Bestul: Leaf Drop Changes Deer Behavior

Rut Reporter Scott Bestul is a Field & Stream's Whitetails columnist and writes for the website's Whitetail365 blog. The Minnesotan has taken 13 Pope & Young-class whitetails and has hunted, guided for, and studied deer in the north-central region all his life. States covered: IA, IL, IN, MI, MN, MO, WI.

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The pretty maple on the left side of this photo is certainly eye-catching, but its bare-branched buddy to the right might be more important to deer hunters. We're at or near peak fall color in the northern parts of this region, and when leaves turn pretty they only stay that way for a short while. The next (and usually quick) step is leaf fall, and the once-gorgeous backdrop is replaced by bare branches.

Oddly, the annual leaf-drop does matter to deer hunters, and the reasons go beyond the fact that a bare maple is a lot less entertaining than a gorgeous one. The suddenly bare canopy can cause deer to shift bedding areas and travel routes in ways that range from the subtle to the dramatic. For example, it's common for early-season bucks to bed on north-facing slopes to take advantage of cooler temps. While there's usually much less undergrowth on a north slope, mature trees provide enough shade to make the environment feel dark (and therefore safe) to a deer. When leaves disappear, so does the shade, and a buck will often abandon a favored early season haunt for one where he feels less exposed.

Naturally, the same can apply to travel routes. Early season bucks often follow trails through fairly open timber, seeming to defy the whitetail tendency to favor the dark, thick, and nasty places. Again, heavy shade is their ally until the canopy disappears. This is something to think about as we hunt and scout in the days ahead; often when I feel that recently hot sign has dried up on me, I realize that the buck that made it has made a subtle shift to a place slightly thicker where, I presume, he just feels more comfortable traveling.

We've been experiencing a warm period of dry air and mostly-south winds across much of the region. Farmers are busily combining corn and beans (the fall harvest is another game-changer, which I'll discuss next week) in the summer-like temps. I've heard varying reports of bowhunting success from my sources; action has seemingly slowed for Minnesota archers, while bowhunters in Iowa and Illinois are a little more cheery in their reports. I just received a picture of a huge buck tagged in Wisconsin, and I'll snoop into that report and see if I can share a photo in my next post.