Try these tips to increase your odds of filling an early season deer tag.
By Scott Haugen
Four days into a five-day hunt, I couldn’t get any closer to the bedded buck, not without taking a chance. My options were simple: Wait for the buck to get up, back out and try again later in the day, or take off my boots and try to move closer.
I chose the latter option, and I’m glad I did. The 17-yard shot was easy, and the 29 1/2-inch-wide 4×4 mule deer had no idea I was around when the arrow hit the mark.
This season, don’t be afraid to make an aggressive move to fill a tag. Then again, make sure to weigh all the options.
In the dry conditions often encountered during early season deer archery hunts out West, getting close enough for a shot without making noise can be the biggest challenge. In order to dampen the noise of your footsteps, toss an extra pair of thick wool socks in your pack, and don’t be afraid to slip them on.
The challenge in stalking with socks on is committing to using them. If you fear your footsteps might be heard by a buck, that’s the time to take off your boots. Set them aside and mark the spot with orange flagging tape, so you can find them later. Slip a thick pair of socks on over your existing socks, and keep moving.
If cacti are a problem, there are covers you can get to slip over your boots, to dampen sound. As you continue your stalk, constantly monitor the wind. If it changes, wait, or back out. This is an up-close game, so don’t panic and don’t get in a rush. I’ve used this approach multiple times on deer and pronghorn, and it’s allowed me to fill a tag when I otherwise would have been busted due to sound.
WATCH FROM AFAR
Spotting scopes are a valuable tool, but underutilized by many archers. Most good hunters know the goal is to locate game and stalk within range without the animal knowing you’re near. Spotting scopes allow you to do this.
When you locate the early season deer you want to focus on, if you can’t make an immediate move, watch him.
See where he’s moving, bedding and what his routine is. If he gets up in the middle of the day, how long does he stand and where does he re-bed?
If he starts moving to a feeding area with a couple hours of daylight remaining, how fast does he move and what trails does he use? Is he with other bucks, and if so, is he always last in line?
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Watch what the wind is doing around the buck at all times during the day. Look at the grass, plants and trees to see which direction the wind is moving. With a high-powered spotting scope, you’ll be amazed at the detail you can see.
When all the elements come together, that’s the time to make your move.
By studying a buck for two or three days, you’ll learn a lot. You’ll be able to accurately anticipate his movements, and know what your next move should be. In other words, the guesswork is greatly reduced. You might only get one stalk on a wise buck, so make it count.
KEEP CAMERAS ROLLING
While scouting should have been done during the summer months, sometimes things change. The buck you may have set your sights on could have moved, another hunter could have taken it, or predators may have claimed him.
Heck, maybe hunters beat you to your spot and you have to find new ground. For these reasons, and more, it’s important to keep your trail cameras up and working.
The earlier in the season it is, the more easily a buck can be patterned.
As September rolls along, daylight hours shorten and bachelor bucks spread out, so it becomes tougher to pattern a big buck.
But with trail cameras you can see where bucks are, or aren’t, and know exactly what time they’re moving and in which direction.
Trail cameras also give you the advantage of knowing where to set up in order to get the best shot. If you’re a spot-and-stalk hunter, perhaps where the buck is moving during daylight it would be tough to get a shot, but a tree stand or ground blind might increase the odds of filling a tag. Trail cameras can be a wealth of information, even once the season is under way.
A common mistake I see, even by bowhunters, is moving in the open.
Even if going from point A to point B, and you don’t think animals are around, be careful. Sometimes bucks bed in the most unlikely places, and once you step on them by surprise, that’s one less opportunity you’ll get.
Believe me, I learned by making this mistake more than once.
In mule deer country, don’t overlook the possibility of the smallest cut-bank or depression being able to hold deer. In the blacktail and whitetail woods, these deer can hide behind a fern or a surprisingly small rock or log.
My golden rule is to always expect the unexpected.
Never let your mind wander, especially when walking. Always think that the possibility of finding a buck is high, and you’ll be amazed at not only how differently you view things, but how much wildlife you actually see.
When approaching a ridgeline, don’t just walk to the high point and start glassing. Move your way slowly up the hillside.
With each step in elevation you gain, more of the valley or hillside opposite the one you’re climbing will be revealed. Use your binocular to search for parts of a deer. Look for antlers behind brush, the horizontal line of a back or belly, a wet, shiny nose, or patches of white fur on the legs, throat and tail.
By taking a step, glassing, then taking another step and glassing, you’ll spot deer before they spot you.
Early season deer hunts are hard on the body and mind. With long daylight hours this time of year, hang tough and use the cover of darkness to your advantage.
If you have an hour hike from camp to a prime hunting spot, then leave early enough to be in position come daylight. If bucks aren’t moving until minutes before dark, then be prepared to get back to camp very late.
Big bucks often begin the ascent to higher ground — where they’ll bed for the day — surprisingly early and way before daylight.
If you can do the same thing, approaching the area from a different angle, you increase the odds of intercepting them near their bedding zone. It can be tough playing catch-up to a buck that’s going to bed, but if you get ahead of them you turn the odds in your favor.
At the same time, deer may not begin moving down to a feeding area until the final few minutes of shooting light. This means you want to be as close to their core area as possible, so you can get a shot before dark.
Be prepared to not only take a shot right before dark, but to track, field dress and quarter the animal in the dark. You may not get back to camp until the wee hours of the morning. If you’re not prepared to do that, then don’t take a shot right before dark as the last thing you want to do is leave an animal overnight, where it will begin to rot and be wasted.
Make sure to always carry extra batteries for the headlamp. Having an extra little flashlight is even a good idea.
By being prepared, both mentally and physically, your odds of filling an early season deer tag greatly increase. You’ve done the homework and prepared all year for this, now it comes down to hunting smart, knowing when to make a move, and most importantly, what move to make.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For signed copies of Scott Haugen’s best-selling book, “Trophy Blacktails: The Science Of The Hunt,” send $20 (includes S&H) to Haugen Enterprises, P.O. Box 275, Walterville, OR 97489 or order online at www.scotthaugen.com.