Nock & Load: Early Season Whitetail Strategies
Here's how to use the weather to pattern big deer where you live using moon phase, dew point and more.
Part I: Patterning Strategies
****By Jim Nelson
Doesn’t it seem like, right at the beginning of every bow season, we hear about a hunter who had all of his cosmic hunting cards fall into alignment and wound up shooting a world-class buck? Shouldn’t we all have that kind of luck. By paying attention to certain weather trends and employing patterning strategies, you can become that karmic hunter this September.
For the sake of this section, we will assume that you’re hunting in an area that has good cover, adequate food and good whitetail genes. So, what types of trends should you pay attention to?
Through years of research, we’ve determined that the most important factors to a successful early-season hunt are temperature, dew point, barometric pressure, wind, sky cover, moon phase and something called diurnal climatology. (The use of mock scrapes, or more precisely “mock limbs,” is another arrow you should add to your quiver.) The more of these trends that coincide with each other at any given time, the greater the chance you will have to harvest that monster buck.
Key Deer Activity Factors
Temperature: When the temperature in your area is four to five degrees below the historical average, daylight activity will increase.
Dew Point: When the dew point is within four degrees on either side of the low temperature, daylight activity will increase.
Barometric Pressure: A barometer reading of 30.00 and above (preferably rising) will cause activity to increase. Seventy-seven of the trophy harvest data we broke down, had a barometric pressure reading of 30.00 and above, with the average being 30.15.
Wind: Light winds of up to 15 miles per hour are best. When winds of these speeds immediately followed a period of sustained winds of over 30 mph, our data showed a dramatic spike in harvests.
Sky Cover: The reduced light caused by an overcast sky, especially when accompanied by fog, light rain or snow flurries, will cause a dramatic increase in daylight activity.
Moon Phase: Our historical research of trophy whitetail harvests has shown an absolute correlation between success and certain moon phases and subsequent moon times. The percentages of illumination within each phase have a definite impact on harvest data. A five-percent change in moon phase can greatly effect deer movement. From our research we’ve found that the full moon and new moon are the optimal phases and give us the best times to hunt. When one of those phases coincides with an overcast/foggy day and a barometric reading of 30.00 and rising, daytime whitetail activity increases significantly.
Diurnal Climatology: Simply put, diurnal climatology refers to the historical daily averages of the climate in a specific area. We feel that the two most important of the many daily factors are wind direction and dew point. As we all know, a key factor in stand placement is the wind.
By studying the daily climatology in your area, you can learn what the average wind direction will be, for a given time of day in a specific month. Sounds rather of valuable, doesn’t it? Many people do not realize just how much the wind direction changes in a given day. It can be as little a 40- to 50-degree change or as much as 360 degrees in a single day. This data will also show you when the heating and cooling times of the day occur-thus when the thermals will change-again aiding in stand placement. These “thermal” periods are also good times to find a buck scent-checking scrape lines. The dew point’s correlation to temperature is also tracked daily. Find the times where these factors are closest to each other and you’ll find activity increases.
So, what might the “perfect scenario” be? A light wind, with a rising barometer, after a rain when the dew point and temperature are equal (or close to it), with an overcast sky during a full or new moon phase. September can be an excellent month, but continue using everything you’ve learned as building blocks in October and November.
Instead of making a mock scrape, by adding scents to the dirt, we’ve developed a formula to impregnate non-deer attractant scents into freshly cut limbs. These scents remain in the cambium layer of the branches for weeks. By properly hanging a cluster of limbs, we eventually have a scrape made for us by the deer.
The limb clusters create a socialization point for the deer. The scents attract them, causing them to lick, chew and rub the branches, in turn leaving their own scent. They will also urinate there, creating a usable scrape.
Each location might not become the primary scrape that we would love to hunt over, but by creating many limb locations between bedding to feeding areas, we can create funnels in the transition/staging areas. We monitor our limb clusters with trail cameras, to find out which ones are the most active and then hang our stands accordingly.
Once the scrapes are established and your stands are in place, observing the weather factors we’ve discussed, especially the moon phase and diurnal climatology, becomes crucial. We’ve stated that the full and new moon phases are the best to hunt, and part of the reason for that is during these phases, the earth actually pulls moisture from the ground, which in turn increases the amount of scent particles in the air. Any factor that increases a buck’s sense of smell creates a feeling of security and results in an increase in movement.
Part II: Food & Water
By Bob Humphrey
The three basic elements of habitat are water, food and cover. And in the case of whitetail deer, the latter two are often one and the same. Success comes from learning how whitetails utilize these resources.
High Carb Diet
In the early season, whitetails spend only a few hours of every day on their feet, mostly feeding. Find the food and you’ll find the deer. Find their favorite food and that job becomes even easier.
About the time most hunting seasons begin whitetails are going through a dietary transition, switching from high-protein plants to high-calorie carbohydrates to fatten up for winter. Where available, that means hard and soft mast (nuts and fruits) and grains.
According to research, where they occur acorns are the most preferred natural food of whitetail deer. Botanists lump all oak species into two general groups, white and red. White oak acorns tend to contain fewer tannins, making them sweeter. They also tend to drop earlier. Where both types occur, deer generally key in on white oak acorns first, then switch to reds later. In general, red oak leaf lobes are pointed and tipped with a hair-like bristle. Those of the white oak have rounded lobes and no bristle. There are exceptions.
Early bow season is also hurricane season if you live near a coastal area. Even a glancing blow from a tropical storm will send a bumper crop of acorns to the ground. Deer won’t be long to take advantage of it, and neither should you.
Down on the Farm
Hunting around crops can be tough in the early season. Try to locate major travel routes to and from food sources like standing corn, soybeans and milo, which represent an almost limitless source of carbohydrates. Deer may overlook hard, dry soybeans in the early season, until a prolonged rain softens them up. Where trees are scarce, you may have to improvise and set up a ground blind along a hedgerow.
Recent research suggests that soft mast, like apples, persimmons and berries, may be far more important as an early-season food source than anyone ever imagined. They might be underutilized by hunters, but certainly not by deer. Like acorns, wind-thrown apples can provide a short-term bonanza after a blustery day. And when persimmons ripen and fall to the ground, deer will walk through 100 acres of corn or soybeans to get them. If your land has fruit trees, hunt them. If not, plant them. Wildlife nurseries have developed several varieties of apples, persimmons and other soft mast trees that bear fruit at very young ages.
While not mast, mushrooms are also a deer favorite when available, which is usually a day or two after a heavy rain. This sudden bounty can turn an otherwise lightly used area into an overnight bonanza, if you know where to look. Keep notes on where you see lots of mushrooms, and plan on hunting there a day or two after the next heavy rain.
Plot Your Strategy
You can make any property more attractive by planting preferred food. Annuals are usually preferred for hunting plots because they grow rapidly to provide a quick food source, are often easier to establish and can be timed to reach peak nutrition and palatability during the hunting season.
Brassicas are a dominant plant in many food plot mixes, like Mossy Oak Biologic, for instance. Deer may overlook them early on, but when the first frosts hit plants die and their starches turn to sugar; then deer relish them like candy.
Be patient and conservative in the early season. Bucks are typically the last to enter an open area like a food plot, waiting until almost dark. Furthermore, they’re still traveling in bachelor groups. If you see one, there’s a good chance more will follow, with the biggest and oldest arriving last.
During the rut, it’s often better to hunt 50 to 100 yards back off the downwind side of a food plot, where cruising bucks can scent check for does without exposing themselves. In the early season however, hunt right on the edge of the plot; and if you’re after bucks, smaller staging plots are a better option.
The Essence of Life
Water is the essence of life and, where it is scarce, the essence of deer hunting. In drier regions, a reliable water source is a magnet for deer.
Even in not-so-dry regions, water can still be an important indirect deer attractant. Deer eat plants, and plants grow better where it’s wetter. They also grow thicker, which means more and better food and cover down in the bottoms, especially along riverine corridors. Check the record books from almost any state and you’ll typically find a higher proportion of record bucks come from areas along some sort of major waterway.
Water can also be a deterrent, a fact you can take advantage of. Deer are great swimmers, but usually prefer to walk. Waterways and waterbodies act as impediments, funneling deer movement. It’s very common to see major travel corridors running parallel with rivers and larger streams, and around lake and pond margins. Beavers can be a bowhunter’s ally. Deer will usually go around a flooded area, crossing in the shallows just below the beaver’s dam.
Another advantage of water sources is they are often more productive outside of the peak hours. Hunt near food sources at dawn and dusk. After the morning activity has slowed, or even during the middle of the day, set up near a water source. Deer may also stop by for a drink on their way to feed in the evening.
Water that comes from the sky can also have a considerable influence on when and where to hunt. During and after a sudden rain, precipitation and surface water run-off will collect in small ephemeral pools making them overnight attractants. Generally they’ll only last as long as the water does; so you need to get on them quickly. If a good, soaking rain provides enough moisture for dormant seeds to germinate, there may also be a brief green-up in depressions and low-lying areas. Deer will key in on these sudden salad bars.
Perhaps two of the most useful deer hunting tools you can own are digital mapping software and a hand-held GPS unit. Software programs like MyTopo’s Terrain Navigator and DeLorme’s Topo North America 9.0 allow you to view both topographic maps and aerial photos on your home computer or laptop.
In addition to steep terrain depicted by contour lines, maps show other impediments to deer movement like waterways and water bodies, which appear as blue lines or shapes. With a little ground truthing, you can even learn to recognize certain cover types, like softwoods or mast-bearing hardwoods, merely by their appearance in a photo. Pick out potential hot spots, download them to your GPS and head for the field.
Part III: Treestand Strategies
By Darren Warner
To successfully hunt from a treestand, remember the three Ps: placement, preparation and patience. Incorporate these strategies and you’ll fill your tag well before the rut.
I prefer using a hang-on stand to a climbing stand, because the latter tends to make more noise and must be hauled in and out on every hunt.
Proper stand placement starts by selecting the right tree. Look for one that provides good concealment, with multiple trunks and heavy canopy, always taking into account prevailing winds.
“I’m not as concerned with the cover below me as I am with what’s behind me,” said American Archer bowhunter Tom Nelson. “I want good background cover so I don’t skyline myself.”
A good stand site is one near numerous deer trails, to give you the greatest number of shot opportunities.
Avoid alerting deer by hanging stands a couple months before the season. Never leave them up all year, as the weather and woodland critters will do significant damage.
When determining how high to hang a stand, don’t assume higher is better. Sitting 25 feet up may be necessary when hunting heavily pressured deer, but shot angles change dramatically the farther up a tree you go, making it harder to make an ethical, clean kill.
“The higher you get, the smaller your target gets,” said Dan Perez, co-owner of Whitetail Properties. “Hunters often wound or miss because they’re too high up.”
Put as much thought into how you’ll get in and out as you do your stand location.
“Most people pick the shortest, most direct route,” said In Pursuit bowhunter Greg Miller. “Deer know they’re there before they get to their stand.”
To find the least intrusive route, examine an aerial photo of your hunting area, then walk it when you hang your stand. Carry pruners to clear the route of noise-making foliage. When studying an aerial photo, look for creeks, drainages, ditches and low-lying areas surrounded by trees that allow you to move to and from your treestand without alerting deer. Whatever route you choose, always keep the wind in your favor, or you risk scaring off deer long before you get near your stand.
Preparation also means practicing with your bow until you’re proficient shooting from different distances, heights and positions.
When you approach your stand, move like a mountain lion creeping through the woods by playing the wind, walking slowly and using other stealthy strategies (see sidebar).
Only bring the gear that’s essential based on the length of the hunt and weather conditions. Start by reducing the number of arrows in your quiver. If you need more than three arrows, you probably should practice more.
“Six or eight arrows with bright fletching really stand out in a treestand,” says Nelson.
Other essential equipment includes a safety harness, a binocular, a knife, pruners (to trim unexpected limbs out of the way), a range finder, scent-elimination spray and a wind detector. You may also need extra clothing or insect repellent.
While sitting on stand, always assume you’re going to be successful. Rehearse every possible shot, knowing its angle, distance and the shooting position required before a buck enters the picture. Knowing how you’ll react to whatever the hunt brings by range-finding and rehearsing shot possibilities will also help keep you mentally alert and focused.
Don’t let doubt or negative thoughts creep in-stay optimistic and ready to respond to any situation. Motivate yourself with positive self-talk.
Despite the justified excitement that attends the whitetail rut each fall, November is hardly the only time to bowhunt deer. The first weeks of the season offer the next-best chance to kill a mature buck, and there’s no better place to do so than from the ground.
Predictable deer-movement patterns help compensate for the lack of tracking snow early in the season, when bucks are still feeding predominantly on agricultural crops. Late August is the only time of year that I scout by looking at deer rather than deer sign. When I find deer hitting a field, I walk the edge to confirm their exact point of entry by looking for hair on the fence, often at a place where the top strand of wire is lowest. From there, it’s usually easy to backtrack over broken blades of grass to the nearest cover. The closest tree might be a long way away, but I just look on the downwind side of the trail for a blind location.
While commercial pop-up blinds have revolutionized bowhunting for turkeys and pronghorns, whitetails can be wary of them unless they’ve been in place for some time. I prefer ground blinds made from natural materials. A downed tree makes a good starting point. Fill in the blanks with brush and branches supplemented with a strip of camo netting. What’s behind you is just as important as what’s in front; breaking up your outline is crucial. Leave clear shooting lanes to the trail, planning for a broadside or quartering-away shot.
Position your seat carefully to minimize your movement when deer are nearby. Practice drawing from inside the blind, and trim away any brush that might interfere. Finally, clear the ground underfoot of any debris that might make noise when you shift your feet.
Field edges aren’t the only places to hunt from the ground during the early season. In dry country, springs and stock tanks attract deer during warm days. These deer magnets often sit a long way from the nearest tree, but a ground blind downwind of the water source can provide an effective ambush.
And blinds aren’t the only effective early-season ground tactic. Stalking bedded bucks is a classic mule deer tactic, but since whitetails tend to bed in cover that makes an approach to within bow range difficult, I prefer to stalk them when they are feeding or on the move. I use terrain features to hide my movements while I get ahead of the deer and set up an ambush in cover downwind of their likely travel route.
From opportunities to hunt mature bucks before they vanish to abundant chances to fill the freezer with does while polishing stalking skills, the first two weeks of deer season provide some of the year’s most exciting bowhunting. There’s no better means of taking “hunting the hard way” to the next level than by doing it from the ground.