Rifle hunters who want to up the odds of punching their early season whitetail tags should key in on these top five locations.
You’ve likely heard of the October lull, when mature whitetail bucks seemingly go underground prior to the rut explosion. Research proves that it’s more myth than reality, but you couldn’t prove that by my Wyoming experience experience. I had teamed up with the experts at Big Buck Outfitters and although deer sightings were constant, mature local bucks had seemingly disappeared off the face of the Earth. Outfitter Brian Beisher suggested we leave the riverbottom and move into the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains. Maybe a change of venue would improve our luck.
Rifle hunters generally save the famed month of November for their whitetail hunts, but a handful of states offer the option of buck encounters prior to the rut. Montana’s season opens in October as does my home state of Wyoming. South Carolina hunters also get a crack at warm-weather bucks, as do hunters in southern Florida. If you have the opportunity to jack a round in the chamber during an early season hunt don’t avoid the challenge due to the rut being AWOL. Instead, focus on these five locations for a chance at a buck idling for the rut.
Passing the Taste Test
Food plots are all the rage these days, but oftentimes the same stuff you plant is available in mega-quantities next door on a neighboring farm. You might find it difficult to compete with the quantity of these food sources, so you need to focus on quality.
Fortunately, seed quality has benefited from the increase in private land management for wildlife. That translates to food plots that not only excel in nutritional value, but attract whitetails via the taste- bud test. Large-scale crops don’t always pass the taste test.
Even if your food plot is next door to a section of corn, the buffet it offers might lure deer your way instead of toward the Corn Flakes. Deer consistently feed on 20 or more varieties of vegetation daily. That’s why many food plots include a selection of forage instead of a single crop. If your plot has a tasteful attraction, deer might bed in the adjacent cornfield, but feed on your plot, giving you the opportunity for early season encounters.
Two food plot cornerstones are clover and alfalfa if you live in an arid climate. But deer also have a partiality for soybeans during September and October. Classified as a legume, soybeans can provide summer, fall and winter nutrition, with a protein value north of 20 percent. And they do quite well in most environments, with dry-land varieties now available.
If you want your food plot efforts to receive a high level of attention, plant them out of sight of roads and adjacent to good escape cover. This will boost a buck’s confidence when visiting your mini farm during shooting hours and possibly keep him from spending all of his time on the larger fields next door.
Food Plots on Steroids
If you don’t have a green thumb or the deed to a whitetail property, hunting near large agricultural fields might be your only option. Sure they are expansive, but subtle terrain features can funnel deer past you. First, search for any trees on the edge or interior of a field. Even a single tree could be the focal point of all whitetail activity in the field. Trees along edges or in untillable terrain inside a field are ideal for tree- stand locations. I shot my first deer from a stand in a single tree surrounded by corn.
A waterway or wetland in the middle of a field also attracts whitetail traffic. Standing water serves as a hydration pitstop and cattails can double as bedding cover. A ground blind positioned downwind of a well- beaten path could put you in a front-row seat. Plus, waterways provide you easy entrance and exit points to the field’s interior.
Finally, don’t forget to hunt field edges, particularly if end rows are cut as farmers oftentimes do when chopping silage. Whitetails evolved as animals of the edge and will come out to nibble the harvested edge of a field during the early season. Google Earth or ScoutLook Weather satellite images can help you scout fields from above to find terrain that whitetails utilize before the randomness of the rut kicks in.
Mast, the Hidden Food Plot
After bachelor groups disband and prior to the rut, bucks might not parade around in food plots or fields during daylight. They haven’t gone on Nutrisystem, but they might be feeding on hard mast, such as acorns and chestnuts. They might also be hitting soft mast sources, such as apples, crabapples, pears and plum bushes. In the heart of whitetail country, mast begins to drop in September and often lasts through early November. That coincides perfectly with the opportunity to ambush an early season buck.
Off-season scouting plays an important role in setting up your ambush to avoid giving away your strategy. By locating an oak or hidden fruit tree before season you can place a treestand or ground blind weeks or even months before the season opens. When acorns start to fall you can simply slip in with- out causing any disturbance.
Consider avoiding preferred bedding cover and using prevailing winds in planning your woodland entrance strategy. If you have only a small area to target, don’t set up too close to your primary tree. Scout for a shooting location that gives you a view of the mast site with several shooting options. If you’re hunting clusters of oaks or an orchard of fruit trees, set up on the outside edges and have at least two stands in place to cover primary wind and trail options. The second stand also serves as a backup in case your top location fizzles because of sporadic mast production, which is a guarantee from year to year.
WATCH: How to Make a Waterhole for Deer and Deer Hunting
Deer require 4 to 6 quarts of water daily during the early season, depending on body weight and activity. Locating an active water hole might provide a better hotspot than a soybean field. And water sources can be productive even in water-rich areas, but it takes more sleuthing to find the source deer like the most.
Scouting cameras, such as the Cabela’s Outfitter Series, help you monitor several sites at once. Together with visual sightings, look for beaten paths to water and asso- ciated sign around a water hole. Bucks might also rub their antlers near a watering hole and browse on nearby food sources. Trails leading to and from beds or feed likely pass by a water source for good reason. Deer tend to water before heading to bedding areas and after holing up all day.
Keep in mind, deer often water during the midday in extreme heat. Water sources that don’t expose deer to danger rank high for these pit stops. Woodland streams, seeps and waterholes high on ridges might see more activity than creeks flowing through meadows, or ponds in open pastures.
Once you locate a wet hotspot, survey it with a scouting camera to establish favorite visiting times and from which direction the deer approach the most. This will give you the details you need to plan an ambush. You might be forced to pinch the buck right at the source, but, if possible, look for a natural funnel leading to the water so you don’t alert any visiting deer.
Deep, Dark Timber
Hunting timber or woodland pockets can be as intimidating as a call from the IRS. Don’t be daunted. Instead, dissect cover and look for easily accessible sites by using riparian zones, old roads or utility rights of way to give you quick, undetectable access into cover. Your goal is not to hunt inside the bedroom, but to catch bucks leaving the security of a bedroom. Hunting inside the veil of cover gives you the advantage of targeting a nocturnal buck that might not show up on a field during shooting light, but begins its trek while you have just enough light available to make a shot in the timber.
Take precautions not to put too much pressure on the area and hunt it only when conditions are perfect to avoid bumping a buck. If you have the option, place your stand weeks in advance. Whereas crops can change from year to year, forest bedding cover rarely varies annually. Once a buck finds refuge it will continue to use a thicket, ridge or hollow repeatedly until alarms sound off.
In some zip codes, mature bucks are forced or even prefer islands of cover over expanses of timber. Look for isolated pockets of cover removed from a road or in the middle of a section of land and you might find a mature buck hideout. These islands of cover don’t necessarily have to be trees. Be on the hunt for old farm- steads, tree belts, hedge remnants, wetlands, native grasslands and gravel pits. The best islands are situated adjacent to prime food sources, but you might find a buck traveling a mile or more to feed if the security is topnotch.
Finally, scrutinize any riparian zones in the area. Rivers and creeks provide cover, rich food sources, water and a natural travel route along their banks. Oxbows provide dense bedding cover and funnels leading to bottomland fields offer ambush opportunities.
As for my Wyoming hunt, the foothills setting certainly brought about a great change of scenery – headhigh brush and grass strewn through rolling valleys – and our first morning gave us a glimpse of the difficulty we’d have ambushing any buck living in the brushy maze.
My guide and I spied a good buck leaving a lower field at first light in a haste to reach the thick brush in the foothills above. We attempted to waylay him in Nike fashion, but the buck slipped into the tangle of cover before we could get into shooting range. The next evening and following morning we saw more of the same. Bucks were present, but they were relying on the narrow window of dusk and dawn to trot safely back into cover.
Luckily the ScoutLook Weather forecast brought some good news. A fast-moving weather front was moving in, and with it the high probability of rain, snow and wind. This change in the weather, we hoped, would motivate the deer to feed earlier and longer. With that outlook in hand we hustled to a midafternoon vantage point as storm clouds rolled in. The hunch was spot on.
Deer began spilling out of the brush tunnels to browse on the field edges. Some even hightailed it straight to the hayfields below. Minutes ticked by and the sinking sun signaled the waning minutes of the hunt. Just then I spotted a buck nibbling on shrubs in a tiny opening nearly 800 yards away. Mapping a mental route to get us within shooting distance took only a few seconds, and we were off to the races.
Easing up a hill that would give us a clear look at the buck, I dropped to my belly and crawled to its crest. I spotted the buck a moment later, still contently nibbling away. The rangefinder read 310 yards and I checked the Nikon’s BDC reticle for the correct crosshair setting.
The jolt of the .300 Win. Mag. recoil caused me to momentarily lose the buck in the riflescope, but I heard a whoop beside me as my guide confirmed that the Hornady 180-grain SST bullet had dropped it on the spot.
Early season whitetail hunts don’t always end in celebration, but if you do your investigative work and focus on these five hotspots, you too could end your season before the rut even begins.
— Mark Kayser is a hardcore whitetail hunter and outdoors communicator from Wyoming.