The more time we spend around whitetails, the more we realize they are cyclical animals. Nature has a certain rhythm and symmetry to it and whitetails are an integral part of it. They respond to the world around them (and what nature does or does not provide) with a set or series of what would seem to be predetermined responses developed over thousands of years.
The Early Season: "The Need To Feed"
In most parts of whitetail country, the early hunting season falls sometime between the beginning of September and middle of October. We refer to this as the "early season" or the "feeding season." With testosterone levels on the rise, early season buck behavior is dominated by feeding. It's as if something is telling them to eat now because you won't have time for it once the breeding starts. And it's true — once the rut kicks in, it is all about finding does and taking care of "business." A mature buck will loose 25-30 percent of his body weight during the rut.
The early season is a good time to hunt a mature buck. Early season bucks still in their summer feeding habits can often be patterned and set up on. They haven't been hunted since last season and it is possible to catch them with their guard down. If you are going to hunt a mature buck in the early season, you had better get him early because, after a hunt or two, he will feel the pressure and his pattern will change; hunt him a few more times and he will be on "red alert" for the rest of the season. The early season mature buck play is to find a food source being used by a good buck or two, set up on the area, and strike before they figure out the hunt is on.
Hunting early season bucks on food sources is anything but easy, but is still one of your best bets for taking a mature buck. Evening hunts are generally most productive in the early season when food sources like bean fields are generally being used by multiple deer including does/fawn groups. These deer serve as sentinels for the old boy you are after and he is generally the last to show up in the feeding area. All evening long, you will have dozens of eyes to beat as well as plenty of noses. Your scent will be saturating the ground area with scent molecules as the sun sets and the cooler heavy air drops to the ground. Hunt the same field 5 nights in a row and chances are each night will produce fewer and later sightings. The trick to early season food hunting is to strike while the iron is hot!
The Rut: "The Need to Breed"
The rut is the second major period in the whitetail's fall cycle. It is also the most popular time to hunt whitetails. Bucks of all sizes and shapes are up and about, and hunters are reporting buck activity on every sit. Hang a stand in a funnel or known deer crossing and you will see bucks; sit near a bedding area and sooner or later a buck will be by to check it for does; like to hunt ridges, go for it, bucks headed from one spot to another walk ridges all the time.
As far as real strategies on hunting the rut, our best advice is to hunt long and hunt hard. Pack a lunch and plenty of clothes and hang in there. The bucks will be on the move and you can't shoot them taking a mid-day nap in the truck. We like to hunt "outside in," meaning we hunt the perimeter of our property first and gradually work toward the center; this keeps us from running the best bucks out of our sanctuaries and in front of the neighbor's gun barrels. We also like to keep downwind of our core feeding and bedding areas to disturb as few deer as possible. We try to hunt as low impact as possible, even during the rut.
All kinds of crazy things happen with bucks when the rut is in full swing. It is also almost impossible to pattern or nail down an individual buck during the rut. One day he is here, the next he is over the hill chasing does. He could turn up anywhere on any given day; this makes rut hunting a fairly random event. All things considered, it is still a terrific time to be in the woods and we wouldn't trade it for the world; if you just like hunting and like seeing deer, it is the time to be out there. It is also a great time to kill that buck of a lifetime. The old mature boys are moving during daylight hours and one of them may just run down your gun barrel.
The Late Season: "Need To Feed" Returns
This is by far our favorite time to kill a big buck. The rut is over, and with it, the randomness of the hunt. Late season bucks are a pretty "beat up" crowd. They have been fighting for 2 months or more and have the bruises and broken bones to prove it. Many of them have been gored by other bucks, while others have been "gored" by broadheads or misplaced bullets. Some of the "luckier" ones are wearing Buick tattoos on their butts from crossing against the light when chasing a doe across a highway. But, most of them are just tired and hungry and a whole lot lighter than they were a month earlier.
As the rut subsides, they once again begin to think of food; food to repair their broken bodies and food to replace the 50 lbs. or so they have just shed in the name of reproducing the species. Late season feeders key in on the "hottest" high-carbohydrate foods they can find. Soybean seed pods are a favorite as is standing corn. If there are still acorns available, they are sure to attract a crowd (snow permitting). Brassicas plants like kale, ***, and turnips are also late season favorites. If none of the above are available, clover-based food plots, or even high-sugar green grain plants, will go a long way to rebuilding a broken buck. If all else fails, there is always woody stemmed browse and weed fields to recharge on.
Late season whitetails have been hunted for months and are extremely wary. Setting up a few hundred yards downwind of a late-season feeding location is a good way to kill a mature buck without his ever suspecting you are in the vicinity. Be careful of hunting food sources during very calm and quiet days. Whitetails will often lie up within 1 or 2 hundred yards of a food source, and late season deer are definitely wired for sound; on a calm day they will hear you coming 200 yards away, and either stay in their beds until danger passes, or slip out the back door. Bowhunting for mature bucks during the late season can be very difficult as they still are very much on perpetual alert.
In the world of whitetails, everything happens for a reason. Understanding the cycle will go a long ways toward helping you understand the "whys" of whitetail hunting. The "feed-breed-feed" plays out across most fall hunting seasons and should be a part of every whitetail hunter's core understanding of the quarry they hunt.