While the rut is considered the best time to take a nice buck, early season can be quite productive as well. Hunters who know how to identify early season deer hunting patterns and where to hang stands are typically quite successful during the first few days of season, before hunting pressure changes everything.
Doing so, however, requires identifying a few key points in regard to whitetails.
Deer are slaves to their stomach, especially in the early deer hunting season. They will generally be on their feet to feed every six to eight hours. Early fall is a very critical time of year for whitetails as they are packing on weight to make it through the rut and upcoming winter.
During this time, they are programmed to feed on the most nutritional food.
As such, identifying indigenous food sources is the first step to patterning deer in the early part of the deer hunting season. Food plots have been wildly popular in recent years, but they are not really that productive in the early season. The simple fact is that there is an abundance of natural food sources during the early part of the deer season that hinders the effectiveness of food plots.
In most cases deer will feed on other food sources, such as hard and soft mast, before hitting food plots. As such, hunters should concentrate on the natural food sources, and save food plots for later in the year.
Of course to be able to hunt food sources, hunters must first find food sources. And hunters must be careful during the search, as deer often like to stay pretty close to preferred food.
"Big mature bucks will not bed far from their preferred food source," said Steve Stoltz, renowned whitetail hunter. "So the chances are, once you have located where he is feeding, he will be close."
What deer are actually eating during the early season deer hunting typically depends on region, as some areas have varying agriculture and even different mast varieties.
In many areas, water, live and pin oaks are high on the list, as they generally start hitting the ground around early fall (late September). Soybeans, of course, are also quite popular with deer, as are palmetto berries in coastal regions, which typically ripen in late October.
If ripe, muscadines and persimmons are sweet treats that deer really seem to like; hunters that find some will see deer.
Of course, white acorns, beechnuts and hickory nuts are high on the list of early season meals, along with soft mast such as raspberries, blackberries and wild grapes. In fact, any type of sweet fruit, whether wild or commercial, should be scouted to determine when the fruit will ripen. Other preferred choices include bracken fern, green briar and jewelweed.
Also don't forget pokeweed and dogwood berries, as well as wild lettuce.
Finally, never overlook agriculture. Corn, soybeans, wheat and numerous other grains and grasses are quite popular with deer up to and even several weeks past harvest.
Locating water sources are a good way to pattern deer for the early season. Since temperatures are generally warmer in early season, hydration is an important factor in a healthy whitetail. Keep in mind a deer can extract up to 90 percent of their water needs from the vegetation in their diet, but finding an isolated water sources in drier conditions can prove to be successful.
Be sure to check creeks, small ponds, lake edges and even standing water puddles for deer sign. If it looks like the sources is being utilized, place a stand nearby and get ready.
Identifying high traffic and heavily used trails, routes and pinch points are a great way to pin down early season whitetail. Deer trails are generally created from bedding areas to feeding areas, and are easily identified as very narrow paths littered with deer tracks.
Hunters often find them originating off main paths or roadways and coming out of thick vegetated areas.
Hunters should concentrate on trails along geographical features, as these pinch points push deer into bottlenecks of which hunters can take advantage. In some areas, these bottlenecks can be difficult to find, but they're easier than most realize, even in fairly level open areas.
It doesn't take much to create a natural travel route, or pinch point. A fallen tree, a couple of hollows coming together or even two or three water sources pushing together can be considered a pinch point. Often deer will travel the edges of these land features and frequent the high and dry ground in between this type of terrain.
In more hilly and mountainous terrain, be sure to scout the draws and ravines, as these are high traffic areas for deer movement. Use topographical maps and aerial photos to determine the small land features that affect deer movements, and then check them out from the ground.
SCOUTING: NEAR AND FAR
While placing trail cameras in strategic positions can help pattern early season bucks, it is typically better if hunters can locate and observe deer from long distances with the use of optics, which reduces the "spooking" factor of entering hunting areas when scouting. This especially works in areas with crop fields and open feeding areas.
However, in thicker areas, cameras are pretty much required to learn what is walking through or feeding in areas and what time these creatures are coming through.
"While cameras work great be sure to place and leave trail cams for several weeks before checking them," said Chris Parrish, Knight and Hale's product manager. "Though mature bucks are a little more tolerant early they can still catch on to frequent trips to the cameras."
Even the wind must be taken in consideration when checking cameras and scouting, even if from afar. Deer will move into the wind when possible, so hunters need to learn prevailing wind directions and how they might shift throughout the year, whether scouting or hunting.
In fact, hunters should set stands facing upwind of likely travel areas, and set them in shaded areas to help conceal the position. It is also smart to utilize the foliage of the early season to break up the outline and provide additional concealment. Just don't hinder visibility.
And whether scouting or hunting, scent control is absolutely crucial, even when utilizing prevailing winds. Always wash clothes in scentless detergent, bath in scentless soap and wear rubber boots to conceal human odor. Always keep hunting clothes in rubber bins with scent wafers like pine or fresh earth, depending on where you're hunting, and always spray with Scent-Away before trekking into the woods.
This is extremely important during early season deer hunting when temperatures are higher and hunters are more likely to perspire. Hunters should even consider using cover scents, whether commercial or natural. Many hunters rub pine needles and other forest litter on clothes and boots before heading to the stand.
It all depends on where the property being hunted is located, oranges and cedars are both good in certain areas, as it stepping in manure if hunting near cow pastures. Any type of strongly scented natural items common to the area make great cover scents.
Finally, hunters must take care to not enter/exit stands on the same trail that deer are traversing. It sound simple enough, but many hunters walk the trails they plan to hunt because of expediency. Be sure to travel to and from stand from an upwind position, giving a wide berth to bedding areas, trails, food and water. This is especially important if targeting big bucks.
The basic idea is that hunters should never walk the ground they are planning to hunt, especially on the day of the hunt. Doing so might push them off of that food source to another, one in a completely different area.
A BUCK OR A DOE?
There are many reasons why people hunt the early deer season. Some are there simply because it is the first chance to get in the woods. Although the temperatures are often scorching, many have waited all summer to get in the stand or ground blind in hopes of bagging a deer.
We all hope for the opportunity to put some venison in the freezer.
But, should you shoot the first legal deer that steps out or wait for that potential trophy buck? It is truly personal preference. I tend to be quick to arrow a doe for the freezer and wait for cooler weather and the rut to pursue bigger bucks. For each hunter this truly depends on his or her goals for the upcoming season.
Also, bag limits and amount of available hunting ground can dictate decisions when it comes down to the wire. Regardless of how you measure success, the trophy is in the eye of the beholder.