Ever since I started hunting, opening day and the early bow season has always been one of my favorite times of the year to hunt. I’ve killed many bucks during the first week or two of the season. I hear of so many guys who hardly hunt until late October because they want to hunt the rut. While the rut can be an exciting time to hunt, I’m trying to kill a good buck from the beginning of the season to the end. I’ve found some sure-fire ways of putting myself and my hunting buddies on big deer in the early season.
Here is a picture of Andy Nevar on the opening evening in Wisconsin on the family farm. Kyle and I took the time to share the families opening weekend with them. While we saw lots of bucks, nothing came close enough for a shot. Had a great time regardless...
Andy pointing out the spot where he and his brothers all shot their first bucks off of their fathers knee on the family farm.
Why is early season a great time to catch a big buck? Well, first and foremost – if you haven’t been pounding you’re properties hanging stands and scouting, the deer haven’t yet been pressured by hunters. You can get the first crack at a big deer before he knows he’s being hunted. Second biggest factor, he still may be on his late-summer feeding patterns; which you can sometimes observe from long distances, without getting into his core areas to know he is there. If you know a good one is running around you’re neck of the woods, you can scout, hunt, and kill this buck on you’re first set of the season.
Put yourself in the shoes of a big buck. He’s been hanging around with his buddies all summer long, not feeling pressured, he’s relaxed (as relaxed as a big buck can get anyway). He’s been eating, drinking, and sleeping during the warm summer months; without any priority other than those. This time of year the testosterone is starting to flow once again. The buck has shed his velvet, and is now starting to get that “itch” again. All bucks rub from the time they shed their velvet until they drop their antlers in the late winter. At certain points of the season, the amount of rub activity will change based on their testosterone levels, and pressure from other deer and humans alike.
I’ve been lucky to have had the opportunity to hunt with some pretty unbelievable deer hunters over the years. Some of these guys are arguably the best in the country. They’ve taught me a lot about big buck behavior, many things I had never even considered before. I’ve done a lot of listening, and have tried and tested many of the theories that were explained to me along the way. I’ve found some theories are random, just not repeatable. Others can be used time and time again with the same or similar results. The following example is something that I use every season, and now have video documentation to back up much of what I believe goes on this time of year.
More often than not, dominant bucks will be the first bucks that will give you a clue to not only their presence, but their daily activities. In my opinion and experience, the dominant bucks can be some of the easiest bucks to kill – especially during early season. Sometimes these deer may not be the largest antlered deer in the area, but generally speaking – a big ol’ dominant deer usually caries some serious head-gear with him, and an upper age-class – which is how we decide what our “shooter” deer are. At least that is the case here in Iowa where mature deer are around. Depending on where you are hunting, the dominant buck can be anywhere from 1-1/2 to 7 or 8 years old. Sometimes, the most aggressive buck in an area isn’t necessarily the oldest; the biggest bodied, or have the largest racks. Consider deer are just like humans, each one is a little different.
When thinking about whitetail bucks, I often think about my group of good friends that I know the best. In a group of 10 guy friends, how many have the same exact personality? Just like humans, every deer has a personality that is unique to them. Just like some of the guys you probably know – some of them are bar-room brawlers; while others are as timid as little boys. This is something that every deer hunter must consider when applying any tactics to killing whitetails. Nothing works every-time; but, consistency between typical whitetail behaviors does exist. These types of things can work time and time again, regardless of where you hunt.
My early season big buck killing tactic is based on primarily one thing – buck sign. Tracks, Scrapes, and most-importantly RUBS! I could go into description after description of what to do and look for – but instead I will use the best example I can come up with. This past Saturday (September 23rd), I went out with White Knuckle team member Dan Johnson (aka Dallas Fort Worth) to check out a new piece of property that he had just accessed recently. Dan and I walked a majority of the property when we ducked into a draw (nasty ravine). Within walking 10 feet into the timber I knew we had struck gold! I’m actually writing this article because I have once stumbled across the same thing.
Here is a picture of Dallas heading into the farm. He's urging me come along just like he was in Happy Gilmore and looking for his home!
Earlier in the scouting mission, I had noticed that most of the timber was pretty open. I asked Dan if there were any areas on the property that had any thicker underbrush. Dan replied with “oh-yeah, on the other side of the property”. I told him “I’ll bet you anything, we find the thick stuff and we will find buck signs all-along the outer edge”. Sure enough, several hundred yards later – we found that spot. Like so-many hunting hot-spots in timber, much of the deer activity is found on edges. This particular edge was not a field edge, but instead it was found in middle of a draw, where the increased number of saplings and thick underbrush formed an almost obvious “line” of thick versus not thick. This was a perfect example of an inner-timber edge. Deadly, just deadly!
A picture from the non-thick area of the property. Pretty, cool...
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Here is a picture of Dan and one of the rubs...
Another shredded tree...
Upon seeing nearly a dozen rubs as soon as we stepped into the timber, I stopped, and my mind and body instantly realized what we had just walked into. I instantly began studying the surrounding terrain, and looking for potential set-ups. Once we had gotten 20 or 30 yards into the timber, we could clearly see more rubs running into the thick and nasty stuff. Dan was continuing into this area, dying to see some of these big rubs up-close and personal. I quietly whistled at Dan, gesturing him to come back toward me. I instantly told Dan, “We need to get the heck out of here man”! I quickly explained to Dan that we could only do damage at this point. We know he’s here, why chance blowing him out when this was clearly the spot to set-up - right here! That is the difference between me now, and about 5 years ago when I would have blown through the entire draw to see every piece of the puzzle. There is a time and a place for a detailed scouting mission – and typically that is going to be in March when we are shed hunting an area.
The old phrase “curiosity killed the cat” rings true for us hunters as well. Accept it is more like “curiosity doesn’t kill the buck”. At this time of year, late September and Early October – you find an area of buck sign concentrated like this, and you can assume you are in the core-area of an aggressive buck. If you don’t screw it up – you can kill the buck that made this sign the very first evening on-post. If you don’t screw it up.
Upon leaving the timber I told Dan that spots like the one we had just found get me as excited as anything I find anytime of year. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been scouting early season to find a sign exactly like this, acted fast, and had an opportunity at the buck making the sign on the first time in. In this case, there was a perfect tree right on the edge of the timber and the field that would allow us to set-up without having to trim more than a couple branches, the day we intended to hunt. We left the area immediately to keep the amount of scent we deposited in the area to a minimum. The difference between this buck smelling that we were there and not is EVERYTHING! If he comes through that sport during day-light hours and smells human, you just lost the element of surprise. You may or may-not get a poke at that buck in that same area, but I can tell you one thing, it is the difference between a buck sneaking through the same area at low-light or dark, or wandering nearly carelessly through that area during daylight hours. An area of concentrated sign means one thing, a buck spends time in that area. He is comfortable there, obviously lives near-by, and is the definition of a “killable” deer. In this particular area, as many of my previous set-ups, I would bet the buck was bedded within 100 yards of that spot when we found it.
Last year on October 4th I was fortunate to have a cameraman behind me when I walked into a very similar situation. We scouted early in the morning after a slow sit, with the temperatures in the mid 70’s at 7:30 in the morning. We scouted, found the sign, and returned that evening to set a stand and hunt. We set the stand based on the wind at the time we were hunting, which is the biggest advantage to a “run & gun” type set-up. About an hour later, I passed a 140 class ten-point at point-blank range, and killed a different 140 class buck 5 days later from the same set. The differences between the two encounters were night and day. The buck I passed came strolling through, smelled my cameraman’s “steady-cam” that was leaning against our tree. He continued straight below us and started eating leaves off the Maple branches that I had just cut an hour earlier. The buck continued “dinking around” us all night, and even looked up at us in the tree twice. At dark, when a doe had winded us and started stomping and snorting – he refused to flee. He stood there nearly dumb-founded at what this doe was carrying on about. 5 days later with the exact same wind, the buck I ended up killing came in and displayed a level of caution that was 180 degrees different than the previous encounter. They were both 4-1/2 year old deer (as far as I know), and I believe the buck we killed had smelled “human” in that area a few days earlier and you could nearly read it through his body language. We could be lucky he showed during daylight at all, but I believe the sweet falling white oak acorns were his demise on this particular hunt.
Here is a picture of the buck I passed last year - you can see the branches I trimmed in the background - bright green...
A buck that hasn’t smelled a human in his core area will often times walk into a feeding or staging area (which these are about as good of examples as I know) without having the wind 100% in his favor. He has no reason to be concerned so-long as he hasn’t had a recent encounter with human scent in that particular area. Best of all, if you are hunting and a buck does wind you; often times this first time into his core area is confusing to him. His reaction time or “flight” can sometimes be delayed, often times giving you an opportunity to put an arrow through his boiler-room. Upon impact, the buck knows he just screwed up big-time, and it just cost him his life.
The one that fell last year because of an early season mistake - comfort...
Over the years I’ve come to love the first time into these early season sets. I don’t even scout many of these areas until the day I’m walking (and filming) into a spot to hunt it for the first time. Using the previous seasons hunts, and shed hunting for a majority of my back-ground on a particular area. I will quietly slip into these areas that have produced in the past, and “Run & Gun” these set-ups based on the sign and winds at that moment in-time. To this day – it has been as effective as any other tactic strictly because you (or other hunters) haven’t had a chance to blow it yet. You have plenty of season left to do that!
Dallas gettin' er done in SE Iowa...
The best part about the “run & gun” style of set-ups is that you can literally scout, hang, and hunt a set anywhere – anytime. You can study aerial photographs and topo maps to give you a starting point, and improvise from there. You walk into a new piece of property, if done correctly – you can be set-up in the best spot on the farm, for a particular deer. You will bump bucks – but that comes along with it. You just have to know when to stop, and when to continue on. I’m still learning every year!
The corn is coming out boys and girls...
Good luck this season everyone – kill a big-one!