This is a timeless question that has multiple answers. There are so many variables to the answer that is almost is impossible to answer. Then you throw in the moon phases and it splinters each variable even more. Over my career of time spent looking for animals with clients. My experience really only applies to Mule deer in the Rockies. I would say the mornings are usually the most consistent and best opportunity to put a hunt on a deer. The morning offers you the transition from open feeding areas to heavier, thick tree covered bedding grounds. The area you are trying to find deer movement throughout your hunting day depends on a few things that you need to ask yourself. How much pressure does this area receive from other hunters? Where are the water sources? What type of feed are the deer eating on during my hunt? Where are the bedding areas?
Where time should you focus your energy to get the most out of your hunt? If you can answer those questions with solid certainty, then your ahead of the game. All of those questions can alter the time the deer are feeding. No one can predict the exact time the deer will be standing where you are looking. Deer will always be deer and rely on essential living requirements just like we do. If you’re unsure about an area you can always rely on time spent on other units. The deer tend to be in type of terrain or location as other unit’s and out during the same time frames. Of course, this can vary from unit to unit. Besides the morning my favorite time hunt is 12-2pm. I look forward to getting behind my glass during this time. I have found some of the bigger bucks and elk I have chased during this time. Now it doesn’t always pay off but usually there is less people. The deer usually change beds during this time to get out of the heat of the sun beating on their hair. They also have chewed down their morning feed and look for an afternoon snack to tide them over till evening.
Below I have touched on each question and how it helps me decide on which time to focus on to have a successful hunting trip.
There are a few types of Hunting pressure can be different depending on your unit. Some pressure can just be vehicles driving up and down the roads. Other can be hunters out walking the sticks and bumping deer from heavier areas and also from feeding grounds. If you find a glassing spot in an area where most the pressure comes from vehicles burning gas up and down the roads. The deer will adapt their behavior to this and most likely not change their pattern from year to year. I watched mature bucks feed and bed within 100 yards off a well-travelled road but never spook. He has played on the field before and knows what to expect. So his time might be spent in the daylight more often. On the flip side if the pressure is intense and you can feel the pressure then the deer most certainly can. This tends to keep them tighter to thick cover and in some cases the big boys tend to become nocturnal. Light pressure helps the deer stay out longer in the morning getting all they can before heading to bed. Heavier pressure speeds up the time and speed at which they seek cover to lay down for the day.
Water is a crucial element deer need to survive. Running water can be very difficult to hunt as it tends to have thick cover around its shores and has many water points for the deer to fill the tank. Running water gives trees a better chance to grown and be more plentiful allowing the deer to water in thick cover and make it hard to see with optics. This type of water source can get the deer on their feet at any time of the day or night. Making it hard to predict watering times. Standing water has a different effect on the deer. My experience leans toward early morning watering times as deer usually drink while heading back to bed. These type of watering holes usually reside in desert terrain. The desert climate is usually hotter and the deer water late or during the nighttime. It’s always a good bet if you have some good elevation around any type of water source. If water is around so will the deer be. Another trick water will give is tracks. You can always walk a water source to find recent activity and the dirt will tell you how many deer water at this location.
Mule deer have a wide mixture of food sources. It changes with the season and that will dictate animal movement. If the feed is plentiful on early season hunts the deer have to travel less to find desirable ingredients to fill their bellies. As fall hits the Rockies, food availability changes and prime summer feed dries and loses nutritional value. The deer transition into fall and winter food sources they have relied on for generations. This typically causes the deer to spend more time walking further from bedding grounds. Learning what they eat in your unit along with when they eat is the single best advice I have learned in my career. I wish I would have kept a journal about this to pass on to my kids. This is one piece of the hunting puzzle that is consistent. The deer will always be where the feed is.
Bedding ground is stereotypical thick cover with lots of exits to escape. Deer know exactly why they decide to paw out a bed, usually has the wind and good eyesight to escape predators. Deer need to cool down on hotter days and spend more time in shade. On colder days they will be on their feet more. It’s almost like their internal thermometer tells them exactly how long to stay out. Morning are best to catch the deer movement as they head to bedding areas. Evening hunts seem to be more difficult as the movement back out is typically more methodical and slower. The thick cover also hides them from eyesight. They could be on their feet eating what they can under the cover of the foliage, and you would never see them come out until it’s too late.
Learning and understanding these questions about your unit will help you decide when to hunt it the hardest and when to observe to catch more movement.