What You Need to Hunt Early-Season Bucks
Your chance for an early-season bruiser buck is just around the corner. Here's how to get venison before the first frost.
WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR? October? November?! Forget that. Today’s whitetail fanatics have learned that the early archery opener is a killer time to tag a giant. Here’s your guide, with seven deadly bowhunting setups for summer-pattern deer, plus hot tips from the country’s best archers.
So grab your bow, or go buy one, and start hunting now, during a late-August or September archery season. What you’ll find is a still widely underappreciated opportunity that turns traditional deer hunting on its ear: light competition, unpressured deer, bucks roving in packs, and bruisers waltzing into the wide open two hours before the end of shooting light. It may be your best shot at a trophy all year.
1. The Water Trap
Hunting Whitetails near water is always a good idea, but in the warmth of the early season, H2O really shines. Thirsty deer tend to visit ponds, creeks, seeps, and springs more frequently now. More important, they hit discreet sources near primary feeding areas like clockwork before heading out for the evening meal—making these spots killer bow-stand sites. If your property doesn’t hold such a water source, dig a small pond in a known staging area a few weeks before the season, let the rain fill it up, and proceed like this:
A. Sweeten the Plot: Plant clover or ryegrass in a small strip around the pond to stabilize the banks and give deer something to nibble on. Spade up some dirt nearby and pour deer minerals in the loose soil (where legal). The lure of a lick wanes as fall advances, but it will attract deer next spring and summer, turning your pond into a regular stop for deer through the year.
B. Double Up: Hang two stands. The first should offer an easy shot to the pond and be suitable for the prevailing early-season wind. The second should account for a secondary wind and may be slightly farther off the water. Make sure both allow an entry that skirts bedded deer and an exit that avoids the main food source.
C. Direct Traffic: Steer deer upwind of your primary stand: Pile brush you cut to block trails that bucks might use as their approach, or as they try to circle directly downwind.
2. The Rub Fest
Field-edge rubs are made only at night, and little rubs mean little bucks. The answer? It depends; later on as the rut approaches that’s mostly true, but during the early bow season these presumptions can be just plain wrong.
Bucks tend to bed very close to their food sources in late summer and early fall, commonly within 100 yards. So there’s little distinction now between a bedding-area rub and a feeding-area rub. And shortly after velvet shed, most fresh rubs are made by mature deer regardless of tree size. Large deer simply start earlier than little guys, and they don’t always need a telephone pole for a punching bag.
A. Find the Party: Walk the edges of early-season food sources, searching for rubs where the debarked side faces away from the food. These were made by a buck headed for dinner.
B. Stand In: Hang your stand downwind, within bow range of the sign.
C. See and Be Seen: If you can’t find a good tree inside bow range, hang your stand as close as possible to the natural sign and make a mock rub within shooting distance. Choose the same tree species the buck prefers (if available) and blaze a knee-high mark on it with a hand axe or the back of your hunting knife. Bucks are visual critters, and chances are good your boy will come over to investigate.
3. Buck Roost
It’s easy to oversimplify things when deer are on a late-summer feeding pattern. When a buck is visiting the same dining room every evening, we naturally assume he beds in the same spot every day. And he may. Or he might bed in a sumac patch off the east end of a feed field one day, along a brushy creek bed on the north end the next, and on a secluded ridge after that. Guess wrong on any given night in this case and your ambush is botched. Worse, you might spook the buck if he approaches or feeds downwind of you. But hey, if you’re a turkey hunter, you’ve already got the skills to kill a bed-hopping buck. You’ll need to do your “roosting” in the morning, though, as follows:
A. Beat the Sun: Rise well before dawn and drive to a place where you can observe your buck’s favorite feed field from a distance. Bucks tend to hit the sack very early now, so you’ll need to bring good light-gathering optics.
B. Buck Watch: As dawn breaks, glass to find your deer. Stay focused on him until he leaves the field, and note precisely where he exits. Since summer-pattern bucks rarely travel far to bed, it’s a good bet he’ll enter the field near this spot come evening.
C. Follow Up: Assuming the wind is right, return at midday and find the trail the buck used to exit the field. Now look for any other nearby sign—such as a rub or big track—that indicates where he’ll enter. (It may be the same trail.)
D. Take a Stand: Quietly hang your stand just downwind and you’ll have a great shot at tagging that buck in the evening.
4. The Bachelor Challenge
What every early-season bowhunter hopes to find—and has a good chance of encountering before the end of September—is a bachelor group of bucks still on a predictable late-summer feeding pattern, in which they hit the same evening food source well before dark, day after day. Tagging one of these boys can be a simple matter of long-distance patterning, stealthy stand hanging, and patience enough to wait for the right wind. Problem is, the biggest bachelor bucks have an annoying habit of entering feeding areas at oddball spots with fickle winds, an impossible approach, or lousy stand sites. Some guys will risk it anyway. They’ll move in and toss a Hail Mary. But most of them fail.
So what do you do?
Forget playing by the bucks’ rules and lure them to a spot where you’ve got the edge. While you’re at it, why not go for the biggest buck in the pack, too? Here’s exactly how:
A. Spy on Them: Glass the field from a distance for at least a week before the opener, looking for the precise spot(s) where bucks enter and their general direction of travel as they feed. Bring a watch and time their movements, noting when they reach specific landmarks, like a tree, field corner, rock, or knoll.
B. Stand Aside: Pick an alternate stand site when the bucks’ natural movement doesn’t allow for a high-percentage ambush. In the example shown here, the ravine’s swirling winds should keep you away. So look for a mature tree upwind of their normal line of travel, within sight of a landmark that they reach before dark. It must allow for a covert entry and exit.
C. Bluff Big: Put out a dominant buck decoy, such as the Flambeau Boss Buck (flambeauoutdoors.com), that will test the ego of the bachelor group’s alpha male. Forget smaller dekes; you don’t want Junior moving in and blowing your cover. Position the fake within 15 yards of your stand, facing the animals’ normal entry. The real boss will interpret the stare of an unknown “rival” as an aggressive posture and trot over to adjust his attitude.
D. Mouth Off: Call to your target buck with a grunt or light rattling if shooting light is running out or it seems he isn’t spotting your deke. Once it’s clear he hears you, grab your bow fast. He’s apt to charge in the second his back hairs bristle. Even if it doesn’t happen, there’s a consolation: You’ve set up far enough off the action that you can come back and try again whenever the wind is right.
5. The Food Fight
Big-Woods Hunters chuckle at the complaints of guys trying to refine stand placement over a 50×50-foot food plot they planted themselves. If you want a real head-scratcher, try zeroing in on exactly where an old buck is going to slip into a 500×500-foot oak ridge or old apple orchard. The buck can come from just about anywhere, and if he gets downwind, it’s game over. So what do you do?
You control the action, like this:
A. Get Your Back to the Wall: First, set your stand on the downwind (or quartering downwind) edge of the oak flat or orchard with a terrain-break barrier (such as a ridge or steep creek bank) behind you that will discourage a buck from circling.
B. Make a Scene: Before climbing into your stand, make a semicircle of three or four mock scrapes just upwind and within easy bow range of your tree. You don’t need scent, and forget the licking branch. These aren’t for long-term scent marking. Like rubs, scrapes hold a visual appeal for whitetails, and the mere sight of the churned-up dirt can bring a buck in those last few yards.
C. Rev Up: Now get in your stand, pull out your rattling antlers, and make some noise. Start with some light clacking that’s just enough to tempt a buck bedded nearby.
D. Don’t Hold Back: Then smack those bones. Wait a second! You’re not supposed to call aggressively in the early season, right? Well, that’s a tidbit of accepted wisdom you can toss out the window. As soon as a buck sheds velvet, he’s ready to rumble. Some of the most brutal fights take place during the early season. That doesn’t mean you should rattle on every September hunt, but this is the perfect situation for it. So put some muscle into it. Then wait till you see that bruiser trot in and spot your scrapes—you’ll swear you’re hunting the rut.
6. The Backdoor Stand
A lone white oak, a clump of two or three apple trees, or any other small, isolated concentration of preferred hard or soft mast surrounded by fresh buck sign is a welcome sight to any bowhunter. And it’s never better than right now. Later in the season, you’d set up between the buck’s bed and this grub to increase the odds that the deer will reach your stand during shooting light. But that’s less of an issue with early-rising summer-pattern bucks, especially when the food lies within the security of the woods. And that lets you create a nearly fail-safe setup. Here’s how to pull it off:
A. Scout the Grub: Occasionally inspect these secluded feeding areas for early fruit or mast and fresh sign that reveals the direction from which feeding deer come. Rainy days are ideal for this, as the precipitation washes away your scent.
B. Get Ahead: Return at midday, approaching from the opposite side the deer do. Don’t walk all the way to the food. Instead, hang your stand 15 to 20 yards ahead of it. This way, you minimize the chances of bumping a close-bedding buck and you leave no scent between the deer’s bedroom and kitchen.
C. Stay Put: When your buck waltzes in, all that’s left to do is to make the shot. Even if you don’t loose an arrow, stay there until full dark and watch which way the deer head after feeding. As long as they don’t get downwind, you can keep sneaking back to this stand with almost no way of getting busted, until you do seal the deal.
7. The Calorie Stash
In Farm Country, early-season bucks lead lives divided into two simple compartments: bedding and eating (typically at large agricultura lfields). But simple doesn’t always mean easy. Though bucks generally hit food sources earlier now, certain big ones may insist on hanging back in the woods until dark. Others may randomly use two or three different routes to the chow. You can counter these habits by luring bucks to a specific spot where they’ll feel safe during shooting light. Here’s how:
A. Log On: Find a small opening in the woods—a logging trail, a log landing, the void left by a large blowdown—that’s between a bedding area and a quality food source and that also has good deer trails nearby. Hang your stand just downwind.
B. Clean Up: A few weeks before the season, clear the area of grass, leaves, and debris. Scarify the soil using a weed whacker (or a heavy steel rake if you’re young and tough). Once as much dirt as possible is showing, broadcast pelletized lime over the area with your hands or a spreader.
C. Put Down Roots: Sow clover, wheat, or ryegrass after 24 to 48 hours, then wait. Within days after the first rain, tender green stuff will begin popping up in your hidden mini food plot, and even savvy bucks will start dropping by before heading to the big field after dark.
D. Make Your Mark: Make a line of mock scrapes with the rake or weed whipper while you’re at it, ensuring that each has a licking branch overhead. These will attract bucks, too, whether or not your seeds sprout in time for the opener. The rut may be weeks away, but mature bucks won’t be able to resist checking out the new sign in the neighborhood and will walk right under your stand to nose and paw them. —Scott Bestul
Your nock may be the most overlooked factor in hunting accuracy, says Scott Andress, owner of the Archery Shop in Pike County, Ill. (pikecountyarchery.com). “I can’t tell you how many guys come in saying they’ve got a couple of fliers and want new shafts or broadheads—when all they need are new nocks.” When nocks wear down, their connection to the string gets sloppy, affecting accuracy. Change them a couple of weeks before the season to tighten your groups and boost your confidence at the perfect time.
Deer decoys can do more than lure bucks into bow range, according to Tad Brown of Flambeau Outdoors (flambeauoutdoors.com). They can also be buck stoppers. “Early in the season when bucks are bachelored up and haven’t been hunted much, they have a tendency to charge right through a staging area and get to the middle of a soybean or alfalfa field before you can get a shot. You can grunt, but half the time they don’t hear you or they pay no attention.”
The solution: Put a buck decoy about 100 yards into the field and set up on the edge where the bachelor bucks typically enter. “The second they see a strange buck out there,” he says, “I can almost guarantee they’ll stop just inside or beyond the woodline. And all you have to do is shoot straight.”
Renowned archer Ray Howell can arrow a 50-cent piece at 100 yards. Founder of the Kicking Bear One-on-One outdoor mentoring program (kickingbear.org), he’s downed everything from turkeys to P&Y bucks to a polar bear. These are his steps to dead-on accuracy:
1. Check Arrow Flight: Put broadheads on brightly fletched hunting arrows, and shoot them into a section of black cardboard in front of a target. The dark background helps you see if the arrow is planing. “If it is, add more helical to your fletchings, which will spin the arrow faster and fix the problem nine times out of 10.”
2. Shoot Broadheads 365: Trying to make broadheads hit where your field points did can have you in fits. So buy a couple of extras and use them all year. “And only two at a time,” Howell says. “When you sling half a dozen arrows at once, your form breaks down and you develop bad habits.”
3. Aim Small, Miss Small: “Hitting pie-plate-size targets at 20 or 30 yards isn’t good enough. Instead, shoot at ½-inch adhesive squares or dots beyond your effective field range so that even a 30-yard shot at a buck seems easy.”
4. Get a Leg Up: In the field, when a buck turns broadside, Howell traces his pin up the rear side of the front leg to the vertical center of the animal’s body, then shoots. For quartering away, he uses the far front leg. “This is more than an aiming device. Shooting at the same point on every animal makes it seem routine and calms you at the moment of truth.”
The long-standing question with expandable broadheads is: How well do they expand? To find out, the Primos video team (primos.com) developed a simple test. “Set up cardboard in front of a target to act as the ‘skin’ of an animal and open the blades,” says Primos’s T.J. Williams. “Then take the vanes off some arrows and shoot different expandable heads through at about 10 yards.” With no vanes ripping the cardboard and confusing the cuts, you can see exactly how each head opens. Split the cost with friends to test several brands.
Move Your Butt
Don’t sit in the same stand again and again. “Do that and a big whitetail will pattern you,” explains Andrae D’Acquisto, coproducer of Whitetail Addictions. Instead, he goes after specific bucks aggressively from a brand-new perch every day. “I spend midday scouting for sign that tells me what the deer is doing right now. When I find it, I put up a stand and sit there that evening and again the next morning.” Then he takes down that stand and scouts for a fresh spot to ambush the same deer. “Even if a buck suspects I’m around, he never knows where I’m going to hit him from. My hunting partners and I have been arrowing lots of very big deer this way.”
Green Means “Go!”
The pins on new bow sights feature at least three colors, right? “So use them,” says Bowtech pro Greg Staggs (bowtecharchery.com). “Manipulate the order of the pins to maximize the benefits of each color—it’s easy to do.”
In waning light most hunters lose the ability to see red first, followed by yellow, then green. Meanwhile, effective killing range shrinks as daylight fades. So Staggs arranges his pin colors to match the light. “My red 40-yard pin winks out about the same time I should no longer be shooting at that distance,” he says. “Same goes for my yellow 30, and last my green 20. On morning hunts, each pin lights up when I can safely shoot its corresponding distance.”
And in any light, that pin order reveals familiar signals. Red mean “Stop!” (“This is a 40-yard shot—are you sure you should take it?”) Yellow means “Caution!” (“Thirty yards is no gimme; concentrate.”) And green means “Go!” (“Now you’re close—take that shot.”)
Lose to Gain
“I recently added about 20 yards to my effective range,” says Whitetail Addictions coproducer Adam Hays, who double-lunged a 160-inch 8-pointer last year at 58 yards. He must have improved his shooting form or spent more time at the range, right? “Nah, I just really lightened my hunting arrow, and the flatter trajectory did the rest.”
Specifically, he swapped his 125-grain broadheads for an 85-grain model, started using 7.3-grains-per-inch arrow shafts rather than 8-plus-grains-per-inch shafts, cut his arrow length from 30 to 26 inches, and replaced his 5-inch vanes with 2-inchers. “All told, I dropped more than 105 grains. I never used to shoot beyond 40 yards. Now I’m comfortable out to 60.” —Dave Hurteau
Three Tricks for Finding Big Early-Season Bucks
1. Glass for Fearlessness
By far the best way to identify a bully is simply to watch him. Naturally, this is time- and labor-intensive, because you’ll have to monitor fields (alfalfa and soybean are tops) for a bunch of late-summer evenings. You’re looking for a buck that visits the field regularly in daylight and is unafraid of other bucks. Even in velvet, a bully will ooze attitude as he postures and intimidates other bucks. Bachelor groups are common in late summer, but by bow season they’ve largely dispersed; a bully will stick around as subdominant bucks relocate to find safer places to live.
2. Hunt First Sign
If observation is impossible (such as in big-woods habitat), boot leather can lead you to a bully. My hunting buddies and I have found several dominant bucks just by scouting early-season food sources for the first traces of buck sign. Rubs and scrapes made shortly after velvet shed are almost always the work of a mature animal, even if those rubs are on pencil-thin trees and the scrapes look small and unimpressive. If you find buck sign in September, don’t waste time wondering whether its maker is worth hunting—find a spot to hang a stand.
3. Make a Movie
I’m all for trail cams and run many of them, but zeroing in on a bully buck by examining a bunch of still photos is difficult. You’ve got a better shot if you place your cams on a mock scrape and set them on video mode. One 20- to 30-second film of a buck’s demeanor is 10 times better evidence than a handful of stills. Give the buck brownie points if he (a) hits the scrape in daylight; (b) works it aggressively for extended periods; and (c) makes return visits. All are clues to a bully buck. ––Scott Bestul