August 16, 2023
Opening day can sometimes be your best shot at killing a buck. The deer haven’t been pressured yet, which means mature bucks are more likely to be active during daylight hours before the season kicks off, making them relatively predictable. In theory, it should be as simple as patterning a buck, hanging your stand for the best wind and then going in for the kill on opening day, right?
Unfortunately, the early season also brings volatile weather conditions, and deer tend to shift food sources during the month of October. While you might have a foolproof plan to arrow your target buck on opening day, conditions might say otherwise. That’s why it’s important to have multiple stand options, so you’re not caught off-guard when Mother Nature throws you a curveball.
IT STARTS WITH SCOUTING
Before hanging your stands, you need to determine where the deer will be at the beginning of the season. Opening day success hinges on preseason scouting; neglect it at your own peril. Put in the legwork and you have a great shot at patterning and, hopefully, killing an opening-day buck.
Trail cameras can help you take inventory of the deer on your property and peg a mature buck in the area. During the summer, set cameras on the edges of bean and corn fields where deer enter and exit the food source. If you’re not hunting near ag, locate the best bedding areas and try to cover travel routes leading to and from these. In the big woods, terrain features and funnels are great places to catch deer moving through the area. Glassing large ag fields during late summer can tell you a lot about a buck’s early-season habits while keeping your pressure to a minimum.
However, not everyone has access to prime bean fields or standing corn. If you hunt the timber or big woods, look for natural browse like green briars or honeysuckle, especially along hard and soft edges or near bedding cover. These places often provide food and security for mature bucks. Check to see if the browse has been nipped off, and look for droppings, rubs, deer tracks and pounded trails nearby. As the season approaches, deer will transition to hard- and soft-mass food sources. Look for white oaks that drop early. Find these and you’ll find the deer. Persimmon trees can also be gold this time of year. Once you’ve decided where to hunt, you’ll need to hang stands for all the possible wind scenarios.
Hunting downwind of a buck’s expected bedding area and food source is a low-risk approach. The wind favors the hunter but also places deer at a disadvantage. It forces them to approach a food source with the wind at their back or go out of their way to get it in their favor.
For instance, if you’re hunting a creek bottom with several white oaks (aka the food source) that has a clear cut to a bedding area to the north, a downwind setup would position the hunter on a travel route between the cutover and the destination food source with a predominant north wind blowing the hunter’s wind south, or opposite the bedding area.
In this scenario, you can access your stand location from almost any direction except north. Of course, discreet entry is key. Avoid crossing any major travel routes where approaching deer might catch your ground scent.
Before opening day, locate a buck’s main travel route and find a tree at least 20 to 30 yards off his trail for your stand. You’ll also want to consider the amount of cover and foliage. The woods will look thick during the summer; October will be a different story.
While hunting with the wind in your face generally keeps you in the clear, mature bucks will go out of their way to get the wind in their favor. If you’re hunting a specific buck with a downwind setup, anticipate him making a J-hook to the food source. This requires a bit more scouting and knowledge about how bucks travel in your area, but if you can figure that out, you can fine-tune a stealthy setup.
With a buck bedded to the north and moving to a southerly food source with a north wind, he likely won’t approach straight on. Instead, he’ll make a large loop around the food source and enter it from the south end, putting the wind in his favor. For this setup, instead of hanging a stand directly over the food source, set up on the downwind side of where a buck’s trail hooks into it.
Setting up downwind of where you expect the deer to show up is a safe bet unless they eventually work downwind of your stand. A steady crosswind that blows across or perpendicular to a deer’s travel route will help keep your scent out of his nose.
In this scenario, if you have an east wind with deer traveling north to south, set up on the west side of the main trail. This will keep you from getting busted and allow you to let the deer pass for a broadside or quartering-away shot.
When setting your stand, think about access. Avoid walking over the trails you expect the deer to take. It can be easy to get lazy here. If you must cross the travel route, don’t cross where you expect to shoot the deer. Make a large loop. That way, if a buck comes into range, he won’t catch your ground scent.
Quartering or almost-wrong winds are the most aggressive setups. They can pay off if you play them right, but you’ll need surgical precision to execute. Let’s say you have a buck bedded to the north and the forecast calls for a southeast wind. This wind will give the buck the confirmation he needs to move earlier, which you can take advantage of. Because you’re cutting it close, make sure the forecast calls for steady winds, not light and variable.
With deer traveling from northern bedding to a southern food destination, hang your stand on the west side of the trail. I also prefer taking extra caution for quartering winds and hanging my stand farther back than I would with a crosswind or downwind setup. You don’t have to set it at your max range from the trail, but 5 to 10 extra yards should give you a little room if the wind shifts or deer decide to use a different trail.
Access is paramount here. Approach your stand from the west as most other approaches will blow your scent right into his bedroom. If you can’t approach from the western side of the property or make a large enough loop around his bedding area, wait for a better wind.
Don’t let rain showers on opening day keep you at home; these conditions are perfect for still-hunting. However, if you have torrential rains and the radar suggests a washout, stay at home. Deer will stay bedded during continuous, heavy rains.
As soon as it stops, though, they’ll be on their feet and you should be too. Last season, during opening week, I opted to still-hunt when conditions weren’t ideal. After an hour of slipping through the woods, I had a 30-yard shot on a doe. She didn’t make it 50 yards.
Windy, wet conditions will mask your noise and increase your odds of slipping through the woods to arrow a deer. I typically still-hunt with the wind directly in or quartering to my face. Hunters have different notions of how slow you should move. While slower is typically better, the property size you’re covering should influence this the most. You also need to expect a shot opportunity to happen. If any deer, much less a mature buck, spots you in the open, it’s over. Make sure when you stop to scan the timber that you’re near some type of cover that allows you to draw if a deer travels through.
If you’re worried about blowing your prime spots, use this as an opportunity to explore another side of the property or new public hunting areas. If you’re heading to a new area, spend some time with a mapping app to find a spot where you expect deer to travel from bed to food.
Locate obvious bedding areas like clear cuts, CRP fields or young pine thickets, then find the nearest food. If acorns are already dropping in your area, focus on white oaks. In ag country, deer might still be on a summer feeding pattern. Slip through the timber surrounding a summer food source where deer might stage before feeding.
- Three of the best climbing stands for when you must go mobile.
The Summit Viper PRO SD’s Dead Metal Technology makes this stand extremely quiet, so you don’t have to worry about making a ton of noise if you’re hunting tight to a buck’s bedroom. The Quick Draw PRO cable system lets you climb the tree quickly and silently. The extra padding on the armrests and seat is comfortable enough for all-day sits when the rut rolls around. ($479; summitstands.com)
Ol’ Man’s Alumalite CTS offers a full-size climbing platform without the added weight of accessories, making it ideal when long hikes are required. It’s a no-frills climber, but it’s an excellent backup stand if you need to adjust your setup. Instead of sitting in a preset stand with the wrong wind, you can adapt with the Alumalite CTS. And its intuitive setup allows you to go from ground to tree in a matter of minutes. ($349.99; millennium-outdoors.com)
The XOP Ambush Evolution climber has an aluminum chassis and features a stiff traction belt that makes climbs very quiet. The stand folds flat for ease of transport with the included padded shoulder straps. With a 350-pound weight rating, the XOP accommodates even husky hunters. A 30-by-16-inch standing platform is well-suited for large hunting boots. ($329; xopoutdoors.com)