A heavily worn deer path skirted along the edge of the green field, which was surrounded by a combination of dense cover and isolated patches of open hardwoods. The entire area was completely covered in muddy deer tracks and every other sapling tree had been rubbed raw. In addition, my trail cameras had already captured several pictures of a really nice buck with extra-tall tines and a single crab-claw point that gave him character. Needless to say, these photos and fresh sign helped me forget all about the humid temperatures and bloodthirsty insects that go hand-in-hand with early-season deer hunting.
On opening day, I slipped into my treestand that overlooked a staging area just above two converging creek channels and one of the nastiest thickets on the entire property. About 30 minutes before dark, the sound of crackling dry leaves broke the evening silence to the extreme right of my stand. It was the crab-claw buck and he was headed directly toward an open shooing lane. Without hesitation, I quickly came to full draw and let an arrow fly that definitely jumpstarted my entire fall season. If you also would like to consistently bust pre-rut bruisers like these, then you need to pay close attention to the following early-season strategies and big buck essentials.
1. MAKE YOUR OWN LUCK
Without question, there are a lot of monster bucks taken every year by blind luck or sheer coincidence. We’ve all heard stories about hunters who left their stand early to go grab a sausage biscuit and ended up tagging a giant right at the truck. Go ahead and laugh if you want, but all of us have been blown away by these whacky stories at one time or another.
However, most of these one-hit-wonders are legends for only a single season, because luck alone is not going to keep tenderloin in the icebox or help fill those empty spaces on the wall. When you think about it, the odds of accidentally walking up on a pre-rut bruiser with a bow and pulling off a shot are slim to none. In order to punch early-season tags on a regular basis, you need to start making your own luck by fine-tuning and modifying your big buck scouting strategies
2. FINE-TUNE YOUR SCOUTING
At the end of the day, meticulously taking steps to accurately pinpoint and pattern mature bucks is what separates hunting legends from the hunters who occasionally get lucky. This is especially true during the early days of season when excessive heat can drastically decrease daytime activity. It’s not uncommon for veteran bucks to escape the hot temperatures by moving primarily at dusk and throughout the nightshift. Unfortunately, many of these nocturnal bucks will also hit the bed well before daylight and stay locked-down until dark. This pretty much closes your window of opportunity to connect with one of these bad boys.
To make matters even worse, whitetails practically enjoy unlimited access to groceries throughout the early season. As you can imagine, focusing on a preferred food source can really be tough any time of year when bucks have multiple snack options and choices. Early-season foliage creates an abundance of thick cover and green browse that can be exploited by deer. With this notorious situation, textbook feeding to bedding setups are basically obsolete, because bucks can bed down just about anywhere they take a notion. In the end, all of these factors are exactly why it is so important for you to take your early-season scouting to a whole new level.
3. USE HIGH-TECH TACTICS
Monitoring the daily habits and tendencies of a mature buck will enable you to pattern a shooter and capitalize on the prime times to hunt a particular stand or setup. One of the quickest and most efficient ways to nail-down a buck’s vulnerabilities is to incorporate advanced technology. For example, strategically hanging several trail-cameras near high-traffic areas is a great starting point for establishing a predictable pattern. Camera stations should be placed over possible big-buck travel routes, bedding locations, staging areas, mock scrapes, rub-lines, watering holes, and current food sources.
Needless to say, setting up numerous trail-cameras within a given hunting area can be very expensive. The good news is there are a few cost-cutting measures that can be taken to save you a lot of cash and time. Currently, hunters have access to some very affordable and compact trail-cameras that are loaded with features. These smaller units also have descent trigger speeds and are less expensive than the higher-grade models.
Basically, hunters can purchase several cameras and cover a lot more ground for about the same price. Using multiple cameras within your favorite hunting area will enable you to piece together an accurate time table of daily movements and behavior.
At the same time, if you really want to raise the bar for your scouting game, then you need to invest in at least some of the new high-tech scouting gear. Recently, there have been several innovative additions and improvements made to the standard out-of-the-box trail-camera.
For instance, several models on the market are now capable of emailing captured images directly to your cell-phone or home computer. Many of the newer units also record the current temperature and moon phase along with the exact time and date of each photo. All of this invaluable information can be studied and analyzed without having to spend countless hours in the woods.
Other high-tech scouting tools include the new Moultrie Plot Stalker surveillance systems. These handy devices can be placed directly over a primary food source or other high-traffic location like bedding areas or scrapes. The Plot Stalkers allow you to view an amazing 12 hours of activity in a matter of minutes. A combination of advanced technology and time-lapse photography shows you a full day of buck movement and behavior in a condensed 10-minute video clip.
In addition, the Plot Stalker time-lapse mode can take up to 3,600 images in a single day with the time and date stamped on every single photo. With this unit, the customized software conveniently stitches these images into a high-definition video that will keep you on top of a shooter buck’s daily activity, patterns, and routines. The panoramic view of these units produces long-range viewing capabilities and maximum coverage of any high-traffic area you choose to watch. Strategically using the Plot Stalker in combination with multiple trail-cameras positioned over key areas will make patterning an early-season giant and selecting a hotspot stand location much easier.
4. HUNT EARLY-SEASON HOTSPOTS
With any type of hunting, how and where you setup will ultimately have the biggest impact on your overall success. Undoubtedly, focusing on key early-season hotspots and hunting these areas with minimal disturbance can generate some up close and personal encounters with top-heavy bucks. At the beginning of September, setups directly overlooking or near preferred food sources like green fields, ripe agricultural crops and fruit-tree groves can be very productive. Isolated watering holes that are surrounded by cover can also draw the big boys into range, especially during excessively hot and dry periods.
During the opening days of season, setting up along the edges of food or water sources can definitely put some rack in the back of your truck. As the weeks progress, major buck travel routes that connect bedding to feeding or watering locations can be excellent choices. When these hotspots begin to cool down, you will need to drop back and start hitting those secluded little staging areas that bucks love to visit. These small pockets of cover that are located between bedding areas and primary food source are sometimes the perfect location to intercept a skittish buck that is waiting until nightfall to feed.
However, as hunting pressure intensifies, switching gears and moving closer to known bedding areas will be a better option. Hanging stands right outside of a nocturnal buck’s bedroom can be about the only way to create a shot opportunity. Under the right conditions, even hardheaded bruisers will sneak out of their protected sanctuaries to stretch and kill some time before moving after dark. It can be tricky approaching and hunting these highly sensitive areas, but you can definitely pull it off with a little extra planning.
5. PLAN & EXECUTE YOUR HUNT
In order to keep from educating a veteran buck, all of your early-season hotspot setups need to be carefully handled and hunted. This means exercising total scent-control strategies when hanging stands or setting up ground blinds. Always shower with scent-eliminating soap and wear knee-high rubber boots in the field. Spray down with an odor neutralizer and throw on a pair of latex gloves when preparing your hunting location. When cutting shooting lanes and clearing entry trails, be sure to carry all excess limbs and anything else you have handled away from your setup.
Next, thoroughly air-out and spray down all treestands and hunting blinds with an effective scent-neutralizer. Completely clear your entry and exit routes of any obstructions that can potentially cause noise or hold alarming odors after being touched. This includes overhanging limbs, pointy briars, weeds, leaves, and dry sticks. Taking these painstaking steps will enable you to quietly move in and out of any stand location without bumping or spooking deer. Lastly, you should always avoid overhunting a particular location by having multiple setup options and back-up plans.
In other words, construct numerous hotspot setups that will enable you to adjust to a variety of wind directions, big buck behavioral changes, and different degrees of outside hunting pressure. Having several different early-season stand locations and monitoring these sites with multiple trail-cameras will help keep you right in the middle of all the action. Over the past few seasons, hanging trail-cameras over primary travel routes near my setups have allowed me to consistently hunt the hottest stands.
6. CREATE MOCK TRAILS & SCRAPES
In my opinion, all of these hardcore tactics and deadly pre-rut strategies can be classified as kryptonite for super-racked whitetails. However, the last two dirty tricks in my early-season playbook are fully capable of exposing and exploiting some major weaknesses of mature bucks.
The first involves strategically creating mock buck trails that lead directly through prime ambush sites. You’ll be amazed how simply clearing out one narrow path through thick cover can help create a major whitetail travel route practically overnight. Carefully directing these newly constructed trails past your stand can place a shooter right in front of your first sight pin.
One of the quickest ways to convince bucks to start using these handmade trails is to create a series of mock scrapes along the routes. As a general rule, spacing each mock scrape out about 30 to 35 yards apart will get the job done. During this early transitional period, try to use straight buck urine and avoid rut-based scents until at least the beginning October. You will also maximize your success by leading these mock trails and scrapes into thick-covered locations that can serve as potential bedding areas.
Without question, hot temperatures, biting insects, thick foliage, and about a million other lame excuses can talk you out of climbing into your stand during the first few weeks of season. However, hitting the woods wide open with these early-season big buck essentials and strategies can kick-start your entire fall. In fact, all of these cutting-edge tactics have been successfully used in the field to consistently connect with pre-rut giants across the country. On that note, there is really no good reason for you to stay at home right now, because the early-season is one of the best times of the year to exploit monster bucks with this high-impact game plan. Good Luck and Good Hunting!