Understanding Whitetail Behavior – Part I

Understanding Whitetail Behavior – Part I

It was the last Sunday in August and across the waving grasslands and fields of western Manitoba, deer moved against the glow of the setting sun. Skylighted against the vanishing light, was a high, wide, heavy antlered 12 point with a still in velvet rack to drool over. I planned to have him in arrow range within three days. The season would open the next day.

Most hunters dream about hunting the western Canadian provinces during the rut. Not me. That is the same time the temperature huddles below my lower limits. That is when the deer have quite a bit of pressure placed on them by hunters. By then, the bucks are traveling far and wide, seeking the does. Me, I prefer a little different approach, one slightly more predictable. I like the idea of seeing a buck in one place, one afternoon, and feeling pretty sure he will be there the next afternoon. I like early season hunting. If you understand early season deer behavior and do some homework, you can plan a hunt with a more than average chance of success.

First of all, understand, early season hunting is not limited to Canada. It can be productive in Illinois, New York, Alabama or just about anywhere there are whitetail deer. No matter where you hunt them, their actions are governed by the same set of rules. In this series, I’ll define those rules and explain how they apply to hunting tactics. This information is based on 47 years of hunting and studying whitetail deer with both gun and bow. This is what I have come to believe and how I use it. But first, did I kill that Manitoba Monster? NO. Eight days of rain put the kibosh on the hunt. He was killed the day I left and scored just over 170 inches. It was on September 6 and he was killed within 30 yards of where I had seen him. On the days I was able to hunt, I passed up over a dozen shots at lesser bucks.

Keep in mind as we get into the basics of whitetail behavior, this is not about hunting monster, trophy bucks. This is about deer hunting. But also keep in mind, those monsters are deer and are not immune to arrows, just because it is not the rut.

For most of us, early season means bowhunting. The early season in most areas ranges from late August to mid-October. In some states, most hunters don’t even bother to hunt until the rut begins. I think that is a mistake. In that early season-from opening day, about a two or three week period-the entire deer herd is concerned with only one thing. FOOD. The bucks and does and fawns are all ruled by their stomachs. It is the time of plenty. For that reason, all early season strategy must be planned around a food source. If you can not identify and understand food source preferences, you are in trouble. Let’s take a look at two food sources and how they effect deer behavior.


Agricultural food sources, things such as corn or beans or wheat or food plots, by necessity and to varying degrees, dictate late evening or nocturnal feeding habits. Agricultural food sources are in open fields. In open fields, the only cover is darkness. Therefore, the mature, more cautious deer come to feed later…but they do come to feed. They come in a feeding order. There is an order to how the deer enter the field. It is not carved in stone but it applies most of the time.

First will come the youngest bucks. Spikes and button bucks are the easiest of all the deer to kill. They have not yet gained the wariness of the mature does or the caution of the more aged bucks. Next, is the family group, consisting of one doe and one or two fawns. In some cases, it may be a family unit, made up of two or more does and their attendant fawns. Not often will two family units mix. Usually they enter the field at different places and stay apart while in the field. However, the fawns will mix. Seldom will you see bucks and does and fawns mix. However, it does happen under certain circumstances. Last into the fields will be the bachelor groups of bucks and very last, often after dark, will come the mature bucks-those over 4-years of age. Now what does this mean to you?

Quite simply, if you are just deer hunting, shoot the first deer you see. If you want to fill a doe tag, (and I hope you will do so.), wait for the family units to arrive. If you are buck hunting…any decent buck, wait until just before dark. If you are trophy hunting…hang your stand well back off the field edge. Look for the approach trail back in the woods.

Before you can place a stand, one with a reasonable chance of success, you must have determined two things. (1) The food source. (2) How are the deer reaching the food source. With agricultural food sources, the identification is simple. To determine how the deer are reaching that food source, I use three methods. One is to watch that field from some distance and see where the animals enter. This is non-invasive scouting. The other two involve getting out there and walking, looking for the trails coming into the field and then following them back into the woods a short distance. I like to do this just after a good rain.

Understanding that agriculture-meaning fields-indicate afternoon feeding sites, takes care of the afternoon stands for the time being. What about morning stands or areas where there are no crops? I will discuss woodland food sources and how to hunt them in the next part of this series.

Deer Hunting - A 2.5 year old buckAn agricultural food source such as this Manitoba grass field normally mean an afternoon stand. This 2.5-year old buck is just a tad early for dinner.
Deer Hunting - Deer in ManitobaThis is the buck which I failed to connect on during one of my hunts near Russell, MB. He measured just over 170-inches. At least I know I had the stand in the right place.
Deer Hunting - Two family units of does and fawnsTwo family units of does and fawns and one young buck. The younger bucks will sometimes mix with the does when they are not in estrus but not often.
Deer Hunting - A mature buck moving into a grass fieldA mature buck moving into a grass field during the early afternoon. Why? Look closely, there is a water hole in front of him and it is hot.

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John Sloan

John Sloan

John L. Sloan, Lebanon, TN began hunting deer in 1954, He killed his first deer, and 8-pt buck in 1956. Since then, he estimates he has killed 300 plus deer, most with a bow. Sloan sold his first hunting article in 1957, and estimates he has had over 7,000 pieces published. He has written for most of the major outdoor publications and served as editor-at-Large for Bow and Arrow Hunting Magazine for many years. He was also the back page columnist for Bowhunt America for many years and currently serves in that capacity for South Pacific Bowhunter.

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