Early Season Deer Hunting Tactics
Finally, the moment we’ve all been waiting for …
This year’s archery opener is here, meaning early-season deer hunting is in full swing and the pressure is on for bowhunters to punch tags and fill freezers before the rut hits and pressure afield multiplies tenfold.
Because the early season is typically known for having far fewer hunters, it’s the perfect time to put your pre-season scouting to work. Less pressure from other hunters means better odds your target animals will maintain their current patterns – continuing to be active during the times of day and in the locations you’ve repeatedly seen them throughout the summer months.
Game cameras tell the real story
If you’re serious about being successful with your bow this season, chances are you spent the last few months babysitting a trail cam or two in some high-activity areas, identifying target early-season bucks and noting their habits.
Patterning those target whitetails will not only help determine where you should be hanging out and the time of day you should be doing so, but also when and by what travel corridors those target animals are moving day by day. Game cameras are also a great way to determine what keeps those deer coming back to the area.
Be sure to pay extra close attention to …
- Time of day. Because pressure is minimal during the early season, whitetails are still sticking tight to the habits they kept during the summertime. Chances are, they’re still most active during the evening hours, when temps are dropping and the sun is setting, allowing them to move between bedding areas and favorite feeding spots undetected. What we’re saying is that during the early season, hunting evening hours should be one of your top priorities.
- Transition lines. We know deer spend their time moving between bedding areas, food and water sources, and various degrees of cover. This makes transition lines, or areas with a gradual change from one type of terrain or purpose to another (think of an open field bordered with a plot of young trees that eventually gives way to a densely packed forest), great places to catch whitetails as they go about their days. Deer also utilize these locations for escape routes, fleeing their feeding spots and disappearing into thick cover where they’re virtually impossible to locate, so hanging out on these edges is often a very productive use of a bowhunter’s time afield.
- Frequency. One of the biggest mistakes a hunter can make early in the season is putting too much pressure on quality hunting spots. Overusing trail cams, moving blinds and treestands, and making repeated trips into and out of these locations only makes noise, spreads human odor, and ups the chances of disrupting the existing habits and patterns of area whitetail. Our advice? Simple: If it risks spooking killable deer from a known area, don’t do it.
Know where the wind blows
Once you’ve identified the best places to hunt based on those animals’ patterns, start paying attention to the weather forecasts in those areas – namely what the wind is doing.
Wind direction should determine your entry point for a given spot on any given day, which means it’s likely to change frequently. So, to keep from blowing out your prime hunting spots, and thus the deer you’ve spent so much time working to pin down, make sure you know what direction the wind is moving before barreling out into the field.
Whitetail, especially mature bucks, use the wind to their advantage. That’s not to say they’ve got the wind in their faces 100 percent of the time, but when it comes to staying alive, they know playing the weather offers some pretty solid odds. Whitetails will choose everything from feeding spots and travel routes to bedding locations based on which way the wind decides to blow each day – meaning not every one of your hunting spots can (or should) be hunted regardless of wind direction.
This means remaining committed to hunting the locations that are most ideal for the current weather scenario. For example, in the event of a southeast wind (wind is blowing from the south to the north and from the east to the west), the best way of accessing your hunting spot would be from the north and west, with the wind in your face. This ensures you’re downwind from any animals that might be in the area you plan to hunt and helps keep you from being busted via human odor floating on the breeze.
Scrub, spray and strip away your scent
Even if you play the wind right, scent can still render your effort a bust long before a hunt even begins.
As a human, there are plenty of odors we each add to ourselves every day, and that’s in addition to those that are inherently ours. You can bring your best fight to the scent-control battle by taking a few things into consideration as you prepare for your trip afield:
- Early season comes on the heels of summer, which means it’s still warm outside – warmer than warm at times, even. Dressing in lightweight, moisture-wicking clothes will help keep you cool, dry and focused on the stalk – not the beads of sweat you see rolling down your nose.
- Sweat happens, especially during early fall hunts. Try washing your hunting clothes with odor-eliminating detergents, spraying down equipment – including your bow hunting backpack – and showering with odor-killing soaps and shampoos. Don’t just eliminate existing smells – do everything you can to keep them away all season long.
- Because it can be so warm (and because humans are funky smelling critters by nature), there are plenty of smells we leave behind too. Be prepared. Before leaving your spot and calling it a day, spray the area down. You wouldn’t want those whitetails knowing where you like to hang out, would you?
- That’s right, scent doesn’t only cling to us, we also leave a good trail of it behind wherever we go. So, once you’re in the field, try not to do more moving around than is absolutely necessary. Do your best to stay put. The more ground you cover, the more brush and grass your body touches and the more scent you spread around.
- Remember, early season equals warmer temps and warmer temps up the smelly perspiration factor. To lessen your chances of getting sticky and stinky, wear the bare minimum while hiking into your chosen spot. Jackets, caps, facemasks … all the extras can wait until you’re situated.
Get out there – WAY out
When it comes down to it, big deer – whitetail especially – are big for a reason. That meaning they’re good at staying the heck away from people and the myriad of weapons some happen to carry with them during the fall and winter months.
The best way for them to go about this? Simple – go where the people don’t.
As bucks age, their home ranges tend to become smaller and smaller, and their travel routes more and more predictable. Why? Because they know better than to mess with a good thing since they’re still alive, after all.
So, if you’re hoping to down a bruiser during bow season, or any other season for that matter, your best bet is to do as they do and hike yourself deep into the toughest-to-access nooks and crannies of the property you’re hunting (and if you’re hunting public land, hike as far as you think you need to, then hike even farther). Few hunters are willing to lug themselves, their bows, and all their gear a few miles off the nearest track into the thickest cover or deepest ravines just to prevent running into another human.
It also pays to be patient. Older whitetails are better at adjusting to hunting pressures and move more deliberately than younger bucks – sticking more tightly to cover, hanging back, observing their surroundings carefully, and waiting on hot does rather than chasing every gal they see. If their home range begins to receive constant pressure from hunters, they’ll quickly change their habits and learn to avoid the area altogether.
It’s true, anything can happen when you put yourself at the mercy of the great outdoors. And while most hunting tactics aren’t etched in stone – we’re talking about wild animals here, after all – sticking tight to these early-season hunting tactics is sure to up your odds of a shooting opportunity with your archery setup this fall, even if you’re a rookie bow hunter.