Bagging a buck in the first few days of the season takes careful preparation, observation and above all, patience.
Many whitetail deer hunters wait all year for opening day, but I have found that most parcels of public land do not get hunted hard until the rut. And most early season hunters are going deep into public land because that is what they have been told to do. They are missing out on some of the best areas to hunt, the areas where the wooded areas of the public property meet the cropland of the adjacent private land.
A systematic approach to finding and shooting an early season buck has many components, but two of the most important are knowing when and where to make your move.
Many states offer whitetail seasons that open around September first. Let’s take a look at how to increase your odds of wrapping your tag around an early-season buck.
BACHELOR GROUPS & GOOD FOOD
In the late summer when the deer are really putting on the feed bag for the upcoming fall, the bucks are typically in bachelor groups of three to 10 bucks. These can be bucks of any size, from giants all the way down to yearlings. These groups will stay together until the velvet is shed from their antlers, then over the next couple weeks, they slowly break up. Some of these bucks move long distances and can be hard to find again.
By far the best time to observe these groups in the daylight begins about the first two weeks of August and lasts for about a month. At this time they are in some of their most-predictable bedding and feeding patterns of the year. They will be using the best available food in an area with secure bedding cover nearby. This preferred food may be alfalfa, clover, brassicas or soybeans. I find that bucks that bed on public land and move to private crops to feed are quite vulnerable in the early season.
LEARN THE STAGING AREAS
Many mature bucks are very cautious about entering the open areas during daylight. This becomes even more so once the velvet is off the antlers and the testosterone levels are slowly increasing each day, as the amount of daylight shortens. Bucks often hang back just off the edge of the field and observe the behavior of does and smaller bucks before exposing themselves.
I call these areas “staging areas” because that’s what the bucks are doing, staging before entering the field. They often hang out there for as much as 30 minutes or so. These areas are characterized by lots of fresh rubs and a view of the field. They are often in areas where the bucks can test the wind coming from the field. These staging areas are some of the best sites to ambush a big buck in the early season.
FINE-TUNE YOUR AMBUSH WITH SCOUTING CAMERAS
Scouting cameras have become an incredibly important part of my preseason information gathering. As soon as I find the entry points being used by bucks I get cameras in place. I cannot overstate the importance of minimizing intrusion in these areas.
I watch my HuntStand app radar closely and whenever possible, I try to ease into my hunt areas and hang a couple scouting cameras right before or during a rain. I resist the urge to check the cameras too often, and wait for the right conditions to sneak in there during mid-morning to quickly switch out the cameras’ SD cards. Mid-morning is the best time because you’re least likely to encounter a deer on its feet, and it gives your scent time to “age” before the deer show up for the evening meal.
I use Scent Killer spray on the bottom half of my body where it may brush on vegetation. I don’t believe using scent control can totally eliminate any sign that I was there—I know a whitetail’s nose way better than that—but I do believe reducing my scent impact has value. Remember, we are dealing with the exact spot where we are hoping to kill a mature buck that makes a habit of knowing what hunters are up to.
HANG STANDS PRECISELY
Now that you have developed a solid plan, it’s time to get a treestand in place. You may have noticed that when the day is cloudy, deer will walk into a field with little hesitation, but on sunny days, they avoid entering the field with the setting sun in their eyes. In certain winds, they may not like a particular food source at all. By using careful observation over a couple weeks, you should be able to determine some trends.
Just like scouting camera work, I like to hang stands right before a rain so my scent will hopefully be drowned out before the deer arrive. I usually have a buddy who will hurry in there and help hang a stand and climbing sticks, and cut a minimal amount of brush and saplings to open a couple shooting lanes. Get in, get it set up, and get out of there. The next time you go to that stand, you are expecting to kill a buck.
It’s tempting to want to hang your stand right on the edge of the field. Like most hunters, I am curious about what is going on around me and I like to see deer. Something about being able to look out across that field and see which deer are out there and observe their behavior is interesting to me. But that’s not normally the best strategy. More often, the best site is going to be back off the edge of the field a few yards. Bucks will pause in a spot where they feel comfortable before entering the field and that’s where you need to be. The staging area I mentioned earlier is an absolutely dynamite spot for your stand.
It’s important to take a few minutes while doing this to plan your entry and exit routes for this stand, a great time to consult your HuntStand app. Check out the app’s Satellite View of your hunting area, and while there, drop a few ScentCone locations along your entrance/exit routes. Can you get in there without your scent blowing into the area the deer are coming from, or where they’re bedding? Can you sneak out without blowing the deer out of the field? These are important issues, and the time to analyze the options is when (or even before) you are placing the stand, not when you are hunting it for the first time.
HURRY UP AND WAIT
Now the season has arrived and we are very excited to get in the stand and shoot that buck we have been dreaming about. The bachelor groups and late summer patterns are breaking down day by day, so we need to strike early. But hold on, this is where most hunters blow it. All that hard work goes for nothing if you make a move at the wrong time. We need to strike early, but more importantly, we need to strike with precision at the perfect time. We must resist the temptation to hunt when the conditions are not perfect. Once the deer wind you in that spot, you are unlikely to get another chance. Watch the HuntStand app for the right wind direction, speed and other conditions. And remember to check the ScentCones in the area.
Make no mistake, your first time in the stand offers the best chances to kill your target buck, so you want to make the most of it. You have three things to consider when choosing when to hunt. First, you must get to the stand without spooking the deer, second, you must be able to be on stand without any chance of your scent blowing toward approaching deer (even with a swirling wind), and third, if possible, you need to be able to sneak back out so you can hunt the stand again if you are not successful. Good luck out there.