Question: What is the best setup for early season bucks — before they start leaving much sign? — Jason Wilson, Rogersville, Tenn.
KEYS TO EARLY SEASON SUCCESS
It is all about the food. Once you realize that, you will start thinking of all the places where you can find concentrated food sources that deer like. That may be agricultural crops or it may be areas with lots of browse.
After you identify prime feeding areas, you need to place your stand. Spend some time watching from a distance or use trail cameras to keep tabs on activity. It is much easier too once you’ve actually seen the buck you are after. Ideally, you’ll watch him do something at least twice so you can establish a pattern — but even one sighting is better than nothing.
Several sets of big tracks may indicate that a big deer is using one particular trail, but you have to make sure you don’t leave enough scent to cause him to change his pattern. Rather than going in for a close look, hang back with binoculars and learn as much as you can about the overall situation. Pay attention to the does and other non-target deer too. It’s important to determine what the other deer using the feeding area are doing because you can’t afford to spook any of them.
Rarely will the big buck be the first to come out in the evening. More than likely several does, fawns and young bucks will come out first. If they catch your scent they’ll sound the alarm and you can forget about Mr. Big. Consider all the factors before you pick a stand location so you won’t mess things up the very first time you hunt the buck.
Sleep in: It may be tempting to try to hunt the buck you have been watching in the morning somewhere near his feeding area. That is very risky. It is better to stick with his known patterns and wait him out than to start prospecting for him back in the timber.
More than likely, he’ll realize what you’re up to long before you ever figure out what is happening. Quite often, he will be into his bed shortly after daybreak anyway. Big deer rarely hang around feeding areas in the morning during the early season. They are usually long gone and well past your hoped-for ambush by daylight. Yes you could arrow him near his bedding area, but how can you be certain it is his bedding area? This high impact effort is more like desperation.
Sleep in, go in to work, whatever — it’s almost always best to forget the mornings during this part of the season. At least hunt somewhere else if you want to be in the woods at dawn.
Pick your punches: The worst thing you can do when choosing a stand site is to commit yourself so deeply into the feeding area that you run the risk of spooking the buck before you figure out how to tag him. I hunted one bruiser the first two and a half weeks of October one year. Though I never spooked him, I saw him only four times — once through binoculars from a nearby ridge and three times from two different tree stands as I moved in on him. That hunt is a good example of how to close the gap carefully before finally going for broke.
After watching him these several days, I realized that the buck was using three different trails to leave the woods, but no matter where he broke out into the open he always walked parallel to the woods edge to a certain point before turning straight out into the bean field. This part of his routine brought him within bow range of a small oak tree that jutted out from the tree line. It wasn’t until the third sighting that I figured this out. The next time the wind was right, I moved a stand into the small oak tree — sure that he was as good as mine.
He didn’t come out that night, but four days later he showed up. This time when he made his slow and deliberate route along the edge of the woods I was waiting for him. Unbelievably, after all that time and strategy I missed the buck at 15 yards. That was before fiber optic pins and I was using a small peep sight. My sight picture threw me off.
Despite my gaff, the story reveals the value of hanging back and watching things unfold from conservative stand sites until you find the buck’s weakness, then going for broke.
Stand location: Early season bucks are only partially patternable. They won’t bed in the same places every day, nor feed in the same places every evening. Running trail cameras quite a bit during the early season, I often find the same buck on two different fields as much as half-mile apart. That is not a very tight pattern. Unfortunately, you can’t set your watch by their travels so you have to be patient and be sure to set up in a way that permits you to hunt an area repeatedly.
If you don’t get the buck the first time you hunt him, you need a good plan for getting back to your vehicle without spooking non-target deer that are already feeding. Try to place your stand where the deer will be out of sight shortly after they pass, giving you an opportunity to climb down and sneak away without being seen. Use the terrain and cover to your advantage. Your exit route will likely take you well out of your way, looping back through the timber or following a creek or erosion ditch in the opposite direction.
Early season buck hunting requires a unique blend of patience and aggressive action. You wait and study until the time is right and then you step up and swing for the fence. It’s a fun and rewarding way to hunt and you can sleep in. You may only get one good chance to arrow an early season trophy — do your homework so you can make the most of that one opportunity.
THE TRUE SECRET TO EARLY SEASON SUCCESS
Maybe it isn’t such a secret anymore, but few bowhunters use this killer approach to hunting early season food sources. It’s ground blinds. If you can get a ground blind out into a preferred feeding area during the summer and let the deer get completely used to the blind, you have the very best tool for shooting a good buck during opening week.
It shouldn’t be that hard to slip a blind out into the middle of a small alfalfa or clover patch after the farmer takes his last cutting of hay. Maybe you can even purchase (or make) a hay bale blind that remains after the farmer moves the other bales off the field. Once the deer get used to seeing the blind in the field, you can move it around slightly without introducing too much concern among the deer. This allows you to fine-tune its location as the deer change patterns.
By hunting from a blind, you eliminate the concern about which trail to watch. You simply place the blind within bow range of where the buck generally ends up. It is common for them to feed in a certain area regardless of the trail they use to reach the field.
Take the added measure of adding a thin cellophane screen over your windows so you can keep your scent inside the blind as much as possible, and continue to use scent reducing measures on your body and clothing to further cut down on
your body odor. These two steps are often enough to keep even deer that pass downwind of the blind from smelling you. Sandwich wrap is a convenient source of thin, transparent cellophane and you can shoot through it easily.
Finally, arrange to have someone drive out into the field at the end of legal shooting time to move any deer off the field before you climb out of the blind. That will keep you from burning out the area quickly. Deer aren’t nearly as alarmed by a vehicle driving into a field as they are by a person stepping out of a “round bale” just a short distance away. Forget the coyote howls and all that stuff. It doesn’t really work. It only draws unwanted attention to your blind. If you can’t find someone to drive in and blow the field, don’t hunt the blind.