Early Season, Rut, or Late Season: Which to Hunt and Why

By Ryan Graden

I’ve had the privilege to meet a lot of deer hunters thus far in my life. I’ve met them through common acquaintances, church functions, my job, and simply noticing folks wearing camo clothing. There are quite a few of us out there that love to be in the timber during the hunting seasons pursuing those famous Midwest whitetails. However, when I meet these folks and get to talking to them, they all seem to have their personal preference as to when it’s best to be hunting here in Iowa. Usually, they have a darn good reason for it too!

I have had the chance to hunt the various seasons that Iowa has to offer and have personally settled on the two that I like. The rut and the late season. Whether I’m hunting with gun or bow, these two seasons have produced some great trophies for me over the years and because of that, I don’t think I will be making any changes to my habits anytime soon.

So what’s the best time to be chasing the whitetails here in Iowa? Good question. I’m no expert on what is truly the best, but I will attempt to deliver to you reasons why each season might be a good or a not-so-good time to be out in the timber. It will then be up to you to make a decision that will fit preference and style of hunting. Figure out the equation that works best for you and prepare accordingly.

Let’s begin with the early season.

Early Season: The Good
There are many good things about the early season that folks have shared with me over the years. Great reasons why they like to be out of the house and in the stand rather than waiting until later in the fall months.

One of the greatest bonuses of hunting in the early season is the element of surprise. The population of whitetails in Iowa have not had any hunting pressure since the previous January. That’s right! It’s been just under 10 months since those deer have seen a hunter in the woods coming after them. I guess, in our thought pattern, we hope that they’ve forgotten about it and we now have the advantage again. Realistically, deer keep no “schedule” of days and time. Therefore, until they feel the pressure of hunting, I’m sure they are pretty relaxed in their routine giving you the element of surprise.

A second bonus of hunting the early season is the weather. Most likely, in early October, Iowa’s colder temperatures have not set in yet. For the hunter, that means a certain amount of comfort while they are out hunting. Cool, but not cold fall temperatures could be expected for your hunts.

A third reason (kinda goes along with the first) is that the deer are still in a certain “late summer-early fall” routine. If you’ve done your scouting properly, you will know when deer are arriving in certain areas, what specific deer to expect, and where to position yourself for a good opportunity. Without experiencing any hunting pressure, the deer might still be in a very predictable pattern and you could use that to a great advantage in the early season.

The Bad
With warmer temperatures, deer aren’t always feeling that much biological pressure to be feeding during earlier times of the day. If you plan on hunting food plots or food sources that deer are frequenting, you might see them coming at a later time in the day to feed. Sometimes they aren’t coming until the shooting hours are over making it very hard to fill your tag.

Unless we’ve had a good hard frost, you’re going to deal with some bugs. mosquitos, ticks, and maybe a few gnats are still going to be bothering you while you’re in the stand or blind. If you choose to use any sort of bug spray to handle the problem, you might as well stay home! Deer will smell you from miles away. Investing in a Thermocell unit will help, but still, it’s not a 100% solution to the problem. Just make sure you’re not swatting mosquitoes when the buck you’ve been after steps into your shooting lane.

Big Bucks, typically, are still coming out after dark. Most of the trophy bucks that I’ve listed in the area that I hunt are rarely coming out to the food sources until way after dark. My trail cameras, most of the time, show these guys showing up no sooner than an hour after shooting hours are over. If you’re waiting for a certain “big guy” that you’ve had your eye on, you might as well stay home through the early season and wait until the rut or late season to get a shot at him.

Advice
I would say unless you have a deer well patterned to the point that you can predict his every movement, wait to hunt a little later in the season. You might get lucky and surprise a good one, but the chances are stacked against you.

The Rut: The Good
Ahh, the rut! It’s most hunters’ favorite time to be walking through the Iowa timbers looking for whitetails. When the drive to breed takes over with intensity, most of those big bucks turn absolutely stupid. They are making poor decisions left and right. All for the chance to breed a doe who is ready. I know. I’ve seen it happen right before my eyes. When a doe has come by my stand with a buck trailing her in the timber. I will gladly let that doe pass for a chance at her admirer. Over and over again I have seen a buck, who obviously knows or smells that something is not right, choose to follow the doe instead of obeying his internal “danger” alerts. In fact, I have a few deer on my wall that did just that!

Increased deer activity is another reason folks like to hunt the rut. A boring day in the stand is just that, boring. If you are willing to put a good amount of hours into a stand, you are going to have a much better chance at harvesting a deer. Your day will be a whole lot more entertaining. I’m sure any of us would like to be seeing a lot going on around us.

During the rut, there is always activity happening for you to watch if you are in a populated area. Bucks are chasing does all through the daytime. Does will come running through the woods trying to find a restful place away from any inquiring bucks for a little peace and quiet. You will also see bucks cruising through the woods trying to catch the scent of a doe in estrous. Again, a day in the stand during the rut is never dull for very long. You’re bound to watch something unfold in front of your eyes if you keep them open.

Another great advantage of hunting the rut is forgiveness. What do I mean by that? Hear me out. Because of the careless attitudes and behavior of deer, you will sometimes have a chance at a “makeup shot” if you ever miss or botch a shot. A miss or a disturbance that might come from you could cause a deer, in any other season, to completely change its pattern or even to vacate the area. During the rut, they will often times ignore that evidence and return to the area allowing you to have another chance.

The Bad
Lots of other folks hunt the rut! Although deer will often times ignore their common sense, if there’s too much pressure in a certain area, deer will catch on and make changes in their behaviors and patterns. If you have access to some acres of private land, you are in good shape as long as it’s not over hunted by others that have permission to be there. Iowa’s public lands can become a bit saturated with hunters who are trying to get in on the best days of the rut. You might be frustrated to discover somebody else’s “secret spot” was also yours!

Another negative is time. If you truly want to feel the effect of the rut, it would be great to spend extended hours in the stand during the days that the rut is at its peak. However, that’s not always a possibility for many folks. Workdays will take up the time that you could be spending in the stand. In order to take advantage of hunting the rut, you have to have a good amount of time on your hands to feel and experience the benefit. If you don’t have the time, then the rut may not be an advantage to hunt.

During the rut, bucks will often widen their home range causing them to move further and further from where you are used to seeing them. Studies have shown that mature bucks may venture five to ten miles from their home range! If you’ve done a lot of preparation for a certain buck and you chose to hunt him during the rut, depending on how many does are in your area, he might venture away to find one to breed. Keep your buck to doe ratio in good balance, and bucks should stay put. If you are low on the doe side, expect to have some of your bucks taking a brief vacation.

Advice
If you have good chunks of time to hunt, the rut can be a very productive time of the season to hunt. Be ready for some quick action and lots of entertainment. If you hunt the rut, take the moments you’re given for a shot. They may be back, but it may be a few days. Especially if they are tending a doe.

Late Season: The Good
One of the greatest benefits of hunting the late season is the deer movement. You can bet that if the temperatures are cold, deer will be quick to visit feeding areas in order to keep their calories up. December and the beginning of January are good months to start keying into the late winter food sources. Unlike early season and the rut, bucks will show up at these feeding areas around the same time as all the other deer that are in the area. They’ve slept most of the daytime and they will need the food to keep themselves warm.

Visibility is another great benefit of the late season here in Iowa. Finding deer in the timber is usually a lot easier with the lack of foliage and snow on the ground. Even during the rut, many of Iowa’s hardwood trees are still hanging onto their leaves. By late season, the wind has blown quite a bit of that off the tree and you can see the deer coming from a ways off. It also provides a great visual for any spot-and-stalk situation that you might challenge yourself with.

As with the early season, after the rut, deer will seem to get into some sort of regular routine again. That means using the same bedding area, food sources, and water sources. That also means that they will be likely to use the same trails that will take them between those resources.

Finding these heavily traveled trails could be a huge advantage to your hunt. If there’s a lot of traffic, you can bet you will be seeing a deer that will be prime for a harvest.

The Bad
Weather can be brutal! Even for the deer. It’s not unusual for Iowa to have a blizzard or a severe temperature drop that will halt deer movement for a few days. It also makes it very miserable for us to be out hunting in those conditions too. If the weather turns bad, just hunker down and be ready to go when it does break. When that happens, you can bet deer will be making and appearance.

Another “bad” about the late season is that most of the deer, if they’ve been hunted, have been “educated”. They know that hunters are out in the timber looking for them and their senses are alert to it! It will be harder to outsmart a wise old whitetail who has outwitted every other hunter throughout the season. Educated deer will need the time to forget about hunting seasons so you might as well wait till next season!

A third bummer about hunting the late season is simply this; you’re getting that last choice or the left-overs of the season. If you are looking for a particular size or type of deer, it might be too late. Again, if you’re hunting on private property, this many not be the case for you. If you’re hunting public or somebody else’s private property who’s had a lot of traffic, you can bet that most of the “choice” deer have been harvested and what’s left over are somebody’s second or third choices.

Advice
Hunting the late season can be great if you know a particular deer is still in the area. Key into food sources that they might be visiting. And if possible, get a good blind and a heater. If you play the wind right, you could have a very enjoyable and successful hunt.

I guess, with all of this information to process, I will leave you with this wisdom. Find out what you like, what works for you, and what you have the time to do. Any season can be enjoyable as long as you are enjoying your time in the outdoors.

A successful harvest does not determine which season is the best to hunt. A time that you will never forget, successful or not, is the key to a happy hunting season. Enjoy the memories and experience. They will last much longer than a trophy on your wall. Good luck!