JAMES WOODLEY UNDERSTANDS why everyone loves the rut. But when it comes to tagging a big buck he’s scouted, he wants to get it done before the breeding season. “The rut is unpredictable. Ninety percent of the bucks we kill then are deer we’ve never seen before,” says Woodley (right), the head guide at Illinois’s Heartland Outfitters (217-773-3003; “But at this time of year, I can find a buck, pattern him, and get him killed–as long as I know where he eats.”

With so much food available to early-season deer, however, learning exactly where a buck fills up now is no easy task. So let Woodley teach you.****

The Assignments
#1: Narrow the Field
“Despite what many hunters think, bucks feed actively in October,” Woodley says. Problem is, with acorns dropping and fruit ripening, there’s food just about everywhere. So you have to pinpoint the absolute hottest spots. A small mature white oak stand is a good example. Another is an early-fall food plot. “I add wheat, oats, and rye to my clover field, and that really draws the deer.” Just-picked corn and soybean fields are also excellent. “They’ll suck in every deer in the area.”

#2: Learn the Loop
Woodley has found that early-season bucks tend to feed in a looplike pattern. “They’ll fill up at one of the hotspots for a day or two, then move on to another, and then perhaps to a third before coming back to the original spot in about a week. You have to scout constantly to keep up.”

When it’s hot and dry, bucks favor acorns or soft mast in the woods, particularly on north slopes, Woodley says. “That’s when I check oak flats at midday for fresh rubs or scrapes.” Rainy weather puts bucks in fields and food plots during the afternoon. “That’s when I glass open areas from my truck.”

ONCE YOU’VE NAILED down the buck’s pattern, place a stand near the hottest sign at each stop on the feeding circuit. Ideally, this will allow you to hunt several different winds. Moreover, by rotating stands, you’ll avoid alerting a wary buck by sitting at any one of them too often. For each spot, Woodley likes to go in at midday with a buddy. “I hang the stand while he clears the limbs and brush,” he says. “We get in and out quickly and try to leave as little scent as possible. A lot of our clients think these stands should be rested, but I believe in finding the sign, setting up, and hunting right away.”

Now it’s just a matter of being in the right stand to match the wind, weather conditions, and feeding pattern. That approach paid off for Woodley last fall. “I was glassing a just-picked cornfield when I found a secluded corner that the deer were hitting hard. I hung a set, and my hunter killed a 145-inch 10-pointer the first night. The wind was wrong the next day, but the third afternoon we were back, and another hunter dropped a 180-inch monster.”