When I really think about it, I can only recall a handful of times that I’ve ever shot anything at dawn. Sure, I still use that time to get out into the woods, but it’s a rare occasion when it all comes together at first light. Conversely, I can’t count how many times I’ve gotten lucky in the afternoon. It’s been a recurring scenario for me throughout the year. After being exhausted from a hard week of rising early and walking far, I get a little bit lazy and sleep in a bit, heading out into the woods at 9 or 10’oclock in the morning without a lot of hope, only to pull the trigger on an elk, bear, buck, or tom turkey. It’s happened to me so often that it’s completely changed how I think of animal movements during the day and completely changed the way I hunt.
Making The Most of Your Time
Like a lot of hunters, I was taught that the afternoon isn’t really a primetime to be in the woods. Much of the time I’d rise early in the morning, hunt for a few hours, and then go back to camp for lunch and a quick nap, before heading back out in the early evening. In fact, it wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I really started considering any time after 11 a.m. as a viable time to hunt. It was then that I had my first “nooner,” shooting a whitetail buck that casually walked by me when I had a late start getting to my stand. Though you could call it luck, after it happened a few more times, I began to notice a certain pattern and I realized that while the early morning and late evening were productive, I was missing out on a lot of opportunities by leaving the woods in the middle of the day. Almost all big game animals will have some sort of early afternoon movement, you just have to know how and when to look for them.
Mid-Day Deer Hunting
Right off I’m sure most hunters reading this are automatically thinking of the rut. That magical time of year when sex-crazed bucks are on the hunt for does and will be out trotting around the woods all day long. This is of course a prime time to stay in the woods all day, but there are plenty of times during the pre- and post-rut where deer will get up and move around during the warmest part of the day. It’s called a “mid-day stroll” when deer, having bedded up for a few hours in the late morning, get up to stretch their legs. They may feed a bit, but mostly they just take a slow casual walk in a circle that can be as small in radius as 100 yards and as large as a mile before bedding down in nearly the same place again. It will occur several times on especially cold days when deer feel they need to warm up a bit and get their circulation going, just like after you’ve been sitting in a cold stand all day. To capitalize on this behavior, I’ll move within a couple hundred yards of an area where I know or believe deer are bedding down. Even if I’m doing something active like still-hunting or tracking, I’ll find a good vantage point and hunker down for at least an hour or two and keep my eyes peeled for movement.
Mid-Day Elk Hunting
As with deer, during the rut elk can be found moving at anytime during the day. However, there are certain scenarios before, during, and after the rut when you should be hunting hard during mid-day. Most of the time, even during the rut, elk move into thick timber during the day and hunker down. Slipping in on them can be difficult do to swirling winds, crunchy leaves, and impassable terrain. However, elk are rarely completely idle throughout the entire afternoon, especially bulls. No matter how many cows they have with them during the rut, bull elk can’t resist visiting a wallow. While their ladies are resting, both satellite bulls and big old herd bulls will get up and wander over to the closest wallow to give it a once over and perhaps a stinky refresher. Mid-day hunters can capitalize on this behavior by setting up by a fresh wallow adjacent to a bedding area and simply waiting for a bull to show up.
Additionally, during the post-rut, when bulls are run down from chasing their girls all over the place, they will begin to focus on refilling those calories, no matter the time of day. During the late rifle season in Montana, I like to move into spots that have an abundant food source such as late grass growing on South-facing slopes, juvenile willow, aspen, and dogwood trees – which grow in river and creek bottoms – and even onto the edges of agriculture fields. During the post-rut the bulls are hungry and will feed throughout the day.
Mid-Day Bear Hunting
Though 99.9% of black bear movement will occur either in the early morning or late evening, I’ve still seen plenty in the middle of the afternoon. This movement usually occurs in areas with limited food sources and a lot of competition—i.e. areas with a lot of bears that don’t have a lot of food. It’s all about finding the food sources that bears are keyed in on and have a limited availability. In spring, when bears have just come out of their dens, their first available and consistent food source is grass. Those first green patches where the snow has melted off will draw a lot of attention from your local bruins, and are places you should spend special attention to during a spring bear hunt. Locate these early grass patches by glassing, move into shooting distance, and then simply wait for a bear to come along. Much of the time a bear will have gotten there before you and will either be gorging itself throughout the day or be guarding the area from other hungry bears. Either way, those grass patches make for great places to bag a noon-time bear.
For fall bear hunting, your best bet is to follow the berry crops. Winterberry, chokecherry, elderberry, wild grapes, rose hips, persimmons, and crab apples all ripen in the autumn and are great food sources for bears looking to add a last layer of fat before winter. These crops are of limited supply, only around until they are all eaten in bear heavy areas. Bears will absolutely gorge themselves on them when they find some and will actively feed on them throughout the day because of the simple fact that some other bear will eat them if they don’t. If you’re looking to bag a bear at mid-day it’s best to know where these berries are beforehand and how to approach them silently and from downwind, because a bear could be in there chowing down at any time of the day.
Mid-Day Turkey Hunting
I think I’ve shot more turkeys in the early afternoon than any other animal.. Most of the time during the breeding season, toms will roost with their hens, following them down from the trees in the morning and mingling with them as they begin to feed. However, as the morning wears on, toms will grow restless and eventually wander off in search of new hens to play with. This makes them great targets for turkey hunters who stick it out for the entire day. Being in search of love, these wandering toms are incredibly susceptible to calls and decoys and will happily wander into any afternoon ambush you want to set up.
Additionally, these lonely wandering toms will eventually return to their hens should they have no luck finding anything new, usually doing so sometime in the late afternoon. This is where it helps to know the area, to know where the hens will most likely feed and where they will eventually move towards to roost. Knowing where the hens are heading for the afternoon is key to being able to get there ahead of them. Once you do, you’ll want to set up and wait for the hens to pass by and for the tom to come running by, trying to catch up.
How Bad Do You Want It?
The truth is that there are a lot of hunters out there who understand the movements of game animals in the afternoon. Yet there are few who really do anything about it. This may be because they were taught that only the morning and evening are worth bothering with, or because they get impatient and need a break, or because they really want a nap and a sandwich. Regardless of the reason, too often hunters who don’t spend every waking minute of their available hunting time actually hunting end up eating tag soup at the end of the season. So pack a sandwich in your bag, bring a thermos of coffee, and then go out and hunt hard all day long, because that’s what truly successful hunters do. Besides, you can always catch up on sleep at the end of the season.