August 18, 2020
By Tony Peterson
Editor’s note: This article is featured in the Midwest edition of September Game & Fish Magazine. Click to subscribe.
Most bowhunters view the rut as the time when the magic happens—when they can take advantage of a buck’s willingness to risk his neck for some female companionship. This is true, but it’s no secret. And if you hunt pressured ground, whether private or public, you will have more company during November than any other time of the season.
This is why, despite less-than-desirable hunting conditions, the early part of the season might actually be a better time to arrow a mature buck. However, this takes a plan built around scouting and a willingness to hunt when conventional logic says it’s best to stay home or go fishing.
SET THE STAGE
Traditional early-season advice centers on sitting over a destination food source and arrowing a buck that you’ve seen all summer long through the spotting scope or have captured on trail camera images. Everyone should plan to intercept a good buck in the first few days of the season if they have access to a quality food source, but that’s simply common sense. You might catch a buck slipping up and following his summer pattern into September, but it won’t take long after he is hard-antlered and feeling the heat to back off of his daylight movements.
This is when you employ a mobile strategy and start poking into potential staging areas. A buck that waltzed into the beans every evening an hour before dark but suddenly stops doing so a week into the season will probably still move in daylight, but he’ll stick to the cover.
Most hunters push the field edge program right on through to October because it’s easy, but a better idea is to sneak into the first meaningful cover off of the groceries. Your first sits might involve mostly watching, but you might pick up some movement within 200 yards of the field at last light. Pay attention because it could be your target buck waiting out the clock before venturing to the buffet.
Pay attention to any and all deer sign. Aside from actual sightings, fresh rubs in the early season are your best indicator of buck activity—if located in the cover. Forget the field edge rubs and focus on any that show up in the timber. If you find even a couple, you’re probably in a buck’s staging area and don’t need to push it in any farther to kill him.
THE WATER CONNECTION
If you didn’t kill a field-edge gimme and are wondering why any sane hunter would voluntarily sit in the hot, early-season sun when you could wait until the pre-rut and the low temperatures that inevitably come with it, consider a buck’s needs. If it’s hot, where would he potentially have to travel at some point in his day?
Obviously, the answer is water. But the cattle pond in the middle of an open pasture isn’t going to cut it. You need to find some water in the cover if possible. These spots are excellent for trail camera recon and can provide decent morning setups if you have a way to access them undetected.
However, they absolutely shine during afternoon sits in September.
I don’t know how many early-season bucks I’ve arrowed on a water pattern on public land, but it’s quite a few. The key is to scout enough to find the water that’s safest for the deer to visit, and get in there early—like, a couple of hours before you want to hunt. One good water source that you’ve scouted correctly and where you’ve identified the best stand trees can be the audible you call when the five-day forecast calls for unseasonably hot weather during opening week. But remember, deer don’t just drink whenever it’s a scorcher; they need water every day. So, plan your sits accordingly.
THE SEASON-LONG FUNNEL
Pinch points and funnels are all the rage during the rut, but what about in September? The answer is a big “maybe.” Figuring out destination food sources during the early season is pretty easy, so you’ll want to think about bedding areas and what is in between. Unlike looking for staging areas, this type of scouting involves walking terrain features to see places where deer travel is forced.
I’ve found crazy pinch points along rivers where bluffs butt up tight to banks, and funnels where one strip of cover connects big chunks of timber. You can identify potential spots on satellite imagery from your home, naturally, but you’ll still have to get out and walk them in order to gauge current deer usage and what options you have for different ambush sites. Some spots aren’t huntable by default due to a lack of cover, prevailing winds or some other factor, and you’ll want to know that ahead of the season.
GET OUT THERE
The early part of the season isn’t just for hunters with access to exclusive ground loaded with food plots and unpressured deer. Any hunter who treads lightly on private or public land can scout and plan his way to opening-week success. It just takes an eye toward identifying the best food, water and travel routes and then hunting them with some savvy. If you do, you might find that it’s easier to tag a mature buck now than it is at any other time of the season—even the peak of the rut.
SADDLES VS. STANDS
Over the past decade, the way bowhunters think about their ambush setups has diverged. One option is the large, cushy box blind that’s positioned in a fixed spot—usually over a nice food plot. The other is total mobility, which in recent years has also split into two schools of thought: stands and saddles.
Anyone looking to use up-to-the-minute deer info to tag out during opening week would do well to have at least one mobile setup. But which is better?
A stand-and-stick option, like the X-Stand Treestands Back Country Combo 2.0 ($219.99; x-stand.com), is worth looking at. This set marries together nicely for quiet transport, weighs 20 pounds total and gives you the chance to get elevated and be comfortable while putting in long hours in the early season. If you prefer to sit on a comfy seat from a traditional treestand, this is the way to go. The downside, of course, is potentially clinking metal together while you’re setting up. And for some folks, carrying all that extra weight is a deal breaker. However, if you’re hunting land where you can leave a stand up, hanging a set like this and using it for a few days is a heck of a lot easier than some of the other ambush options.
Of course, if lighter and quieter is your thing, a saddle is the way to go. The Tethrd Phantom ($249.99; tethrdnation.com) is more comfortable than any saddle to ever hit the market. The Phantom tips the scales at less than 2 pounds and features the UtiliBridge, which offers 30 inches of on-the-fly adjustability. If you’re thinking of investing in a saddle, heed this advice: Buy a good one, like the Phantom, right off the bat, and take it for several practice runs in the backyard before heading to the woods. Saddles are an amazing option, but there is a process to them, and you don’t want to try to figure that out on opening day.
EYES IN THE WOODS
Nothing will tick you off faster than walking up to your camera set to find that someone has stolen it. Whether this happens on public or private land, you suddenly have to deal with the thought that you’ve lost valuable whitetail intel, plus the fact that some knuckle-dragger is now in possession of your not-inexpensive camera.
To prevent this from happening to you, there are a couple things you can do. First, invest in a lockbox with a steel cable. Second, hang it high. I position most of my cameras at least six feet off the ground and angle them down to capture passing deer. Not only will most would-be thieves miss them, but the angle provides some solid deer images. I used to carry a set of climbing sticks to hang them between 8 and 10 feet off the ground, but that’s a pain and not really necessary. Just getting your expensive digital scouter out of the line of sight of other hunters (and deer) is usually enough.
HIT THE ROAD
For the past 10 years, I’ve been obsessed with traveling to hunt public-land bucks during the early season. What I’ve learned is to not listen to the local hunters. They’ll tell you how there are no good bucks on public land, that the state game agency has killed them all off and mismanaged them at criminal levels and that the hunting pressure will be so intense that you simply won’t to find an acre to yourself. This is pretty consistent from state to state, but what else is consistent is that it’s usually a bunch of bull.
When it comes to early-season travel, states like Kentucky, Nebraska and North Dakota all offer the willing hunter easy-to-get tags and plenty of public land. In the Bluegrass State, check out the Land Between the Lakes, which has more land than you could hunt in 50 seasons. Nebraska hunters should look at a digital map and zoom in on any sizable bodies of water. Plenty of the reservoirs, like Harlan County Reservoir in the south-central part of the state, offer solid deer populations and room to roam. North Dakota whitetails are all about river systems. From the Sheyenne National Grassland in the southeast corner to the Little Missouri River National Grassland on the west side of the state near Montana, North Dakota offers a lot of quality deer ground to roam.
Want truly up-to-the-minute info on deer activity where you hunt? Consider picking up one of Moultrie’s new XA-6000 or XV-6000 cellular trail cameras ($119.99; moultriefeeders.com) that send pics and vids from the field to your phone via the Moultrie Mobile app.
Cameras operate on either AT&T’s (XA-6000) or Verizon’s (XV-6000) 4G network to deliver 16-megapixel images and HD video, day or night. Battery life and signal strength can be monitored remotely, and camera settings can be changed, all within the app. Meanwhile, Image Recognition software automatically scans photos for different types of wildlife and even people. That’s a lot of scouting power for a reasonable price. — Drew Warden