September 10, 2021
I always reserve the right to change my mind. It's a lesson learned the hard way from far too many failures.
There's nothing wrong with confidence. Plenty of good can come from solid, sound decision-making. But refusing to admit when you're wrong? That's a surefire way to sip a whole lot of tag soup, especially in the earliest days of bow season.
The early season whitetail game has been well-defined for quite some time. You target the best primary food source. You hunt that solid bed-to-feed pattern. You avoid hunting field edges whenever possible and instead tuck back into staging areas. You ignore that tantalizing early-season scrape (especially if it's located along a field edge). Most importantly, you sleep in and avoid morning hunts during the opening portions of bow season.
Yep. I've written those words a bunch of times and preached them as gospel when talking about early season whitetail tactics. Now, I'm here to tell you an inconvenient truth: I was wrong.
Over the past several seasons, I've amended, adapted and flat-out abandoned a lot of the standard tactics and approaches I had employed for so long. The results have been surprising and consistent.
Let's take a run through four of the early season givens I used to believe and the reasons I've changed my mind about them.
MYTH: Agriculture is the best food source to target
TRUTH: Deer eat more than crops
Yes, you should focus on food sources when hunting whitetails in September. That's not a myth, but it often leads to misguided effort. The key here is to understand that top food sources can, will and do change on a daily basis throughout September, and multiple food sources are often in play each and every day.
It's easy to think those prime fields of green soybeans and alfalfa and your food plots will be the top draw for deer. They very well may be. But they will not be the only draw. There are a ton of food options around during the late summer/early fall transition period, and I spent far too long overlooking the majority of them.
It's not enough to simply "hunt the food" early in bow season. You have to hunt the right food at the right time. More on this in the next point.
MYTH: Hunt only evenings to play it safe
TRUTH: Proper morning setups spook few, if any, deer
For many years, I was absolutely adamant that early season deer should be hunted solely in the afternoon and evening. Hunting in the mornings was simply asking for trouble because I believed I'd alert far too many deer feeding in crop fields before daylight to justify the effort. Again, I was wrong.
It's true that there will be a bunch of deer hanging around just before dawn in crop fields. But it's also true those deer will work their way back to a bedding area and will often be on their feet in the first hour or two of daylight to get there. Choosing to avoid all morning hunts means you are purposely choosing to limit your shot opportunities.
Now, I hunt mornings without hesitation regardless of how early in the season it is. The difference is I understand there are many viable food sources available in these early weeks and some of the best ones aren’t located in a crop field. In many areas of the country, acorns start to drop in early September, especially acorns from burr oaks. Finding an area of acorn-producing oaks at this stage of the season means morning hunts can be outstanding.
No, you can't hunt crop fields in the mornings without significant risk of bumping deer, but that's fine. There's no reason to. Deer won't hang out in the fields for long after daylight anyway. They will be on the move back to bed and will hit food sources in cover along the way. Acorns are my first choice. I also target patches of greenbrier and transition areas where woody browse is prevalent, and usually this thicker vegetation is near bedding cover.
MYTH: Avoid field edges
TRUTH: Entry and exit strategies make all the difference
Another mistake I hate to admit is my previous die-hard stance against hunting field edges. Truth is, so long as you are careful with your entry and exit routes, field edges can produce in a big way. This is an evening-only tactic, but it’s one I've used for several seasons now with excellent success.
I target the inside corners of fields and hang my stand about five yards off the field edge, if possible. If there are active scrapes near that corner, I fully expect to see bucks in daylight on that edge. Positioning slightly off the edge gives me plenty of cover yet allows me to shoot into the field.
It's true that it can be an adventure trying to get out of the stand after the evening sit is over, as there will almost certainly be deer feeding in the field. But the simple fact is, if you are careful and quiet, it's entirely possible to climb down from a stand and get out of there. You simply have to choose an exit route that allows you to leave without blowing out the whole field.
MYTH: Hunting over field scrapes is a waste of time
TRUTH: Not all bucks work field scrapes only at night
This is probably the most impactful change I've made. I have read (and written) plenty about the dangers of hunting scrapes located along a field edge. The conventional wisdom is—or was—that those scrapes are only visited after dark and hunting them does little more than alert the bucks making the scrapes to your presence.
After watching numerous mature bucks enter ag fields and make a beeline for an active scrape or line of scrapes along an edge, I finally got smart and started hunting those areas. The outing that really made me a believer took place in southern Ohio. I was overlooking a soybean field in a suburban setting. I had very limited land to hunt and had no choice but to hunt right on the edge of the field. The first evening, I saw four bucks over age four work a line of scrapes right along the field edge, and they did so well before dark.
Scrapes are made by bucks. We know multiple bucks will visit the same scrape, and we know that bucks visit the same scrape on multiple occasions. If those bucks don't feel in danger when doing so, there’s no reason why they would stop. While many of the visits will be after dark, a hefty percentage of them will be in daylight. It simply makes sense to take advantage of that pattern.
Now, I intentionally target field-edge scrapes early in the season. I even go so far as to create mock scrapes on field edges to try to position bucks exactly where I want them to be. Conventional wisdom doesn’t always hold up in the early season, so don't feel trapped by it.