Early Season Whitetail Strategies
By Ralph Scherder
Mature whitetails can be killed any day of the season – data from big game records all across the country proves it. With hunting seasons in many states opening earlier and earlier every year, if you’re not in a treestand come opening day, you could be missing your chance at a good buck. But like any other time of year, if you want early season success, you need a game plan.
Phase one of my game plan is low impact scouting. Rather than charging into an area, even one I know by heart, I play it cool and spend a few summer evenings glassing any crop fields with binoculars from a distance. Try to get a sense of how deer are moving throughout the area before rushing in for a closer look. The goal here is to limit activity actually in the woods and do all the homework you can from afar. Whitetails, after all, can be sensitive to any human presence, especially big, mature bucks. Too much pressure too soon can tip them off that they’re being hunted, at best, or push them completely out of an area, at worst.
Aerial maps are great, low impact scouting tools, as is Google Earth or any other equivalent software that allows you to see the terrain and locate pinch points and bedding areas using satellite images. Just be sure that you’re viewing current maps that have been updated since cuttings or habitat management have occurred.
Talking to the landowner or neighbors can provide some useful information, too. In my experience, nonhunters are the best resource because we’re not in competition for those deer. Hunters are after the same thing I am and may not be as willing to talk about every big buck they’ve seen. Some may even try to steer me away from the area if they’ve spotted an exceptional wallhanger, so I take anything they tell me with a grain of salt.
Phase two of my early season game plan involves getting in the woods and doing some actual footwork. Based on information gleaned from maps or personal experience, I try to locate bedding and feeding areas and focus on figuring out how deer move between the two. Even if it’s an area you’re very familiar with, don’t skip the footwork. Food sources can change from year to year. Also, every mature buck is an individual; how he moves throughout an area will differ from other bucks before him.
Hang trail cameras in natural funnels and pinch points as well as near food sources to find out which routes are most frequently traveled. In my opinion, most hunters don’t use enough trail cameras to cover an area effectively. One for every 30-40 acres is a good ratio, but more cameras are always better. Any fewer than that and there are just too many gaps where a buck can slip through undetected.
The goal with trail cameras isn’t just to locate bucks – it’s to pattern them. Getting occasional pictures of a buck every two weeks or so isn’t good enough. All that means is that you’re not in his core area where he spends most of his time. You’ll know you’re in his core area when you start getting pictures of him several times a week, if not every night.
Phase three of the early season game plan: once I’ve established a whitetail's core area, it’s time to start hanging stands. Never rely on one stand to get the job done. Multiple stands in multiple funnels and travel corridors will provide options when weather and wind patterns shift. Also, it will help keep you in a positive mindset to see different scenery now and then.
Early in the season, I avoid hunting stands too many days in a row unless I feel absolutely positive that a particular buck can be killed by doing so. It’s risky, though, because deer can end up patterning you rather than the other way around. If you’ve hunted a stand multiple days in a row and have noticed a drop in activity, or you’ve been busted by deer two days in a row, a break is probably necessary. In those cases, I prefer to wait a week or more before returning to that location.
The most consecutive days I’ve ever hunted a stand was 11, and on the 11th day I killed a nice 10 point. Granted, there were two Sundays mixed in there (you can’t hunt on Sundays in Pennsylvania), but that was still a long stretch in one spot. My reasoning was simple: I kept getting trail camera pictures of the 10-point visiting an apple tree in a funnel between two timbered areas where the buck preferred to bed. The fact that it visited the tree religiously every evening shortly after dark, and then again after midnight, meant that my presence wasn’t affecting his movements. Also, thanks to a grassy tractor trail that allowed quiet access to the stand, I could slip in and out virtually unnoticed. Where many hunters go wrong during the early season is that they place stands along field edges and food plots where they’ve been watching deer feed all summer long. That’s fine, but be sure to have an exit strategy in case there are deer in the field after shooting hours. Push them out of the field every evening and deer will quickly become nocturnal or start avoiding the area altogether.
The same holds true with all stands I place. I always make sure there’s some sort of trail or creek bottom available nearby that allows me to get in and out with little disturbance. This tactic goes a long way toward keeping stands fresh and reducing the impact of your presence. Remember, hunting pressure is the primary factor that turns whitetails nocturnal. Reduce the effects of pressure and deer will move more during daylight hours.
Phase four of my early season plan involves hunting food sources. That’s hard. This time of year, food is king. Opening week, that can mean food plots, crop fields, and soft mast. Few things draw deer more consistently, I’ve found, than fruit trees. Locate fruit trees in some sort of natural funnel in the woods and you have a deadly combination for early season whitetails.
As the season wears on, food sources shift and hard mast such as acorns gets most of the attention. A lot of times, this shift is referred to as the October lull, which typically occurs mid-month. The common belief is that whitetails aren’t moving during this week or two leading up to the rut, but that’s not true. More often than not, they’re just transitioning from one food source to another, primarily oak or beech flats depending on the type of hardwoods in your area.
If I find that deer aren’t getting to the food source until well after dark, I backtrack their movements as much as possible and focus on stand locations closer to bedding areas with the hopes of intercepting them during legal shooting hours. This is especially true during unseasonably warm stretches of weather. The hotter it gets, the later in the evening deer will move, so stay in your stand as long as possible before giving up on evening hunts. It pays to watch the weather this time of year, too. Storm fronts can get deer on their feet earlier than usual, and cold fronts following unseasonably warm weather can be golden.
The nice thing about early season is that deer generally have smaller ranges. There are exceptions, of course, and some deer are natural roamers; but this time of year there are fewer distractions, primarily those in the form of does in estrus, to pull them out of their core areas. This time of year, it’s all about food and bulking up for the rut, and they do it where they feel most comfortable.
Phase five: be selective. Set goals prior to the season regarding the size or age of buck you’d like to harvest and stick to it. Don’t shoot the first buck that presents an opportunity unless it meets the standards you’ve set for yourself.
For all the reasons above, I’ve always found it easier to target specific bucks in the early season. Once the rut comes, the buck I’m after could be chasing a doe in the next county over for all I know, and he may not return until after the season. Also, with more hunters in the woods during the rut, that buck could end up on someone else’s wall before I even get a crack at him. But on opening day of archery, and during the first few weeks of the season, you can be pretty sure that buck at the top of your hit list is still somewhere close to where you’ve been seeing him all summer long.
Despite these benefits, many bowhunters have mixed emotions about early season hunting. For many, the early season is defined as the slow time before the rut. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With a little homework and a game plan, the early season can be the best time to hunt.