By: John Eberhart.
Seasonal and Daily Timing
During a couple occasions in most Michigan bowhunter’s lifetimes, being in the right place at the right time of day and right time of season to intercept a trophy buck can likely be attributed to a simple law of averages. During so many hours on stand a collision course with a mature buck is bound to occur.
The more consistently successful Michigan bowhunters however, either hunt phenomenal managed properties or for those that hunt heavy consequential hunting pressure (hchp) areas, utilize daily and seasonal timing to their advantage throughout the year by implementing an in-depth business style hunting plan.
Having exclusively bowhunted knock on doors for free permission and public lands in Michigan for 50 seasons, I’m positive I’m not in the phenomenal managed properties hunters group and would like to think I’m in the in-depth business style hunting plan group.
Hchp areas should never be confused with managed properties and areas where there are hunter engagement rules or criteria’s. No matter the amount of hunters, when there are no negative consequences with hunter encounters as bucks are growing up, not only do they have a higher tolerance of human intrusions, interactions, and human odor, their vulnerable daytime movement habits from when they were subordinate bucks until they reach the kill status remain somewhat intact, making them much easier to kill once they reach maturity.
Not only are mature bucks much easier to kill in managed areas, a natural byproduct in managed areas is the amount of bucks that survive to maturity. It’s pretty simple, when bucks are allowed to pass and not even get shot at, they get older. So, when there are more mature bucks, they have more vulnerable daytime movement habits, they all fiercely compete for breeding rights during the rut phases, it’s easier to kill one.
More mature bucks, more daytime movements, and a higher tolerance of human encounters all equate to the law of averages heavily falling in favor of the hunter, plan or no plan. While TV and video hunts take micro-management practices to another level, they are still excellent visual examples how easy it is to take mature bucks in managed areas.
If I were to state that I would fall off the couch the next time I saw a big buck on TV or in a video get taken while calmly standing in a totally exposed short grass of crop field, I basically couldn’t watch them anymore without ending up on the floor.
While surfing channels a hunting show narrative caught my attention. I rarely watch hunting shows because most are jokes and relatively meaningless concerning relevant information, but here was a high profile hunting personality stating that the hunting methods he was going to demonstrate would work in any hunting area. I had to watch and was actually hoping that maybe there would be something in this show for the average Joe hunter in an hchp type area.
The first kill clip was showing and explaining how he rattled a monster buck into a decoy he had set-up about 20 yards out into a large food plot. Needless to say, that not only doesn’t work everywhere, it only works in managed areas. Most hunters don’t have access to properties where food plots can even be planted and in hchp areas, mature bucks rarely enter exposed short crop fields and are way too smart to fall for the decoy trick. The channel was turned and his credibility for helping average Joe hunters was history.
After years of hunting ultra-managed properties, some of the TV and video personalities get so caught up in their own exclusive style hunting world that they totally lose track of reality.
On the opposite side of the page is hchp areas in Michigan where there will be 10 to 25 bowhunters and close to twice that number of gun hunters per square mile (640 acres) and most of them target any legal antlered buck and many button bucks are mistakenly targeted by hunters with doe permits.
The few bucks that survive beyond their first set of antlers in these areas seemingly have Master’s degrees in avoiding hunters by taking on more nocturnal movement habits and 2 ½ year olds in hchp areas are far more difficult to kill than 4 ½ year old and older bucks in managed areas.
I can state without reservation that anyone that says there is no difference in mature buck behavior no matter the area is extremely naïve and totally out-of-touch with reality and obviously never hunted in an hchp area, or has a very short memory.
Successful hunters in hchp areas typically enter each season with an aggressive and well thought out seasonal and daily timing plan of attack that rarely gets deviated from. Yet every moment they are hunting they have an attitude that airs on the side of caution concerning everything they do so as not to disturb anything. Every step is calculated.
On a mid-week morning hunt in 2011 I did something I rarely do. Due to a lack of deer activity, I talked myself into abandoning that morning’s daily plan. Not cool and very stupid!
From my tree there was an apple tree 12 yards to the north, and a north/south runway about 10 yards to the west that was lined with active runway scrapes and rubs. The runway passed within visual sight of the apple tree but did not feed into it. It did however lead into a primary scrape area off the property I had permission on and I assumed the scrapes were made by the mature buck I was pursuing.
My plan was to remain perched 28 feet up the chokecherry tree until shortly after 10 am at which time I had to go to work. Mistake #1, just prior to 9 am I began thinking of all the work I had sitting on my desk and along with a lack of deer activity I decided to cut the hunt short. Again, very stupid on my part!
At the same moment my feet hit the ground, I heard a twig snap to the southwest. It was the huge bodied buck I was after. He was hurriedly moving north along the scrape lined runway as if with a mission. I picked up my bow and stepped behind the tree to untie it in hopes of knocking and arrow and getting off a shot. After knocking an arrow and coming to full draw I peeked around the tree and as if directed to do so he stopped in my lane in a perfect quartering away position.
His attention was focused to the north, but his muscles were tense and he knew something wasn’t quite right. I could barely see the back of his right eyeball and felt I was far enough out of his peripheral vision to make my move. Hidden behind the tree I slowly leaned forward to take the shot.
Mistake #2, my assumption of his peripheral vision was wrong. Even though I was well beyond 90 degrees perpendicular from his right side, his acute peripheral vision from the corner of his eye caught my slight body movement and before my bow cleared the tree, without turning his head and without hesitation, he instantly turned on his jet afterburners and ran full throttle into the security of the nearby brush.
He didn’t act anything like the big bucks on TV shows and videos that always seem turn and look at you and wonder what you are, why your there, or what you’re doing. This was an hchp area and he did exactly what mature bucks do in such areas, his survival instincts immediately overrode his curiosity. I had to face the facts, I made 2 mistakes and for the area I was hunting, I didn’t deserve to kill him.
On hchp properties in Michigan, opportunities at mature bucks are not only rare; there may be several years between them. This was the first time in many years I deviated from a specific hunts plan of attack.
Concerning timing let’s start with some facts. Nearly 60% of Commemorative Bucks of Michigan’s record book archery entries are taken during the brief rut phase periods (Oct. 28th through Nov. 14th) of bow season so it only makes sense to spend the majority of your time on-stand during that period.
Information going forward will be for hunters in hchp areas and unlike managed area information not working in hchp areas, anything that works in an hchp area will work anywhere.
During summer whitetails are creatures of habit. Everyone’s heard of or witnessed a mature buck come out and feed in the same location every evening during the summer only to vanish into thin air when hunters begin their pre-season scouting and location preparation?
This disappearing act is not a coincidence and is due to intrusive pre-season scouting. Deer can’t differentiate between someone scouting or hunting and after being left alone for nearly 8 months, they view any sudden influx of human activity anywhere within their core living area as an immediate threat to their survival, and react by assuming more nocturnal movement habits.
A pre-season speed tour of your already prepared locations will be required sometime between September 15th and opening day for several reasons. 1. By this time frame mature bucks will have rubbed their velvet off leaving telltale signposts of their travel routes and feeding areas. 2. To confirm which mast and fruit trees you’ve set-up near have, and are dropping food. 3. To see which runways between bedding and crop fields are being used most frequently and have the most promising buck sign on or along them. 4. To confirm if a primary scrape area you had set-up on has any fresh activity.
Basically you’re checking your existing locations for general deer as well as mature buck activity and this should be done in a single visit and during midday when most deer are bedded down. Anytime I enter the woods prior to season I always wear a properly cared for Scent Lok suit, gloves, and rubber boots to keep my human odor as minimal as possible. To help mask noise and dissipate scent, these ventures are best done during windy or rainy days.
The first few days of season can provide opportunities. A mature buck that remains unmolested during pre-season will likely retain his summer routine which will include some daytime feeding. If he has a tight bedding to feeding area movement pattern, there is a chance that the other hunter’s pre-season intrusions into his overall core area, which is totally out of your control, didn’t affect his routine.
During the entire season deer will feed on acorns and apples when available. Those surrounded by perimeter cover and close to bedding areas are best for daytime activity. Deer will often feed under these trees before moving to more open feeding areas after dark or before bedding down in the morning.
After a few days of season the hunting disruptions by you and other hunters in the area will turn mature bucks totally nocturnal, other than maybe within their secure bedding area.
From opening morning on there is going to be major intrusions well beyond everyone in the areas tree stands as hunter’s that shot does and subordinate bucks noisily blood trail and drag them out. The high lumen flashlight and headlamp beams used by hunters for entries and exits in the dark also do not go unnoticed. To a mature buck, this type of activity immediately reinstates the area as a combat zone.
In lightly hunted and managed areas as seen on TV and in videos, taking mature bucks during early season is common because they have total control over every hunting situation, in hchp areas, you don’t have that luxury.
Due to the security cover of standing corn it will act either as a bedding area or as a secure feeding area and their perimeters can be hunted throughout the season until the corn is cut.
Stalking through standing corn during very inclement weather (heavy winds or rain) is also a great method of hunting throughout the season without affecting your rut phase locations.
Hunting near water in areas otherwise devoid of it can also be productive at any time of season, but especially during unseasonably hot weather conditions which is generally during the early season. If the location offers adequate perimeter and transition security cover, anytime of day, including midday between noon and 4 pm can be productive.
As the foliage falls and the woods become barren deer become uncomfortable with their environment and naturally become more nocturnal. The rut is not yet in gear, and there is a decline in general deer activity, welcome the “October Lull”.
Deer do not stop moving during the lull, in fact their movements steadily increase throughout it leading up to the rut. Unfortunately, the time of peak movement is after dark.
If rut locations are hunted during the lull when mature buck movements are primarily nocturnal, you will be alerting them and does of your presence. Even though the mature bucks may be nocturnal and you may think you are not spooking them because you do not see them, they still have ears and noses, and can detect human activity well after dark.
Altering doe activity during the lull will also have negative ramifications once the rut starts as all buck activity during the rut phases will revolve around the doe activity you altered away from your location.
This is the time to practice PATIENCE.Concentrate onhunting secondary locations in areas not associated with or near your rut phase locations. If hunting a small parcel (2 to 10 acres) that has a good rut phase location, stay off the property during the lull.
The rut phases are to bowhunting, what the “playoffs” are to sports. Seasonal and daily timing are of utmost importance now is the time to put in long hours on stand. Never mind the subordinate bucks seen chasing does for a week or more prior to this period because they have no clue what they are doing.
The pre rut generally begins around Halloween and runs through the first several days of November, with cold weather spurring activity a little sooner and warm weather a little later.
The beauty of the short lived pre-rut is that mature bucks actually have somewhat of a pattern and these routines often provide the best window of opportunity during the entire year.
During pre-rut mature bucks usually continue bedding well prior to daylight as they did during the lull. However, their hormonal surges often cause them to get up during midday between 11 am and 3 pm to signpost and scent check their core area for early estrus does and they will always use the best available transition cover possible when doing so. They will check primary scrape areas and bedding areas in search of does or earlier in the morning doe traffic scent and follow that scent trail if she was close to or in heat.
This midday movement almost always takes place in heavy cover and goes largely unnoticed by hunters. Bowhunters should have this buck movement pattern engrained in their hunting plan and should make every effort to exploit this routine weakness.
Once the main rut begins and the majority of does start entering their estrous cycle, the mature bucks are either pursuing does on unpredictable routes or have them corralled in an area of security cover which is typically within dense bedding areas.
The chasing can take bucks well beyond their core areas and eliminates the routine movement patterns they had during the pre-rut. During peak rut, luck can play nearly as big a role as a skilled plan.
During the rut, mature bucks that are between hot does may temporarily revert back to their pre-rut routines in search of their next hot victim. Your daily timing and stand locations should remain the same as during the pre-rut.
During early season and the lull morning entries should be at least an hour prior to daybreak and last until around 10 am. On evening hunts you should be on stand at least 4 hours before dark.
Once the rut phases start, your daily timing should change. On morning hunts it is advised to be settled in on stand an absolute minimum of an hour and a half prior to first light.
If a buck is transitioning back to his bedding area prior to daybreak and you spook him with a typical ½ hour prior to daybreak entry, he will not pass back by during midday. When settled in well before dawn, if he passes by prior to daylight without detecting you, there is a chance he may pass back through during midday. If you are up to it and your schedule allows, remain on stand all day.
All day hunting does not simply mean the more hours on stand the better. If a hunting location doesn’t offer perimeter and transition security cover, it will rarely be productive during midday. Hunting field edges or other open areas during midday is pretty much a waste of time in hchp areas.
During the rut phases it is perfectly acceptable to hunt a location several days in a row if you remain undetected by all deer that pass through the area. Does are buck magnets and the more unmolested their activity at a location, the better.
When hunting pressured areas you must deviate from the generic methods seen on TV and in videos. You are hunting a much smarter deer and therefore you must hunt smarter, and work harder. If not, you are better off redefining your hunting goals.
A note about the author:
John Eberhart has bowhunted in his home state of Michigan for over 50 seasons and has 31 bucks listed in the Michigan record book and has taken more more that didn’t make the book. Those 31 Michigan book bucks came from 19 different properties in 10 different counties and all of Johns bucks came from public and knock on doors for free permission properties. John also has also taken 19 P&Y bucks from 13 different properties on his out of state bow hunts and they also exclusively came off public, free walk-on and knock on doors for free permission properties and just as with his Michigan bucks, they were taken without the aid of bait or food plots.
John has produced a 3-DVD instructional bow hunting series called “Bowhunting Pressured Whitetails” volumes I, II, and III, and along with his son Chris, John co-authored 3 instructional bow hunting books “Bowhunting Pressured Whitetails”, Precision Bowhunting”, and Bowhunting Whitetails The Eberhart Way”. John has also written articles for many magazines both regionally and nationally and has done many podcasts which are on his website @: www.deer-john.net.
What separates John’s accomplishment of having an accumulative total of 50 record book bucks from 32 different properties from any other hunter in the country is that he’s exclusively hunted on public and knock-on-doors for free permission properties all his life.
A few years back John began Eberhart’s Whitetail Workshops which are 2-day events held in Central Michigan and whether you hunt public, free permission, family owned, leased, managed or out of state properties; attending one of John’s 2 day in-field/classroom workshops will give you the knowledge to be a serious threat to whatever mature bucks are on any property you ever hunt. One of John’s quotes is, what’s the sense of having motion pictures of big bucks, if you don’t have the hunting skillset to kill them. For information on Eberharts Whitetail Workshops please visit: www.deer-john.net