September 15, 2021
My dad had made the six-hour drive from New York to hunt with me over opening weekend of Maryland's deer season, which falls in the first half of September, and I was dying to put him on a mature velvet buck.
"If you don't sit there, I'm going to," I told him, offering up my favorite stand. Between trail-camera recon and countless summer hours behind the binos, I had spent a great deal of time scouting, patterning and preparing for the whitetail season and felt I had the deer pretty well dialed in.
Sure enough, like clockwork on the evening of opening day, one of the bucks I was targeting appeared around the same time he'd shown up in the days leading up to the opener and Dad connected.
The following season, I arrowed my first-ever velvet buck on opening weekend. In both instances, the hunting itself was almost too easy, but only because I'd invested many hours in my pre-season preparation and devised a game plan to get it done.
I often compare scouting deer to boxing. Not too many fighters enter the ring without being prepared. They work hard, maintain concentration throughout their training and, most importantly, learn their opponent. They understand every move and combination that might come their way, and, once in the ring, often anticipate things before they happen. Months of preparation lead up to a fight that is often over in mere minutes. Hunting whitetails can be very similar.
It takes a matter of seconds for me to draw my bow or shoulder my rifle to make a shot on a deer. For the remaining 364 days, 23 hours and 59-plus minutes, I prepare for that moment. Preparation is what separates hunters who are consistently successful from those who occasionally get lucky. Once you realize that the hard work is in the preparation, success becomes more consistent.
Be the Middleman
Early season whitetails can be patterned, and tend to move in the evenings, leaving their bedding areas to arrive at their main food source by dusk. The main food source, typically a large agricultural field, is where most deer on a property will congregate and feed together through the night.
Many hunters that spend a good deal of time scouting will see a bunch of deer in a field evening after evening and think that's a great place to set a stand. I used to think that way, too, but have learned it's a big mistake.
If you aren't able to make a shot, you risk having to climb down from your stand or exit your blind and bumping the deer off their main food source. By doing so, you show them it's no longer safe in that area and risk pushing mature bucks into hiding.
A lot of my pre-season work to prevent this situation begins during spring when I plant what many refer to as "kill plots." Essentially, a kill plot is a smaller food plot strategically located between the bedding area and the main food source.
If you didn't plant a kill plot this spring, you still can hunt this pattern as long as you know where the bedding area and main food sources are and can set up on the travel route between the two. Sometimes, one of these locations might not even be on the property you hunt, but as long as one of them is, you're still in the game. Once you've determined Point A and Point B, set up to cut deer off in the middle.
Transition areas, small food plots, small clear cuts, oak flats or anywhere that offers a convenience store-type atmosphere for a deer to stop on the way to dinner is the key here. Not only will deer usually pass through during legal shooting hours, they'll typically vacate the area by dark. This is crucial because even if you don’t get a shot, they will be gone by the time you get down from your stand. This tactic is a great way not only to minimize the risks of educating deer of your presence, but also to increase your chances at another shot opportunity at the same location on a different day.
The Final Stretch
Once I've determined where I want to be on opening day, I'll spend several mornings and evenings prior to the opener scouting deer in the main food source from a distance. I'll mark specific landmarks where they enter the field and spend the majority of their time feeding. On a rainy day when the wind is in my favor, I'll move in and hang a cellular trail camera in the hopes of getting a better look at the deer.
As mentioned earlier, most of the work is done during the preparation phase, so in the week leading up to opening day, I'll spend most mornings and evenings scouting these locations.
My goal is to make sure the deer are still on their summer pattern and nothing has changed over the last couple of weeks. By the time the night before opening day arrives, I'll have narrowed down a deer or two that I want to pursue.
Instead of hunting opening morning, I'll glass the area I intend to hunt from afar in hopes of seeing the mature buck I'm after before he leaves the field to bed down. I'll get to my scouting location—often hundreds of yards away, uphill if possible and always downwind—about an hour and a half before sunrise. If I can catch a glimpse of the deer I'm after, I know I'll have a good chance of seeing him later that evening when he returns to feed.
After that scouting session, I'll review my trail camera images, compare photos from the year before and double-check that my equipment is ready to go. I'll shoot my bow a few times to instill confidence, ensure everything I plan to take with me is as scent-free as possible and, most importantly, I'll keep an eye on the wind for any changes that may force me to hunt another location. Once all of this is complete, I'll begin my trek to where I want to sit about 3 hours prior to dusk.
Once I'm in my stand, it's up to the deer to make the next move. If I've planned everything correctly, they'll make their way through my staging area, kill plot or whatever you want to call it, with plenty of shooting light left. I'll have positioned myself to be downwind of where I suspect the deer to come through and be on the lookout for a mature buck.
If a shot opportunity doesn't present itself, I'll wait until dark and then use my binoculars to scan the area and ensure all the deer have moved through before I climb down. I'll exit as quietly as possible, minimizing the use of my flashlight and trying not to brush up against anything as I move through the woods. I want to try to leave the spot exactly how I found it to minimize the risk of educating deer of my presence.
After that, it's just a matter of repeating the process. Consider your options and move in when the odds are in your favor. Luck can surely help, of course, but with proper preparation and careful execution, you can increase your chances of tagging a mature buck during the month of September.
Early Season Toolkit: Gear to Get it Done
Whether I'm hunting my lease farms in Maryland or setting up on public land in New York and Pennsylvania, my scouting and early season gear remains the same. Here are a few of the key pieces.
Cellular trail cameras allow us to enter the woods once to obtain our intel without having to repeatedly invade the area, making them great for both pre- and in-season scouting. Fortunately, there are a number of great options on the market these days. Muddy Outdoors and Stealth Cam make some good budget-friendly models. My favorite higher quality brands are Browning and Spartan Camera. For larger properties where I may run multiple cell cameras, I'm a fan of the Cuddeback's CuddeLink System.
EYES ON THE PRIZE
Whether you're watching deer in a field from hundreds of yards away or scanning the woods for a buck moving from bed to food, a quality binocular is essential in the dusky, low-light conditions that are typical of early season deer hunting. My go-to bino right now is Burris’ Signature HD Series 10x42 ($471; burrisoptics.com), which has a 314-foot field of view at 1,000 yards and excellent clarity and light-transmission capabilities.
STOP THE STENCH
Although my goal is to always play the wind, late summer and early fall can still be warm and sweaty. I often don't have the time to wash my clothes after each hunt, so I've resorted to using the power of ozone in the Scent Crusher Halo system. I de-stink my camo with a 30-minute cycle in the Gear Bag ($199.99; scentcrusher.com) to kill all the odor-causing bacteria. I also run the ozone generator that comes with it in my vehicle.