With a summer full of velvet trail cam pics and bachelor group sightings behind us, the time has finally come to channel all of that built up excitement into a strategic plan of attack. Early season is one of the best times to ambush an unsuspecting booner and here’s a list of tips, tactics, and strategies that will help you punch your tag the very first sit of the season.
1 – Know Your Food
During the early season, action in the deer woods can go from boom to bust overnight. When this happens there’s usually two culprits that may be laid to blame – the hunter or the food. If you hunt it safely, a change in food source is the likely cause. Green bean fields are dynamite, but they typically turn yellow during the first few weeks of the season and that change happens fast . . . overnight fast in some cases. Once they turn yellow deer typically seek out other food sources and it’s your job to find which ones. Corn, wheat, radishes, fruit trees, and acorns are all good spots to start looking.
An apple tree like this one can be the perfect spot to ambush an early season buck.
2 – Know When to Hunt
Mornings or evenings? That’s a question you’ll have to answer yourself. Evenings will be the best time to catch a buck slipping into a food plot or crop field – for this, setup just inside the timber over a well-used trail, along an inside corner, or overlooking a small food plot. Mornings will be the best time to catch deer slipping back through the timber towards their beds. One word of precaution – a lot of times deer will bed closer to the food during early season compared to later in the fall. Two reasons . . . for one, it’s hot out and they don’t want to travel as far in their daily commute to food. Secondly, there is still a ton of cover for them to feel secure just about anywhere in the woods. It’s not until temperatures and leaves begin to drop that you will find them going to their “regular” fall bedding areas. This changes the way mornings should be hunted during the early season. Instead of setting up deep within the cover and waiting for them to return, you will likely have to get closer to the edge of food and try to get in without spooking them off the field. For this reason, I favor evening sits early on in the season.
3 – Get In and Get Out Cleanly
As mentioned in the previous tip, entry and exit routes are just as, if not more important than choosing the right stand. Take this for example, once you are in your stand you are only blowing your scent cone in one direction provided the wind is constant, in essence affecting a relatively small portion of hunting area. Now, take your walk in, your scent is blowing in the wind for the duration of your walk. If you enter on a crosswind, you are painting the entire downwind side of you as you walk to your stand which could be several hundred yards in some cases. Depending on the layout, this may not be bad if it’s blowing over a steep ravine or plowed field, but if it’s blowing into bedding cover than this is BAD! Walking in with the wind in your face is ideal because you are essentially leaving only one stream of scent.
That covers the entrance part of the equation for the most part, now for your exit strategy – sometimes getting out of a stand cleanly can be the most difficult aspect of a hunt. The solution is to get creative! I’ve done everything from having someone drive through a field to pick me up, to firing off a coyote howl from a hidden FoxPro, to building a barricade of brush to screen my escape. It really doesn’t matter, just get out as clean as possible!
4 – Water Their Thirst
Water holes are dynamite locations throughout the season, but especially during warm early season days. Sunken tanks and little secluded ponds seem to be the preferred drinking stations over large bodies of water at least for hunting purposes. Deer may feel more comfortable drinking from a small water hole or puddle because they can escape faster since they aren’t trapped on one side by a big body of water. Small holes are also much easier to hunt over since you likely know where they will be drinking from.
Finding a secluded water source in a place where water is not very prevalent is like finding a gold mine. If you can’t find one, make one.
5 – Patience My Friend
This tip stems off of trail camera intel – learn who’s travelling together. During the first week or two bucks are typically still in their bachelor groups, especially in the states where season opens in the beginning of September. It won’t be long before their rising testosterone levels have them splitting apart, but you don’t want to make the mistake of letting one fly a tad too early. As Charles Alsheimer explained in the recent blog “Bachelor Group Behavior”, multiple mature bucks tend to hang out together during the summer months, thus said, if you let one fly on a good one, you may miss out on a great one. Use your trail cam photos to determine what bucks are travelling together so you know who might be following one another.
6 – Acorns Trump All
When acorns fall, deer simply abandon all other food sources. Take the time now to glass tree tops to figure out which oaks are holding a bumper crop and set up nearby. Acorn driven deer are hard deer to hunt because they can feed without ever having to travel very far from their bedroom. Not only this, but if you hunt a forest covered with oaks you’re basically going to have to guess which one they will choose to feed under during any given day. All in all, deer are much more predictable when they are not driven by acorns.
7 – Go a Little Deeper
Field edges are great for watching deer, but usually tough for killing deer (at least over large fields). For one, you are usually in a race against time because deer typically enter feeding fields the last half hour of daylight. Secondly, once a deer enters a field they typically work towards the center, which leaves you watching and hoping from your field edge hideout that something will bring him back your way. To combat this compounding frustration of “close calls” move a little deeper into the woods. Find a trail and setup over it 20 – 50 yards off the field edge. Not only will you heighten your chance of a daylight encounter, but you can also get out cleanly once they reach the field . . . that is if you don’t put him down first.
8 – Trail Cams Don’t Lie
This is a simple one, if you run trail cameras and you aren’t getting anything but nighttime photos, chances for early season success are pretty slim. Your best bet is to hold off on hunting regularly so you don’t overpressure an area and mess it up for the rest of fall. Hunt the perimeters if you need to scratch that early season itch.
9 – Prep and Plant it Right
Location, location, location. You probably know the saying from real estate talk, but it applies to the deer woods as well. While this is something you likely can’t change anymore this season, it’s an important piece to plan for in the future. Hidey hole food plots tucked in cover near adjacent destination feeding fields are superb locations throughout the season, but especially during the early portion as deer are still heading out to feed in the big fields. These hidey hole plots set up as a perfect staging area before they reach the big ag fields and allow for a close shot.
Here’s a side by side comparison of two different types of beans planted on the same day separated only by a tree line. On the left is a conventional ag bean the farmer planted for maximum pod yield (shorter maturity) and on the right is the forage bean I planted (longer maturity). Guess where the deer will be feeding? (Photos were taken the exact same day)
Location is key, but only if it’s planted with the right forage. I have two go to forages for targeting early season bucks:
- Late maturing forage soybeans – not only do they provide the most attractive and nutritious forage throughout the entire summer, but they remain green well after the farmer’s fields have ripened and turned yellow. Having the last remaining green soybeans is a huge advantage.
- Blend of winter wheat, Daikon radishes, and Purple Top turnips – this all season blend is great for hidey holes because you don’t have to worry about it getting wiped clean before the season like you would with a bean plot. You plant it in late summer and can hunt over it in a few weeks’ time – that’s a quick turnaround! Deer will primarily hit the winter wheat and radish greens early in the season.
10 – Control Your Odors
There’s a couple reasons scent control is so important during the early season. First, it’s hot out and we sweat more when we are in the woods, thus leaving more unfamiliar odors to alert deer. Second, scent travels further in a warm and humid climate than it does on the cold days of November because it’s more easily dispersed . . . just think about when you microwave or heat up food, what didn’t smell when it was cold now stinks up the whole house. Third, what you do now will impact what you see later. Yes, you can destroy your chances of a mature buck in November from what you smell like in September. You don’t need fancy clothes to hunt scent free, just don’t be lazy. You can read my step by step approach to scent control here.
While we as deer hunters live for the whitetail rut, there’s no denying the fact that early season is one of the best times to close the deal on a record book buck. Hopefully some of the above tips and tactics will have you doing just that. Once you DO tag out share your photo with us using #BuckCountry!