Making the Most of Early Bowhunts

Here are some time-tested tips for making the most of your time in the deer woods during the early bow season.

Photo by John R. Ford

by Brandon Ray

The buck was coming at an unhurried pace in the waning minutes of shooting light. With every blink of my eyes the daylight seemed to fade to a darker shade of gray. I needed the buck to hurry, but he was moving at his own pace - the way big deer often do.

The mature whitetail would take a step, sniff the ground, twitch his tail and come a step closer. He wasn't alone. There were three other bucks ahead of him. Naturally, the biggest buck - the one I wanted - was bringing up the rear. Their destination was a cluster of nearby oak trees that were raining acorns like a summer thunderstorm. Through the bright glass of my 10x40 binoculars I could clearly see a sticker point off the big 10-pointer's back left tine. After lusting over his fine rack, I lowered the binoculars and shifted my full attention to the buck's chest. I slowly swiveled my body toward the trail in preparation for the shot I hoped would materialize.

Long seconds later the first buck, a dinky 6-point, passed at 20 yards and was followed by two average 8-pointers. I kept my focus on the big buck in the rear. When his symmetrical rack floated slowly into the shooting lane, I eased my 60-pound bow to full draw. With the big buck's traveling partners loudly crunching acorns all around me, I planted my 20-yard pin tight behind his thick shoulder and squeezed the release. The broadhead hit exactly where I wanted it to, breaking ribs with a loud crack that sounded like a baseball hitting a wooden bat. The buck was gone in a flash, but shortly I heard him crash.

The bow season was only 10 days old, but because of lots of scouting and some smart hunting my reward was a Pope and Young buck.

Bowhunting whitetails during the warm and buggy early days of the season is a challenge. Temperatures are usually warm enough to send beads of sweat rolling down my back even under my thinnest cotton camo T-shirt. Perspiration makes scent control a joke. And swarming, buzzing insects can make staying motionless on stand virtually impossible.

On top of dealing with sweltering temperatures and biting bugs, another problem is that deer are mostly nocturnal with their daylight movements limited to very early and very late in the day. Hunting conditions are tough, but the incentive is the chance to hunt unmolested deer moving in predictable summer patterns. Often, the deer are in so-called bachelor groups containing multiple bucks. It takes a cautious approach, but hunting the early season can prove beneficial. Here's a look at some tips for making the most of the early season.

Bucks have no interest in does during the early season. A buck's interest will change to females later in the fall, when the rut kicks in, but during the early season food is a buck's No. 1 priority. Find a buck's preferred food source early in bow season and you'll find him. That's not always as complicated as you might think.

The cluster of oak trees where I eventually arrowed that nice buck mentioned earlier was exactly the sort of ambush spot I like for early-season hunting. The ground surrounding the trees was littered with marble-sized acorns. In addition, parts of the ground appeared "rooted" as if wild hogs had been plowing up the ground for the bite-sized treats. Because there were no hogs in the area I knew the spot was a sure thing for seeing deer. I found that spot by scouting during a casual walk through the woods just before the season opened.

Another appealing quality about that spot was its location. The group of trees dropping the acorns was only 50 yards off a two-track road, which made getting to the stand quietly without spooking deer a cinch.

How you travel to a stand and how you leave it are other key considerations. Just like at other times of the year, you'll want to plan your entry and exit by a course that won't disturb bedded deer.

Food sources such as acorns or even manmade groceries such as food plots serve as excellent hunting locations for early-season deer. I'm reminded of a nice 8-point buck a friend shot near a food plot several years ago. Glassing from his pickup for several evenings in a row, my buddy watched a big 8-point and several other deer enter the food plot just before dark. The deer entered the field through a funnel created where the fence sagged in some adjoining thick woods. This pattern continued and the same buck came in almost every evening.

Two weeks into the season, on a day when the wind was right, my buddy tiptoed into the woods behind the food plot. Immediately he found a well-traveled trail leading to the sagging fence. He used a climbing tree stand to position himself 25 yards downwind of the trail. His stand was not directly over the food plot edge, but about 50 yards into the timber. His thinking was that the deer were staging up in the dark timber waiting until last light to enter the open field.

As expected, late that evening a parade of does and small bucks started toward the food plot. With 10 minutes of shooting light left, my friend sent a razor-sharp broadhead through the big 8-point's chest as it followed a smaller buck toward the food plot. Being patient paid off.

Scouting first, and then hunting only when conditions were right paid off for my friend at that food plot. The most important rule about hunting early-season whitetails is not to get in a rush. Yes, hunting bucks in a predictable summer feeding pattern can reap big rewards, but it is important to keep the big picture in mind.

Don't gamble on hunting a productive-looking spot when the wind is wrong. My buddy waited until the third weekend of the season before he got a favorable wind near that food plot. Remember, you've got the entire deer season to hunt and there's no sense in educating a buck early if you don't have to. When the wind is wrong, back off and glass with binoculars or a spotting scope. Because vegetation is often thick during the early season, this often means glassing field edges or open meadows where visibility is better than it is in the deep woods. I spend many early-season mornings and evenings either by glassing field edges from a distance out of my vehicle or by hunting from an observation stand. For example, if I've found a heavily worn trail in the woods I want to hunt, but the wind is wrong to put a stand 20 yards from that trail, I'll simply back off. Taking a tree stand 100 yards away in a position where the wind won't get me busted, but where I can still see the trail, is a wise move. That way I won't educate the deer, but I still get to see when and how the deer move through the area. Eventually the wind will be from a favorable direction

. When it is, I'll know where the deer will come from and where they'll be going.

Even if I never get to hunt over that trail early in the season, through my scouting and my conservative hunting tactics, I'm constantly learning about the deer in the area. I'm putting more pieces of the puzzle together as I go. If the only thing I accomplish is finding a couple of productive hunting locations for later in the fall, I consider it time well spent.

Again, keep the big picture in mind. Scout, and scout some more. If conditions are favorable to hunt a particular stand, go for it. If not, scout with optics during prime hours at first and last light. You might feel like you're being lazy just watching deer from your truck or checking out areas at midday, but the cautious approach will be rewarded later. It's better to learn the habits of the deer gradually through the course of the season than it is to hunt willy-nilly early on in ill-chosen stands that result in blowing snorts and stomping feet. That only makes killing a buck more difficult as the season wears on.

It's just like the story of the tortoise and the hare: When you're hunting early-season whitetails, slow and steady wins the race. Concentrate your scouting efforts near food sources. When the wind is right, hunt a stand. But if it's not right, back off. Hunt smart and be conservative. There'll be plenty of time for aggressive tactics later in the season!

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