I love November. There’s the bite of a north wind and the sound of a deep grunt. It’s a spectacular time to be in the deer woods. What I don’t like is how unpredictable the month can be. Rut action can be red hot one day and ice cold the next. Your one glimpse of your target buck may be of him running a doe at Mach 10 past your stand. Days later he’ll be locked down with her, and you may not get back on him again until the late season. The rut, while thrilling, is unpredictable.
Early deer season is just the opposite. Deer movement during September and early October can be as predictable as the moon phases. I like predictability. I like watching a group of bachelor bucks stroll into a protein-rich green field night after night. The patterning process is addictive, and moving in for the kill—well, that unleashes emotions in me that make my neck hairs stand up.
But while early season bucks are easy to pattern, preparation is still key. There’s no room for error. That first evening or morning sit is your best chance to trigger an arrow before the group becomes aware of your presence or changes pattern. Here’s how to punch your tag well before the rut begins.
Many articles about finding early season whitetail success over an established green plot exist. Here’s my issue with field-edge sits, and why I suggest an alternate approach: Like many of you, I hunt lots of public land. The private tracts I can access are small, and I share hunting rights with others. Early in the season, most bowhunters I come across opt for being right on the field edge. The problem is, by the time a nice deer makes his way into the food source, legal shooting hours are usually over. Now you must climb down and exit the food source without being spotted. This often isn’t possible without sending whitetails bounding away. I’ve had more field-edge sits go wrong than I can count.
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My approach is to do my homework and take note of the trail the buck or bucks use to enter the field. Most of this is hands-on recon. I prefer glassing from a distance and leaving trail cameras at home. Upon finding an established entrance route, I locate the area on OnX Maps. The goal is to look at terrain and cover and make an educated guess as to where bucks are bedding. Next, I make sure to get a good wind, take proper scent-elimination precautions and move in.
With my stand and sticks on my back and all my bowhunting gear with me, I ease into the woods early in the afternoon. I stay quiet and pay attention to the sign. The goal is to not press in too close to the bedding area, but to get back into a spot where bucks will be moving during daylight. Once I locate the perfect tree, up I go. Hunting like this is exhilarating, and it greatly reduces your human footprint. Early season bucks will abandon a pattern the second something seems wrong. Hunting this way reduces in-and-out traffic and allows you to plan an exit route to get you out of the area without alerting your buck if he doesn’t show. This way you can hunt him a few times before he changes his pattern.
Slake His Thirst
If I had to pick one method for duping an early season brute, it would be hunting over water. Water is valuable all year, but especially so in hot, early season months. If you know the property you’re hunting, you know where water sources are. If you don’t know the property, jump on OnX Maps and start prospecting. Note each water source and take note of any likely stand trees. If aerial images don’t show a potential stand tree, plan for a ground blind sit.
After finding the water sources, note proximity to likely bedding areas. My favorite deer refreshment finds are typically within 200 yards of where I expect bucks to be bedded. Make sure the wind is right and take all of your stand-hanging (or ground blind) equipment with you. If you can, con a buddy into helping, I prefer to situate my waterhole hides during the dark of night when I’m sure bucks are feeding. If hunting solo, I typically trek in during early afternoon and do a hang-and-hunt. Whether I hang a camera or not depends on how long I have to hunt the area.
I know many whitetail celebrities aren’t fans of morning hunts during the early season. I totally disagree, especially when hunting public land with limited days to punch a tag. I’ve had lots of early and mid-morning action at water sources. The key is using wind and terrain to avoid bumping deer off morning food sources. Be in your set and ready well before daybreak. Oftentimes, a buck will swing in to slake his thirst on his way back to his bed.
Depending on wind direction, I typically man my water source until about 11 a.m. When it’s time to make my exit, I note where deer are likely to be bedded and avoid walking or sending deer-spooking odor toward these locations. I’m back on stand or in my blind no later than 2 p.m. for the evening hunt.
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If your property has lots of water, this play may be out. However, don’t overlook creek/river crossings. Walk the edge of your waterway and look for a heavily pounded crossing. If you find one, take note of the size and amount of tracks. Years of waterway hunting has taught me does, fawns and smaller bucks typically use main crossings, especially during the early season. Up or down river from this main crossing, you’ll likely find another. It will be less distinguished, but the tracks will be bigger. This is your buck crossing and an area on which to concentrate your efforts.
Don’t misunderstand this section. Yes, I love to post up over my clover plots whenever I can, but when I’m on public dirt, I search out Mother Nature’s groceries. Here are some favorites.
Acorns – White and red oaks are great early season food sources deer crave. If your area has white oaks, start your search there. Deer typically devour white oaks first; they’re lower in tannic acid content. Then, they turn to red oaks. Finding where you should be requires ample scouting. Walk through the woods and note areas where acorns are really dropping. If you locate a secluded area with a good drop going on, you’ll often find lots of deer sign. Post up there.
Fruit trees – I’ve stumbled upon more than one fruit-bearing tree in my whitetail-hunting tenure, and when I do, I take special note. Deer love fruit. If you happen upon some trees with low-hanging apples or some that are putting fruit on the ground, you’ve found a hidden early season gem. Of course, apples aren’t the only fruit deer like. Wild plum and pear trees are also deer favorites.
Open woodlots – Take a good look at an aerial image of the property you’ll be hunting and note any woodlots that appear to be semi-open. You’re looking for a location that offers just enough cover to make the deer feel safe but allows in enough sunlight to produce shrubs, forbs and low-growing plants. It’s not uncommon for a semi-open woodlot to produce nearly 1,000 pounds of deer-friendly browse per acre. Again, you’ll know you’re in the right area as it will be littered with tracks and droppings.
When I find any of the above, I note the prevailing early season wind and spend time in a stand. These areas can be hunted morning and evening and are great spots to catch a buck looking for a quick snack on his way to bed or before heading to large ag fields for the night.