Early Season Whitetail Strategies
by Patrick Meitin
In much of “whitetaildom,” October represents the launch of bowhunting festivities, “early season” from the perspective of the average eastern deer hunter. Early, within a western reference, means something else altogether, normally indicating the still-blazing months of a fledgling fall, beginning with the final days of August into the start of September. No matter geographic location, early seasons give bowhunters an edge, pursuing bucks that have enjoyed a long summer’s reprieve and prove as calm as they will ever be.
This relative calm, delicate velvet antlers and thin summer coat produce whitetails regularly feeding in broad daylight, bucks sometimes wandering open ground in bachelor groups making them even more apparent.
Even when November rut dates are available in your favorite western state, early-season opportunities can prove just as productive—but only if you’ve done your homework. Too, in states where season openers occur before the second week in September, tagging a velvet-antlered buck is also possible—a fifty-fifty proposition in most cases. Scouting and preparing stand sites for early season success can turn into sweaty work, and warm weather produces short hunts at the very edges of day. Yet rewards often outweigh the inconvenience of wet, sticky stand-hanging sessions, buzzing mosquitoes (Thermacell and fine-mesh camouflage bug suits are better solutions than stinky insect repellents) and the added caution applied to assure you don’t ruin an area for future hunts by alerting bucks to the fact they’re being pursued.
Scoping Farmland Bucks
The number-one goal in early-season whitetail hunting is keeping bucks in the dark regarding your intentions When it comes to preseason scouting, spying on bucks from a safe distance assures this is the case. Drive farm and back-roads and pause at rises overlooking agricultural fields you have access to (or hold a realistic chance of gaining permission with a knock on the door—another advantage to western whitetail hunting…) and go to work with binoculars. Late summer is especially productive in this regard, whitetails stuck on food and maintaining relatively regular schedules making it not only easier to locate them initially, but to establish travel routes and hunt time-clocks.
You likely have a good idea what and where whitetail in your area prefer to eat, be that Montana alfalfa, Colorado milo, Idaho garbanzo beans or oats, Texas or Oklahoma green fields or Kansas standing corn. Agricultural crops are always a big draw, but in other areas logging clear-cuts or the edges of grazing pastures may be the ticket for bringing deer into the open. From late August through September, in western whitetail country, where you find food and escape cover in close proximity you’ll find bucks.
Scouting sessions, like the hunting to come, are abbreviated forays. It’s important during mornings to be out and about when you can just see to glass, during evenings staying on task until the gloomiest last light of day dissolves well after sunset. The normal approach is to set up where you can carefully monitor the edges of distant fields, clear-cuts or pastures you have access too, attempting to catch bucks at the very moment they emerge or retreat into cover, hoping to gain a better handle on viable stand locations. The generous days of summer allow plenty of circuit scouting without showing up late for work mornings or cutting out early evenings. Use weekends for scouting isolated fields or clear-cuts hidden from roads and requiring more hiking or ATV access to spy on (secreted sites often produce better bucks).
The tools of the trade for summer scouting are top-quality 10×42 or higher magnification binoculars (high-objective lenses and excellent coatings provide vivid details during those murky periods of earliest-morning and late-evening), used to quickly scan for obvious standouts, as well as more carefully probing for hints of movement inside the dark edges of brush and tree lines. Once you locate potential game or find the need for more detail at great distances, a quality 60mm to 80mm objective, variable-power spotting scope sits at ready, steadied atop an adjustable window mount—or solid tripod while operating on foot or ATV while scrambling onto haystacks, silos or farm equipment to gain a vantage. Efficient scouting is always about locating the most commanding vantage points, allowing you to look over more country during the short window of opportunity at the very edges of day when the biggest bucks seem to move best.
This is only a start. After you’ve discovered where a worthwhile buck is appearing regularly, especially after distinguishing recognizable patterns, carefully slip in and deploy trail cameras in strategic locations in an attempt to learn more and gain better insight into potential stand sites. With a camera on the job you’re then able to concentrate on other areas that might hold potential. Savvy hunters always have multiple contingency plans filed.
This is when the potential for problems begin to arise. Wading in to hang a camera, especially investing in closer investigation in way of better learning the lay of the land, must be done with utmost care. Avoid giving a buck the smallest clue you are on to him. This is a matter of timing—approaching the area only when deer are assured to be elsewhere—and keeping scent to a minimum.
Off The Beaten Track
Whitetail (including Coues whitetail) residing in western mountains present different problems, mostly added challenges. Big woods bucks far from the obvious magnet of agricultural crops tend to think in terms of staying cool, seeking breezy benches, bowls and airy ridgelines to escape midday heat. Such areas are more difficult—physically as well as from a standpoint of required woods skills—to scout effectively than checkerboard farmland. In short, they’re a hell of a lot of work, offering no obvious points of concentration like agricultural fields and food crops. What you’re hoping for here is to stumble into a summer core area of a group of bachelor bucks. Topography normally dictates where to concentrate efforts, seeking pinch points like saddles, points and narrow spots in ridges. A detailed topographical map can get you started.
Feeding areas in the form of lush meadows or smaller clear-cuts can also prove useful for big-woods ambush. Soft-mast trees such as feral apples, pears or other fruit have also helped me nail down buck movement in wooded habitat, old homesteads or springs sometimes relinquishing such windfall. Finally, if you live in the West and are a bowhunter you don’t need to be told how effective guarding water during warm early seasons can be; a ploy sometimes overlooked while pursuing whitetail. Windmills and stock ponds are obvious focal points, though you shouldn’t discount small spring seeps and access points on steep-banked creeks or rivers. Water-hole hunting is a sound approach anywhere whitetail are bowhunted, but is especially useful in backcountry areas, sans obvious points of concentration.
Such settings are essentially futile without the help of trail cameras, as even the most precise sign reading still leaves you guessing much of the time. Casting a wide net and making the most of limited time means relying on cameras that are dependable and highly efficient. For me, this means AA-powered units with 8GB or better SD-card storage capacity to minimize trips into remote sites while knowing I’m still gaining useful information. My favorites have become Bushnell’s Trophy Cam, Stealth-Cam’s Archer’s Choice and Moultrie’s’ M100—all affordable units running for nearly a year on one set of batteries, and not weighing me down while covering ground.
The trouble with early seasons is putting deer on the offensive right out of the chute via careless stand access or placement. Do this and all your scouting comes to nothing, while also making success more difficult even during later seasons. One of the most common mistakes in this regard is hanging stands directly over food and then spooking deer from those sites while walking into a dark morning stand. This is why many experienced whitetail hunters completely avoid morning hunts.
One solution is to set up on travel corridors 200 to 300 yards from food sources. This way accessing morning stands can be accomplished without alarming deer still on feed a safe distance away. During evening hunts the same approach—walking in from the field side—gives you a jump on bucks who sometimes stage up well into the woods while awaiting the safety of darkness, providing a better chance of a shooting-hours encounter. Where you hang stands, and how you approach them—need I say—is always dictated by wind.
The whitetail rut is an exciting time to be in the woods—if you don’t mind sitting in cold and snow. More pointedly, many states either offer no rut hunts or November is the territory of the noisy rifle hunter, leaving the bowhunter out of the loop. Early seasons certainly come with discomforts unique to the season, but in many cases offer your best chance at a trophy buck, striking while it’s hot and bucks are off their guard.