Early Season Opportunities

 

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Jason Houser

Ask any deer hunter when the best time to kill a mature buck is and you are likely to get an answer like “The rut” or “Late pre-rut”. Rarely will a deer hunter say, “The first week of season”.

Many hunters might not even hunt the first week or two of the season. It might be too hot, too many insects, or maybe there is too much ground cover to get a good shot off. All of these excuses are keeping those hunters from cashing in on some great deer hunting at bucks that very well could still be in their summer patterns.

The key to being successful in an early season hunt is patterning deer at their food source. When you find one buck, you are liable to find an entire bachelor group with as many as 8 bucks in it. Just after bucks shed their velvet they still remain friends with other bucks. As their testosterone begins to increase in the next few weeks, their bachelor groups will begin to dissolve and then a whole new ballgame.

In order to succeed early in the season, you must start off by scouting. Bow season for me starts October 1st, and I begin to pattern deer in July. With 3 months of keeping tabs on buck’s routines often allows me a good opportunity to tag a mature buck within the first week of the season.

I begin my summer scouting by finding where the deer are feeding. One of the best ways to finding a food source is by getting in your truck or on an ATV and drive. Look for feeding deer early in the morning or late in the afternoon in food plots, crop fields, and alfalfa fields along with clover fields.

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One of the best things about hunting early in the season is that the deer are not yet skittish from hunters invading their space. They have not been hunted in the past 9 months. This gives them the courage to come to a field to feed while plenty of hunting light still remains. They will not race back to their beds in the morning at the first glimmer of the sun on the eastern horizon. Be cautious though and do not ruin all of this on your scouting sessions.

Good binoculars and/or a powerful spotting scope are a must in this long-range scouting. A window mount is good for the hunter who wants to use a spotting scope to check fields from a vehicle. I cannot over emphasize how important it is to keep your distance so deer do not see or wind you.

By the time you are done scouting, you need to know what fields the deer are feeding in. However, just as important as where deer are feeding are the trails they use to enter and exit the food source.
Common sense is going to tell you that the primary feeding times will be early in the morning, as well as late in the afternoon. However, that is not always the case. Whitetails feed at all times day late in the summer. For this reason, do not focus all of your scouting early and late in the day. If a mature buck is visiting a food plot at eleven in the morning you want to know it. But let’s face it, many hunters do not have the time to spend hours a day glassing food plots. Trail cameras have nothing but time. Set a trail camera on a primary trail to do the scouting for you.

Morning Tactics

I do not like to hunt directly on the food source on a morning hunt. Deer are probably feeding nearby and what makes an early morning hunt so great is that the deer have not been pressured by hunters. Climbing in your stand that sits on the edge of the food source is likely to alert deer that you are close. This is where knowing what trails deer are using comes into play.

Hang a stand on a trail between the food source and a known bedding area like a swamp or thick ravine. I do not like to hunt much more than 50 yards from the food source. Any further and you run the risk of getting too close to the bedding area. This technique will allow the hunter to sneak in undetected. Another reason that I like to hunt this far on the inside edge is to intercept bucks who want to go to bed a little early.

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Travel routes to and from your stand are just as important as where you position your stand. Always keep the wind in play. If walking to your stand is going to spread your scent across the field, do not hunt that stand. Always keep downwind of where the deer are feeding. Never cut across a food source to get to your morning stand. If you have to leave home thirty minutes earlier in order to get to your stand undetected, do it.

Evening Tactics

On an afternoon hunt I feel comfortable hunting on the edge of an agricultural food source, like a soybean or uncut cornfield. I like to position my stand about 15 yards downwind from the entry trail. Because whitetails are still not feeling pressure they feel safe enough to enter to enter a food source with plenty of shooting light left. You might even get a crack at a deer walking the edge of the field.

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Alternate Tactics

Rather than hanging a tree stand downwind of an entrance trail to a standing timber of corn, hunt from inside the corn at ground level. By wearing camouflage that matches your surroundings it is possible to fool a deer by doing the unexpected. Sit a stool downwind of the trail and 2 to 3 rows deep in the corn.

Keep in mind that deer are not always traveling from the woods to the cornfields. The standing corn offers shade that the deer like to bed in. Once acorns start to fall it is not unusual to see deer moving from the standing corn to the oak trees. They also bed in the corn and then travel to lush fields of alfalfa, clover or standing soybeans to eat.

If the ground you are hunting has a water supply do not ignore it. While the weather is warm whitetails will get thirsty throughout the day. They will not only visit it at midday to quench their thirst, but also in the mornings as they return to their beds and again in the afternoon before they start to feed again. Place your stand downwind of the trail leading to the water supply. It does not take a lot of water to pull a deer in. I have seen deer drinking from a spring seep because that was the nearest water to their bedroom.

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If there is a small stream running through your property, find where the deer are crossing it. Whitetails are an animal that likes to do things the easy way. Rather than cross where it is steep they will walk out of their way to find an easy crossing. Often, before they cross the creek they will usually pause for a few seconds giving you time to get a shot off.

You might begin to notice that the deer are not going to the fields as early as they once were. You can probably blame acorns on that. The deer are still visiting the fields, but only after an appetizer of acorns. Deer prefer the sweet tasting white oak over the bitter red oaks. But, if the reds are dropping fruit and the whites are not, the deer will go to the red oaks. When both the white and red oaks are dropping fruit, the deer will devour the nuts from the white oaks before moving to the red oaks.

The best advice I can give you is to set up close to a hot oak so you are within shooting range. Deer will mill around as they feed on the nuts. Always make sure the wind your scent away from the oaks. And as soon as oaks start dropping in good numbers, be ready. It might only last a couple of days, or it could last for weeks. However, your best chances will be the first or second day. A strong wind could cause all the acorns to fall in one night which could cause a feeding frenzy.

Apple and persimmon trees produce fruit that is well-liked by deer. If you have either tree on your property, hang a stand downwind. Once the trees start dropping their fruit, deer will walk long distances for the sweet tree.

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Knowing where deer are feeding, what the deer’s primary trails are and knowing alternate stand sites will help you tag a bruiser early in the season. Remember the reason deer hunting is so great at this time of the year is that the deer have not been pressured yet. Do not ruin that in your scouting, your entry and exit routes, or by hunting when the wind is not perfect.

SIDEBAR
It is not hard to tell the difference between a red and white oak tree. The bark on a red oak is rougher and darker than the smoother and light-gray bark of a white oak. However, the leaves are probably the easiest way to distinguish the two. Oaks have lobes on their leaves. The lobes of a red oak are bristly and pointed. The white oak is smooth and rounded.

It is important to know the difference between the two. If both red and white oaks are dropping nuts, deer will always visit a white oak first. Once they have devoured the acorns under the white oak then they will move to the reds.

Jason Houser
Jewett, Illinois