For most bowhunters, the first weeks-or even months-of deer season are endured under sweltering summerlike conditions that keep deer activity to a minimum. It’s a far cry from the rut-crazy crisp mornings found later in the hunting season. But if you know where to set up your stand and, perhaps more important, when to sit in it, you can take advantage of relatively unpressured deer for a chance at a real trophy. By focusing your efforts on the three main factors that affect warm-weather whitetail movement-food, water and shelter from heat-you’ll put yourself in the best position for a shot.
Many years ago I asked an expert biologist about water’s importance to hunting whitetails. He dismissed its role, saying that a deer can get everything it needs from green browse. “Hunting water sources is a waste of time,” he said.
Now, nearly 30 years later, countless first-hand observations force me to disagree. My experiences on early-season hunts around the country have confirmed that water sources are good focal points for intercepting bucks during the day when the weather is warm.
A 100-pound whitetail’s minimum daily water requirement is about a half quart if vegetation is lush. But if it’s late summer and dry, a mature buck will drink nearly a gallon of water to stay alive. Even though whitetails feed a lot at night, they have a tendency to drink water during daylight hours. Research reveals that peak times are 7 a.m., 11 a.m., 4 p.m. and 6 p.m.
A thristy whitetail will drink out of a mud puddle, but more consistent sources such as creeks, rivers, lakes and ponds are easier to locate and scout as possible stand sites. When it’s hot, focus your scouting along small brush-choked streams with close access to thick bedding cover. What could be better for a secretive whitetail than access to lush vegetation, water, cover, cooler temperatures and predictable wind currents?
Mastering wind currents and human scent is tricky at best when you’re hunting whitetail strongholds. If you’re patient and wait until the conditions are right, with the wind blowing in one stable direction, you’ll increase your chances of success dramatically.
“Think of a creek valley as a chimney,” says Terry Drury, co-owner of Drury Outdoors with his brother, Mark. “Warm air rises and cold air falls, and when air moves due to temperature variance it creates subtle wind currents.”
[pagebreak] To hit these areas when wind direction is consistent, Drury has a preferred time to hunt. “I like hunting creek drainages in the evening because thermals and wind currents are going down as a result of falling temperatures.” Stand site selection is critical, though, since many locations along a creek bottom can create a “mixing bowl” of air currents. These spots might look good from a terrain point of view, but the shape of the surrounding land sets up a vortex that will swirl human scent and spook wary whitetails before they even get close.
Drury recalls an ideal early-season creek-bottom setup where stronger winds were blowing at a steady right angle to the direction of the stream. “The creek bottom is a half mile long and serves as a bedding area for most of its length,” Drury says. “To keep from blowing deer out of the bottom, Mark and I slid in by approaching from over the top of the ridge and directly to our stands. As long as we kept the wind in our faces on the way in we knew we wouldn’t spook any deer.”
Things worked as planned and Mark arrowed a 162-inch buck on video from the stand in 2004, on the heels of a record-class buck taken from the same spot in 2003.
Rivers and Lakes
Larger bodies of water can provide good early-season setups as well. River and lake locations offer the same lush, cool bedding cover and food sources, but with a couple of added benefits. Wind currents tend to form in more consisteent directional patterns near larger bodies of water, making them easier to hunt without spooking game. Another benefit is that stand sites can be approached by boat, which leaves no scent and reduces the noise you’ll make walking in the woods.
Other September hot spots that should not be overlooked are isolated old livestock watering ponds buried deep in the woods. In my office I have three whitetail racks that measure between 128 and 158 inches. The deer that wore them died within bow range of the same southern Illinois pond. Drury has enjoyed similar success.
“Several seasons back, temperatures were in the eighties throughout the early season,” Drury recalls, “We found a couple of ponds deep in the hardwoods that were surrounded with buck sign. Mark and I watched a lot of deer in the mornings and evenings in those spots. I wouldn’t see a lot of movement at daybreak, but almost every day between nine and ten a.m. bucks would come in for a drink and hang around where it was cool.”
“We shot a lot of good video footage and killed some nice bucks on those little ponds over the years,” Drury adds. “If it’s early season when there’s a lot of browse, you’ve got to focus on water.”
[pagebreak] **On the Edge **
Deer are creatures of transition, whether it’s different zones of vegetation or changing weather patterns. The edges of vegetation zones or intersecting water and cover are “where” to look for deer. A dramatic change in the weather is “when.” It can be as subtle as a drop in barometric pressure or as obvious as a cool summer rain. Bucks seem to move more during daylight hours the day before a front rolls in and will start moving on the front edge of a cooling shower that follows several days of hot, dry weather. The opposite is true as well: If it has rained steadily for a couple of days and then stops, the break in the weather will put deer on their feet.
Keying in on such changes helped Knight & Hale Game Calls’ Chris Parrish nail an early-season record-class buck. He called me right after he got back from taking the trophy. His description of the conditions and stand location stuck in my mind.
“It was seventy-three degrees, and I was fifty yards above a creek that bordered a bedding area along a standing bean field,” Parrish said. “It was very warm, but I knew a slight cold front was moving in the next morning. I was betting on that front to put the buck on his feet while I still had daylight.”
The westerly wind that was pushing the front carried Parrish’s scent toward the soybean field, where it wouldn’t alert the buck as it emerged from the cover near the creek.
“Anytime the barometric pressure drops and weather is going to change, deer move,” he added. “That’s the time to be in your stand.”
It was such conditions last year that almost helped me nail a massive 10-pointer in the patch of woods behind my home. The season had been open for five days before I even set foot in the woods due to the oppressive heat. But on that fifth day, a front moved in, dropping the temps roughly 10 degrees. I took the afternoon off from work and hit my stand. Deer moved past my perch in the last hours of daylight and the big boy appeared just before dark. Thick brush was all that kept me from connecting that day, but I knew where I would be when the next front came through.