunt that thicket that lies near the hardwood grove he has been afield in all morning. As Hunter C nears the copse, a buck slithers unbeknownst out the backside of it, and as the broadbeam skulks by a hardcore tree stand sitter some 100 yards away, the bowhunter sends an arrow through the deer's vitals.
Although I am sure the aforementioned statistic of 58 percent of hunters remaining on stand until early afternoon is accurate, sometimes it seems like the woods empties of hunters by 10:30 a.m. Stay on stand and depend on this hunter movement to set deer in motion. Fields offers these tips.
"If I need to take breaks, and if it's cold I usually do, I divide the day into three hunts, not two like most hunters," he said. "Go out early in the morning as usual, but eat throughout the morning rather than break for a big lunch. Come in to warm up if you have to. But come back to the woods for the noon stroll, then come out again. Warm up and get back on stand for the evening hunt."
THE SCIENTIFIC BASIS FOR THE NOONTIME STROLL
If knowing about hunter movement is not reason enough to make you sit still in anticipation of the noontime deer stroll, scientific reasons exist for why we should stay put -- even if we have a stretch of woods all to ourselves.
"Deer do have a mid-day activity period, before, during and after the rut," Steffen said. "As we would expect, studies show that deer movement peaks just before and after dawn and just before and after dark. But those studies also show considerable deer movement at mid-day. The middle of the day is certainly a good time to be in the woods, but many people don't realize that fact.
"Personally, I like to be on stand at mid-day, not walking about. In fact, I think it's often a good idea to remain there until 1 p.m. Studies also have shown that 1:30 is not a major time for deer movement and this pause in activity continues until around 3 o'clock or so.
"Remember, though, that during the rut, all bets are off regarding deer movement. There will be a mid-day activity period just like always, but deer, especially bucks, can move at all times. That's why during the rut, I like to stay, and recommend to others that they do the same, on stand all day or as long as I can."
I agree with Steffen and if I am able to hunt all day will generally not move from a morning stand until 1 p.m. The exception to this axiom will be discussed shortly. A quick glance at my records shows that I have taken deer at such "unorthodox" times as 12:09, 10:53, 10:40, 12:55, 11:15 and 10:45. Do I believe in the noontime stroll? The answer is obvious.
MID-DAY FEEDING AREAS
Mid-day feeding areas can be both the same as and different from early-morning locales. For example, let's say that the hard-mast crop, specifically oaks, has been particularly heavy this particular season. The whitetails will not have to move far to find food, and consequently, many hunters will report seeing fewer deer because of this restricted movement.
In this situation, mid-day feeding areas will likely be the same as morning ones. This is especially true if a thicket (or other type of bedding area) borders or is close by the food source. For this scenario, hunters in the know should take a stand between the adjacent feeding and bedding area or within one or the other. Natural funnels between feeding and bedding areas are obvious stand sites. What's more, they should remain put until after the noon stroll occurs.
But when the hard-mast source is very limited, deer may undertake longer travels at mid-day. They may visit a soft-mast source, such as persimmons, grapes, apples or a host of others peculiar to your home area. The individual who has scouted for and ascertained these alternative foods will likely see his efforts pay off now.
One of the times I will depart a morning stand is when I know that deer are feeding on these backup menu items. In this situation, I will leave a morning stand in time to be on the mid-day one by 10 a.m.
Finally, Fields offers these general tips on feeding areas.
"To properly hunt the noon stroll, bear in mind that the deer are not going to walk a mile," he told me. "Know where they are likely to be bedded down, and set up along trails just outside that area. Does and yearlings are much more likely to stroll than mature bucks, the rut excepting, of course."
During the rut, said Fields, the bucks will either be on the move on their own or following does during their mid-day walkabouts. The rut is an excellent time to take a bruiser at high noon, he concludes.
MID-DAY BEDDING AREAS
Obviously, mid-day bedding areas can be very similar to early-morning ones: deadfalls, impenetrable thickets, overgrown clearcuts and numerous other forms of tangles and lush growth. Again, though, these areas must be close to the aforementioned mid-day food sources.
Also, keep in mind that deer will often bed in strange places at mid-day during the rut. For example, this past season while driving down a road, I observed two twin 10-pointers moving about not long before noon. These two monster bucks were ambling through a cow pasture and ended up bedding at the edge of the opening and in full view. Although I gawked at their audacity to be walking through and bedding in such an open area, I was not surprised by the behavior.
Often in the middle of the day, deer will simply bed in the area where they have been feeding. Please note that if denser cover is relatively close by, they will gravitate toward that. Conversely, don't be surprised that even a big buck will plop down in relatively open cover.
HOW PRESSURED DEER MOVE AT MID-DAY
Pressured deer, specifically does, will continue to travel at mid-day, but they may well do so differently than they did when they were under no pressure. A hardcore big-buck hunter might think that that this adaptation by does has no relevance to him, but actually, this tendency makes all the difference in the world during the rut.
Now it is often the does that will sense the danger of human intrusion before a rut-crazed buck will. And it is the location of the females that will determine where the males will eventually appear. Does will likely still be visiting hard- or soft-mast food sources to feed at mid-day, but they will also likely be traveling through the densest cover available to arrive at these menu items. Study topo maps or conduct scouting expeditions to locate these areas on your properties.
For instance, I have one favorite property where I have tagged 21 deer since 1988. The land features a hardwood cove, creek bottom, food plot and ridgetop -- none of which are any good to hunt when the deer become pressured during the rut. But the parcel also contains a pine thicket and a cedar copse that border each other. Many, many times I have observed does, does with bucks, and lone bucks moving along a trail that runs through and connects the two thickets. And, yes, on numerous occasions I have observed these whitetails doing their noon stroll.
Indeed, the biggest buck I have ever spotted on the property was seen on this pathway. The big boy was traveling back and forth on the trail hoping to locate a willing doe.
HOW UNPRESSURED DEER MOVE AT MID-DAY
During the rut, unpressured does and bucks are much more likely to use direct routes to access their mid-day feeding and bedding areas. A natural or manmade funnel is thus a superlative spot to set up shop then.
For instance, on one property I hunt, the landowner only allows one hunter per day on his place -- no exceptions. I can almost always be assured of a quality outing and of the deer moving naturally. On this property in the morning, deer travel up from a creek bottom, through a pine grove and then enter a funnel between an overgrown cutover and a pine thicket where the animals bed.
On the days I have reserved, I frequently set up within the funnel and almost always see deer strolling through. At mid-day, the whitetails will arise from the thicket and then walk a short distance through the funnel to forage in a postage stamp overgrown field that adjoins the pinch point. That funnel can be very productive in the morning, of course, but it is also a superior place to take a stand at mid-day -- again because of the mid-day stroll phenomenon.
Please note that I'm not claiming that the mid-day period is better than the early morning and late evening to go afield. I believe that hunters should always concentrate their efforts at those times, regardless of the stage of the rut. In addition, those periods will remain prime times throughout the various deer seasons with the possible exception being the late season when temperatures plummet and deer movement greatly slows during the morning. But if you are not taking advantage of the noon stroll, as Mr. Fields labels it, you're not taking full advantage of deer movement traits.