I was settled in my tree stand awaiting the dawn’s early light when I heard the distinct sound of a deer’s hooves approaching on dry oak leaves. 

It was still quite dark and though the deer walked nearly underneath me, I could barely make out its dark, ghostly shape against the forest floor. 

Still, I had little doubt of its gender. A single deer, heavy, deliberate footsteps leaving a field and headed toward thicker cover at this time of morning was almost certainly a buck.

Deer tend to follow patterns, though not quite to the extent hunters would prefer. I had the opportunity to observe this in microcosm form on a recent trip to Illinois. The Land of Lincoln could easily adopt a modified version of Maine’s motto and declare their state: The way deer hunting should be. 

Over my five-day hunt at Hadley Creek Outfitters in legendary Pike County, the epicenter of Midwestern big buck country, I was treated to a display of daily deer movement patterns. Double-digit deer sightings weren’t unusual for a four- or five-hour sit, providing ample opportunity to reinforce my personal database of anecdotal deer observations.

Deer are most active at dawn and dusk. In the early fall, when temperatures are warm, most activity is clustered very tightly around those peak few hours. Later, as temperatures cool and feeding takes on greater importance, whitetails move later in the morning and earlier in the afternoon. 

What I observed in Illinois was typical of what I’ve observed elsewhere among relatively undisturbed deer (light hunting pressure) around late October, early November. Each day started with a flurry of activity early in the morning that ended quickly — by roughly 7:30 a.m. Things were fairly quiet until around 8:30 to 8:45. Then the woods seemed to come alive.

The mid-morning shuffle lasted anywhere from one to three hours, consisting of a steady stream of doe traffic, with an occasional young buck passing by, checking out does and in some cases even chasing them. I have a theory on why this occurs, but space limitations prohibit me from expounding.

Meanwhile, the older bucks are sticking mostly to their early-season pattern. Through most of October, your best chance of seeing a mature buck will be in the first and last 30 minutes of daylight. As the rut nears, however, things change quickly, and that switch was flipped midway through my Illinois hunt, coming on the tails of a fast-moving front and sudden drop in temperatures. Those normally nearly nocturnal mature bucks were on their feet trolling between 10 a.m. and noon – the time when most hunters have left the woods.

One must bear in mind that though these trends tend to be the general rule, there are exceptions, something I witnessed on the last day of my hunt. 

It was nearing 5 p.m., about the time does should be stirring, when I heard distant footsteps in the dry leaves. I raised my binoculars toward a movement on a facing hill in time to glimpse a big body and a big rack disappear into a tangle of vines.

After vigorously rubbing several trees and tending a scrape, the buck very abruptly bedded down a mere 65 yards from me.

That, I thought, was a little more typical. I expect he probably would have remained there until almost dark before moving uphill toward the food plot. 

But his repose ended abruptly when a temptress doe, 25 yards behind me, piqued his interest.  He rose from his bed with a roar and charged the doe, sending her fleeing down the hillside.

I expected him to follow, but instead he paused to sniff the ground where she had stood.  As the buck turned and started slowly back toward his bed, I was going through the bowhunter’s mantra – breathe, relax, pick a spot, release.

He never made it.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be contacted at: [email protected]