One fact is universal regarding gun hunting for Michigan deer: Your chances for success soar the last few minutes of fast fading light. Truth is early morning and late evening is when bucks are active and your chances of filling a tag soar. For those willing to enter the woods long before first light and hunters who are patient and stay on stand until dark the reward is often a dandy buck on the buck pole. When light is low and fading sunlight sends long shadows across the landscape bucks come out from swampy liars and hidden bedding locations and move into open areas in search of food.
Few thrills can compete with the excitement of first light on opening day. You climb to your stand in the darkness and ready your gun as a bead of sweat trickles down your face from the long walk in heavy clothes. The sky is faint pink when you hear the first gun shot and as darkness blends into daylight guns start booming in every direction. You can hear leaves crunching in the distance and out of the low light appear a doe and twin fawns. Your heart is pounding as you watch the three through your scope. The next sound is from behind and you think it is a squirrel but close inspection reveals a dandy 8-point and you flip off the safety and drill him. Soon you are on the ground admiring the beautiful deer and a quick watch check tells you it’s still early morning. God bless opening morning you say in a silent prayer.
Are you ready for low light deer hunting? Do you have optics to help you locate animals? Do you have clothing to keep you warm as the temperature drops? Savvy hunters carry a small light to help find the way back to the truck. What about you, are you fully prepared for deer hunting when light fades into total darkness?
The advantages of deer hunting during low light are many. Deer are by nature nocturnal critters and they are well equipped to travel during complete darkness. It is common for wary adult bucks to travel at night and bed during daylight. Catching them off guard requires you are on stand before dawn and in the evening when the sun goes down. Another option is to hunt during low light conditions when low hanging slate gray clouds reduce sunlight and deer move. Never overlook the advantages of hunting during light rain when footsteps are dampened by the soaking rain and deer come out to play.
It was pouring rain when I went to bed and the next morning the wind was howling and fresh snow covered the woods with a white blanket. My morning hunt was an exercise in trying to stay warm so the afternoon hunt I joined my partner Don Rust in a nice warm blind. Wind was still blowing as a few snowflakes danced across the stubble cornfield we watched. The day was dark but no deer came out to play. As we were ready to leave Don spotted a group of does dancing our direction from a cedar thicket nearby. They scurried to the center of the field, dropped their heads and began gorging with food like they missed breakfast and lunch. That’s when Don looked to our right and spotted the biggest buck he has ever shot walking directly our direction. Don scrambled to grab my .30-06 and get it out the window and center the Burris Fullfield E1 illuminated cross hair on target.
Don is perhaps one of the best rifle shooters I’ve ever known. He can hit a fly in the eye at 100 yards with his custom Ultimate muzzleloader. When he said “he’s a shooter and stopped breathing to steady the shot I knew the trophy buck was in deep trouble. I watched through my Nixon 10×50 binoculars and at the loud boom the buck kicked like a mules ran about 30 yards and dumped into a pile in the mowed grass surrounding the corn field. YAHOO!!! He yelled and we both scrambled out of the blind and ran to the fallen monster.
In the fresh snow laid one of the largest deer I’ve ever seen. I’d guess live weight around 300 pounds with extra-long body, thick neck and moose-like nose. But it’s most impressive character was the fantastic 12-point rack with kicker points on both sides going sideways which gave it spectacular spread. This buck was old, sort of gray faced but his sway back, big belly and overall huge size made it tops on my list of biggest deer I’ve seen harvested.
We frolicked around the kill like college kids after a tailgate touchdown and I rushed to get photos. Snowflakes danced in the air as I used flash mode to capture the image of my best buck hunting partner with his awesome deer. When we reviewed the snapshots we had a good laugh because Don’s stocking hat looked faded in front. What actually happened is the night before we were drying clothes over an old farm pot belly steel stove and Don’s cap got burned by the hot metal. He was in the cold night air with snow dancing around his freshly burned stocking cap. But he didn’t care because he was smiling from ear to ear while holding his dream buck.
Don’s big buck is a classic example of what I’m talkin’ about. Big bucks like to move ad groove when the evening light is low and most hunters are headed to the warmth of camp. I refer to this time period as the magic hour. I first noticed the tremendous increase in deer activity when taking pictures and unfortunately discovered I could not get quality magazine shots in the low light conditions. I’ll never forget a Jackson County outing when I crawled close to a bedded buck and set up telephoto for pictures. But the buck remained in his bed until the light was so low that I could not get shots. I was frustrated but learned a valuable lesson about deer movement.
Hey, we all know deer are nocturnal animals and prefer to travel under the cover of darkness. But did you know that the vast majority of deer begin movement just as the sun touches the horizon. This provides a narrow window of opportunity for savvy hunters in the know.
In order to take advantage of this narrow window of opportunity you need to be fully prepared and use quality optics to spot deer and execute an accurate shot. Binoculars are a must for identifying deer and seeing antlers when the light is low. Choose optics with multicoated lens that optimizes light transmission, resulting in enhanced contrast and a bright image. For stand hunting get binoculars that are balanced and easy to hold. A wide neck strap is required and I like lens covers when walking in snow or rain. A wide field of view is needed to provide enhanced depth of field and sharpness.
I’m absolutely nuts about new powerful scopes that are illuminated. Some have too much illumination and the reflection of the bright light ruins chances for a clear shot. I like the scopes that have adjustable cross hair or red dot adjustment, 30mm tube to draw more light and enhance clarity and brightness. My .30-06 is rigged with a Burris Fullfield E1, 3-9x, 40mm with adjustable brightness on illuminated cross hair. My .308 Panther is rigged with a Bushnell AR tactical 1-4 24mm illuminated red dot. Both scopes are ideal for low light hunting conditions of early morning, late evening, and rain snow or when low hanging dense clouds make seeing regular sights a chore.
At times deer do not move when the magic hour arrives, especially if the day is calm with no wind. You know the kind of weather where you can hear a dog bark two miles away and a squirrel playing in leaves seems extra loud. On super quiet days deer like to wait until complete darkness because they know that their movement will make enough noise to alert any predators. So, they sit tight and hunters do not see them and local coyote aren’t chasing them.
The magic hour can be at daylight or sunset. Some smart hunters only hunt during this productive period and spend the warm noon weather in camp drinking a cold one, resting, cooking and waiting for fading evening light to get bucks rockin’. Low hanging clouds can extend the productive low-light condition in the morning and afternoon clouds can get deer moving early.
While deer are sensitive to bright light it is not uncommon for them to bed down in the middle of rolling open fields, stubble corn or tall grass. As a rule bucks prefer shade and will lay in the shade of a tree rather than out in the open where the sun can be relentlessly hot. Michigan bucks love the cover offered by alder patches and cedar swamps. The low hanging branches of cedars offer thick shade from sunlight and the needles form a soft bed used for day time beds.
Obviously if you want to fill your buck tag at lightning speed you want to be in the woods in time to take advantage of low light conditions. Mid-day look for deer activity in low lands especially swamps highlighted by thick alders, cattails or trees that offer shade to conceal the movement of bucks in search of a mate or food. An oak ridge that is surrounded by thick swamps is a great place to intercept deer that are feeding on the thick blanket of nuts. This year Michigan’s acorn crop is spotty, some oaks are loaded and the ground is covered with nuts, other trees have very few or no mast crop this year. The trick is to locate the best oak trees and you will be rewarded with a constant parade of wildlife including turkeys, squirrel, blue jays and hopefully a big buck.
I prefer to wear my Cabela’s Alaskan guide LED headlamp for early morning hunts, late evening and tracking or following a blood trail after dark. The light is powerful, has several beam adjustments and straps on my head leaving my hands free to carry gun, archery gear or drag out a buck.
Morning hunts are difficult for me because I’m a bit of a night owl. But the idea is to be in your stand at least 45 minutes before dawn. This gives the woods a chance to calm after your rude human intrusion. Savvy hunters set up on travel routes, over bait or feeding locations or between feeding and bedding spots. It is a difficult task to beat a mature buck to his bed room; most have finished feeding and are back in hiding locations a couple hours before sunset. Still, you can ambush some dandy bucks by being fully prepared and in an ambush position just as daylight arrives and bucks are still active.
Perhaps my most productive hunts have been during the magic hour after I have spotted a bruiser or know where one is bedded. I approach the stand at stalking speed, make very little noise and set up overlooking the exact location where Mr. Big is taking a nap. When he gets up to stretch and begins night movement I’ll be there and with one accurate shot its lights out when I smoke him with a perfect shot.
What about you, are you fully prepared to take down a buck in the wee hours of daylight or sunset? Don’t overlook the fun filled shooting excitement at dawn on opening of gun season. In Michigan it’s a hoot!