At first light a group of five bachelor bucks appeared along the skyline on the adjacent ridge nonchalantly browsing for acorns beneath a couple of large white oaks. I brought up the binoculars for a closer look. The biggest in the bunch was a main frame 10 with split brows and forked G2s. I’d seen him once before in early September. The second largest was an 11 pointer and not a slouch by any means. The others were two-and-a-half-year-olds that needed at least another year of growing. Within minutes they had wandered from sight.
About 8 a.m. a bit of movement drew my attention toward a large buck standing in the sunlight on the ridge below. I recognized him as being the 11-point seen earlier.
The area I was hunting was public ground, but it was also a special unit that was on a draw. Legally hunting a buck, meant first harvesting a doe. Considering it was opening day, I hadn’t so much as seen a doe yet, so you can only imagine how I was feeling right about then. To add insult to injury, the buck slowly moseyed up the ridge and stopped to work over a scrape within 15 yards of the stand. After five minutes of temptation, he finally continued on.
That afternoon I hunted a different stand and hadn’t been there more than 20 minutes when a doe appeared below browsing for acorns. A couple of bleats brought her up the ridge to investigate. At 15 paces, my broadhead sent the 150-pound doe scrambling to her resting place 40 yards away. I now had meat for the freezer and was legal to hunt a buck. Unfortunately, the bucks would have to wait for my return.
Arriving back in the same area two weeks later, I learned another hunter had just shot the largest (split brows and forked G2s) buck from beneath my stand during the early muzzleloader season. Lady luck wasn’t with me that first day, but I learned a lesson. If you’ve located a big buck, don’t assume you’re the only one hunting him!
This was just one of several times when hunting opening day either paid off or should have! There’s no doubt, the first week or two of the season is a great time to hang your tag on a deer. Bucks haven’t been pressured too much, so most are still leisurely traveling and feeding in summer patterns. The following are eight of the most common ways to up the odds of scoring early!
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EARLY SEASON TREATS
Deer are pushovers for sweets like apples, pears and persimmons. I’ve only hunted deer over apples a few times, but enough to know that when the fruit is ripe and falling, it makes for excellent hunting. The first time was in Wisconsin nearly 20 years ago.
A local landowner gave me permission to hunt his farm. He had a small apple, pear, and cherry tree orchard. He was pretty hacked off about the deer eating all his apples, but even madder because a buck had been rubbing the bark off his trees too!
That summer the owner spotted the buck in a draw that forked off in two directions. One finger weaved its way up behind the orchard, the other toward a hedgerow bordering a neighbor’s cornfield.
The buck hadn’t been seen in the orchard, so he was probably doing his dirty deeds at night. I figured my best chance of killing him was in one of the draws after he left the orchard in the morning.
To make a long story short, that hunch paid off when I set up near the hedgerow, 20 yards from a scrape and a rub line marking the bucks primary travel route. Shortly after sunrise the first morning, movement down the treeline drew my attention toward two does coming from the draw behind the house with an eye-popping buck in tow.
It took a few minutes for the buck to reach my location, but as he eased along the rub line, I mouthed a “murrp” to stop him. The buck netted over 150 and is my biggest eight-point to date.
This was just one of several times when hunting near soft mast paid off. If you find such a place, hang a stand and hunt it early!
LOCATE BACHELOR GROUPS
Like the group of bucks mentioned in the beginning, it’s not uncommon to see two or more bucks bedding and feeding in the same locations throughout the summer and early fall, but also using the same travel routes!
Time spent scouting during the late summer and early fall to locate a bachelor group may be well worth the investment. Once you’ve located a group, try to identify a pattern.
For example, are the bucks entering a field to feed at a certain time and place? If so, set up close to where you’ve seen them enter the field and hunt as soon as the winds allow. You’ll want to hunt the group aggressively, but also wisely. Regardless whether bucks are pressured or not, a couple of weeks into the season they’ll disperse and their patterns become unpredictable.
HUNT RUB LINES EARLY!
Like the eight-point previously mentioned, bucks leave telltale sign in the form of rubs that mark their travel corridors. If you look closely at which side of the tree is rubbed, you’ll understand the buck’s direction of travel when it was made. Following the rub line one way will lead to a buck’s core area, the opposite direction typically leads to his primary source of food or water.
Past experience has proven it’s best to keep a safe distance from bedding areas. Instead, set up along the rub line in the transition zone between the bedding area and food source. You’ll want to hunt rub lines early. Once the rut gains a full head of steam, a buck may travel the same routes, but not with regularity.
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HUNT TRANSITION ROUTES
I rarely hunt food sources, morning or evening. Regardless of the time of day, my favorite place to hunt prior to the rut is the transition route between a buck’s bedding area and food source. Over the yea
rs this strategy has earned me a fair share of the big bucks I’ve taken both morning and evening.
When bucks show the first sign of interest in does, switch from hunting buck transition routes to those of does. Setting up near the hub where more than one trail crisscrosses will significantly improve the chances of being within range, no matter which trail a buck uses.
Some hunters believe that deer only eat twice a day, but that’s simply not true. I’ve watched them on countless occasions bed down, then rise every hour or so to browse.
In fact, I’ve killed a fair number of bucks in the middle of the morning or afternoon while they munched on acorns. One of the most recent was an eight-point buck four seasons back.
The timber I was hunting was mostly oak. There were pin oak, red oak, burr oak, shingle oak and white oaks. Although the deer ate all kinds of acorns, when the whites and reds started dropping their nuts, I could bank on where the deer would be.
I moved in with a stand one afternoon and hunted it right away. I had opportunities that afternoon, but not the big eight-point I’d seen pre-season.
The next morning at about 8:30, the eight-point jumped the fence and began milling around for acorns. At 25 paces, I put an arrow through the boiler room!
When deer seemed to have evaporated and standing corn is nearby, chances are they’re hiding out there. If you’ve never killed a buck from the ground, it’s a rush like no other. The midday lull is a great time to hone your spot and stalk skills by sneaking through the cornrows.
Field edge stands are among the most popular of all early season stands. Rightfully so, because a large percentage of deer taken in the first few days come from the edges of staple foods like, corn, soybeans, sorghum, milo and alfalfa.
In most cases, deer loiter along the field edge in staging areas, sometimes for only a few minutes and other times for an hour or more before entering a field. The high browse line makes a staging area easy to spot, even from a distance. Because of the amount of traffic in the area, the soil is normally compacted and often void of vegetation.
If bucks are spending time there too, chances are you’ll find rubs around the perimeter. Those who have hunted staging areas before already know that they’re fragile and require a low impact approach. This means keeping a safe distance in the morning. Bump a deer or two entering in the dark and you’ll lose your early season advantage.
Because deer are normally bedded farther off the field midday, it’s easier to approach these stands undetected in the afternoon, therefore that’s the best time to hunt them too!
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RATTLE THE BONES
To have one or more bucks explode from out of nowhere in response to your rattling is heart-racing stuff. In most states, prior to the rut, bucks are primed and ready to spar with one another to determine pecking order. This alone makes the early season an excellent time to rattle up a buck.
My son Scott’s experience two seasons back proved that rattling works.
Scott was set up on a point that extended into a CRP field that bordered a cornfield. For the first two hours after sunup, he rattled several times and had three different bucks respond by racing in to look for the intruder. In every instance the biggest buck, an 11-point, was either moving too fast or too far away. About 9 a.m. he decided to rattle one last time. Nothing happened right away, so he climbed down.
Having reached the base of the tree, he spotted the 11-point, but again too far away. Scott hunkered down and made a stalk. He crept within 22 yards of the buck and took a quartering away shot. The arrow struck the buck perfectly behind the last rib, sending him on a short scramble before going down.
Rattling isn’t a sure thing; success is highly dependent on the time of year and the ratio of bucks to does in the area. For example, rattling where the buck to doe ratio is 1:2 is more productive than an area where the ratio is 1:8. Regardless, give rattling a try; you never know when it might work!
HANG IT AND HUNT
The element of surprise is truly one of our best defenses against the whitetail’s keen senses. Sure, hanging a stand months before the season is a sound strategy, but it’s not always that simple. Take for example the times when you’ve stumbled across a fresh rub line and want to make a move right away. You move a stand and start trimming shooting lanes. Before you know it the area is totally polluted. A few young bucks might hang around, but an old boy that’s seen a few seasons won’t tolerate human intrusion before he vacates the area or heads underground.
I’ve come to understand that the less scent I leave around for a buck to analyze the better. To avoid this, I like hanging a stand and hunting it right away! Better than half the big deer I’ve taken over the years were killed within 24 hours after the stand was hung.
If you’ve patterned a buck and found that perfect stand site, keep a low profile and wait for the right conditions, then slip in with a stand, hang it and hunt. Chances are when that buck comes waltzing down the primrose path, he won’t have a clue you’re there!