North Carolina and surrounding states are blessed with long deer seasons. Not counting late winter urban archery seasons, a hunter can hunt with bow, blackpowder or modern gun for almost four full months in the Tar Heel State.
Many deer hunters try to spread out their efforts through the whole season because they love the chase, and even with healthy deer populations it’s not easy to “limit out” or even find the one big buck that filled your dreams all year and which will make you remember one special day all the way up to next year.
When you’ve spent a good portion of the whole season in the woods, rising early and hunting late, you feel it at the end, though. As the old joke goes: “It feels so good when it stops.”
A better way to hunt may be to optimize your hunting opportunities during prime hunting times. (It goes without saying that foregoing marginal hunting areas in favor of better ones will help, too.) Instead of hunting one or two days every week for months on end, it may be better to hunt as much as you can during the best three, four or five weeks of the season.
I have done it both ways, and while the second approach has always been more difficult for me to arrange, it has unquestionably been worth it. It has several advantages. There’s nothing that keeps you from getting in an occasional hunt here and there as time allows, but not over-hunting your best spots and knowing that you will be hunting a timeframe that YOU think is optimal for bucks to be on their feet are both huge confidence boosters. It’s also nice and helps add some spice that you can squeeze in some fall fishing on days that you might have otherwise “wasted” in a treestand in years past.
Let’s face it: after the first two weeks of bow season in mid-September, your chances of shooting a good buck slide downhill pretty steeply until the rut begins to crank up toward the end of October. This isn’t all due to deer behavior and changing food sources, although those two things have a great deal to do with it. You and your hunting mania are a little to blame, too. You are spooking deer and helping them pattern you almost every time you go in the woods, especially if your attitude is that it’s still early in the season and you have plenty of time left for the stars to align.
Of course, the task is not impossible and there are some tricks to hunting the early mid-season. But most hunters would count a day hunting some part of the prime rut against any three days during the rest of the season, with the possible exception of the archery opener and the first two days after that.
When is the prime rut? In the Carolinas, the timing of various phases varies somewhat from area to area. The best teacher is several years’ experience in a particular region, and —failing that—the guidance of one or two successful hunters who have hunted the area for years. If I were going to paint with a broad brush, though, I would say that generally the last week of October through the last week in November are the days I’d most like to hunt if I had to choose from only five weeks. The middle three weeks of that period have always produced the most action for me on an average basis over a long hunting career.
That said, I have killed some of my best Carolina deer on either side of that calendar. I would not give up an opportunity to hunt outside this prime time, but if it comes down to scheduling trips or time off from work or making room for fishing or honey-do’s or any of life’s other distractions, I would choose this golden period for deer hunting above any other, and above all distractions.
The key here, as you might have guessed, is that the rut gets bucks on their feet questing for does and moving around your hunting grounds during daylight, you would hope. At no time since the late summer and the first two weeks or so of bow season are bucks so visible and so vulnerable.
I always get a kick when I hear people say that hunting pressure runs deer out on the roads to get hit by cars. Some of those people should know better if they would engage their brains, but alas. The idea that a significant number of deer killed by motor vehicles are fleeing or avoiding hunters is just ludicrous.
No, when you start seeing an uptick of deer on the roads, hooves-up or standing on the side, it’s a sign that food sources are nearby, food sources are changing (causing deer to travel) or bucks are looking for does. Or all three. It’s not because there’s a county-wide deer drive going on.
But when you see deer on the road, as a hunter you *should* take it as a clue.
When you see them on the road at this time of year, you know bucks are trailing and chasing does. Playing chess with deer or trying to pattern them—which you may have been trying to do in October—is yesterday’s game. Now you must get on the trail of the does who will be your best bait for a nice buck. “Hunt the does,” they say. I have done well with this strategy all the way through early December, when the legendary second or “trickle” rut may occur a month or so after most does come into estrus.
Choose your hunting locations to keep a steady stream of does moving past your stand. A buck will come along eventually. Or look for mature does traveling alone, as they are likely in heat with a high possibility of a buck nearby.
Keep this up for at least a week past the point that the woods seem dead, devoid of bucks, and you may be rewarded by the sudden emergence of a buck that has finished tending his latest doe, or by witnessing a true second rut with multiple bucks running wild for a few days.
Only after that can you say you gave it a good shot all the way through the prime time, and if all your dreams didn’t exactly come true, you have about nine months to pick next year’s Hardcore Deer Hunting Maniac Days.