Success on most any level requires you to stay one step ahead of the action. I like sports analogies, because I like sports. So, let’s put your 2020 whitetail-season preparation into football terms.
Suppose you’re a high school football coach. You spend the entire week leading up to each game watching film, trying to figure out how to stay one step ahead of the guys with the clipboards on the other sideline. Then, in practice, you have a full slate of athletes schooled in mimicking the other team’s tendencies so your boys can see it and prepare for it, both physically and mentally.
The better you can anticipate what the other team is likely to do in any situation, the better you can stay one step ahead of them. If you don’t prepare in this way, waiting instead until the game to see what the other guy has in mind, you will spend the whole game playing catch-up. Unless you are playing a junior high team, you are probably going to lose. Staying one step ahead is that important.
It is no different in whitetail hunting. The better you are at anticipating what the deer will do next, and when they will do it, the better you can plan for the entire season and always stay one step ahead.
In this article, I am going to be your deer-hunting coach, taking you through the scouting report so you are both mentally and physically prepared for the big game — the 2020 season. Here we go, step by step, through the season; what you can expect from your opponent and how you can stay ahead of his every move.
In football terms, September and early October are the first quarter, a time to get a feel for the other team, to figure out if what you watched on tape is what they are really going to do. It is a time to sort things out and get comfortable before you decide exactly what game plan to put into action.
In other words, don’t give away all of your secrets in the first quarter. In deer-hunting terms, that means don’t let them know you are hunting them. Stay conservative and get a feel for things, but if you see a clear opportunity, make a fast strike and then settle back in to wait.
Behavior: Early-season buck behavior revolves around bedding areas, feeding areas and the trails in between. There is really no cruising by the deer — get up, eat, go back to bed. Those are the same locations you should focus on during this part of the game.
Forming the Strategy
The easiest of those places to scout, and the easiest to hunt, is the feeding area. You can stay back and watch these areas until a buck you are interested in hunting shows a daylight pattern. If he never does, you stay conservative. Don’t tip your hand, because there are four quarters in this game. You don’t want your opponent to know what you have planned until his guard is down.
Focus on patterning all of the deer that are using the field. Don’t just key in on the bucks. You have to avoid being busted by any deer, a tough task that requires planning. You need to start thinking right now about which spots in the feeding areas you can possibly hunt without detection. Plan ahead so that you can act quickly and decisively when the buck you would like to shoot does show daylight activity.
Just as importantly, you need to be able to realize when the opponent is showing you a sucker play and not take the bait, waiting until the setup is better. In other words, you don’t want to just go hunt him if that means spooking a field full of deer. That is like sending the ball boy over from your sideline to tell the opposing coach which plays you are going to run for the next five series.
Hunt the field edges only in the evenings. Even if there are still deer in the field in the mornings, getting to the stand will be tough because many of the deer (especially the older bucks) will be heading back toward their bedding areas before first light. It’s not worth the risk.
If you want to be more aggressive, you can put trail cameras along the trails leading into the fields and maybe find a buck on a daylight pattern deeper in the timber and hunt him there. The risk, of course, is that you leave scent, or the deer see you coming and going, and stop moving naturally there.
If you can pull it off, though, this can be effective. It is kind of all or nothing. Again, some coaches like to come out with their best plays during the first series, hoping to cash in early. However, if it doesn’t work, they have tipped their hand. That could make for a long game.
The final three weeks of October is the second quarter of this game. It is when you start to make a few well-timed strikes. You have gotten a feel for the flow of the game. You know where the bucks are living, and you have a sense of when they move during daylight (if at all). Now, it makes sense to take advantage of the other team when it shows a vulnerability; hit the soft spots in the zone and throw a couple deep.
Bucks are individuals; not all of them act the same. I have run trail cameras on all parts of my farm now for many seasons, and it is interesting to find that a small percentage of mature bucks do move in daylight in October.
My point is, you are still figuring out the opponent, learning his tendencies. You need to monitor your bucks as much as possible, looking for those that show a crack in their nocturnal armor. Those are the killable ones, the ones worth hunting now. In the football analogy, that is the soft spot in the zone.
Forming a Strategy
As I mentioned, the goal is to find the bucks that are still moving in daylight and target them immediately. The only way I have found to do this effectively is with trail cameras. I move mine around a lot in October until I find a nice buck moving in daylight. As soon as I find that, I wait until the wind is right and hunt him.
Every season, it seems that I have at least one buck like this in my hunting area. The pattern may not last for more than a week, but these bucks do exist, and I have killed a few of them.
When to Take Risk
You may not find a buck you want to shoot that is moving in daylight, but all is not lost. Focus on hunting cold fronts. If a buck is going to break his nocturnal pattern for a day or two in October, it will be when one blows through and the day after.
These cold fronts are real game changers. The best ones are those that come through during the last week of the month. They are like switches that turn on the buck movement, but I have also seen years when the bucks moved very well even in early October as the fronts were passing.
The stand you hunt doesn’t have to be anything sophisticated. The buck will likely start doing in daylight what he was doing only in the dark. If you have a rough idea of where the buck is bedding and where he is feeding, you can just hunt anywhere in between for a morning hunt. In the evenings, favor the endpoint closer to where he is feeding.
You had the halftime break to huddle with your assistant coaches and your players and come up with the best adjustments for the second half. Now is the time to come out strong. Don’t hold back. Use all of your best plays, because you now have nothing to lose. Channel everything you learned in the first half into every play you call in the third quarter, and you will move the ball.
During the first week of November, bucks begin ramping up their activity levels daily. You’ll see more aggressive use of scrapes at this time than during any other part of the season. Travel routes between larger blocks of timber will show signs of use. The bucks are making the transition from hermit to Casanova, and they do it by increasing the amount of time they spend looking for does. They aren’t tied to the does just yet, though.
Some of the places you’ll see this increase in buck activity is around where the does feed and, increasingly, where the does bed.
As November continues into its second week, you will start to see a slow drop in the number of bucks that are cruising. They will be increasingly tied down with does. Now, more than ever, you have to find the does to find the bucks. Forget about buck patterns; focus on hunting near does and you will do just fine.
The third week of November can be tough. The maximum number of does are now in estrous, and most of the mature bucks are with does. You can still get lucky and catch a buck between does or have a hot doe come past your stand with a few bucks in tow, but short of that, you will have many slow sits.
Finally, as the number of does in estrus starts to drop sharply during the last week of November, you will again see a few mature bucks out moving. They will tend to be around food in the evenings more than you have seen for nearly a month. You will also still find them in doe bedding areas in the mornings, but this pattern is not nearly as pronounced as their push back to food that you will see in the evenings.
It is pretty simple: start November hunting scrapes, scrape lines and funnels during the mornings and spend time near feeding areas in the evenings. Once you get a few days into the month, forget about sign and focus all of your morning hunting near doe bedding areas. Afternoon hunts near food should still be fine, but about the end of the first week, the does will stop coming to food nearly as much. You then have no choice but to spend all of your time in the cover near doe bedding areas or over funnels between two of them.
That is where you should stay until around Nov. 20, when it again makes sense to head back to food for evening hunts. Mornings at this time can be hit or miss, but doe bedding areas are as likely a spot as any. Funnels near doe bedding areas can once again be good for morning hunts at this time, as a few mature bucks will still be out cruising.
If the game is still close — if you still have at least a few bucks you believe are active in your hunting area — you can still pull out a win in the fourth quarter. However, the odds are pretty slim, even in the best of conditions. Your opponent is too good at playing defense to make it easy for you to make up a big margin. Your best hope is for a few well-timed deep passes and then maybe a Hail Mary.
By December, the deer are really starting to get after the food. The fourth quarter is really all about the food. Find the food and you find the deer.
You have two choices. You can start hunting these food sources right away and hope the buck you are after comes out, or you can wait until you either see him from a distance or get some daylight photos of him on your trail cameras.
However, you can’t be shy once you see daylight activity from a shooter. This is your last chance to get a late-game score. You can’t be timid now. You have to go for it the very next evening if the wind will permit. They don’t stay on patterns for long at any time of the year and are particularly skittish after the firearms season. If you hope to win the game in the fourth quarter, you have to be really lucky and aggressive when the opportunity finally comes.
Don’t wait until your opponent changes his game plan and then try to catch back up. Anticipate those changes and be ready. Pushing this sports analogy all the way to the end, that is how you stay one step ahead in the game of football and in the game of whitetail hunting.
It is not hard to do — if you spend several hours right now thinking about the strategy you will take into each quarter of the game and then stay ready to switch. That is how you win the game.