September 02, 2022
The heavy Missouri 10-point had been a regular summer visitor to a large soybean field, but just before my arrival, the buck had pulled the plug on his routine. For the previous month, my host for the hunt had watched this Show Me State monster emerge from a woodlot and chow in the field about seven nights out of every 10. Then, the week before the bowhunting opener, the buck dropped his visits in half, appearing in the field only two to three evenings out of 10.
Some hunters might panic, but not my friend Dave. By the eve of the bow opener, he'd hung a different stand, this one based on intel he'd gleaned from a pair of well-timed scouting trips.
I sat this new setup the afternoon of opening day. While action was slow for several hours, I heard deer milling in the nearby woods just as the sun sunk to the tree tops. Then a pair of fawns popped into the small food plot to feed, followed by their mom.
A pair of 6-points emerged soon after, and—after munching a bit—harassed the feeding fawns. Perhaps that commotion attracted the big 10-point, or maybe he was just hungry. In any case, the mature buck popped out of the timber and walked past me within easy bow range. It was a shot even I could make, and not long after, I was wrapping my tag around hefty antlers.
In more than 40 years of bowhunting, early season has produced some of my best bucks and remains among my favorite times to hunt. At its best, September hunting can be a simple matter of discovering a nice buck's feeding pattern and capitalizing on that predictable movement. However, several things can mess with a mature buck's routine. Here are three of the most common, and how to connect when early-season whitetails start throwing curveballs.
1) BACHELOR GROUP BREAKUP
If you're a devout late-summer scouter, or have trail cams running in August and September, you've no doubt seen it. That same group of bucks that were happy compadres suddenly decides to break up. One day there are six bucks in an alfalfa field, two nights later there are four, and after a week, only a buck or two can be found. If that original boy band included a buck you wanted to tag, it's not only befuddling, it's also depressing. Tagging an early-season trophy usually boils down to patterning a buck's bed-to-feed movements, and when bachelor groups disband, any patterns we’ve nailed down can disappear.
It's also completely natural and predictable whitetail behavior. Just like tom turkeys, whitetail bucks hang together for much of the non-breeding season. As a prey species, whitetails instinctively know that there's safety in numbers; more eyes, ears and noses mean a greater chance of detecting danger and living another day. So, bucks tolerate each other to the point of bedding and feeding and traveling like they're best friends.
But all that changes as velvet shed occurs. Not only are testosterone levels rising in bucks, but those once-tender antlers they protected are suddenly hard and pointed. Bucks actually work on a pecking order while still in velvet—you can often see them posture, shove and kick each other—but things get more serious once they wear weaponry on their heads.
Suddenly, those same boys who seemed to be buds are ornery with each other. Some of them (even some really big, old deer who simply don’t like to mix it up) decide to move elsewhere. And not all this movement comes from a fear of fighting; some bucks simply change core areas, switching from a summer range to a fall spot they likely know well and feel comfortable inhabiting. Whatever the cause, the predictable presence and movement of a summer bachelor group can disappear like a fall breeze.
We all want to hunt any time hunting seasons are open, but now it’s time to put effort into scouting. Your target buck(s) likely aren't far, and with a little walking and strategic camera placement you can get back on track. Identify major nearby food sources and walk their edges midday, scouting for buck sign. Remember, bucks start rubbing as soon as they're in hard antler, and scraping often accompanies that tree shredding.
If you can combine that feeding and buck sign with proximity to dense bedding cover, there's a good chance your target buck (or one you didn't know about but would be happy to tag) is nearby. If you need proof, hang trail cameras close to the sign and—assuming you don’t have wireless capability—check them every 3 to 4 days at midday to determine the culprit.
2) FOOD SOURCE CHANGE
A very common early-season curveball is the sudden disappearance of bucks from food sources they favored only weeks before. And, for farm country hunters, this often includes foods where bucks were highly visible, like alfalfa and soybean fields. In other areas, food plots and mineral licks (where legal) are another strong draw for bucks in the weeks leading up to archery or early muzzleloader openers. I’ve known many hunters—myself included—who thought they had zeroed in on a slam-dunk buck encounter for opening weekend, only to hit the panic button when their game plan suddenly imploded.
Several rationales explain bucks abandoning late-summer/early-fall food sources. The most common is also the simplest: They found something tastier. Whitetails can be extremely fickle about feed, and in early fall they have a wide variety of options. Think about it. You've had the salad bar for a month, and while you’ve been pretty content, someone suddenly grills a burger or a steak for you. Suddenly, those once-tasty greens have all the appeal of a pile of sawdust and you’re going for the meat.
September offers a cornucopia of whitetail fodder. Most of us know that white oak acorns—which typically start dropping in early September—can suck deer in like toddlers running to sugar. But don't forget the onset of soft mast crops like apples, pears and persimmons, either. These aren't high on the nutrition pyramid, but they still make whitetails slobber. And they all have the power to make a buck forsake his once-predictable pattern.
If you've done your preseason scouting or know your property well, you likely know where the white oak stands, hidden apple trees and other soft mast trees grow. Start making midday scouting runs to check these spots, doing so as discreetly as possible. Wear rubber boots, make it a point to walk quietly and pay attention to wind direction. Ideally, you'll know, or at least suspect, nearby bedding areas that might hold a buck and not let your scent blow toward that spot. Remember, early-season bucks are often lazy, bedding close to food. Bumping one from his safe spot can jeopardize your chance of tagging him.
Look for churned up leaves, droppings and, of course, buck sign, which signify the hottest feeding spots. Too many people ignore the presence of the latter, or ignore small rubs made on saplings. In my experience, mature bucks have zero problem rubbing tiny trees, and young bucks simply don't do as much rubbing early (research supports this, by the way). So, set up by any rubs and scrapes you find while scouting food sources. If you don’t already have a stand in the area to take advantage of the action, return with a climbing stand or a lightweight portable and pull off a hang-and-hunt on any afternoon that offers a favorable wind.
3) HUNTING PRESSURE
When most of us think "hunting pressure," we imagine a major influx of folks on the landscape, like opening day of the firearms deer season. Obviously, that isn't happening here, but it doesn’t take much human intrusion to affect a buck now. People largely haven't bothered whitetails for four or more months. Suddenly, these animals hear slamming doors and voices, see folks slipping through the timber and catch whiffs of human scent on a frequent basis. Any deer not wearing spots will notice this and alter its behavior accordingly.
And it's not just deer hunters that affect whitetails. I bowhunt several small farms where I’m the only early-season archer chasing bucks. However, public properties are scattered throughout the neighborhood, and most of the deer I hunt use these areas on a frequent basis. These WMAs are popular with small-game hunters, ginseng diggers, fall trout anglers and guys jump-shooting wood ducks. In other words, you can be the only bowhunter around, but that doesn't mean whitetails aren't encountering more humans now. Fall is simply a popular time for people to enjoy the woods, and deer notice the invasion almost immediately.
While it's tempting to think that nervous deer act like elk and depart for territories unknown, they don't. Whitetails are more like cottontails. After a brief flush to escape danger, they make a little loop, find some thick stuff and hunker down. That’s the short term.
For deer that encounter danger on a more frequent basis, caution is the word of the day. Bucks keep their defense mechanisms (smell, sight and hearing) on high alert, move more slowly and often concentrate their activity at night. In short, your target buck is still around, but if you're careless and/or expect him to wander into a field like a Holstein, you'll probably never see him.
Bucks are less likely to expose themselves in daylight now, so it's important to hunt them in places where they feel safer. If you've identified some of the top early-season foods found in the timber, focus on those. Also, some of my nicest early-season bucks were still hitting food plots and fields but hanging up in staging areas 50 to 100 yards off the opening where they’d stop to rub, scrape and hang with other bucks before committing to dinner.
Finally, hunt during the week when fewer people are around. You'll have a higher chance of encountering a buck that’s relaxed since the last Saturday-Sunday invasion. If you can time those weeknight sits with an early-season cold front, then odds are good you’ll encounter a September buck worth wearing your tag.