3 EARLY-SEASON Stands for Success: How to Make the Most of Deer Season's Opening Days.
Opening day was sacred, the high point of every hunting season--it was the day. However, since I've transitioned from waterfowling to deer hunting and replaced the shotgun with a bow, opening day has lost a little of its excitement. That's a mistake because, done right, the first few days of the season can provide a great chance for success. In this feature, I'm going to talk about the three strategies most likely to produce early-season success.
Summer scouting is a great way to find likely early-season stand sites. The bucks are very visible in the soybean, clover and alfalfa fields throughout July and most of August. A few evenings spent watching these fields will definitely get you excited and will start your wheels turning on the best places to ambush those bucks once the season opens.
While those patterns are huntable, and stands in these places do make sense, the field pattern actually starts to fall apart the moment you begin hunting it. Even in states with Sept. 1 openers, these field patterns are likely to disappoint.
Bucks begin to abandon fields in late August. Some of them drop right off the map. I'll dig deeper into the fall dispersal behavior in a bit, but the number one reason bucks disappear has to do with a change in food sources --they're on the acorns.
The Science: Noted whitetail biologist Dr. Karl Miller from the University of Georgia was the first to set me straight on this. "Hunters think bucks stop moving once they disappear from the fields, but that's not what our data shows," Miller said.
Biologist Mickey Hellickson has also done some work in this area and came to the same conclusion. The bucks don't stop moving; they simply change their food source to one that lies closer to where they bed. This natural fall transition occurs about the same time the acorns start dropping. Consequently, bucks aren't as visible in open fields because they're back in the timber eating acorns.
Combine this changing diet with the fact that a buck's bedding area and feeding area may actually be the very same place and it's no wonder those bucks you've been watching all summer seem as if they've suddenly fallen off the face of the earth.
The Stand: When the bucks stop coming to their summer feeding areas, it's time to adapt and change your strategy. At the very least, you should start hunting deeper in the cover. Ideally, you'll know of an oak ridge where the acorns are falling. Even if all you do is get back into the cover 50-100 yards, though, you stand a chance of seeing (and hearing) a nice buck crunching away on acorns under a big oak.
As soon as I make a case for not hunting field edges, I come right back and recommend it! It's my number two opening-day strategy, and not necessarily a distant number two; it depends on the year.
The Science: As I mentioned, there's a behavioral change taking place in early September that really shakes up the world of whitetail bucks. Not only are they switching to acorn feeding patterns, but they're also shedding their velvet and breaking up their bachelor groups. This double whammy puts us on our heels right when we think we have things figured out. It's like putting food in a blender; it looks completely different after you push the button.
So, that's what we're facing now: a changing scene with very few anchor points. One of them is the acorn pattern, which I've already described. The second is a continuation of summer feeding. Not all of the bucks disperse when they shed their velvet. Some of the ones you scouted in August will still be there in September and throughout the fall. In my experience, roughly two-thirds of the bucks relocate, leaving a third or so in their old haunts.
If the acorn pattern dominates, you'll find those bucks back in the cover, as I mentioned. Some years, though, the acorn crop is poor, and the bucks that don't disperse are still on their summer feeding patterns (usually something green, such as clover, alfalfa, immature beans or brassicas like turnips, etc.) well into the first week of the season.
The Stand: A combination of long-range scouting with good binoculars and trail cameras along the most used trails should tell you which food sources are still attracting bucks. The last few days before the opener are prime for gathering this important intelligence. You're looking for daylight activity. If you find a buck you want to hunt but he's moving after dark, don't pressure him just yet. There will be a better opportunity for that when the first cold front of the season passes through.
Assuming you find at least one buck on a daylight pattern, you need to hunt him right away. If you already have a blind in the area, you can move it slightly until it's in the perfect spot. The deer are already used to it being there and won't react to small changes in location.
If you don't have one there, it's too late to put one in now. It can take up to 10 days for mature bucks to get used to a ground blind in their feeding area; they could be completely nocturnal by then, or even long gone.
These first-week daylight patterns are very fickle and sometimes only last a few days--be ready to move on any opportunity immediately. Make daily stand-placement decisions. Sneak in and place the stand on the downwind side of the trail the buck will most likely use and then give it a shot. You may only get one chance before something smells you on a downwind trail or you bump deer on your exit after dark.
It's hard, short of using a scent-proof ground blind, to eliminate the former, but you can prevent the latter by having someone drive into the field at last light in a vehicle or on an ATV and move the deer off so you can sneak out.
I don't hunt buck bedding areas during the early season. In fact, I don't hunt them at all, switching to doe bedding areas during the rut. I know guys who do hunt buck beds, though, and they have some success at it. I'm fortunate enough to now be able to hunt all private land, so the deer I hunt don't get a lot of pressure. As a result, I don't feel like I'm racing against the clock to get to the bucks before someone else kills them or bumps them out of the area.
In more pressured areas, I'm sure I would spend at least a few of my opening-week hunts sitting in a tree near a buck bedding area. That, my friends, is a lot easier said than done!
The Science: Buck beds can be difficult to locate. The best way to find them, unfortunately, is also the worst way--you have to walk the ground looking for big beds. As long as there aren't also several smaller ones nearby (typically made by does and yearlings), you probably have a good starting point.
However, I would use a slightly different strategy. Rather than look for beds, I would scout quickly and look for the first big rubs of the year. I've read research that suggests these are made by mature bucks. You can find them by walking trails, which will hopefully reduce your impact enough that you don't put those bucks on edge.
I've become a big fan of wearing PVC waders while scouting sensitive areas, as they nearly eliminate scent at ground level. You can also improve your odds of getting away with scouting near bedding areas by actually making a bunch of noise, so the deer think you're a local farmer out repairing a fence or cutting firewood. Believe it or not, that seems to work pretty well. Deer are good at separating real threats from traditionally non-threatening human activity. The noisier you are, the less they worry about you. As long as you don't surprise them at close range, they just move off and then return when the noise goes away.
The Stand: This is a simple one; find a good early rub line and hunt the downwind side. This can be a morning or evening stand, but I would be more inclined to hunt it in the evenings since bucks seem to be on their feet more in the evenings than during the mornings at this time of the season.
Opening day of the bow season for deer may never carry the mystique of opening day of the firearms season or even of the small-game season, but it definitely should be on your radar. It's worth the effort to find out if you have a buck on a daylight pattern because, if you do, the first week can produce some excellent bonus buck hunting that would otherwise be overlooked.
RELATED ARTICLE: Early Opportunities.
I've hunted bucks in early September in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Those have been really enjoyable hunts with lots of action, hunting bucks on strict feeding patterns in areas with limited cover. The deer were super easy to pattern from a distance, and there were enough of them that even if we spooked a couple, there were others coming to the same fields. If you've never hunted whitetails out West, it's definitely a trip to put on your bucket list. While there are several good outfitters out there, there's also a lot of public land that can be very productive. Focus on alfalfa fields, water sources and even apple trees for the best opening-day action,
States/Provinces with late-August/early-September archery openers: Alberta, Idaho, Manitoba, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Saskatchewan, Washington and Wyoming.
States/Provinces with mid-September archery openers: Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ontario, South Dakota and Wisconsin.
RELATED ARTICLE: Learning to Identify Oak Subspecies.
Deer eat acorns from all oaks, but given a choice, they prefer those from the white oak family. Where I live, that's white oak, swamp white oak and bur oak. It's important for you to become good at identifying all the different subspecies of oak that grow in your area. Then you can determine which type is dropping acorns, and you can look specifically for these trees while hunting and scouting.
The easiest way to learn this important skill is to Google the state where you live and then "tree identification." Links to dozens of websites with information about trees common to your state will pop up on the screen. Many will have photos of the various trees, their leaves, bark and seed (fruit or mast). Given a few minutes of study, you'll be able to easily identify all of the oaks in your hunting area.
Caption: Bucks often shift their feeding patterns just as archery season opens, moving from open agricultural fields to acorn-bearing oak trees in the timber. Given that, locating the most productive oaks in your hunting area and focusing on them during the season's first week can be a highly productive tactic.
Caption: Hanging stands over acorn-dropping oak trees is the number one strategy for early-season success. The best spots are located just inside the timber from known summer feeding areas.
Caption: The author killed this nice buck in Wyoming in early September. Bucks like this are plentiful and very realistic goals when hunting private or public land in many Western states.
Caption: Once you've found a food source at least one shooter buck is using, it's time to put out a trail camera to learn more about his patterns when you aren't able to glass the field.
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|Date:||May 29, 2019|
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