HomeArticlesKevin A. GardnerPressured WhitetailsPatterns, Pressures and Game Plans

Author: Kevin A. Gardner

Deer are usually active within a 24-hour cycle no matter what the prevailing circumstances may be. Being able to pattern that cycle with a logical thought process and being willing to step away from the traditional “deer stand” will undoubtedly maximize every opportunity and raise success rates. Identifying deer patterns and how hunting or other incidental pressures can alter those patterns can be the deciding factor in whether or not a tag gets filled. Patterning a particular deer herd can be challenging, with time and resource constraints, but with a better understanding of the four activity based time-frames the animals use, you can greatly reduce the patterning process by being in the right place at the right time, here is how.

Deer, being large mammals, are forced to utilize open-air activity in their daily routine. This means to move is to be seen or heard. Food, water and cover are all daily requirements, that is basic knowledge. Caves, hollow tree’s and rock dens are normally not options for cover and bedding for deer, again, more basics. Therefore the use of established bedding areas and escape routes are how deer create the protective barrier or buffer from predators, human and otherwise. Moving to and from those areas and utilizing them safely is still necessary, requiring determining the best time of day for that activity. While food and water will ideally be nearby, movement form the cover to those sources is almost always necessary. This need for movement or activity categorizes them, at least temporarily, into one of four usage groups established around a 24-hour cycle. The better we can understand these groupings and predict what phase the deer are in at any given time of year, the better we will become able to pattern their movements.

The two most commonly known categories of activity are “nocturnal” and “diurnal”. Nocturnal being active during times of darkness, and is the term most people are familiar with. To clarify, animals are not nocturnal or diurnal, their activity is. The second best known activity is the diurnal grouping. This being a utilization of activity during daylight hours. There are, however, two other categories that are less popular in title, but in reality are what most deer herds fall into during the time we actively pursue them. The titles given to these two remaining groups are “crepuscular” and “cathemeral”. Crepuscular is a term applied to situations where animals are active at twilight, or those times between daylight and complete darkness. (I have found deer to take on a crepuscular mode of activity at pre-dawn as well, so in effect, I will apply the term to include both twilight and pre-dawn)

All summer long we see deer in the fields through the day and early evening, feeding and interacting with little regard for the going’s-on around them. These deer are clearly in a diurnal mode of activity. Then as if someone flipped a switch, they seem to have vanished. Very likely they did not, they simply have adjusted to the conditions that have been placed upon them by ever mounting activity in the fields and woods and have moved to a crepuscular activity pattern. A number of things can cause this to happen, but a great example would be harvesting work in the fields. Additionally the onset of the early small game season brings orange clad human predators into the woods and the deer simply shift gears to their fully crepuscular activity based feeding patterns.

As pressures continue to mount a new pressure arrives, and that is spotlighting activity increases, therefore evening crepuscular activity becomes less practical and again the gears shift into a fuller nocturnal pattern of movement. To deer, darkness is a very effective time to be moving if you would like to avoid the very diurnal, orange-clad intruders, but the disadvantage becomes the other predators that thrive in the nocturnal sector of the 24 hour cycle. So while nocturnal activity can increase due to greater human daylight pressures, the desire to move any substantial distance can become concerning due to the nocturnal nature of coyote and other large predator’s such as bear’s. Bears are very active in the fall as they work through their stages of hyperphagia (24-hour uncontrollable feeding) and create an unpredictable and volatile environment for deer, in preparation for their hibernation. At this point more of a force shifting back to crepuscular activity that is directed more toward predawn hours becomes appropriate. It should not take long to realize that all of these factors could very well realign a herd based on activity and essentially lock them down for the fall due to their highly complacent nature.

Progressing forward with big game season approaching and pre-season scouting activity increasing, even more incidental activity becomes possible during not only the diurnal time, but during the pre-dawn hours as well. At this point in time, this “pre-dawn” is a highly successful time to locate deer, as things may well have unfolded in the preceding months in exactly the previously described sequence. This is why well planned preseason scouting and bow hunting can have certain advantages with the still somewhat minimal daylight impact and predawn crepuscular deer activity. However, with this last remaining time of refuge becoming infringed upon and the rifle season approaching, time is running out on crepuscular activity.

The morning of the first day of deer season can find animals still in a crepuscular mode of activity if small game, bow hunting and scouting were not too intense. Many preseason scouts will be stationed in the appropriate locations as determined by their observations and scouting activity awaiting the naturally moving deer to pass by. If in an area where other marauding “orange clad’s” have not disrupted the crepuscular cycle of the day while blundering to their deer stands, the buck you have had your sights on may still follow that routine of activity for the morning and pass by unaware.

Cathemeral. the only remaining option of activity is the stage in which we experience deer most often when the rifle season opens. With the first shot of the day, comes an immediate shifting of gears to the pattern of cathemeral activity. Cathemeral activity is when the animal does not base it’s activity on desired conditions for activity, but by the prevailing conditions. What this means is that the animal will capitalize on any given opportunity to meet its needs. They have at this point demonstrated their ability to fully function in all activity types and will now use them s needed to survive. Cathemeral is nocturnal, diurnal and crepuscular all rolled into one and applied with a survival mentality. Imagine now the sporadic behavior based on inconsistent nutritional intake and how you could and should capitalize on that process.

Based on these factors, a greater amount of activity will happen just after dark on the first day of hunting season. The reason is that the animals will now be being pushed unnaturally during the daylight hours by hunting and shooting pressure and will find themselves held in area’s that they would not normally hold in or are unfamiliar to them. (Remember, deer can occupy an area as small as within a 1 mile radius all of their life, and pressure can force them out of it quickly) Immediately after dark the animals will begin to move back to the most familiar and obviously the densest cover they know. They will be on a dead run to get there and will likely stay put until survival needs dictate movement again. This is why it is particularly dangerous driving on country roads the evening of the opening day of deer season.

So now we find ourselves dealing with animals that are actively in cathemeral activity mode and it’s only the first day of the season. We all know that as the days progress, less and less hunters will be in the woods to help create those desired activities that will now force the animals to move again, so now if we intend to harvest a deer we will need a game plan. Having a game plan is actually pretty simple. It basically involves identifying what you have working for you and against you as each day passes and responding to those workings accordingly. Lets look at a couple of examples.

The first thing you should identify that you have going for you is time. With time will come a very significant benefit factor for low-pressure hunting and that is weather systems. Keeping a very careful eye on the weather will be a huge asset to locating cathemeral animals in a low-pressure environment. As weather systems move into an area there is a distinct change in barometric pressure ahead of the system. Animals are very (I cannot stress this enough) sensitive to this change and will move naturally to prepare for the incoming system. These systems may force them to bed down for up to 36 hours, in extreme cases, leaving them only forage of the immediate vicinity. They are all too aware of it and will force feeding, giving you an opportunity to position yourself along those travel routes you established during preseason scouting that lead from dense cover to key feeding area’s.

Next, remember those predators that no one likes? Well they are working for you now too. With a certain amount of “post harvest product piles” in the woods, the predators are eating pretty well. Since most of those predators are nocturnally active, the majority of that activity is taking place at night, which is creating activity that is uncomfortable for deer. To that point, again the deer slowly become (pre-dawn) crepuscular as the days pass. Taking advantage of that activity by thinking outside of the tree-stand and still-hunting will become the winning strategy. Still-hunting, being slowly moving through an area while observing every aspect of the area closely, is very effective. It may take hours to move 100 years, but the hunters I know that practice it when things slow down and pressures drop, consistently harvest good to great bucks.

Dense patches of laurel and thick coniferous stands will be where you will find the crepuscular deer moving and or holding. Look for area’s that would allow them to see approaching dangers from that secure area’s and approach otherwise. This is a tactic of surprise and if you can move slowly and be prepared for a quick encounter your chances for success on those mysterious disappearing bucks should rapidly increase.

Understanding how deer think is clearly challenging. Nothing is etched in stone and every rule of thumb is broken time and again. But understanding how deer must move in relation to a 24 hour cycle and under prevailing pressures should help at least to put more hair in the sights. Take all things into consideration and think through what is happening when you are not present in the woods, and use those things to your advantage. Try new things, even things that may seem absurd or that you may have heard never work. I do like to live by the adage “The one thing you always know, is that you don’t always know”.

I think a deer or an elk wrote that.

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