If your name isn’t Jake Bush, early deer season is likely a struggle. You’re not alone. Those opening days can often be the best crack you will get at a buck, but bucks sure don’t act like they do in November.
The bedding game is one of the most highlighted tactics to arrow a buck at the beginning of the bow season. It’s also one of the hardest moves to play. Your technique must be flawless when hunting a buck in his bed, especially when he has all his wits about him. Thermals and wind must be ideal, your access bulletproof, and your stealth spot on. The best bed hunters have failed time and time again until they get the formula right.
Thankfully, bed hunting isn’t the only way to kill a buck early on (more on bedding here Episode #293 The Buck Bedding Truth ). Let’s look at a few tips that often produce early-season encounters.
Take a Drive
How does driving around help you in the early season? Well, it might not if you’re just going around to look at deer. But the deer you see on your drive can teach you a lot about what’s happening now, even if it’s not in your prime hunting area.
I’ve learned from Tony Peterson and Josh Ilderton that observing deer is the best way to understand them. When you’ve found a place to glass deer or a route you can check out for an evening “deer drive,” ask yourself why that deer is doing what it’s doing.
Look at your map. What terrain did the deer you’re watching use to get there? Terrain doesn’t work on a seasonal rotation, but it can teach you how deer like to use different features.
Consider seasonal shifts because they happen all the time! Did that buck come out into that bean field a little later than usual? There’s a good chance he was staging on fresh white oak acorns. Assuming you can pinpoint a likely travel direction, you could slip in for a hunt where the bucks enter that staging area.
Body language is one of the hardest things to learn about deer. But watching an area where they congregate can tell you much. You’ll learn what makes a deer nervous and how their posture looks when they are at ease or on alert. You’ll also notice small details, like how their ears and legs move when they sense danger or are following their daily routine.
You might not be in the tree stand, but studying deer can be valuable to hunting in the early season. A bonus? It’s a great way to involve your family in your passion.
The Right Nutrition
The right early-season nutrition is a good place to start a hunt. But thinking outside the box with food produces quality results.
That white oak stand is often a sure thing, but if you’ve noticed a few sneaky bucks in your area, off-label food might be where they focus their feeding. Those closing minutes count, so think about a good starter meal during warm weather.
I always think of a garden salad. After a long hot day, it sometimes takes a moment for you to work up a mood to eat. Deer can be the same way. Those light staging foods can be the ticket to arrow an early-season hawg.
Some whitetail favorites are short, tender patches of sassafras, green briar leaves, and pokeberries. These foods are packed with the nutrition a deer needs and are perfect starters before the main course.
The First Sign
The most common early-season hunts happen in the evening. Most hunters say that morning hunts are too tricky because bucks are already back in their beds. That means you can do more harm than good by spooking them. We’re now finding that morning hunts can be a success.
Fresh sign is the best way to know exactly where you want to set your ambush. If you’re going to hunt morning and evenings, give them the one-two punch. Start an evening hunt by using your in-season scouting skills to spot new sign on your way to your setup. When you find new sign, STOP, analyze, and highly consider hunting that spot. Use the following morning to hunt that spot again to capitalize on the sign you’ve found.
I think back to the first time I saw a rub line. My uncle pointed it out to me. I could see every bare 3-inch sapling leading up the hill. While rub lines like that get your blood pumping, the ones that pop up early are a crucial find.
As the season wears on, the number of rubs will begin to mix. Unless you’re hunting a spot frequently, it’s hard to keep track of all the patterns. But a new rub line in late September or early October will give you clues to a site that deer frequent.
The same can be said for scrapes. Even the smallest scrape at the beginning of the season can tell you a buck is using that area right now. The size of the scrape may not correlate to the size of the buck because mature bucks are only testing the water. They may only make a puny little scrape, so don’t mistakenly walk past it to find bigger sign. Fresh is what you want!
The Golden Rule
Deer do predictable things at predictable phases of the season. But during the early season, what matters most is what the deer are doing in the moment. Remember that light and subtle sign doesn’t always mean a spot is lacking. It could be just what you need for a successful hunt.