Though bowhunting during the rut gets a lot of press, savvy bowhunters know there is more consistent success to be had during the first week of the season, in early fall, when whitetails often follow a predictable routine. Mike Watkins, owner and operator of Trophies Plus Outfitters, prefers to hunt during this period. He offers bowhunts mainly during September, and his success rate at getting mature bucks in front of his clients is nearly 100 percent. Here are the secrets to his early-season bowhunting strategy.
SCOUTING IS HUNTING
As in much of the U.S., Watkins’s northeastern Wyoming deer-hunting area consists of an even mixture of woods and fields, a rolling landscape well-suited for long-range reconnaissance. “Before the season opens, I monitor deer activity on my leased lands to get a good idea of what bucks are available and where they are showing up,” Watkins says. “We glass from trucks or ATVs, but we’ll often climb to ridgetops or other vantage points to find the best stand locations. We make notes on the mature bucks we spot and also track the routes they’re using in order to select ambush spots.”
What a hunter should remember, says Watkins, is that this type of scouting is hunting. Sometimes he even puts on camo, checks the wind and takes stands before daylight so he can watch for deer activity. He also searches for sign, such as rubs and tracks. “You have to look closely for early rubs because they tend to be light,” he says.
Despite his hard-core approach to scouting, the last thing he wants to do is bump bucks from their late-summer, early-fall pattern. He wants to take advantage of their routine, not alter it. He believes that a hunter has to take every precaution to keep bucks from knowing he’s intruded, such as wearing rubber boots, suppressing human scent and using routes in and out of a hunting area that won’t alert deer.
BEST MORNING STANDS
Bottlenecks in Travel Corridors
In the first weeks of bow season, Watkins has had far more success during evening hunts. For this reason, he uses different morning and evening hunting areas so he doesn’t disturb his afternoon spots.
At daybreak, Watkins guided me to a hot morning stand. We hiked for a mile up a foothill and then along a ridgeline. The stand was located above an alfalfa field that had about 100 deer feeding in it–at least 20 of which were good bucks. Watkins pointed out the stand and ghosted away. He had told me that the deer were feeding low and bedding high–as they do in much of the country. They funnel up at first light through bottlenecks that lead to bedding areas. He’d sat on this ridge and watched the bucks come and go before the season. They’d be coming early, he assured me.
As the sun lit up the field, the deer began moving up the hillside in the direction of my stand. A doe came by, then two more. A young buck…a couple of spikes…then antlers…let me see…10 points. I stood and prepared to shoot. The sun was barely up. The big buck was with a bachelor group of lesser bucks. Two steps and he’d be in my shooting lane. I drew and a stampede started. A buck I hadn’t seen had come up behind me and caught my motion.
The next day, I was back in a different tree on the same ridge. I hunted the area again on the third day. On each occasion something went wrong and I didn’t close the deal. I kept moving, trying to get on the hottest trail. Several bachelor groups of bucks were coming out of the field and I was trying to waylay the biggest of them. I didn’t get one, but that’s bowhunting.
Fringes of Bedding Areas
Stands placed near bedding areas are often good choices in the morning during the early part of the season. A hunter can almost sleep in before going to these stands, says Watkins. Most deer won’t show up at these spots until a couple of hours after sunrise. Deer should trickle in until around noon.
Hang a stand near a bedding area, but not so close that you will spook deer when you leave around lunchtime. Be very careful with the wind. If your scent blows into the bedding area, the mature bucks will know it and will either move to another area or become nocturnal.
BEST EVENING STANDS
Hottest Food Source
Watkins had patterned a beautiful 12-pointer that was moving from a pine-studded ridgetop to an alfalfa field every evening. He positioned my hunting partner, Joe Bell, in a tree stand along the trail where the buck had been traveling. Several other bucks were also using the same trail; in fact, the first deer that came along was an eight-pointer that most hunters would have shot. Bell passed up that buck and shortly after was rewarded when the big 12-pointer came sauntering along. Joe’s shot was on the mark, and he collected a fine trophy. It wouldn’t have happened if Watkins hadn’t scouted for weeks prior to the season.
Watkins watches to find out where bucks are entering fields. If he thinks the biggest bucks are waiting for darkness to come, he looks for secondary draws where the bucks wait for darkness. Such areas are often thick and adjacent to places where young bucks and does enter fields.
According to Watkins, the two primary whitetail food sources in his area are acorns and alfalfa. The acorn crops are heavy about every other year. When the nuts start falling, he usually focuses hunting in and around oak groves. When acorns are in short supply or haven’t started dropping, the deer gravitate to the alfalfa fields and he plans his stand placement accordingly. The point is, Watkins is ready to switch tactics when the deer do.
Deer need a steady water source, especially early in the fall. Watkins says, “During the normally warm, dry weather of September and early October, deer will usually stop off for a drink on their way to feed.”
Setting up tree stands on water holes is one of Watkins’ most consistent strategies. Pond setups make great evening stands. Properly located, they also permit hunters to enter and exit stands without spooking deer from food sources.
Rattling in the Early Season
Shortly after bucks shed their velvet, they start sparring with one another as they establish a hierarchy. This may be one of the least-known–and best–times to rattle up a whitetail. By gently ticking the rattling antlers you can create the illusion of a low-impact matchup. This tactic works best when two or more bucks are actively sparring in the vicinity.
Taking the Advice Home
Last year, after hunting with Watkins, I headed to my Upper Peninsula bowhunting area a week before the opener. I was determined to put Watkins’ methodologies to practice. The area I hunt is a vast forestland with very little agriculture. During the evenings I observed deer movements and evaluated trophies from long range. At night, I used a spotlight to probe areas for trophy bucks.
I found that several bucks were using a remote clear-cut, including an exceptional 10-pointer with a body the size of an NFL lineman. The bucks entered the clear-cut from private land, so I needed to stay at least 100 yards from that border. There weren’t any ideal trees available for a treestand, so I set up a ground blind. Hunting the spot effectively would require a south wind.
I had to wait three days for a south wind so I could hunt that stand. Just before dark, a large forkhorn lumbered by, followed by a respectable eight-pointer. Next came an impressive buck with a wide rack. As if on queue, the big boy made his appearance, but unfortunately, he passed my position just out of range. The next evening was also spent in that blind and the same deer paraded by me again. The 10-pointer came by on the main trail, but he waited untiljust after legal shooting time to make his appearance. I never saw that buck again. Often, the first few days of bow season yield the best opportunity at monarchs.
The following spring, I went back to that spot and, by dragging logs and treetops into strategic spots, I made two manmade whitetail funnels. I made another ground blind; this one allowed me to hunt that spot with either a north or south wind. I can’t wait to try for him again this season, I’m already counting the days.