It started in early July while I sat next to a sizable field glassing the distant edge where the planted crops met brush. The sun was about to slide below the western horizon. Movement at the field’s edge caught my attention. Behind the screening of weeds stood a deer, antlers fuzzy and tips well rounded, indicating they were not yet fully developed. He started into the field and then turned to look into the brush behind him. I watched three more bucks materialize out of the bushy edge – two nearly as big as the first, and the other one only slightly shorter of tine and an inch or two narrower in spread.
All were in velvet. Three were obviously mature, judging from their body size and exceptional antler development. When they moved, they did so with extreme caution and care. They were mature whitetails, and they acted the way they were supposed to act. But they also moved carefully because their velvet-covered antlers were tender to the touch. They avoided having their antlers come in contact with limbs, barbed wire or anything else that might injure them.
I watched from a great distance, hidden in an old tractor that had long ago been abandoned on the field’s edge. I watched them through my 10X binocular, and then I drew rough sketches of their antlers so I’d be able to recognize and identify the bucks, should I ever see them again.
The biggest had 10 long points, the longest already at least 12 inches. His shortest tines were his brows, but they were easily ear-length. The main beams spread about 2 inches beyond each of his erect and forward ears. His bases, though exaggerated because of the velvet, were considerably bigger around than his ear butts. He was my kind of buck!
In rapidly fading summer light, I marked my map, indicating which trail the bucks had used to enter the field.
I’m lying to you . . . It didn’t really start that afternoon.
My scouting sessions had begun much earlier during the previous winter, actually two weeks after the hunting season had closed. By that time, deer activity had gotten back to normal. No longer were does and bucks spooked by the presence of humans in their home court. That’s when I normally start most of my serious scouting, especially if I have access to the property and it’s within reasonable driving distance. I knew the property quite well, had hunted it during past seasons and had taken several mature bucks there. I, along with several others who hunted the property, had also passed up shots at many of the younger “coming” bucks.
Shortly after season’s close, deer are no longer spooked, nor are they adversely affected by the presence of human odors. Even if they are, there are at least seven or eight months before the next hunting season for them to get over it.
During the winter, I walked the wood lot adjoining the field and connecting to the creek bottom. I looked for deer sign, particularly rubs, scrapes, bedding areas and trails leading to the field. I carefully marked on my map each rub and scrape, particular types of vegetation, food plots and the locations where I found deer beds. I followed trails from the field’s edge into the woods in order to locate possible staging areas where deer waited in the late afternoon before heading into the fields where they would feed under the cover of darkness. Satisfied with the information I’d gathered, I headed home and plotted my next scouting trip and started setting up fall strategies.
When turkey season opened, and with landowner permission, I headed into my “deer woods” in search of a lovesick gobbler. More important than that, though, I hoped to find some recently cast whitetail antlers.
I was thankful to find both on the first day. After calling in a longbeard and smoking him with my muzzleloading shotgun, I hung the “drawn” gobbler under a shady tree. Then I grabbed my journal and a sack in which to carry shed antlers and headed back out.
Each cast antler found was carefully examined. I noted its exact location on the property map in my journal. Many times in the past I have tagged a buck whose shed antler I’d found; sometimes I got him within less than 100 yards of where I’d found the buck’s cast antler.
Shed hunting is an excellent family affair. When my daughters were young, they accompanied me. These days, my grandsons often head to the spring woods with me. They equate hunting whitetail sheds to something similar to an Easter egg hunt.
I later returned to the wood lot to continue my scouting. After some looking, I located two trees that would be ideal for stands; they were back in the woods about 20 yards apart and about an equal distance from the edge of the field. I chose two trees in which to set up tree stands in order to “play the wind” properly once the season opened.
Between those two trees, there had once been a trail that led to the field, but now it was overgrown with underbrush. Using a hatchet, I hacked a meandering trail about 3 feet wide through the dense thicket. Yes, it was a hot job, but I hoped it would help heat up some action come fall. I learned many years ago that whitetails, even mature bucks, often walk the path of least resistance.
That same day, I set up two ladder stands and cut shooting lanes, leaving limbs that would help hide me during the fall. Mission accomplished! I would not return to the immediate area until before daylight on opening day of deer season.
Homework done, deer located, stands hung. It was now a waiting game. During the remaining month or so before deer season, I spent time honing my shooting abilities, double-checking equipment and waiting. I’m a firm believer in scouting early, especially immediately after the deer season closes, and then staying out of the area.
Mature bucks are different. If they feel pressured, such as might occur when someone tries to pattern them during early fall, they change their way of doing things. Some vacate the area while others practically become nocturnal. Both circumstances or degrees of either greatly diminish your chances of taking that buck once the season finally opens.
Scouting during the late summer equates to setting up and watching from a distance to make certain your plans are working. Be careful not to put too much scouting pressure on the mature bucks. I rely heavily on farmers and ranchers to keep me informed on deer patterns. I talk to rural mail carriers and school bus drivers. Dee
r become familiar with these people and don’t perceive them as a source of danger.
If the situation feels right, I’ll set up a trail camera to photograph a particular deer. Setting up such a camera on a trail or perhaps where a trail comes into a field or other feeding area is a way to document the deer’s presence and confirm that he is indeed the one you’re after. But I use trail cameras more during late-winter scouting than during late summer.
When’s the best time to take a mature buck? That’s simple: It’s at the earliest legal opportunity.
Early-season whitetails are animals of habit; they normally follow the same routine daily, although the times may vary a bit. Late-summer and early-fall deer feed in the same areas, especially where there are fields and crops or possibly falling acorns or fruits that ripen early. When you find these food sources, you’re in pretty good shape, especially if you don’t have the time or the opportunity to scout throughout the rest of the year.
In more arid areas and before cool weather brings rain, deer tend to go to drink at the same place late every day. Find a pond or stream that has a trail covered with deer tracks, set up some distance away and watch to see what comes to drink. This is not only a good scouting method but is also a good way to take a big buck.
Deer, even mature bucks, are creatures of habit throughout the early stages of pre-rut. If you don’t disturb them too badly, you can use their habits to your advantage.
Early-season bucks often travel in bachelor herds. Such bachelor groups can provide excitement if you’re sitting in your stand and a group of them comes along. Remember that when you hunt bachelor herds, there are many more eyes looking and noses scenting for anything out of the ordinary than you’ll normally have to deal with when hunting a single buck.
Hunting near crop fields early in the season, I prefer to set up on a trail back in the woods, such as the one I had created during the summer. Quite often, large-antlered, mature bucks tend to hang back and do not enter open fields until after dark. These woods-edge staging areas are where they stand and wait. That is where a hunter will have a better chance of bagging mature animals.
Staging areas are usually 10 to 25 steps off the field’s edge. You can determine where they are by looking at tracks. Find where a deer has walked back and forth across a trail, rather than staying on it. Try to locate these staging areas well before the season starts.
When setting up stands or selecting stand sites, I’ll trim limbs and trees long before the season opens. I certainly don’t want to do anything out of the ordinary that might alert a mature buck that something is amiss on his home turf.
It takes only a few days of hunter activity in the woods for bucks to change their habits, especially where there is considerable hunting pressure. When I was growing up, if you did not shoot a deer the first week of the season, your chances of even seeing a buck the rest of the year were greatly diminished. Hunting pressure causes deer to change how they do things. But, to be quite frank, deer would likely change routines anyway because of the onset of the breeding season, changes in food supplies and even changes in cover.
I set up several stands so I can take advantage of wind and sun, changes in food supplies, early harvest and/or early acorn drops. I hunt stands no more than three days in a row. If I haven’t taken a deer within those three days, I’ll shift to a new location.
Mature bucks tend to pattern a hunter if the hunter spends too much time in an area. I’ll move in hopes of taking another buck that was located during my scouting forays. If I don’t do any good in the new location, I may return to my original stand after letting the area “cool down,” encouraging the buck to return to his previous normal activities and routines.
During the early deer seasons, most bucks have recently shed their velvet, and testosterone levels are increasing. They spend more time rubbing their antlers on trees, shrubs and bushes.
The first few days after the velvet comes off, bucks are all still the best of buddies. They lick and groom each other. Freshly out of velvet, they spar with each other, pull their racks apart and look around to see which other bucks might be watching. Later on, all that changes. Sparring matches can become serious fight-to-the-death matches.
The sound of the rubbing antlers often attracts bucks. They come to watch their “competition.” I have often “rubbed up” bucks during the early season, starting almost immediately after they’ve shed the velvet from their antlers.
A few years ago, I was hunting a tract of land that held several rack bucks, as evidenced by the sheds we found. Occasionally, one of my hunting partners would take or miss an outsized buck. We knew they were there!
The property held an abundance of squirrels that liked to chew on cast antlers. It was a race to find the sheds before the squirrels did. That should also tell you we had an abundance of mast-bearing trees, ideal food sources for squirrels and deer. I only hunted the property the first week of the hunting season, because of other commitments.
The week before the season opened, on a rare scouting trip to that hunting area, I glassed several bucks. They stepped into the field late; it would have been too dark to shoot if the season had been open. The biggest buck had cleaned the velvet from his antlers. Before stepping into the field, he stopped on the wood’s edge and thrashed low-growing bushes and saplings.
Because of the distance of that hunting area from my home, I only scouted it the Saturday before the season opened. I had, however, kept up with what was going on with the deer by talking with the farmer. He told me about seeing a sizable buck in a “growing back field” not far behind a dilapidated farmhouse and barn.
On opening morning, I was set up on the edge of the field of mostly knee-high, native grasses dotted with a few oak saplings. Shortly after first light, I noted movement at the far end of the field. As quietly as possible, I swatted a mosquito that had found an exposed spot between my glasses and my head net. Then I took the right-hand side of my rattling horns and began rubbing on a nearby evergreen. I hoped to accomplish two things. One, obviously, was to imitate the sound of a buck rubbing his antlers. The other was to surround myself with a natural cover scent, released by the rubbed evergreen.
I rubbed for about 30 seconds, stopped for nearly the same length of time and repeated the action, all the time watching the deer. He heard the rubbing sound the moment I started. He stared in my direction. Curiosity got the best of him, and he started walking my way, coming toward me from an upwind position.
His antlers were big! His neck was not yet swollen, but it was fairly easy to see he was mature, complete with “flappy” jowls and sagging belly.
I seriously doubt that he ever figured out he had been duped by a hunter. He fell a short distance from where he had been shot. Kneeling by his side, I noticed his rack was still a light color, stained only at the bases with blood that had dried there when the velvet had come off. And, yes, his venison, typical of early-season bucks, was sweet and succulent!
What of the buck I mentioned seeing at the beginning of this story? I hunted him and found him the first afternoon of the season. He walked within easy range. He was an absolute monster! My knees shook. My heart pounded heavily. I hate to admit it, but I missed.
Early season? Can’t wait!