While there is no guarantee of success, understanding whitetail behavior during the early season can go a long way toward putting meat in the freezer or antlers on the wall.
By Scott Carver
It was opening day, and the dark, predawn air was cool and damp as summer and autumn seemed to be arguing as to which one would rule the day.
For the moment, I was content to enjoy the quiet darkness in anticipation of the show that would play out as the woods came to life. Having settled into my stand overlooking a familiar oak flat, I suddenly became aware of the steady crunching of leaves headed my way, meaning deer were approaching.
Even in the blackness, I could hear my heart pound as the source of the noise drew closer and then stopped directly in front of my tree. I could make out the silhouettes of deer, but legal shooting light was still a few minutes away.
The silence was broken as the deer crunched white oak acorns that littered the ground, and I relaxed as I knew if they didn’t smell me, they would hang around for a while. When dawn finally shed light on the group, and all heads were down nosing around for more acorns, I sent my arrow through a fat doe; deer season had begun.
For hunters, no time is more predictable than the pre-rut activities of early deer season. Having been in bachelor groups most of the summer, bucks are beginning to separate and claim home range, and all deer are pinpointing sources of protein to see them through the winter months.
While pre-season scouting can definitely pay dividends, to be successful early in the season, the best time to scout is when the previous season ends, as the leaves are off the trees and the topography can be analyzed. It is during this time that potential bedding areas, such as cedar thickets and clearcuts, stick out in woods.
Unfortunately, at the conclusion of the season, many hunters turn attention to fishing or turkeys and don’t think about deer until late the following summer.
Regardless, when scouting, there are certain things to look for to ensure success during the pre-rut. Keep in mind, during the early season, bucks are not consumed by the urge to procreate, and does are not being harassed by suitors. Does and bucks are focusing on putting on fat for the winter, so hunters should focus attention on food sources.
Having browsed on the greenery of spring and summer for several months, deer are drawn to the opportunities that fall has to offer. These are the areas that hunters can depend on to fill their freezers, as deer, both bucks and does, will congregate to this short-lived opportunity.
Learn the most abundant mast crop in the area and focus on it when scouting. White oak acorns, in particular, will draw deer for miles, and hunters should become adept at identifying these trees, as many won’t actually begin to drop nuts during pre-season scouting. Carry a small set of binoculars in order to see if the tree has nuts.
Dr. James Kroll and Pat Hogan discuss the impact of wind on deer behavior. (Via North American Whitetail)
Though harder to find, a true hotspot in the early season is fruit. Persimmons and apples are deer magnets, and hunters guard the locations of these areas with secrecy. As trees began to drop ripe fruit, deer will visit until every fruit is gone.
A great place to look for these areas is around old home sites, as settlers and farmers would keep these trees well cultivated. Persimmons grow sweeter and brighter after the first frost, and deer can smell them from great distances. Of course, agricultural crops will be about ready to harvest, and deer will also target these areas.
Regardless of what type of food source deer are keying, there are certain signs to look for that will reveal areas to hang stands. When deer are utilizing a particular food source heavily, droppings will litter the area, and trails will be evident entering and leaving the area. Bucks, especially younger bucks, will leave rubs in the general vicinity.
Generally speaking, morning stands should be on trails leading away from feeding areas, as deer will grab a last-minute bite to eat before heading to bed for the morning. Evening stands should be positioned near feeding area, as deer prepare for a night of feeding. Of course, always take into account the wind to prevent scent from blowing the direction deer will approach.
After locating food sources, fine-tuning setups becomes possible. Before the pre-rut, focus on bedding areas near feeding areas. To start, concentrate on areas with feeding sign, as deer typically feed near where they sleep. Later, follow deer as their food sources change because they will gravitate toward areas with food and shelter close together.
This is especially true with bucks, particularly big bucks, as they limit the time they are exposed during feeding. Deer feel vulnerable when feeding. Therefore, the shorter the distance they have to travel from their bedding area, the better.
Big bucks take this to another level altogether. While does will sometimes bed on the side of a ridge overlooking a food source, big bucks are much more solitary. With much of their feeding done at night, daylight feeding is going to be done as close to bedding areas as possible.
When locating a bedding area, search for the thickest stuff possible close to the food source. If the area is difficult to walk through, then it is a good bet a buck is using it as a bedding area. Clearcuts that have been allowed to grow up, briar thickets, pine thickets and other thick areas close to utilized food sources are great places to start looking for early season bucks.
As bucks travel from these areas to feeding areas, seldom will they expose themselves. Deer, but especially bucks, typically travel along edges. Places where a pine thicket meets hardwoods, clearcuts meet woods or perhaps where the topography of the land creates a bench along the side of a ridge are often travel corridors for bucks.
These are also places where they love to put a rub line. Once travel lanes are located, place stands between bedding and feeding areas, keeping in mind that bucks will seldom travel along ridge tops. Instead, they usually travel along the side of a ridge to blend in with surroundings.
Early season weather plays a huge factor in each hunt. In most areas of the country, the first days of the season lend to the summer patterns that have been the norm for the last few months. While nights may be cooler, rising daytime temperatures will send deer scampering for more comfortable environments. This is especially true as deer begin to get winter coats, making warm temperatures even more uncomfortable.
While there is a time and place for all-day hunts, the early season usually isn’t the time. A morning and evening sit is usually much more productive, possibly with scouting expeditions during the midday hours. As weather patterns cool in autumn, deer activity during daylight hours increases, and longer time on stands will be more productive. Additionally, for many parts of the country, fall can be a very dry time of the year, thus water sources can be utilized by hunters as deer are forced to drink whatever water might be available.
There are many decisions to be made for stand placement in the early season. Is the goal to fill a freezer with venison, or is it to hang antlers on the wall? No matter the goal, nothing is going to bring hunters closer to success than putting boot leather on the ground via scouting.
Hunters who kill big bucks on a regular basis have at least one thing in common. They scout relentlessly and are in tune with the areas they hunt. Just because something worked last season doesn’t mean that it is going to work this season, and every second spent in the woods is going to provide education about the local deer herd.
Additionally, scouting is a great time to introduce a young hunter to the nuances of the forest. While they might be too young to sit in a stand for hours, walking through the woods and looking for deer sign will be much more to their liking. For me, scouting and putting together the puzzle each season has become as enjoyable as the hunt itself, and increases the anticipation of opening day. Never let deer season begin on opening day, instead let it begin long before to be much more confident in the darkness of that opening morning.