Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
The walk to my stand on that mid-September afternoon was a short one — no more than 200 yards from where I parked. Yet, in that short distance, I managed to work up a sweat that threatened to wash me down the hill. It was hot! And as hot as it was, the humidity was worse.
However, it was opening day of the early archery deer season and my expectations were high. My stand overlooked a well-traveled trail that connected a thick bedding area and a standing corn field. I had seen a good buck in the field during the summer, before the corn had gotten too tall, and I hoped he was one of the deer that was using the trail under my stand.
By the time I had climbed into my stand, I was soaked. I sat there and watched beads of sweat roll off my forearms. Fortunately, the wind was blowing away from the bedding area, so I felt confident no deer would pick up my scent.
About 20 minutes before dark, the deer started to move. First, a 4-pointer and two small does walked out of the thicket, passed under my stand and headed into the field. Then, a nice 7-pointer that was still in full velvet came by. That buck actually paused and sniffed at the base of my tree for about 30 seconds. I had never bagged a buck in velvet before and toyed with the idea of taking the shot. Ultimately, however, I opted to wait to see if the big boy would show.
As the last rays of light speared through the trees, I finally caught a glimpse of a deer wearing a nice crown of antlers heading my way. Clearly, this buck had a bigger body than any that had previously passed by. And when he stood at 25 yards, I could count 10 tall tines on his rack.
My breathing grew erratic as I stood up in my stand and readied myself for a shot. When the buck was 10 yards out, I drew back my bow. Unfortunately, before I got to full draw, my finger hit the trigger on my release, my arrow sailed off into space and the buck high-tailed it out of there.
Except for my clumsy blunder, it was a perfect bowhunt for the early season — one of my favorite times of the year to chase whitetails. It’s hard to beat the November rut for tagging a trophy buck, but nearly as productive as the rut are those first few days of the season when the sun is hot, the air is humid and the bugs are out in force.
HUNT EARLY, HUNT LATE
The opening of archery deer season in most states occurs at a time when rutting behavior is nonexistent. Bucks will travel together in relative tranquility, does will be with their fawns, and food and water–as opposed to mating–motivate deer to get up on their feet. In addition, because bow seasons typically are the first deer seasons to open, hunting pressure has been nonexistent since the previous year.
Add up all these factors and you come up with deer that are calm and fairly predictable. That means, with a little homework, you can figure out where deer will be at certain times of day.
Especially when the mercury is soaring, count on the most deer movement at first and last light of the day. Deer really are no different than other mammals. Name one that doesn’t live in water that loves to be up and about when the sun is high in the sky and it’s 90 degrees out. Deer and humans are kindred spirits in that regard.
On hot days, deer will rise near sunset to head off to feed and drink, and then return to bed down for the day at dawn. This means you need to be in your stand on a trail that runs from bedding to feeding areas in the evening and vice versa in the morning. Alternatively, you can hunt over a water source at these times.
That all sounds simple enough, but deer — especially mature bucks –tend to move at the last light or the very first light of the day, if they aren’t totally nocturnal. Moreover, being able to see well enough to take aim under these conditions can be a challenge.
Instinctive longbow and recurve shooters have a distinct advantage in poor light because they’re not looking for sight pins — in fact, they frequently keep both eyes open when they shoot. Compound shooters who use pins and peep sights, on the other hand, are likely to encounter difficulties in low light.
To counter the problem, always use fiber-optic pins. These pins gather any and all available light, which makes them glow. If you use a solid metal pin, it’s just going to look black and will disappear into the background when you train it on a deer’s equally dark body. For extra illumination, add a battery-powered light that illuminates your sight. We’re not talking about lights that cast a beam on the target. Those are illegal. Illuminators typically mount on the top of the frame of your sight bracket and shine straight down on your pins.
If you like using a peep sight, find one with a large hole. The bigger the hole, the easier it is to see through in poor light.
If you can, teach yourself to shoot with both eyes open. This will help you see tremendously. Or, remove your peep sight and tie pieces of dental floss on the bow string at eye level, about an inch apart, to help you line up your sight.
You know that deer like to move at first and last light on hot days, but where can you find them during the middle of the day? Lying in their favorite, cool bedding areas, no doubt. If you know where these bedding areas are located, you can take the hunt to the deer.
Grassland hunters have been bagging bucks like this for years. They find a good vantage point early in the morning, watch a deer until it lies down to bed, and then sneak in on it for a shot.
In forested areas, it’s not so easy to watch deer bed down, but scouting will help you determine where likely bedding areas may be found. Look for them in well-shaded, thick areas, especially near water or food.
It’s definitely trickier to stalk deer in a forest than it is on the prairie when you consider that you won’t know exactly where a buck is lying. However, it’s easier to stalk deer in a forest when you consider you have plenty of cover to block a deer’s ability to see you. Move slow and deliberately: And you absolutely must have binoculars. The key to this game is to move for three seconds and then glass for 10 minutes.
When you’re looking for bedded deer in the forest, you can’t count on spotting a fully exposed deer body. Instead, look for deer parts. Find part of an antler reflecting the sun
. Look for the horizontal line of a deer’s back in a brushpile where all the lines of vegetation are mostly vertical. Or, look for a brown and white coat amid mostly green foliage.
If you have access to a field of standing corn, by all means, dive in. Deer love to bed in standing corn. One of the best times to stalk through a corn field looking for deer is when it’s windy. The wind will mask most of the noise you will make and, with all the stalks and leaves blowing around, it will be harder for a deer to pick out your movements.
When you hunt standing corn, walk into the wind perpendicular to the rows. Step from one row to the next. Before you enter each row, poke your fully camouflaged head through the foliage and look right and left for bedded deer.
Stands of evergreens are also good areas to stalk for deer when it’s hot. Get into the thick, dark cover and you’ll feel the temperature difference. It’s cooler in the shade of those conifers. That’s why deer like it there when it’s hot.
CALLING ALL DEER
Just because it’s September or early October and the rut is still weeks away doesn’t mean you should be afraid to do a little calling when the heat is on. Deer are vocal creatures all year, not just during the rut. That said, however, their vocalizations are different early in the season than they are when the rut rolls around. Say the right things and you could reel in the buck of your dreams.
Many bowhunters today carry the popular can-style estrus bleat call. Turn it upside down and it produces a perfect estrus bleat every time. However, my advice is to leave that call at home early on when the weather’s hot. It’s not time for that call yet.
Instead, get yourself a regular doe bleat call. It will look very much like a buck grunt call except it produces the higher-pitched doe bleats. Unlike the estrus bleat, a regular doe bleat is shorter in duration. It’s very similar to a buck grunt except it’s higher pitched.
Does emit bleats in the early season to keep track of their young and other members of the herd. It’s a very social contact call and hunters would do well to mimic it.
Buck grunts also are effective calls at this time of year. But early-season grunts are different from rutting grunts. Generally, they have a softer pitch. Think of a hot-weather grunt as a grunt without the territorial anger of the rut behind it.
One year, on the second day of my state’s archery deer season, I was sweating in my stand on an afternoon hunt when a nice 6-point buck and two does entered the woods from a field about 70 yards to my left. The deer were heading away from me, so I picked up my grunt call and uttered a series of five soft grunts. The does paid no attention and kept on walking, but the buck stopped dead in his tracks, turned around and walked to within five yards of my tree. His antlers now hang on my wall. Had I not called to that deer, he would have just followed the does right out of my area.
Rattling is something that many hunters associate with the rut. But during the heat of the early season, bucks will occasionally lock antlers in mock sparring matches. Again, there’s no anger behind these duels. It’s like two boys wrestling playfully in the schoolyard. To imitate this sound during the early season, all you need to do is lightly tickle your rattling horns together. Don’t crash them together or shake them vigorously — that’s being too aggressive for early fall and will actually alarm deer because it’s not a natural sound.
No discussion about bowhunting for deer is complete without discussing scent control. But as critical as it is to a successful bowhunt later in the season, it’s even more crucial early on when it’s hot. Humans stink even when we don’t sweat. Heat us up, and we’re downright putrid. And when it’s hot and humid, your scent is going to linger longer on the ground and on anything you might touch on your walk to your stand than it would if it were cold and dry out.
Upland hunters who use dogs will be the first to tell you their hunting partners have a much easier time tracking birds and rabbits with their noses when the ground is warm and damp then when it’s cold and dry.
The war against odors begins at home. Before you head out to hunt, take a shower with non-scented soap and shampoo. There are tons of products on the market made just for hunters looking to kill body odors. You should have no trouble finding them, but plain old Ivory soap will do the trick in a pinch.
After you shower, use some unscented antiperspirant, and use it all over. Anything you can do to keep from sweating is a good thing.
Next, you’re going to want to get dressed, and you have a few options. Hunting catalogs are loaded with technical clothing lined with carbon that is designed specifically to help wick moisture away from your body — which will help keep you from stinking — and to hold in any odors you might emit.
I know it’s hot out there and the goal is to keep from sweating, but if you go with carbon-lined clothing, you need to wear gloves and a full head cover or you might as well forget the rest of the suit. Covering your hands and head will make you sweat, but those are two of the stinkiest parts of your body. If you leave them unprotected, you might as well not wear any carbon-lined gear.
Another route you can take is to wear your favorite hunting gear after it’s been impregnated with some sort of cover scent. I like to seal my clothes in a plastic bin along with some scent wafers that smell like fresh earth — a common woodland odor where I hunt. Find something that smells like your favorite hunting grounds and seal your clothes up with it for at least two months before the season.
No matter what kind of clothes you wear, spray yourself liberally with a scent elimination liquid. Again, the shelves of your favorite hunting store will be loaded with these sprays. They are designed to kill human odors on contact.
Last, but certainly not least, pay attention to wind direction when you hunt in the heat. Try to walk in to your stand so that bedded or feeding deer can’t get a whiff of you, then hunt from a location that’s downwind of where you expect the deer to appear. It’s best to have multiple hunting locations selected before the season so that you have more than one option, depending on the wind direction on any given day you’re afield.
Hunting deer when it’s hot out might not seem like a good idea, what with the bugs and the sweating and all, but it can be a productive time to hit the woods. The first time you draw back on a trophy buck, I guarantee you won’t think twice about the heat.
Getting the drop on a hot-weather whitetail is a different game than hunting later in the season, when the weather is colder and a buck’s rutting instincts are taking over. Adjust your tactics accordingly, and you, too, could be staring down the shaft at a trophy whitetail. I assure you that you won