With the right game plan, early-season bowhunters can make the most of their deer season well ahead of both the rut and the gun hunters that accompany it.
Author Travis Faulkner examines a mature whitetail that he arrowed during the early season — before the buck had switched to a nocturnal schedule.
Photo courtesy of Travis Faulkner.
During the late summer, I glassed several nice bucks in a bachelor group feeding in an isolated clover field that was surrounded by thickets and hardwoods. Like clockwork, the bucks entered the field at the same location and time about every evening. Two of the bucks were definite shooters, with long, symmetrical lines that stood out among the group. With opening day just around the corner, all I needed was the right wind and, with any luck, one of those bad boys would be riding in the back of my truck.
On the first evening of the season, I packed a lightweight climbing stand and quickly set up along the back corner of the clover field. It was still a couple of hours before the bucks had been entering the field and a steady wind helped muffle the sound of climbing the tree. About 30 minutes before dark, I heard a stick break just inside the woods where a worn deer trail zigzagged through the thick underbrush. A slight flicker of a deer tail caught my eye as the first buck slowly came into view. At this point, a sudden rush of adrenaline shot through my entire body and I forgot all about the hot temperatures and hungry mosquitoes.
The buck paused while scanning the open field with its nose in the air checking the wind. Just as before, the other three bucks fell in behind and followed the smaller 8-point out of the safety of the woods. The long-tined 10-pointer came out last and cautiously walked within 30 yards of my stand.
At full draw, I made myself pick a spot just behind the buck's shoulder and took one last deep breath before letting the arrow fly. All at once, the buck kicked out its hind legs and frantically ran into the middle of the field before piling up and ending another great early-season hunt. Without a doubt, a hunt like this can really start the year out right, and this is just one of the reasons why I love climbing into the stand during the pre-rut period. (Continued)
THE EARLY-SEASON EDGE
There are about a million reasons or excuses you can come up with for not hunting during the early season. During this time of year, hunters are dealing with an extreme environment consisting of snakes, biting insects, hot temperatures and the human scent factor. Later in October, the weather will be much cooler and the bugs are not as bad. Unfortunately, it's this kind of thinking that can knock you right off a giant buck long before the temperatures start to drop. In reality, choosing to tough it out and hunt during the opening days of the season can provide you with the ultimate edge.
Consequently, the early pre-rut period is one of the easiest times to close the deal on a mature buck. Think about it: bucks are generally traveling together in bachelor groups and sticking to a strict feeding-to-bedding pattern. The chaotic rut is still months away, and the absence of intense outside hunting pressure has not yet forced a veteran buck into a nocturnal schedule. With the right game plan, hunting during the opening days of the season will enable you to shoot a buck packing antlers that are sure to make all of your hunting buddies green with envy.
Even during the early bow season, veteran bucks will hang back in staging areas before entering open early-season food plots at dusk.
Photo courtesy of Travis Faulkner.
PINPOINT EARLY-SEASON FOOD SOURCES
Regardless of what transitional phase of the rut you're hunting, locating the preferred food source is going to be one of your first steps. During the early season, just about everything is green, and whitetails have a variety of choices. However, some food sources are naturally going to draw more attention than others, and these are the ones you need to focus on this season.
Food sources are going to vary according to terrain and the part of the country you're hunting. In most areas, it shouldn't be too hard to find green fields, patches of clover, honeysuckle or apples. If you are hunting an agricultural area, crops like soybeans and turnips can be hot tickets.
One of the most important things to remember is that food sources routinely change, and failing to switch stand locations can lead to a lot of uneventful trips spent fighting mosquitoes. Knowing what food sources are getting hit the hardest by whitetails will bring you one step closer to connecting with an early-season bruiser. Once you have pinpointed exactly where the bucks are feeding, it's time to turn it up a notch and start putting together a game plan for opening day.
STRATEGIES FOR SMART SCOUTING
Without question, one of the quickest and easiest ways to scout and effectively pattern a buck is to set up trail cameras. In recent years, trail cameras have revolutionized how we scout deer and are invaluable tools, especially for the early season hunter. Positioning trail cameras near early season food sources or along trails leading to known bedding areas can take the guesswork out of hunting. These cameras can provide picture proof of exactly what kind of bucks are in the area, along with detailed descriptions of the exact times and dates the deer are moving. This high-impact form of scouting makes questions about proper stand placement or timing irrelevant.
I like to be as scent-free as possible when hanging cameras in my hunting area. This means wearing knee-high rubber boots and wearing latex or rubber gloves when positioning cameras. Another good idea is to hang cameras during the mid-day hours to prevent spooking deer near food sources and avoid straying too close to the bedding area.
These steps will allow you to get in and get out without educating a mature buck. Hunters who don't have access to trail cameras can simply spend a few evenings glassing a known food source from a safe distance to scout an area. This method is not as high-tech as using a trail camera, but it still gets the job done.
After monitoring trail cameras or glassing a known food source, you should have the confidence to hang an early-season stand. I like to use a lightweight climbing stand that I can pack into the woods and set up quickly and quietly. There are several important factors that can make or break these quick setups. For example, it is extremely important to get the wind in your favor to a
void potentially ruining the stand for the rest of the season. Secondly, being able to hang the stand without being detected by nearby bedding deer can be the difference between success and failure.
Try to utilize the terrain to your advantage when entering these open food sources. Traveling along the edge of a timberline or staying out of sight by walking through low points or ditches can prevent you from bumping deer. If you know where the bucks are entering the food source, try to hang your stand well to the side of the known entry point to avoid being picked off by approaching whitetails.
Staying out of the bucks' line of sight and utilizing the thick early season foliage to conceal your stand will help make these quick setups very productive. It's important to make sure everything is right with this type of stand, because sometimes you only get a couple of chances to make things happen. Once a mature buck figures out he is being hunted, his daylight appearances in open areas will come to a screeching halt.
SETTING THE STAGE
Hunting along the edges of open areas such as fields or agricultural plots can dry up quickly. One of the main problems with this type of setup is entering and exiting these areas without educating bucks. In many cases, these stands will be hot early, but it doesn't take long before all you are seeing during the daylight hours are does and small basket-racked bucks. When this happens, you need to switch gears and hunting strategies to meet changes in buck behavior. The big boys will still be hitting the fields but will now wait for the cover of darkness before entering the open areas.
The good news is that the bucks will still get off the bed and move before nightfall, especially when evening temperatures start to cool off. It's hard for a buck to bed in the heat all day without moving or at least wanting to move. Generally, the mature bucks will still be the last to leave the bed and will often stage in an area close to the food source that offers cover and concealment.
These staging areas are exactly where you need to be when other stands are not producing. In the past, I have tagged a number of nice bucks from these locations during the opening days of season. It's not uncommon to encounter large numbers of bucks traveling in bachelor groups and hanging around staging areas during the late evening hours.
Another deadly early season strategy involves focusing on a water source. Nobody really likes extended periods of dry weather or a drought, but these conditions can be excellent for early-season bowhunters. Targeting waterholes during a drought is a high-impact strategy that can put the meat on the table. Whitetails will hit remaining waterholes hard during dry weather, creating a predictable pattern that hunters can exploit. Even under normal conditions, early season waterholes are high-traffic areas due to the hot weather.
When hunting a waterhole, try to avoid hanging a stand directly over the water source. These areas will sometimes congregate large numbers of deer, which increases the chances of being spotted or winded. One of the best setups is to carefully position a stand directly between the bedding area and the water source. Bucks will be a lot less jumpy while walking to the waterhole, and you will have a better chance of connecting with a veteran bruiser that hangs back until right at dark before entering. When the heat is turned up and the weather is dry, hunting early season waterholes can generate some action-packed trips.
PICKING SAFE ROUTES
Regardless of what type of early season stand you're hunting, how you enter and exit the area can have an enormous impact on your overall success in the field. Sometimes the quickest and easiest route to your stand is not always the best choice if you want to tag a trophy-class buck. You really need to get into stealth mode when choosing a safe route to and from the stand to prevent a buck from patterning you and switching to a nocturnal schedule. In my opinion, how you approach and leave your stand is one of the factors that separate occasional luck from consistency.
As mentioned earlier, when hunting flat and open areas you need to utilize the terrain to shield your movement. This means stay along the edge of the timberline and walk through low points or ditches when approaching the stand. If you're hunting wooded and hilly terrain, try to use draws and stay below ridgelines to avoid being sky-lined. In either situation, doing your homework and knowing where the deer generally bed and feed -- along with how they travel throughout your hunting area -- can pay off. This information will enable you to carefully plan safe entry and exit routes without walking through the deer and messing up the entire area.
ADDRESSING THE SCENT FACTOR
One of the biggest problems an early season hunter encounters is addressing the scent factor. Hot temperatures and perspiration go hand in hand this time of year and can destroy your chances of smoking a long-tined bruiser. However, there are some steps you can take to avoid the agony of watching a giant run in the opposite direction taunting you with alarm blows and snorts that only remind you how close you were to filling a tag. Being able to sidestep a whitetail's nose is no easy task during the early season, so you better do everything you can to stack the cards in your favor.
As a diehard hunter, I am pretty extreme when it comes to being scent-free in the woods. During the early season, you better be serious about scent-control or all you will have to show for your efforts are an arm full of mosquito bites. Don't get me wrong, I don't feel anything is 100 percent effective, but working to be as scent-free as possible can save you when the wind swirls or changes at the worst possible time. First of all, you need to wash all of your hunting clothes and gear with a scent-free detergent and store these items in sealed plastic bags or containers. I also take the time to shower with scent-eliminating soap and shampoo and apply scent-free deodorant before leaving the house.
Next, avoid wearing any of your hunting clothing or boots inside your vehicle, and try to change in the field if possible. The worst mistake you can make is getting fully dressed and hoofing it all the way to your stand. By the time you reach the stand, it's a safe bet that you're going to smell like you just finished a hard workout at the gym. Try wearing super light and breathable clothing to the stand and take your time when walking to avoid overheating. Once you've reached the stand, thoroughly spray down with a scent-eliminating spray and make sure you have the wind in your favor. These extra steps can be the difference in bragging to your buddies how you've already filled your tag or sharing a heartbreaking story about the one that got away.
Now is the perfect time to get fired up and ready to drop an early-season bruiser. You need to take a closer look at all of the advantages of hunting the early pre-rut period and forget about all of the excuses. Limited outside hunting pressure, predictable patterns and bucks traveling in bachelor groups should kick your adrenalin into overdrive. Wrapping your trembling hands around the massive rack of a buck you've just smoked with your bow will make you forget all about the heat and biting insects. Implementing an early-season game plan like th
e one covered here will bring you one step closer to connecting with a trophy-class buck this season.