By Clint Casper
It’s no secret in the whitetail world that patterns kill big bucks. In my opinion, there is no better time to find a mature buck on a pattern than the early season! With most bucks still in bachelor groups and on predictable summer feeding and bedding schedules, now is the perfect time to catch up with Mr. Big before he knows he’s being hunted!
So, how do you figure out early-season buck patterns and put yourself in position to capitalize? Follow along as I fill you in on my roadmap for early-season success!
Finding a Buck
The first step in killing an early-season buck is to locate one that is consistently putting itself in position to be hunted effectively. Throughout the first half of September, and sometimes even later, bachelor groups of bucks can be found rather predictably mornings and evenings feeding in agricultural fields. This pattern actually starts by mid-summer, giving bowhunters plenty of time to scout and identify target bucks long before opening day.
There are two specific methods I like for summertime scouting. Both are very low impact and will not alter the daily routine of deer in the area. This is very important because, at this time of year, human pressure on whitetails is extremely low, and the last thing you want to do is tip your hand and alert the deer while their guard is down.
Trail cameras are an obvious choice at this time of year; simply set them up and walk away! Trail cameras not only help you gather an inventory of which bucks are in a given area but also to monitor multiple locations and begin to put a pattern of buck movement together. Personally, what I like to do, once I’ve identified a buck I am interested in hunting, is to place several cameras in his core area. The key is placing the cameras in low-impact areas you can access easily without spooking deer. Two of my favorite areas for camera placement during this period include feeding areas such as soybean or alfalfa fields and creek crossings. The fields are great because you can set your cameras up and check them without ever going into the timber where bucks bed, and the creek crossings are awesome because you can walk down the creek to make your approach less visible and cover your scent at the same time. At this time of year, temperatures are often quite warm across much of the whitetail’s range, making water as important as feed. So, don’t overlook other water sources such as ponds or natural springs that may be located within your hunting area.
The second early-season scouting method I love is glassing! I’m a firm believer in long-distance scouting, and using a spotting scope or binoculars is a great way to locate a mature buck. Using optics to observe from a distance keeps the element of surprise in your favor while allowing you to see how bucks come and go from various areas. I like to pay attention to things such as how my target buck acts around other bucks, how he uses the lay of the land, his demeanor, the wind direction he enters and exits fields on and what times he prefers. All these clues need to be documented and studied later on, which we’ll cover.
Doing Your Homework
Now that you’ve found a target buck, it’s time to go back to school and do your homework! In my opinion, big bucks are like people; they all have unique personalities. With proper study of an individual buck’s behavior, a prepared bowhunter will identify opportunities to capitalize.
Using trail cameras has allowed me to do this several times over the years. Sure, it is great to get pictures of big bucks in velvet and stare at them all summer long, but that’s not my main focus. Once I find a shooter buck on camera, my next move is to document all of his tendencies. Every picture that is close to or in daylight will be logged with wind direction, barometric pressure, weather pattern for that day, moon phase and the direction he came and left from. I keep a journal for each specific buck I’m targeting. Soon, a pattern will form that will give me a predicted blueprint for what this buck likes and when he will move again in daylight.
Mature bucks have a rhyme and reason for everything they do; if they didn’t, they wouldn’t have made it to this point in their life. Maybe he only moves in daylight in a specific area on an east wind, or maybe he’s always coming from a certain direction in the evening, which would indicate he’s coming from his bedding area. With that said, it makes life much easier trying to outsmart a big buck by knowing the weaknesses in his armor! I also document this same information every time I go glass in the summertime. If my target buck is spotted in daylight, my journal is out and I’m documenting everything I can! I’ll also spend a lot of time on Google Earth, studying the buck’s core area. I’ll document potential bedding areas, staging areas and funnels in between to help with determining my eventual stand locations.
Preparing To Win
Now that you’ve found your buck and done your homework, you need to prepare to win the battle! From years of experience, I can tell you that, typically, you will only get one solid opportunity on an early-season buck before his patterns change or he realizes he’s being hunted. With that said, I cannot stress enough how important it is to have everything in place and all of the preparation work done weeks before opening day.
Once you’ve found a buck’s pattern and zeroed in on where this buck is most vulnerable, it’s time to set the trap! It is now time to hang a stand or stands (for different winds). Typically, I stay away from deep timber early in the season. It is almost impossible to get in and out undetected during this time, and honestly, I don’t think it’s necessary. A lot of bucks are still feeding in fields before darkness falls, so focus on staging areas close to feed and the actual feeding areas. These spots are easy to access when hunting and also require minimal effort/impact when setting up prior to the season.
The homework you’ve done all summer will now come into play. The goal is to pick stand locations that match up with your buck’s demonstrated patterns. Maybe it’s a certain wind or moon phase in a particular spot, or maybe you’ve learned from trail-cam pictures where the buck beds, giving you clues to where he will stage up before entering the fields where he feeds during the night. This will also help you figure out the best entry and exit routes to your stands so that your presence stays undetected.
Again, I want to stress hunting your buck in a favorable spot for him, not a favorable spot for you! This is also true when it comes to the wind. Hang stands according to winds that are good for the buck, not you! I guarantee your buck will have a certain wind he favors. While doing your homework, you’ll notice more daylight photos and sightings on that wind, and I bet you will also find he is more apt to move earlier on the days when the wind is out of that direction. Now, of course, you must set up in a spot were the buck will not smell you as he approaches. That’s the trick; figuring out how to use the buck’s preferred wind to your advantage. In my experience, this is the biggest piece of the pattern puzzle that makes a buck killable.
Making Your Move
At this point, you’ve found your buck and documented his behavior. Like a skilled detective, you’ve learned his patterns and figured out where and when he is most vulnerable. You’ve located a stand site that allows you to get in and out without being detected. Now, all that remains is to move in and seal the deal — when the time is right!
Serious bowhunters wait all year for opening day, and the temptation to rush right in and start hunting can be powerful. However, now is not the time for careless mistakes! You’ve worked too hard and waited too long to blow it all now.
The best thing you can do during the first couple weeks of the season is to keep your focus and your patience. Rely on all the data you’ve gathered, and only hunt your buck when the conditions (wind, moon phase, weather conditions, etc.) indicate he is likely to read the script. Hunt with a plan and a purpose! Bumping a buck during this time, or rushing in to hunt on a day when conditions are not perfect, will be catastrophic and lead to the buck altering his patterns immediately.