Quit griping about the heat, the mosquitoes and the thick canopy of leaves around your tree stand. The early season can be terrific if you’ve done your preseason homework.
Dan Perez has, which is the biggest reason he’ll likely add to his collection of nearly 30 Pope and Young–quality trophies this season. The Illinois archer spends late summer preparing for the archery opener and hunts almost relentlessly through the first few days. According to this whitetail guru, deer are most vulnerable just after the opening of the archery season because of their predictability, particularly their “need to feed.”
FIND THE FOOD
The early season finds deer vacuuming calories at various food sources for the approaching rut and winter; it’s their bulking-up phase. The search for nutritious food starts in most states during the first week of July and runs through the second week of October.
Perez begins his early-season scouting regimen by locating primary and secondary food supplies, “In the Midwest, corn, soybeans, wheat, rye and alfalfa are prime groceries. Mast such as acorns and persimmons are of secondary importance, unless there are no agricultural crops around,” he notes.
Once you’ve dialed in to food sources that deer visit regularly, watch them, but stay far away so the whitetails remain undisturbed.
Perez uses a spotting scope and a good binocular for surveillance. “Using a spotting scope and binocular helps in two ways,” he says. “First, because you’re scouting from way off, you and what you’re looking at are more likely to escape notice by other hunters. Second, you can scout miles of terrain all around at one time.”
FOLLOW THE SIGN
Many bowhunters walk willy-nilly through the woods weeks before the season, looking for sign. Once they find a fresh trail or track they’re likely to hang a stand nearby. All they’re doing is pushing deer into the next zip code and losing the game even before the kick-off.
On the other hand, long-distance scouting isn’t always an option. When the terrain is secluded or covered with thick growth, it’s difficult or impossible to scout with optics. In such cases, focus on deer sign rather than relying on direct observation. Before he hits the woods, Perez studies aerial maps, looking for promising areas and eliminating as much unfavorable habitat as possible. Maps pinpoint croplands that are invisible from main roads. Such back-40 food sources can be hot spots.
Bowhunters must be sleuths to scout sign properly. “Learn to decipher the clues deer leave. It’s like a puzzle–if you put the pieces together, you’ll see the big picture,” says Perez. Two signs worth decoding are tracks and trails.
Tracks are short-lived “now signs,” as Perez puts it. Tracks appear and disappear quickly, depending on environmental conditions, but provide useful information in the process [see sidebar, page 36]. Fields that deer dine in regularly are usually fairly covered with tracks. Concentrate on high-traffic areas where whitetails come and go.
Stand placement at such locations is dictated by the three W’s: when, where and wind. “Note entry and exit areas and how predominant wind directions will affect potential stand sites in relation to deer travel routes,” says Perez.
Determine where the furthest downwind trail or entry point to the food source is. Find a good tree downwind that gives you cover and hang a stand there. Hanging a stand where deer sign is thickest is a classic mistake. It only takes one lone downwind deer to ruin an otherwise outstanding area.
“If deer drift into the field fairly early in the day, hang your stand close to the edge,” advises Perez. “If the deer hit it late, find where they enter the field and hang a stand back in the timber off one of their trails. You might catch a buck on his way in, when there’s more light for a shot.”
On the Right Track
The ability to distinguish between various types of tracks is essential. Consider these six elements of tracks as you examine them:
1. Size of a track reflects bulk. While some might argue, most of the time large tracks are left by large deer. Typically, bigger deer are bucks.
2. Depth of a track indicates size. Larger animals, which probably are bucks, make deeper tracks in dry, packed earth; young bucks and most does make shallower tracks.
3. Track orientation shows travel direction. A trail with fresh tracks heading away from food sources toward bedding areas is a good morning spot. Hang an evening stand near trails with tracks heading from bedding areas to food sources.
4. Spread of track suggests gender. Overlapping tracks with a slight offset suggest a doe made them, because does are a bit wider at the hips than bucks.
A deer’s dewclaws appear as two small, round prints behind the main track. It takes a heavy deer (usually a mature buck) to leave a track in firm soil that shows the dewclaw prints clearly.
5. A track’s sharpness reveals freshness. A sharp-edged track means the animal walked through the area recently. Track sharpness is degraded by morning dew, wind, rain and sun (when made in mud or snow). The duller the edge, the older the track.
6. A quick determiner: If tracks are wide enough for you to put your bare fist in, chances are a buck made them.