by Patrick Meitin
Concentrate on these hotspots for the best early-season action.
Early archery seasons are a great time to tag a trophy whitetail in most western habitats, as well as a rare opportunity to collect a velvet-antlered buck. Some bowhunters stalk their whitetail during these waning days of summer, setting up ambushes as deer travel to and fro, watching perspective bucks bed to stalk thick cover or still-hunting breezy ridgelines as warm temperatures encourage deer to hold as tight as scattered quail. But it’s also safe to say sitting tree-stands remains a mainstay in this business, most especially for bowhunters seeking up-close-and-personal encounters with trophy bucks. This applies whether addressing woodland or farm-land “Virginia” whitetail species or the desert Coues subspecies. During classic rut dates most think of when dealing with whitetails with archery gear this can mean anything from staking out obvious funnels, hanging out near concentrations of does or guarding scrapes or rub-lines. During early season finding success more often boils down to concentrating on specific focal points providing food, water or nutrients.
Whitetail bucks have but one mission during the months leading into fall; arriving for the rut as fit as possible. Fit bucks attract more attention from does, win battles against rival bucks and come out the other end with enough reserves to face harsh winters. Staying fat and sassy means concentrating almost wholly on groceries, staying well hydrated, and taking in important vitamins and minerals. In many areas food and water come naturally or at least in man-made forms not specifically intended to benefit deer. Nutrients/minerals are normally an introduced focal point, but no less important to your early-season strategy (at least where legal; more in a bit). All can become highly important to your early-season approach.
Keeping a whitetail’s belly full means different things in different habitats. This can be a hit-and-miss proposition from the standpoint of bowhunters looking for specific focal points to hang a stand near (say, a mountainside of Coues whitetail’s favorite mountain mahogany), or quite obvious (like an Inland Northwest oat field). Still, bowhunters should always be on the lookout for concentrated foodstuffs in high demand due to sweet-tooth craving or high carbohydrate content. The former might include prickly-pear fruit in desert settings or an isolated apple tree in the Northwest. The latter could include a tight clump of acorn-bearing live oaks in Texas or blue oaks in New Mexico/Arizona, soybean field corner in Kansas or garbanzo-bean field in Idaho or Washington.
On a more proactive level, food plots started in spring or early summer really pay off during late-summer early seasons. This can range from involved, ATV- or tractor-disked and planted plots to smaller no-till “Throw-And-Grow” or “Shot-Plots” (two trade names, by the way). Here in North Idaho I do a little of both, using a large, three-point-hitch tiller to create bigger plots on old logging skids on our property before applying fertilizer and lime to grow crops such as rape, forage oats, turnips and clover; or trekking into small benches or saddles in adjoining big woods to rake out ½-acre plots before sprinkling no-till seed products and allowing Mother Nature to take it from there. Both attract plenty of deer, though admittedly the cultivated plots consistently produce better crops and garner more attention.
One option often ignored by land managers is planting mast trees for long term deer attraction. Some species take longer to mature than others (some hybrid fruit, chestnut and oak trees begin producing in as little as four years), and certain species do better in certain climates than others (chestnuts doing better in warmer environments, for instance, apples well adapted to colder conditions). One of the best sources for healthy, vigorous, fast-maturing hybrid fruit and mast trees is Mossy Oak’s Nativ Nurseries (662-494-4326; www.nativnurseries.com).
Whitetail must eat well to remain in top health, but they must drink at least once a day to simply survive. No combination of factors is more important to survival than basic hydration. During hot early seasons, in the right environments, this makes water a highly-important focal point for bowhunting success. I only add “in the right environment” because there are certainly areas where there are too many options for watering whitetail. This isn’t to say water is any less important to deer, it’s just tougher to pin down a single place where more deer than not take their daily drink. Using my own backyard as an example again, North Idaho is pretty well watered. From springs to stock ponds to creeks and rivers, a deer doesn’t have to travel far in any direction to locate water. Still, I find on certain farms or patches of timberland, a single spring or pond seems to attract most of the attention from area deer. This is a matter of security (not ringed too tightly with brush to invite ambush from predators), ready access (gentle access slopes), palatability (say, lack of cow flop pollution) and close proximity to nearby food.
Isolated springs and stock ponds have remained my most productive bowhunting sites from New Mexico’s Coues whitetail deserts to North Idaho’s big woods and broken farmland. Springs or wet spots found on benches or canyon heads are easily improved with minimal digging, allowing you to create concentration points good for your needs. Stock ponds are also great when in topography allowing you to remain on the right side of the wind. Some of my best where located by studying U.S. Geological Survey topographical maps, or earmarked during scouting trips.
The bowhunter with a lot of gumption can even create their own private watering sites. Such projects are most productive in places deer frequent naturally, like saddles and ridgelines (where a certain amount of packing is required) or field edges (where it’s easier to ride an ATV). You can also improve slow seeps normally affording little drinkable water by adding a catchment tank to collect water and make the site attractive. This can consist of packing in a cattle feed trough or large bucket, or schlepping cement and water in several trips. Collecting seep water is obviously best, but for the truly ambitious, weekly supplies of water delivered on your back (public lands) or ATV (private) are not out of the question. I once created a deer-hunting hotspot in New Mexico on a saddle-flat created by the shoulder of a long mountain ridge by burying a 20-gallon, wide-mouth mineral trough flush to the ground and spending half a day every other week grunting water up in five-gallon jugs.
Giv’em Their Flintstones
Many bowhunters forget how important the intake of vitamins and minerals are to deer health and especially antler development. Some regions simply do not provide bucks the ideal balance of minerals important to antler growth, while drought periods can mean vegetation doesn’t pull certain minerals from the soil to make it available for consumption, causing stunted antlers. You can help deer remain healthier (including fawning does), grow bigger antlers (up to 15 to 20 percent increases), and generate productive bowhunting focal points by creating mineral licks providing mineral supplements deer crave.
Of course, this is providing doing so is legal. Different states pose different rules. States like Arizona allow hunting over minerals, but not bait. Washington, Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma and Wyoming allow hunting directly over both minerals and bait. Places like Idaho word their regulations so that feeding minerals is legal, but not hunting directly over these substances. New Mexico states you cannot hunt over any bait/minerals “placed for the intent/purpose of attracting game,” making minerals placed by ranchers for cattle open to hunting. Finally, Colorado and others don’t allow hunting near bait or minerals in any form or fashion, even if you don’t know they exist (go figure). These are but some quick examples, so check regulations carefully in your state before beginning.
Some of my most heavily utilized mineral sites are placed near water, providing a one-stop shop for thirsty deer interested in taking their vitamins. Other productive places include ridge points and saddles that concentrate movement and assure deer will find and benefit from mineral products. Though far from scientific, I have observed some positive results after I began to offer deer minerals. In the years before I offered minerals my hunting area had a lot of 4×5 bucks. About four years ago I began offering Nutra Deer’s Antler Builder (there are others) and after the first year begin to see fewer 4×5 bucks and more 5x5s. Nothing else changed in way of weather, moisture or available food. It was a pretty dramatic revelation, those minerals giving them that little extra to sprout another point and boost final net scores. In a pinch, don’t overlook mineral blocks placed by cattlemen for the benefit of livestock, as deer often visit these sites religiously.
Productive bowhunting is all about creating intimate encounters. During early seasons this means concentrating on natural focal points. With the dog days of summer just coming to an end, this means staking out obvious food, water, and minerals. WW