buck shedding velvet
While anticipating those magical days of November, you may just be letting the very best part of deer season slip past. Each year, some of the biggest whitetails are tagged just hours after the season opens. However, the tactics used are quite different from those employed later in the fall. Here are 18 bowhunting tips to master so you can stop waiting for the rut and wrap your tag on some antler.
1. Seize the Day
Photos of giant bucks in the preseason get JT Kreager excited. Trail-camera photos of giant bucks in daylight hours get Kreager moving. “I run a lot of cameras and work pretty hard to find a big buck to hunt,” says Kreager (pictured), an Ohio native who runs NextHunt.com. “But to target those big deer during the early season, you really have to find the right buck. And that’s a buck that’s willing to move in daylight. Most of them aren’t.” In 2010, Kreager found a buck late in the summer. With daylight trail-cam photos, he had all the information he needed. Kreager killed his 195-inch buck on the second evening of Ohio’s archery season. In 2011, he found another bruiser buck that was moving in daylight. He tagged that 200-inch buck in early October. “That’s the real key to this early-season stuff,” Kreager says. “If you’re not getting pictures of the buck going to a food source in daylight, you’re probably not going to kill him.”
2. Corn-Row Them
It’s common for deer to bed in standing corn and feed in a neighboring field of beans or alfalfa. This makes for an ideal stalking situation. Take a stand a few rows into the cornfield. When deer emerge, use the thick corn cover to maneuver into shooting range.
3. Look to the Sky
Acorns trump all early-fall food sources, and they are about to drop. To find those trees that deer will soon be targeting, grab your binoculars and start glassing the tops of oaks in your area. Find a mast-laden tree and get your stand in place now.
4. Use Decoys Now
Take note of what happens once a field starts filling up with deer. Odds are good that most of the deer will gravitate toward the first one to enter the field. Use this sense of community to your advantage by employing a tactic often reserved for the rut: decoys. Many crop fields in the Midwest feature timbered fencerows. Hang your stand along the one that provides the best wind advantage and allows you to enter and exit without alerting deer. To help steer deer past your stand, employ a family of feeding decoys placed upwind of a stand that’s about 75 yards or so from the timberline. Collapsible models are ideal for this scenario because you can fit the entire setup in a pack. Deer that enter the field will see your fake family and likely head to them, passing by your stand within bow range, their attention focused on the decoys.
5. Add 10 Yards
Early-season hunts over food sources offer opportunities for long shots. Extend your effective archery range by practicing at distances 10 to 30 yards longer than your current effective range. Want to make a 40-yard shot seem easy? Practice at 60.
6. Rub It In
A fresh rub line is one of the exceptions to the oft-recited “don’t-hunt-mornings-in-early-season” rule. Bucks will often work rub lines in the morning as they return to bed. Stay out of the fields and access your stand well before daylight so you don’t disturb deer at the food source.
7. Apply Kingsford Camo
Gloves and face masks are standard items for most hunters. They also make you sweat and retain huge amounts of odor, especially in warm weather. Opt instead for a simple lump of charcoal. The carbon chunk can be used to camo your hands and face. And it’s a natural odor absorber.
8. Get Off the Field
Deer in heavily pressured areas likely won’t hit agricultural fields until last light. Dupe them by locating your stand 50 to 75 yards off the field edge and catch them on the way to feed.
9. Hold Off
Looking to tag a big buck? Then don’t shoot at the small ones first. In the early season, older deer tend to hit food sources later than younger deer. Hold your fire.
10. Get Down
Although whitetails will predictably hit specific food sources, the exact approach route isn’t nearly as predictable. With foliage falling and preferred food sources soon to change, now is the time to get on the ground and make a stalk. Keep the wind in your favor.
11. Bug Out
Spend much time in the woods before the first frosts hit and you’re going to have to deal with mosquitoes. The ThermaCell device is one of this generation’s greatest inventions. Place it in a holster near your stand. It can also be used as a deer-scent warmer later in the season: Soak used-up repellent mats in buck lure.
12. Lie Low
Trail cameras are a fantastic tool—that can also be fantastically misused. In the summer of 2011, Indiana hunter Steve Scudder (pictured) located a monster typical that was using a beanfield. While many hunters would have quickly slipped in and set trail cameras to monitor the buck’s travel patterns, Scudder did exactly the opposite. “I didn’t step foot anywhere near where that deer was. There was no reason to go in there and risk pushing him out, because I was able to watch him from a distance,” Scudder says. “I had all the information I needed.” Scudder stuck to his plan and never ventured into the woods where the buck was living. When Indiana’s youth season opened, Scudder and his son Tristin were settled into a ground blind on the first evening. The buck stuck to its pattern and Tristin drilled it with a 75-yard shot. “I use trail cameras a lot. But you have to know how, when, and where to use them,” Scudder says. “If you’re too aggressive, you can sometimes do more harm than good.”
13. Range Every Shot
Estimating distance in the open expanse of a beanfield or food plot can be tough. Make it a habit to use a laser rangefinder on each deer you intend to shoot. You may be surprised by the numbers on the screen.
14. Have an Exit Strategy
The last hour of daylight can be a magical time, so hanging in there until last legal shooting light is critical. A tougher chore is getting out of your stand without spooking deer. If you’re on a crop field, consider having a buddy pick you up in a vehicle or tractor. Deer are probably familiar with farm equipment and are less likely to run off to parts unknown when they hear it.
15. Plant a Plot
Fields were full of deer in July and August. Now they are empty. The deer are still out there. They’re waiting to hit those fields at night, or they’re staying in the woods to hit the acorns that have started to drop—or both. This is where a small plot with forage chosen specifically for early-season browsing can shine. Locate the plot in an area of cover between a primary food source and bedding area. The goal is to provide a food source that deer feel secure visiting in daylight. All that’s needed to prep the area is a hand sprayer loaded with herbicide. Spray the plot in July or early August. Check it a week later. If needed, apply another round of herbicide. Then it’s time to seed. “Use a crop such as oats (planted along with clover) to give the deer something to browse, while protecting the clover you want to establish for next year,” says Frigid Forage Seed owner John Barsody.
16. Sweeten the Pot
Food plots can be dynamite in the early season (see “Kill Plot”). Make them even more attractive with a shot of well-timed fertilizer two weeks before the season opens to spike growth and increase the “sweetness” of the forage.
17. Think Food
Before the rut hits, food sources seem to change on a weekly and sometimes even a daily basis. “It can happen overnight. When those beanfields start to turn yellow, you’re done,” says southern Michigan hunter Tyler Ridenour (pictured). “You have to find another food source or field. And you have to keep in mind that all of the beanfields are going to start to turn pretty fast. If you do find one they’re using, you need to get on it. You don’t have much time.” The fastest way to get on a hot food source is from the ground. Pop-up blinds can work, but deer may spook from a newly erected blind. The solution? Think guerilla warfare. “A lot of those fencerows running between crop fields are real thick on the outside edge, but the interior is more open. With a set of ratcheting hand pruners and a small folding stool, you can carve out a couple of small shooting windows really quickly and be hunting in no time,” says Ridenour. “I did that last season. We found a cornfield that had just been cut and the deer were starting to pound it. We snuck in, got set up in about 20 minutes, and killed a dandy 8-point less than 10 minutes after settling in.”
18. Sleep In
As deer season arrives, we’re all about as ramped up as teenagers on prom night. But you have to find a way to control that enthusiasm. “A lot of guys ruin their chances of killing a big buck before they really even get started hunting,” says Daniel McVay (pictured), a former whitetail guide and land manager for Buckventures Outdoors. Instead, McVay spends the morning hours watching the areas he plans to hunt that evening. That’s exactly how he tagged a dandy Kansas whitetail during the September muzzleloader season. “I can’t tell you the number of big deer we’ve killed that way,” he says. “I bet we killed 200 bucks in the early season—only one of them in the morning.”
Here are 18 deer hunting tips for the early season so you don’t have to wait for the rut to kill your buck. What’s your best whitetail tip? Let us know in the comments section!