By scouting to learn what bucks are in your hunting areas, you can take advantage of their predictability in the early part of the season.
The first buck I regarded as a lightning strike. He was a high-racked Minnesota 10-pointer I shot with my recurve.
That was the largest buck I’d ever tagged, and I firmly believed I’d never shoot a bigger whitetail.
But a few years after that, I shot an even larger Gopher State beauty that nearly netted Boone and Crockett. Then, two seasons later, I fulfilled a long-time dream by shooting a buck I’d known for a while. The funky-racked 11-pointer was no giant, but the fact that he lived near my home — and that I had multiple trail-cam pics of him from several seasons — was huge to me. The buck had simply wriggled under my skin. There were larger deer in the neighborhood but none that I wanted so desperately. Only one other whitetail — my first — meant as much when I put my hands on those antlers.
It took that final buck to fully light the dimly glowing bulb in my head. My three best whitetails had come during a specific time period: the first weeks of the Minnesota archery season. Our bowhunt begins in mid-September, when bucks are still inhabit a fairly small core area and are on a late-summer bed-to-feed pattern.
I’m clueless when it comes to math, but even I can deduce that those odds are no fluke. And my experience — coupled with the exploits of some deer nuts I truly admire — has me convinced that an early archery hunt might be the best time to shoot a truly big whitetail.
Make no mistake: I love the rut as much as anyone. Like most deer geeks, I plan vacations for November. I read and study peak forecast dates months ahead of time. I lull myself to sleep with dreams of bucks working scrapes, coming to calls and chasing does. And I slobber over the photos that appear in newspapers, websites and the blogosphere from late October forward. Only a fool would argue against the rut as an incredible time to shoot a buck.
But if you’re really serious about killing a really big whitetail, you’re making a huge mistake if you ignore September. There is no time of the season when a mature buck is more predictable and more relaxed — and therefore more huntable — than the first weeks of the season. Here’s how to make it happen.
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Get the Jump
The first step in shooting an early-season buck is simply finding him. For much of summer and into early fall, whitetails live in relatively small core areas. These spots contain all the elements a buck needs to thrive: food, water and security cover. Keying in on food is the best place to start your search.
In farm country, start looking in lush fields of alfalfa or soybeans. Whitetails hammer these protein-rich foods during summer. When I hunt the big woods of northern Wisconsin, I’m never far from an aspen clearcut, and the newer the better. Cuts made the previous winter will sprout aspen saplings 5 to 6 feet tall the next summer, and deer view these shoots like a veritable food plot. Finally, locate stands of white oaks, as these are the first hard mast sources to hit the ground. They’re also so adored by whitetails that deer will ignore the best hay field or food plot to snack on acorns.
When you’ve nailed down some prime food sources, it’s time to pinpoint one that hosts the buck you’re looking for. Perhaps the best early-season bowhunter I know is my friend Bob Borowiak. He has killed more than 30 Pope and Young bucks, and at last count, about half of them have come in September.
Borowiak starts glassing alfalfa and soybean fields about July 4th, and he rarely misses an evening until the archery opener. That’s two solid months of glassing almost every night, a fact that popped in my head a while back when a mutual friend told me how “lucky” Borowiak was when it came to early-season bucks. I don’t equate hundreds of hours of preparation with luck, but everyone’s entitled to their opinion.
If you don’t have mega-hours to glass fields (most of us don’t), or your hunting country isn’t conducive to long-range observation (like the big woods), it’s still possible to zero in on a good buck. One of my favorite methods for doing this is by hanging cameras on a mineral lick. There are plenty of great mixes and blocks available these days, and I’ve used several. Simply find a good camera tree adjacent to the food source, start your lick and get the camera set up.
Even on a newly established lick, you should start getting buck photos within a week or two. If you don’t, immediately set up another lick, and hang a camera on it. Although general guidelines by biologists recommend one lick per 80 to 100 acres, I usually take a shotgun approach on a new farm and intentionally go over that mark. The deer will dictate which licks they like, hammering the preferred ones and letting the others die.
Many hunters are uber-anal about scent control during their trail-cam routines, but I am not.
This is because I hang most of my cameras on field edges, which allows me to drive my truck nearly to the cam, hop out and swap out cards. I also prefer to set up and check cameras at midday during a hot, dry day. These conditions are the absolute worst for a whitetail to smell anything, and by the time late evening — when most feeding activity occurs — arrives, much of my scent will have dried up. I check cards every five to seven days, and typically by mid-August, I’ve located several bucks worth some serious hunting effort.
Set the Trap
After I’ve identified a good buck and the general feeding area, it’s time to focus on where to get him killed. Because I’m bowhunting, this has to be a pretty specific spot. It’s rarely good enough to say, “He’s coming out somewhere in the corner of that field.” I want to know (as close as possible) exactly where he enters the field or where he stages up before he gets there. Sometimes, it’s possible to observe the buck do this through binoculars or a spotting scope, but it can take several evenings of repeated glass- ing to pull this off. Again, most of us don’t have that kind of time, so we have to add clues together to come up with the ultimate ambush.
The way I find these clues is to wait until after velvet shed — which typically occurs about the first week of September in the upper Midwest — and scout carefully for buck sign. Although a buck will not rub or scrape nearly as much as he will in another month, mature bucks will start laying down sign the minute the fuzzy stuff is off his antlers.
One huge mistake I’ve seen hunters make in the early season is assuming that small rubs are the work of immature bucks. In my experience, young bucks do very little rubbing at this time (this is backed up by rub research from Deer & Deer Hunting Research Editor John Ozoga), and mature animals don’t limit their efforts to the thick-trunked trees they’ll attack in a month. I’ve watched monster bucks shred a finger-thick sapling, rubbing and bending it until it snaps. Whenever I’m in doubt about the specific route a buck uses to access a food source, my primary tip-off is a rub — and those rubs are often very small.
The same is true of scrapes. Mature bucks love to stage up just before entering a food source, and as they dally, they rub and scrape. So whenever I see a September scrape — regardless of size — I immediately assume “big buck.” Just as with rubs, research has proven that yearling bucks simply don’t make many scrapes until the rut is almost in full swing. It’s as if it takes several weeks of wearing antlers and watching mature bucks behave before a youngster realizes that rubbing and scraping is part of being a man.
Sometimes, unfortunately, bucks just don’t give us a lot of help by laying down enough sign to tell us, “Place stand here.” When that’s the case, I know I need to read terrain. I’ll visit a feeding area midday and walk the field edge looking for entry trails. Then I stand near each trail with my back to the woods and
examine the field, trying to answer the question, “Which of these trails lets me walk into this field and stay hidden the longest?” Unless I’ve watched a buck use another entry or his sign tips me otherwise, I assume a buck will enter a field in a dip or hollow that protects him from sight.
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Make it Happen
When you’ve identified the perfect ambush site, it’s time to get really analytic. Figure out the perfect wind direction(s) for hunt- ing the spot, and then make a solemn promise to yourself to not hunt there during any other condi- tion. Remember, we’re talking mature bucks. If he shows up and busts you, it’s probably game over. One of the reasons early season is so deadly, I’m convinced, is that bucks just have their guard down after months of little disturbance from humans.
But as biologist and friend Grant Woods once told me, “All deer have memories, and the older the deer, the better the memory.” Give an old buck a whiff of human scent now, and he’ll flash-back to hunting seasons in his past — and morph into a paranoid nut-job that’s far tougher to kill.
If you’ve got some fade in your camo, you’ve recognized that this entire approach is based on patterning a buck on a food source. But many folks — me included — have long been confused about this “patterning” concept.
Here’s the truth: Just because a buck regularly visits a food source does not mean he hits it every evening, nor does he approach it from the same route every time. This is important, because no matter how well we think we have a buck nailed down, he’s going to surprise us. He might pop up in a hay field 100 yards from his normal spot, he might show up just when you’re ready to crawl out of your stand or he might not show up at all.
It’s tempting to panic in either scenario, unless you’ve planned an exit scenario. In my opinion, this is the most-neglected element of food-source bowhunting. You simply have to get the heck out of there without bumping feeding deer and letting them recognize they’re being hunted. As soon as I hang a stand on a food source, I’m conjuring a method for leaving undetected.
If you can maintain this ruse for a week or two, it’s a good bet that your prep-and-planning work will pay off. And if a dozen or so other little things work right, you’ll be able to put your tag on a dandy buck at a time when he’s the most vulnerable. I’ve learned the pleasant way that moment feels every bit as good as it does during the rut.