Early Season Whitetail Hunting

whitetail hunting
This September Montana trophy buck came from a funnel stand near a river and alfalfa fields. Hunter shown wearing Lost Camo.

Forget the rut, the first week of bow season in September or October can be a great time to whack a buck. Whitetail deer are still locked into late-summer feeding patterns, and you can take advantage of that with this 10-step plan.

  1. Spend a few evenings glassing for deer in a field of alfalfa, clover or cut corn. If you deer huntmostly timbered terrain, glass for does and bucks that feed and mingle at dusk in a clear-cut, power line right-of-way…you get the picture. Your goal is two-fold. Locate at least one Pope & Young buck to go after. And, critically, pinpoint the spot where that brute most often pops out of the surrounding cover.

    Do your glassing, but don’t get lulled into the no-impact, “stay out of a buck’s turf or you’ll spook him” strategy recommended by some of today’s deer hunters. Some hunters feel strongly that at some point you need to go in and evaluate the terrain and sign where deer travel from bed to feed. If you don’t, how in the world can you hang a tree stand and expect Mr. Big to cruise within 20 or 30 yards of it?

     
    bowhunting whitetails
    Some western states open bow season in early September--you might shoot a velvet buck!

    Scout one day around lunchtime, when whitetail deer are bedded back in the woods and thickets. Walk across a field or cutover to a spot where you’ve watched a buck step out of the cover. Check the wind; it should blow out into the open area or at least parallel to it. If so, sneak 50 to 100 yards back into the woods. But never push much deeper than that, or else you’re apt to bump loafing deer.

    Scout the fringes for doe trails—a trophy buck might stroll down one and into the feed in a couple of weeks. Look for a thin ridge, ditch or edge that might funnel deer. Look closer still for an “inner terrain,” a creek crossing, fence corner or the like, that might further squeeze a buck past a tree stand. Scout for buck rubs and tracks (the bigger the better).

    Section 2

  2. You can never, go wrong by locating a tree stand near mast that falls, heaping and fresh, 50 to 100 yards off a field or cutover. Most does and bucks will stop to nibble the acorns or soft mast before heading out to a main feeding area after dark. Try to home in on one or two trees that will rain nuts in a week or so (white oaks are best).

  3. Many deer hunters pack in a tree stand and fling it up into the first big tree that looks good. After 30 minutes or so of speed scouting, some hunters beat feet out of the woods, go home and study their maps and aerials. They evaluate the terrain, cover, sign

    You can never go wrong hanging a stand near falling acorns. Hunter shown wearing Mathews Lost Camo.

    and mast they found in the transition zone between a feeding and bedding area. These hunters try to piece things together and predict deer movements.

  4. A few days before the bow opener, some hunters will sneak back in a second time to set a tree stand for afternoon hunting. Again, hunters will go at midday and enter the woods from the food-source side when the wind is right. Head for a spot where you have deduced that your chances of an ambush are high. Check to make sure deer are still running the same trails, and monitor the status of mast trees. Note any buck rubsthat popped up since you were last there. Then look around for a stout tree on the downwind side of a doe trail or funnel. Back up 30 yards, kneel and check the tree from a deer’s perspective. If it offers adequate background cover, bingo!

  5. bowhunting whitetail deer
    Glass from a tree stand to pin down the tight movements of deer. Hunter shown wearing Mathews Lost Camo.

    Try to lock your tree stand on a tree so that it faces a crop field, food plot or clear-cut. Most deer will come from the woods and thickets to the rear, and the tree between you and them will provide yet more cover. If you shoot right-handed, always try to set up where deer will pass within 30 yards to your left. You can draw and shoot with ease and little movement as a trophy buck quarters past.

    With the leaves still thick on the trees, you might actually be able to see and shoot best by hunting only 16 to 18 feet high. Be doubly sure the wind is right and steady if you hunt low. Trim at least 3 good shooting lanes to the sides and front of your tree stand. Get out of there and let the spot rest for a couple of days.

  6. Remember the mantra when you go back to hunt: Access your tree stand from the food-source side, and make sure the wind quarters out of the woods. Climb into your perch by 2 p.m. or so, especially if you hunt in the Midwest or West, where whitetail deer tend to get up and move to feed early.

  7. An afternoon fades. Some does tip past, but you spot nary a buck. Don’t get down, get ready! As dusk settles into the woods, stand up and rest your bow in a belt holster. A trophy buck often comes late and quickly to a crop field or mast tree, especially on a warm day. Listen for the pop, pop, pop of his stiff-legged gait behind you. A buck ghosting past your stand in the twilight often looks farther away than he really is. Don’t risk taking too long of a shot, but on the other hand, don’t let a shooter slip by at 25 or 30 yards. If in doubt, do a juggling act and try to laser a deer with a rangefinder.

    trophy bucks
    Giant trophy bucks are shot the first week of bow season by hunters who plant food plots, scout them hard and hang tree stands in just the right spot. Hunter shown wearing Lost Camo.
  8. As far as bowhunting shot placement, when a buck is broadside or quartering away, tuck a sight pin behind his front leg and on the lower third of his side. If he ducks when the string twangs, your arrow should still strike the middle or top of his lungs. If the deer doesn’t drop you’ll make an even better shot, low in the lungs and heart.

    If you double-lung a buck and see him fall, go get him. But when a deerbolts into thick foliage and you’re not so sure about the shot, wait at least 2 hours before tracking. Come back with a buddy and big, powerful lights. A buck might wheel and run back toward a bedding area on a doe trail, so check there for blood. It is no wives’ tale: A wounded deer often runs downhill and toward water.

     

  9. On all those evenings when shooting light wanes and you’re left with no shot, sit awhile and glass deer that still cruise toward a field or mill around mast. Who knows, you might spot a whopper buck you’ve never seen before. When the deer move on and the coast is clear, slip out of your tree stand. By now you should have mapped out an exit route that will take you 50 yards or so back into the woods and away from the feeding area. Circle back to your truck without spooking deer and guess what? Your chances of sticking a buck are still good when you come back to hunt the next afternoon or the next.

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