Depending on where you live, early-season deer hunting can mean sweltering in 80-degree temperatures or watching frost burn off a clover field at dawn. Either way, there are two main factors characterize this part of the season: (1) The rut doesn’t play a role, and (2) selecting the best stand site will mean locating the deer’s favorite foods and pinning down the routes they use to reach them.
Early-season deer don’t do much wandering, but their travel patterns do change because their food choices vary. Each plant has a period of peak palatability and nutritional value. Deer know that intuitively and will alter their travel according to what food is most helpful for their survival and most palatable from week to week. The better you can stay on top of the hottest feeding areas, the more likely you are to enjoy early-season success. You can set up on food itself or along a route that deer use to get there. Here’s are a dozen great spots, of both types.
1. Brassica Plots After Several Frosts
Mature bucks are often reluctant to enter food plots in full light. But if there’s one thing that will entice them in during shooting light, it’s a field of rape, turnips, radishes, and kale after several nights of frost. Temperatures that drop below freezing convert starches in these plants to sugars, providing a tasty treat and energy boost that bucks crave with the approach of winter and the challenges of the rut lying ahead.
Tip: Glass or use trail cameras to see which brassica plots mature bucks are hitting and what parts of the plot they favor on different wind conditions. Find a good tree just off the plot and downwind, preferably 20 to 40 feet back from the edge, but with good visibility of where the deer enter and do most of their feeding. The best wind will typically be from the north or northwest, as these bring the season’s first frosts.
2. Fruit Trees
Wild apple, pear, or persimmon trees can be early-season buck magnets. The sweet fruits appeal to some deer more than others; it really seems to be an individual taste thing. But I’ve seen mature bucks walk right through alfalfa fields to scarf down a couple of pears or persimmons that fell overnight. The fruit not only tastes good, it offers energy-boosting sugars and high levels of phosphorous and vitamins. Set up near fruit trees with large tracks and rubs nearby or those where you’ve seen bucks or caught them on trail cameras.
Tip: Keep in mind that deer won’t necessarily visit these trees every day. After they clean up the fallen fruit, it may take a while for more to drop. Plan your hunt for the day after a cold front blows through. The drop in temperature and accompanying wind will not only stimulate deer activity; it will also knock more fruit off the tree. Bucks know that and will be homing in on these spots the day after a strong wind blows.
3. Freshly Cut Alfalfa or Clover Fields
You need to have an area with light pressure for these spots to pan out, since older bucks are wary of entering large fields in daylight after hunting pressure starts to build. But if you have such a setup, fields of these legumes can be great spots for an early-season hunt.
During summer, clover and alfalfa tend to suffer from high temperatures and drought. As fall’s cool air arrives, they begin to perk up. And they become even more attractive a week or two after they’ve been mowed or hayed. The plants quickly grow new shoots that are more tender and palatable with higher protein and nutritional content.
Tip: Watch alfalfa fields and see which ones look ripe for haying; then check with farmers and landowners to see when they are going to cut. Hunt the downwind edge of the cut field five to 10 days later. If you or your club owns the land, stagger your cutting dates in different fields so you can switch from one recently mowed location to another.
4. Shadow Trails
Bucks and does are still pretty much segregated at this time, and that definitely applies for mature bucks. They’ve holed up mostly alone during summer or maybe hung out with a few fellow senior citizens. And they like to do things their way, rather than tagging along tight with a herd of does and young bucks. They apt to go to the same evening feeding areas as those does and young bucks, but not along the same routes. Instead, they’ll use shadow trails—faint runways that parallel the main routes and wind through thicker cover or more arduous terrain.
Tip: First locate the major doe trails heading from bedding cover to feed areas; these usually stand out and are easy to find. Then do your detective work to pinpoint thinner, more lightly trodden paths 20 to 80 yards to the side of those well-worn trails. Find large fresh tracks to confirm they are being used and maybe a stray rub or two, or monitor suspected shadow trails with cameras. Hang your stand downwind of that skinny trail.
5. Water Holes
Deer need several quarts of water a day. They may get it on their way to evening feed areas or on a special trip midday if it’s particularly hot and dry. Spring seeps, small ponds, ditches that collect water—all can be great early-season stand sites if trail cameras or sign show that they’re being used. But keep in mind that for an older buck to visit a water source in shooting light, there needs to be security cover along his approach route and near the water itself.
Tip: Often the best water holes are ones you create. That way you can put them exactly where you want them in relation to prevailing winds, bedding areas, and security cover. A kid’s pool, livestock trough, pond-liner material, or special deer-watering systems all work. Alternately, you can dam up small wet-weather streams. Plant conifers, fast-growing shrubs, or tall grasses if needed. Hang the stand at the water hole if wind and cover offer a good ambush spot. If not, follow the approaching tracks back far enough to find the perfect downwind tree along an approach route.
6. Oak Stands
When hunters complain about the “October lull,” the truth is deer have probably just switched their food source from fields to hard mast in the woods. No matter how many times you’ve watched deer in alfalfa or clover fields during August, once the acorns drop, they’ll abandon the legumes and move to that food source. They need the carbohydrate source and energy to help them survive winter.
The key to finding the best hard mast stands is to locate an area that has a particularly large number of acorns, especially the sweeter white oaks that have less tannin. Look for large hoof prints, scuffed leaves, scattered rubs, and a good tree where you’ll be undetected.
Tip: Find the trees that drop their mast earliest and focus on those first. Also keep notes on which trees drop the most nuts and what date they start. They’ll usually be the best early producers next year at the same time. The optimum situation for hunting is when the overall mast crop is spotty. That concentrates deer in the relatively few areas that do have nuts.
7. Active Scrapes
You won’t find many scrapes in September or early October. Only old bucks create them this early. That’s what makes them so good. They identify a specific area with an active mature buck. (During the rut, any size buck could be scraping.) Search log landings, skid trails, natural clearings, finger ridges, saddles, and field edges for these earliest scrapes. They could pay off with a bruiser.
Tip: Hang a trail camera to see when the buck is using the scrape. If it’s just after dark, you’ll need to backtrack and catch him along his approach route. If you find a spot that looks perfect for a scrape and would be a good place to stop an animal for a clean shot, make your own and hang a camera to see if a good buck starts visiting.
8. Small Food Plot in the Woods
Large food plots in open areas are great places to fill a tag and do some herd control in the early season. But in most areas with any kind of hunting pressure, a mature buck is much more likely to make daylight visits to a small plot tucked into the woods and situated a bit closer (but not too close) to a buck’s bedding area.
To make a “kill plot,” as they are often called, find logging trails or landings or natural clearings farther back from evening feed areas and plant a small plot that even an old buck would be comfortable using during shooting light. Most wildlife seed companies make good mixtures for this type of plot, with names like Secret Spot, Hot Spot, No Plow, Bow Stand, and others. Make sure the site gets three to four hours of sunlight even with trees leafed out. Use a disk on an ATV or hand rake to scruff up the ground and add fertilizer and lime before planting. Most woods soil is too acidic.
Tip: If you want to economize, make your own kill-plot mix. Combine wheat or oats with annual clovers like crimson or arrowhead. To add enticement after a few nights with frost, mix in rape and radishes. This blend will come up and start drawing deer within a week or two. In the mostly food-barren woods, it will be hard for a big buck to resist.
9. Micro Staging Areas
Staging areas near the edge of evening feeding sites are places where bucks and does gather before entering the more exposed food source as darkness falls. But the wariest mature bucks often hang back in the woods even farther.
Backtrack from those major staging areas towards thicker or more elevated bedding cover and find benches, dips, points, or knolls with a bit more cover than the surrounding woods. That’s where you’ll pinpoint these micro staging areas, where the largest animals hang back before dark. A few big rubs, large tracks, beds, and nibbled-on browse will help you pinpoint them.
Tip: Get into these sites early. Since they’re situated closer to bedding cover, deer may show up here a full hour or more before shooting light ends, intending to loaf around and nibble secondary foods or simply wait for darkness to fall.
10. Rub Lines
Scattered, random rubs are not very helpful sign. But if you can find a line of rubs between bedding and evening feed areas, you’ve pinpointed a regular travel route and a good early-season bet for a stand. Look for rubs on larger trees, 3 inches or more in diameter. Rubs on small trees can be made by any size buck, but young bucks seldom rub large, thick trees.
Tip: Be careful not to follow the rub line back too close toward bedding cover. About halfway between daytime hangouts and evening feeding sites is about as far as you should go.
11. Stream Crossing along a Field Edge
Streams through brushy or wooded habitat are often used by early-season bucks for both water and as a natural travel corridor. A good crossing trail that leads to a feeding area doubles the potential—and is a great spot to hang an evening stand.
Tip: You need the perfect wind to hunt this stand. Be patient. Save this spot when a steady breeze will carry your scent away from deer following the stream course and those crossing it.
12. Browse Cornucopia
Dense thickets of blackberry, raspberry, grape, and honeysuckle remain attractive to deer well into bow season. They ate the fruits in summer. Now they’re switching to the leaves and tenderest parts of the stems. Deer particularly like the new lighter-green leaves that re-sprout after they’ve consumed the larger ones (similar to the animals’ preference for re-growing clover and alfalfa after those plants have been cut). They also like the security cover these plants offer.
Tip: These plants are most common along fields and forest borders, fence lines, cleared areas in woods, brushy edges, and logging roads. That sometimes makes trees for stands scarce. Solve that by setting up a ground blind or a tower stand.
You can also concentrate deer activity around these plants by fertilizing them with 10-10-10 before the season. You can toss on a few buckets of pelletized lime around them, too. That will enhance the protein, tonnage, and palatability of those plants near your stand compared to surrounding ones and entice bucks into chip-shot range.