Opening-Week Bucks

To tag out early in gun season, try this strategy

A few years ago on the opening day of rifle season, I sat on a ridge blazed with rubs and scrapes. The sun came up and I caught the glint of an antler.

It was a good buck with G-2s that looked long and as flat as butter knives. I raised my .270 just as the deer ducked into a hollow.

I didn’t get a shot, but somebody on the next ridge did. Boom, boom, boomäI heard hunters on neighboring properties filling their tags. The amount of action wasn’t too surprising, since I knew that 30 to 50 percent of the deer taken each year are killed on opening day. Did some imposter on my lease or across the fence shoot the buck I had just seen? You wonder when you hear shots that close, but I decided to stick it out and be patient.

I was back on stand the next two days. The shots around were more sporadic. I saw a few deer, but no big bucks.

On the fourth morning I spotted a pair of does, and I heard only one gunshot in the distance. The action was winding down. Or was it? At around 8 a.m. I spied a buck sneaking through a thicket, hot after a doe. I’d know those butter-knife tines anywhere! I dropped the eight-pointer with a 130-grain bullet to the lungs. He fell 70 yards from my stand — and a mile (see “Phase Two Tactics,” below) from the ridge where I first saw him three days earlier.

The First Few Days
You too can score like this during opening week by implementing a two-phase game plan. Phase 1 is pretty simple. Scout a farm or woodland a week to 10 days before gun season, perhaps while you’re still archery hunting. Hang two or three tree stands near crop fields, oak ridges and funnels littered with trails, big tracks, fresh rubs and scrapes. “Two or three” are the key words here. You need options to deal with the human heat that is sure to come if you hunt public land or even hunt on a private lease.

Let’s say you climb into one of your stands on opening morning. You hear an ATV whining closer and closer. Some guy motors right past your perch! Heck, he might stop and hunt 200 yards away. Well, hurry on over to stand No. 2 or 3 and hunt there the rest of the day. You’ll enjoy the elbow room and feel safer to boot. And you’ve probably got a better chance of scoring since that dude made a lot of noise and scented up the first area.

Hunt those stands in traditional spots for the first two or three days of the season. Whitetails feed several times a day in convenient fields, mast flats and the like. Bucks run rub lines and scrape lines in the same places each year. The big bucks burn with an overriding desire to breed, and they look for hot does in familiar funnels and pockets of cover. So despite the pressure, you might whack a good deer that’s sticking to his normal pattern.

After a few days of intense pressure, however, most old bucks turn nocturnal. Your best chance to see one is in early morning or late afternoon when they are coming or going to feed. Hunt a stand back in the woods, in an area where the deer trails funnel together, and be ready at daybreak. Then hang tough on a trail near a feeding area until shooting light fades each evening.

Map Your Competition
As you hunt the first two or three days, carry a topographical map and an aerial photograph in your daypack. After each morning and afternoon post, pull them out and mark the “pressure zones” (places where other hunters park their trucks, drive ATVs, hike into the woods, hang tree stands or build ground blinds) with a red pen. And remember those gunshots you’ve been hearing? Mark their approximate locations with a big red X.

Phase Two Tactics
If you go deep into opening week without scoring, forget opening-day stands. The deer have shifted gears, and so should you. Sit back and study your scrawled charts. Most of the time it’s a snap to read the red lines and predict where pressured bucks have gone.

Scour an aerial photo for these “buck holes.” And again, consider the effects of the red scrawls you made earlier in the week. Let’s say you find a two-acre thicket on a ridge a mile from a bottom where you heard the whine of ATVs and five shots earlier in the week. There’s a good chance that the heat pushed some deer (and maybe a good buck) back into that cover. You’ll know if he’s there. Look for fresh tracks and droppings, and rubs and scrapes if he’s still rutting.

Try to set your end-of-the-week tree stands or ground blinds on a ridge or hillside where the wind is favorable and predictable, and where you can cover two or three satellite thickets and the escape trails leading into and out of them. Climb into your perch early and hunt hard all day long. Guys who haven’t scored yet will continue to knock around the woods, both on the land you’re hunting and across the fences, and they might drive even more deer back into the covers you’re watching. You’ll round out the week by tagging a good buck.