For many deer hunters throughout the Midwest, August represents not only summer’s last gasp, but also the final month to prepare for the archery opener in September (though some states have another month to wait).
With that in mind, there’s much to be done ahead of the season, particularly if you’ve slacked until now or spent more time fishing than in the field. So what should you do to be ready? We reached out to several veteran whitetail hunters to get their opinions. Here are 10 things they say hunters can and should do now to be ready for opening day.
Jared Larsen, onXmaps: Whether you hunt the same 100 acres you’ve hunted for 20 years or you’re a public-land guy covering new ground, apps like ours have a ton of uses for whitetail hunters. If I’m hunting public land, I’ll first use our web-based map to look for hard-to-access places—areas requiring a boat or kayak or a bit of creativity to get to. That cuts down on the number of hunters I’ll have to contend with.
Next, I’ll use aerial imagery to determine habitat diversity. It’s no secret that whitetails are edge creatures, so I determine where these edges and habitat diversity exist. From there, I’ll use topo-based maps to find naturally occurring funnels, like a saddle between ridges or where two draws come together. I’ll drop waypoints on the map and then sync these with the phone app. When you’re out there trying to find a particular tree to hang a stand, you’ll have those general areas that you’ve e-scouted.
2. POUND THE GROUND
Aaron Warbritton, The Hunting Public: With new or unfamiliar land, I dive straight in and cover as much country as I can. I use permethrin to keep the ticks off and go straight into what I figure is the thickest bedding area—the most secure cover I can find. Unless it’s a September 1 opener, I’m not worried about disturbing a bedding area. I’d rather go in and get the new scouting intel I need than not get it. It’s too crucial. We’ve spooked bucks out of bedding areas in the middle of August and then seen those same bucks and others in that area in October.
3. LEARN TO READ SIGN
Warbritton: Ten or 12 years ago I used trail cameras nonstop. I checked them before every hunt and made most decisions based on captures. I’ve somewhat abandoned that approach. I still use trail cameras as a complementary tactic to woodsmanship and sign reading. But I’ve become more successful in finding and hunting bucks in general, especially on public land. If you’re new to hunting and don’t know how to read sign, spend a season or two learning to identify and interpret sign before purchasing a trail cam. It sounds simple, but get out and find a deer trail. Think about how to set up over it. Think about what that deer will see as it’s walking down the trail. What’s it going to be doing? As you learn these things, you’ll discover how to set up without being detected.
4. PLAY A TRAIL-CAM LONG GAME
Warbritton: We’ll often run cameras in the middle of a bedding area on public land that we never check throughout the fall. We’ll set them out in July or August while scouting and won’t go back for them until February. This is for research and learning. We’ll see when bucks were most active in that bedding area throughout the entire season, what other factors might have influenced their activity levels and what type of hunting pressure the area receives.
A lot of people use trail cameras for information relevant to today. In reality, if you learn to read sign well, that’s a much better indicator of recent activity in an area. Cameras offer actual visual representation of a buck, but sign, like fresh tracks or rubs with bark lying on top of the leaves or a scrape from that morning, is more important in the short term, in my opinion.
5. MAKE THE ASK
Larsen: Getting permission to hunt private land for whitetails is difficult, especially in the Midwest. I like looking for smaller tracts of land, often between 10 and 50 acres, that aren’t necessarily prime whitetail areas but that have the habitat needed to hold deer. I’ll search the white pages for the landowner’s name and use onXmaps’ tax address information to cross reference. WhitePages.com provides ages, and I typically look for landowners who are 65 to 70 or older. A lot of these folks don’t hunt much anymore, so unless they’re diehards or have kids or grandkids who hunt, I usually have better luck with folks in this age range. Also, send letters. In my experience, that can be more effective than a phone call.
6. SCOUT AT A DISTANCE
Tyler Porter, Ken-Tenn Hunting Outfitters: In Kentucky, scouting in August means a lot of glassing and watching fields. It’s key to know where deer are entering fields and what types of deer—bucks or does—are using that field. I also look at the bean plants themselves. Often, in parts of the field, the beans have been eaten down to nothing. That tells me deer are using that area most. It might be a good spot to hang a stand or an area to observe further at a respectable distance.
Kentucky’s season starts the first Saturday in September, so our pre-season scouting is critical to our September velvet hunts. In the two or three weeks leading up to the opener, we back off the farms as much as possible and put little to no pressure on deer, except to fill up feeders.
7. SET YOUR GROUND BLIND
Don Kisky, Whitetail Freaks TV: There are many considerations when setting up a ground blind before the season. Most important, set it where the predominant wind allows you to hunt the most days. Don’t set up for an east wind if you won’t ever get one. If you’re hunting this blind in the morning, don’t be facing the sun. Same goes for an evening hunt. If the sun’s shining inside your blind, deer will pick you out. You don’t have to do an excellent job brushing the blind in if you’re doing it beforehand. If you’re setting up before season, leave the windows how you’ll use them while hunting so deer get accustomed to it.
8. KNOW YOUR TREESTAND
Randy Birdsong, Headhunters TV: With treestands, safety always comes first. Give them a good once over to make sure all the parts are in good shape and working as they should. Are your straps good? Are the cables good?
Practicing stand setup can be helpful, too. For me, when it comes to placing stands, it’s all about intrusion level. I try to be as unintrusive as possible, whether I’m going to hang and hunt, or I’m hanging a stand before the season based on intel from last fall.
It’s important to be able to get that treestand up as quietly as you can in the dark. I’m trying to tiptoe in there, get that stand up and get in it without making a sound. That requires familiarity with the treestand and how it sets up. I’m also big on moving or positioning new hang-on stands during the spring and not returning to those areas again until mid-October when I hunt them.
9. ORGANIZE YOUR DAY PACK
Scott Cronin, Browning Trail Cameras: Be as precise as a surgeon when packing gear. What is essential and what is not? What can stay in your vehicle? What needs to be with you? Weight is always an issue. Be efficient and know where everything is. A pack should be large enough to accommodate at least one layer of clothing. It should carry your nutrition and hydration. It should hold game recovery equipment, as well as the tools you need for your stand setup or your hunting approach. Every day pack should also have a backup battery pack for charging your cellphone—both for the mapping aspect and security/emergency purposes—and a light or headlamp with backup batteries.
10. AVOID UNDUE PRESSURE
Grant Olson, Whitetail Properties: The number-one scouting error is putting too much pressure on deer too early. Guys push in too hard and too quick now. I’m a huge proponent of sitting back and watching things. When you do go in, pick the right day. Lots of people get out on weekends. If you can check mid-day during the middle of the week or on a rainy day, slip in and get it done. It only takes a few encounters with mature whitetails to have an effect. They’ll still be there, but they will change their habits.
Also, people often wait too long to hang a stand or trim shooting lanes. If you see something now that needs to be trimmed, by all means trim it now. Don’t wait until the last minute.