Big deer roam far and wide during the rut, but the best time to kill a buck may be now, when they’re boring homebodies. In September, bucks divide their lives into three simple compartments—eating, sleeping, and staying alive. The best hunters learn how to use this predictability to their advantage. In fact, many top-notch trophy hunters I know have tagged some of their nicest bucks, either with a bow or muzzleloader, during the early season.
The drawback to early-season hunting is that the world of a September whitetail is very small, and his tolerance for intrusion even smaller. Disturb a buck once, and he’ll get spooky. Bump him twice, and he’ll likely abandon his routine or wait until nightfall to feed. Success requires both thorough scouting and the discipline to hunt only when conditions are perfect.
How to Hunt Early-Season Farm Deer
Start at a food source. At this time of year, whitetails are food-focused to a fault. Give a buck (or a group of bucks, as summer bachelor groups are often still intact) a prime food source where he’s rarely disturbed, and he’ll visit it with regularity.
In farmland, early-fall cropfields present a virtual whitetail buffet, but mature bucks will gravitate toward secluded (read not visible from a road) plots near dense bedding cover. Before the season starts, visit such alfalfa, soybean, and winter-wheat fields at midday and look for track-laced entry trails and feeding sign. Once you identify a hotspot, select an observation site that’s 200 yards or more downwind. It should afford a view of the entire field and allow you to exit undetected. Grassy hillsides are ideal; I’ve also climbed up a large tree or hunkered among abandoned farm buildings.
Return in the evening with a quality binocular or spotting scope. Note where, when, and under what wind directions bucks enter the field. It’s important to make as many trips to the field as possible to identify all the deer using it (not every buck will appear every night) and to establish patterns. If possible, find multiple feeding sites so you can spread your hunting effort among several areas.
As the season approaches, it’s time to set up an ambush. Your long-distance surveillance should have revealed potential stand trees or ground-blind setups. Ideally, those spots will be no more than 25 yards (for bow, farther for muzzleloader) from an entry trail and downwind from the prevailing wind direction. About a week before the opener, visit the spot at midday to erect your stand or blind. I like to do this just prior to a rain (which cleanses the woods of residual scent) or on a hot, windy day (whitetails can’t smell or hear well under such conditions).
How to Hunt Early-Season Big-Woods Deer
Hunters in more wooded terrain don’t have the luxury of watching from long range, but it’s still possible to take advantage of early-fall patterns. If trees of the white oak family are present, their late-summer acorn drop will pull deer like softball players to a free keg of beer. Conveniently, you can scout the acorn crop before the season by visiting healthy stands and glassing the treetops. As the nuts begin to fall, revisit oak stands at midday to look for feeding sign and identify the hottest trees.
Minus oaks, deer may key on other mast crops such as beechnuts or apples. Browse species such as aspen are always attractive, as are grasses and forbs that grow near woodland openings and edges.
How do you determine which feeding areas are preferred by big bucks? Nearby rubs and scrapes provide the clues. Don’t think that you need to find thigh-thick rubs and washtub scrapes to know you’re onto a trophy. Mature deer usually produce the season’s first buck sign, and I’ve seen numerous instances where a monster seemed to warm up for the rubbing season by picking on smaller trees.
When feeding and buck sign line up to pinpoint an ambush spot, hang a stand and determine the perfect wind directions for hunting it. Then, take a vow to only return when the conditions are right. A lot of hunters don’t have this discipline, and as a result they ruin perfect stand locations.
Get In and Out Undetected
Leaving the woods without spooking deer is essential for keeping the spot fresh. In farm country, have a buddy drive a truck or ATV as close as possible to your stand to pick you up. Your approaching partner will spook deer off the food source long enough for you to bail out. Ag-land deer encounter vehicles frequently and won’t view one as a serious threat. If you don’t know anyone who can help, use terrain features—the back side of a ridge, a creek bed or ditch, a tree-lined fencerow—to make a silent exit downwind of feeding deer.
In wooded habitat, I use pruning shears to clip a narrow walking trail from my stand to a logging road or other major exit route. Do this in the preseason, and deer will quickly accept your path as part of the landscape.
You will inevitably bump some deer, but don’t worry. Just rest the spot for a few evenings and hunt some of the other areas that you have scouted. By spreading your effort across several sites, you should have an excellent chance of bagging a nice buck before many hunters start their season.