The rut is the special time of year that whitetail hunters live for. But it's also just that, a time of the year. It doesn’t last long—a month or so is about the best you can hope for. Maximizing your time during that magical period is critical. That said, life has a way of getting in the way, and most of us have to choose our shots. So what’s your shot? Is it morning? Is it evening? Let’s break them down.
Personally, I’m a believer in morning hunts. This is largely in part to the places and ways that I hunt. I spend the bulk of my hunting hours on public ground in places that I’ve never been to or have only accessed just a time or two. I’m typically many hours from home and am almost always solo.
Daylight makes everything easier. From spotting deer, to recovering a buck I shot, to packing it out, and general all-around convenience and safety. I far prefer to be starting my hunt in the dark and knowing that daylight is soon to come.
Strategically, I also think mornings offer a lot of hunting advantages. During the rut, bucks are spending a ton of time locked up with does in heat. This can make hunting the rut pretty boring. It’s hours of boredom interrupted by moments of chaos. As much as we love to think that bucks are always on the prowl and covering ground to find does, that’s simply not the case. In fact, bucks are typically bedded with a doe or corralling one into a very small area for the majority of the rut, especially as November moves toward December.
It seems the majority of that prowling happens at two key time periods—the first 90 minutes or so of daylight and again around noon. For this reason, mornings can be dynamite. They allow you to get in early and with a mindful access route, you know that movement is soon to come and you aren’t disrupting the activity on your walk-in.
Mornings also offer another big-time benefit that’s very often overlooked—thermals. With limited time to hunt and few areas capable of producing the quality of deer I want to hunt, hunting an “ideal” wind is often a pipe dream. Thermals make a big difference in these situations.
With the sun rising, temperatures increase, and updraft thermals kick in. You won’t get away with everything in terms of wind direction and scent, but on those days with low wind speeds or calm, variable-wind conditions those thermals are a game-saver.
I’ve found morning buck activity to be more consistent than when hunting evenings, but evenings offer some real advantages as well.
Cutting right to the chase, evenings offer one benefit that mornings can’t match: predictable deer movement.
One of the most frustrating, yet glorious, aspects of hunting the rut is the fact that it’s very difficult to pattern or predict buck movement. That’s why terrain features such as funnels and pinch points are so important. They direct random deer movement into less random locations.
Evenings provide more predictability because of the food factor. Even when the rut is rocking hot and heavy, deer still have to eat. Food sources are the go-to location for evening hunts. They attract does, and those does attract bucks. Often, does in heat being tended by a buck will head to those food sources in the evenings and bring the buck along for the ride.
If you only can spare a few hours in a day to hunt during the rut, I’d opt for evenings because of this semi-predictable movement pattern. Again, I feel mornings offer a greater window of movement to catch bucks cruising, but the evenings provide a more predictable pattern of movement in more defined areas.
The downside of the food source pattern? A lot of does will stop visiting these prime food sources because they’re tired of being harassed by bucks. I’ve seen glorious food plots and highly preferred crop fields become deer deserts during the peak of the rut because of this.
The food source pattern actually seems to have two key periods: the tail end of the pre-rut just as the first does come into heat, and after the peak of the rut as the majority of does have been bred. At this time, the does are returning to the food sources, reuniting with family groups, and bucks will follow.