No Vacation? No Problem! 5 Tips to Early Season Success

By Ryan Graden

Deer season is nearly here! That’s right! Very soon, big bucks will be on the move and you will be in a tree waiting for them. Of course, we all know that the more time you could spend in that tree, the better our chances are to see a wall hanger. But, with limited “free time” and “vacation hours” for hard working folks during the rut, that isn’t always a possibility. Trust me, if most hunters could store up their vacation hours for hunting season, I’m sure they would!

So what can you do? Hunt earlier! You heard me! There are some things that you can do to increase your chances during your limited amount of time in the woods. Especially in the early season. You can still put some meat in the freezer and have a chance at a trophy that you would be proud of. Want to know more? Listen up!

Tip #1 – Use Your Time Wisely!
If you know that November is not going to offer you the time you wished for to hunt, you need to make the most of October! Trust me; it is still a good time to hunt. However, in order to make October productive, September has to be a busy month for you. You don’t need to take any time off necessarily, you just need to use the time you have to your advantage.

Depending on the hours that you work, take the time to get out to the timber. If you have a few hours in the morning, take a morning hike or go position your truck in a good spotting area. If you’re done in the evening and you have some time before dark, do the same.

No matter what, you need to know what’s happening in your hunting area! If you know that you will be hunting in the early season, you have to begin to study the deer movement in your area. You have to know what sources of food the deer are using, what trails do they seem to travel on the most, what weather conditions are they most comfortable in, how many deer are in a certain area, and most of all, are there any large bucks coming out before sundown!

Use your spare hours to put the pieces of your puzzle together! If you are going to have any chance at bagging a trophy buck, you need to do the work.

Tip #2 – What’s on the Menu
In the early fall before the Rut screws with all logic, deer are on a routine and food is ALWAYS going to be a part of that routine. If you know from your scouting what time the deer are coming, and where they are coming to, that is going to give you a great advantage in filling your tag.

With the fall just beginning there is still going to be a lot of food in the timber for them to eat. Acorns are going to be a plentiful food source at this time of year. With these tiny bombs of food hit the floor of the Iowa hardwoods, deer will have very little reason to head out to the fields.

If you know that you have limited time, and you have the ability to do so, plant a food plot! Be mindful of what you plant. Corn and beans aren’t typically fed upon until we get the first hard temperature drop or even a deep snow cover. However, if you can plant some leafy greens, you will see a pile of deer in your food plots during the early season.

Knowing what your deer herd is eating and what they are attracted to gives you a great advantage to having success in the early season. But, logically, you need to hunt accordingly. If you know from your scouting that deer are not coming out to the fields, then you need to have a different setup to your hunt. If a deer is not there, it’s hard to shoot it!

Tip #3 – Know Where They Are Sleeping
You might notice this in some of your scouting prep for your early season hunt, but deer sometimes take a VERY long time to come out of the woods. Sometimes bedding areas are hundreds of yards away and deer just don’t seem to be in too much of a hurry to get out to eat. That can cause a real problem if you are trying to hunt the early season and the deer are still on a nocturnal pattern. It just might leave you with quite a few empty action evenings.

So what do you do? Here’s an option. Move closer! Just give me a second and hear me out.

A few years ago I was talking to a guy about this very issue. He had a giant buck on his property but it was always coming out after shooting hours never allowing this hunter to get a shot. So, he came up with a plan.

In this case, he used trail cameras. He started on the edge of the timber using the cameras to find out which trail this buck was routinely using. Then he moved the camera deeper down that trail into the timber until pictures confirmed that, yes, this was the trail the buck was using. Again, he moved it deeper into the timber down the trail. According to the time stamps on the pictures, he ended up gaining almost a 45 minute advantage on this buck as it exited its bedding area and traveled to the open. Using a strategically placed blind, this guy made the harvest of a lifetime by moving his setup closer to the bedding area.

I will say this loud and clear, THIS IS RISKY! But it can work.

Tip #4 – Decoys and Rubbing Posts
Even after all the work that you’ve done to increase your chances at an early season harvest, deer still won’t always go where you want them to go. You might know their patterns, where their food is, and even know the buck you’re after and still, it’s a hit and miss game.

For this, you need a magnet. Something that is going to catch the eye of a passing deer and make them want to come and investigate. Here are two suggestions that just might give you that kind of response.

The first is a decoy. These have become more popular over the last 10 years of deer hunting and they have proven to have great success if you know what you’re doing. A decoy needs to be placed in the right spot according to your comfort of distance to your potential target, the wind, your shooting lane, and the topo of your area. Remember that challenging bucks will often times circle in behind a buck that they want to challenge. So, positioning your decoy is key to getting your deer in the right position for a shot.

Rubbing posts or licking branches are a few newer tactics that hunters are trying these days too. To do this, try cutting a small diameter tree (4-6 inches) and “post” that tree in the center of your food plot or shooting lane. (Literally dig a hole and set it upright like a post) When something is setup in the middle of an area like that, deer WILL notice it and come and investigate. They will sniff, lick, and even rub these “posts” allowing you a chance for a shot.

Tip #5 – Practice Makes Perfect
Any archer knows that a “practiced shot” is a good shot. But even then, sometimes you will not get the shot that you are expecting. If you haven’t prepared for that, you’re in deep trouble!

With hunting early season, there is one thing you can count on. Shots are going to be tougher in many cases. First, you have more cover that you have deal with. Second, deer are often times at further distances. Third, they are more attentive to sounds, smells, and small oddities within the woods making your ability to make a shot very tough.

What do you do? Practice, practice, practice. Take the time to create a “small shooting lane” situation where leaves and branches would make you practice a difficult shot. Add some distance to your shooting comfort too. If you are somebody who is completely comfortable with a twenty to thirty yard shot, increase your yardage to forty or fifty! I know that it might seem like a lot. But when the time comes, you’ll be thankful that you prepared for that distance.

Always remember, whether you are hunting early season or late season, the odds are never 100% in your favor. If you are going to have success, you need to do all that you can to give yourself any advantage you can get over your quarry. Make the effort and, with luck, it will pay off and you will have something you can be proud of as a result.

Regardless of the outcome, count it a blessing for the time that you get to be out of the office and in the timber. That is NEVER time wasted.
Good luck!