Early-season bowhunting requires a unique blend of patience and alacrity. You wait, watch and study, scheming as the buck’s patterns take shape. Then, when the time is right, you make your move. Before the rut heats up, it’s possible to figure out a particular buck’s schedule. Each of the three veterans tapped here takes advantage of this predictability. As a result, they actually prefer the early part of the bow season to the rut.
Hunt a Watering Hole
After scouting his hunting area in North Dakota carefully, Minnesota bowhunter Lee Murphy found a small trickle of water coming from a natural spring near the edge of an alfalfa field. Looking carefully at the sign, he was sure that this was the focal point for all the deer activity in the immediate area.
Lee explains, “I always get to my hunting area a couple of days before the season so I can watch the fields for deer activity. I want to see where the bucks are coming out and when they’re moving. That’s how I found the spring. I noticed that deer were lingering near the edge of one of the fields, so the next morning I checked it out. Sure enough, there was a spring there. I didn’t hunt the spot until the first afternoon of the season. It really isn’t a good morning spot–you’re likely to move deer from the field when approaching in the predawn. The last thing you want to do is mess up a buck pattern.”
The heat was stifling the first evening Lee was hunting over the spring. Does and yearling bucks started coming out about an hour and a half before sunset. It was an hour later before five good bucks stepped into the corner of the field just 25 yards away to take a sip of water. Lee’s arrow caught the biggest one right through the lungs.
Successful water-hole hunting starts with an intimate knowledge of their locations relative to feeding and bedding areas. You can spot-check a few water holes before opening day, but don’t overdo it. Human activity at this time will make deer edgy. Fresh water found inside the cover (whether near feeding areas or deep in the woods) offers the best chance of being visited during legal shooting hours.
Lee also scouts water sources closer to bedding areas that can be hunted in the morning because deer don’t start arriving in these areas until well after sunrise. Lee is a master at managing his impact. That’s why he only hunts over water near feeding areas in the afternoon and near bedding areas in the morning.
Find the Freshest Produce
Kurt Deutscher lives and hunts in north-central Alberta, Canada. He has shot many trophy bucks during the province’s archery season, which begins in early September. Like Lee Murphy, Deutscher hunts near water sources when the season opens but shifts to feeding areas as the days turn cooler and Alberta’s typical mid-September rains bring relief from the heat.
“The obvious places are always a good start,” Deutscher says. “Alfalfa fields are popular feeding areas up here, but I’ve also found that any new growth–the areas of youngest seeding–will attract bucks. For example, last season I had seen this nice 12-pointer several times in September, but even though there were alfalfa fields in the area, the buck was feeding on young weeds in a field that had been plowed up about a month before.
“I shifted stand locations to that field. The plan worked. I ambushed the buck on the way to that field. When I blood-trailed the buck back into the cover I found places where he had obviously been browsing. There are always plenty of alternative food sources for wise, old bucks.”
Deutscher has noticed that deer become less predictable when the first hard frosts start bringing down the foliage. He feels that this is when the bucks start thinking seriously about the rut. Therefore, he hunts hard to get a buck before the first cold snap.
Deutscher is successful on early-season trophies because he spends plenty of time looking for deer during late summer. “There’s really no trick to it,” explains Deutscher. “You simply watch the best food sources until you find a good buck using one of them. Then you just keep your distance and watch so you can learn as much as possible before making your move.”
Anytime you can find agricultural crops such as alfalfa or soybeans, you can’t go wrong. Less visible food sources such as acorns, honey locust seedpods and persimmons are preferred if they are available. Any concentrations of favored browse species, such as honeysuckle and wintergreen, are also worth watching.
Change With the Times
I used to believe that in the middle of October bucks become less active in preparation for the rut. This is a popular view among my hunting friends as well. Because of this notion, I rarely hunted during the middle of October. However, noted whitetail biologist Dr. Karl Miller, a professor with the University of Georgia, changed my mind.
“Our data shows that there is no lull before the rut,” says Miller. “Dr. Mickey Hellickson has also done some work in this area and he came to the same conclusion. The bucks don’t stop moving, they simply change their food sources to ones that are inside the woods. A fall transition occurs about the same time the mast crop starts to fall. Consequently, bucks aren’t as visible in open fields.
“Deer will leave even the greenest fields when the acorns are falling. Their patterns become more compressed because they aren’t traveling as far to find food. This also makes them less visible to hunters who are focusing on the field edges.”
When the bucks stop coming to their summer-feeding areas, change your strategy. Hunt inside the cover in the afternoons. Try to locate an oak ridge where acorns are falling or an area where bucks are focusing on browse. If all you do is get back into the cover 50 to 100 yards, you stand a chance of seeing a good buck and noting his pattern. You can make your next move accordingly.
Avoid hunting near a bedding area. It is difficult to sneak to an afternoon stand there without alarming deer. Concentrate on travel corridors that have mast-producing trees. Scout for early rubs and scrapes and sit tight. The bucks are still there; they’re just less mobile.
Scout in pre-season. Watch for signs of changing feeding patterns, look for mast and favored browse species and learn a buck’s pattern. Then you’ll be able to move quickly to take advantage of his changing routine.
Give Bucks a Good Fight
One of the priorities in a buck’s life after shedding his velvet is to establish his place in the local hierarchy. You’ll see a lot of sparring and posturing at this time as bucks decide who’s the king and who’s second in command. You can take advantage of this behavior. Play to their dominance instincts by using buck decoys and rattling in the early season.
Pat Reeve hunts all over the continent from Canada’s early bow season to Texas’s late season. He produces hunting videos, so he has to get footage to make a living. As a result, Reeve is something of a pioneer in the use of decoys and rattling during the early season.
“We start using decoys from the very first day of the season,” he says. “The bucks are more social then and are sorting out their pecking order. They will come from a long way to check out a decoy at this time. I also use some light antler rattling to sound like two bucks sparring to add to the attraction.”
Reeve advises that you make sure to leave enough room between you and the decoy for a buck to pass between you. Bucks like to circle a decoy to get downwind of it. If you leave a buck enough room he will stay in the open and pass right in front of you; otherwise a buck might circle behind (downwind) of your stand.