Shoot your Trophy during the Early Season!

By Ricky Kinder

October 1 is a date that archery hunters in Iowa treat as a holiday, as it is the opening day of archery season for whitetail! While those last few weeks always seem to drag on, the season will be here before we know it. Although the early stages of archery season doesn’t get as much publicity as the rut does, it can be just as good for harvesting a mature buck if know what you are doing.

In fact early season is one of my favorite times to hunt for a couple of reasons. The first being that after a ten month lay off I am finally back sitting in a tree pursuing one of Mother Natures greatest creations. The other reason I love hunting in the early season is that it gives you a really good shot at harvesting a mature buck…if you pay attention to the details and prepare.

During the early parts of the year bucks are huddled together in bachelor groups. They are lazy and tend to bed all day long only to get up and feed during the evening, nighttime, and early morning hours. This is a good thing though as it allows hunters, through scouting efforts, to pinpoint a buck’s pattern. In return many big mature bucks have been taken those first few weeks of the season.

If you want to harvest a mature buck in early October, above all else scouting is the biggest part of it. However, we talked about that in last months issue, this month I will talk about what you need to do on October 1 and the days that follow to harvest that bruiser you have been watching all summer. Below is a list of quick tips that can help you in your quest to put a trophy deer on your wall during the early parts of the season.

Hunt Late, Not Early

During the first few weeks of the archery season I will not even hunt in the mornings most of the time, I save the majority of my time in the stand for the evening hours. The reasoning behind this is I don’t want to spook any deer, let alone a mature buck while I walk into a stand during the morning hours. If you think about it, it makes all the sense in the world. During the early morning hours deer will be on their feet feeding in a field or heading back to a bedding area for the rest of the day. If you walk into these areas during those hours you are more than likely going to spook them, which can be a fatal mistake not only for early season success, but the entire season.

On the flipside waiting to hunt during the afternoon and evening hours is the way to go. During this time deer will be bedded down, which means as you walk in deer are less likely to be up on their feet to detect you approaching your stand. Also, and this just may be me and where I hunt, but I always tend to see more bucks in the evening hours during the early part of the season.

Know All Food Sources

It’s important to know all of the food sources your land affords to deer because any one of these areas can turn off or on in the blink of an eye. For example deer love soybean fields up until the time they start to harden and turn brown, once this happens the deer will turn to another food source. Deer also go crazy for acorns and will turn off of hot food plots in the blink of an eye once an oak tree starts dropping its mast. The moral of the story is to keep tabs on all of the food sources and be willing to move around if need be.

Water Setups

Water is the source of life and there is no doubt that deer need it to survive. However, deer get a lot of the water they need from the plants they eat. This is why I typically won’t hunt directly over a water source especially during wetter years, as deer are getting plenty of water while they eat, it’s a pretty amazing biological feature!

Now if we Iowans experience a drought like we did in 2012 I would recommend hunting near a water source on your property because of the scarcity of browse and water across the land. Food is still king in a deer’s mind so if you can find a water source next to food and/or bedding areas this has all the makings of a great spot to ambush a mature buck.

Scent Free

We all know that deer have amazing scent abilities and can detect the slightest of odors. As a hunter it is always important to be as scent free as possible, and this holds particularly true during the early season when temperatures can be down right blazing! I have hunted some days in early October when the temps were in the low 90s! Make sure and take proper measures to control your perspiration. Wear the appropriate clothing, cover clothes with scent killing sprays, deodorize your sweat producing areas on your body, and take your time walking to your stand. If you feel like you are going to break a sweat stop for a few minutes to cool down.

Whether you are a believer in scent elimination clothing or not really isn’t of importance. This is a completely different debate and to each his own. However, I believe that every hunter should use some articles of clothing, whether they are “scent elimination” products or not, to control human odors. In my humble opinion a pair of rubber boots, gloves, and clothing that is rid of any humanized scent by the use of sprays and detergents is a must. I believe these, along with playing the wind of course, is the most important scent elimination measures you can take.

Hunt When Conditions Are Perfect

The last thing you want to do is head out to a stand when the wind is blowing in the wrong direction. This will ruin a hunt quicker than anything and if done so during the early part of the season you can potentially ruin encounters with deer in the future. Always play the wind to your advantage. If the conditions don’t allow you to hunt a stand then go to one that does or don’t hunt that day. You would be better off scouting the area from afar and waiting for conditions to improve for that area.

Staging Areas

Staging areas, in my opinion are the best places to hunt during the early season. A staging area is an area in between a bedding area and food source where bucks hang out during evening hours before heading into a food source. Bucks use these areas to mill around until the cover and safety of darkness arrives. Typically these areas provide bucks a view of the food source they are looking to enter so they can detect if any danger is present.

Setting and hunting stands in these areas versus a field edge will likely give you more opportunities to not only harvest a buck, but possibly a mature buck. Mature bucks if at all possible won’t come out to feed during shooting hours or if they do it typically is with little shooting light left. Instead they hang back in these staging areas and wait for the “all clear” signal, again that is usually after legal shooting hours.

Don’t Over Do It

In the early season I typically will only hunt a stand once, maybe twice and then call it quits for that stand. The reason being is I don’t want to over hunt a certain stand and let deer know that I am pursuing them. It doesn’t take long for a savvy old buck to realize something isn’t right in the neighborhood. The more times you park your rear end in a stand the better your chances are at tipping off a shooter buck that you are in the area. As the old saying goes “The best time to hunt a stand is the first time”, so give your locations a break in the early part of the season to keep them fresh for the entire year.

Add Yardage

If you hunt field edges often it is a good thing to try and add distance to your comfort zone in terms of how far you can make an ethical shot. Field edges provide hunters the opportunity to take longer shots, which can be both good and bad. Good, if you are confident in your abilities. Bad, if you are not so confident in longer shots. Before the season rolls around make sure and practice at long distances. To make a 40-yard shot appear easy try and practice at 60 yards. You will be amazed at the difference!

Bug Out

The absolute worst thing about early season hunts is dealing with mosquitoes! There is nothing more miserable than a hot October evening battling those pesky buggers while in a stand! Take all measures possible to keep these flying pests at bay with odorless spray or better yet make a small investment in a Thermocell. This unit is worth its weight in gold.

Range The Area

Guessing ranges for some hunters is like second nature and a lot of you are great at it, however a lot of us struggle to determine yardage by using the naked eye. If you have a range finder use it! Once you get settled into your stand site/s for the first time take a moment to range some key landmarks in the area and try to remember them. This five-minute chore could be the difference in a hit or a miss when a deer gives you a shot.

Be Selective

If you want to shoot a 150” class deer then you can’t shoot the first 130” deer you see. Be patient and shoot what you have your mindset on and don’t get trigger-happy. Also take note that bucks are probably still in bachelor groups and the younger deer will most likely enter areas first. So if you see a tweener buck, a buck that is close to what you are looking for, remember that a bigger one may just be around the corner…literally!

Stay Away From Bedding Areas

Bedding areas, obviously, are where deer go to bed down for the bulk of the daylight hours. It is important to know where these areas are at on your land because you want to stay out of them. I never advise anyone to hunt in bedding areas ever during the season, and honestly I don’t like to hunt really close to them either, especially during early season. These are deer safe zones, and if you hunt them or near them you risk bumping a deer from them and risk never seeing them again. The better bet is to find the food sources during the early season and hunt the edges, staging areas and trails around them.

Entrance/Exit Strategy

Make sure you have an entrance and exit strategy for all your stands. More specifically a way in and out that doesn’t spook deer. One of the worst ways to ruin early and late season hunts is to take the easy road. If you can reduce your chances of contact with deer both to and from your stand sites you are far more likely to continue to see deer from these stands.

If you like to hunt the mornings and the only way to your stand is through a field where you know deer like to feed, again I would wait until later in the day to hunt this spot. There is simply nothing good about walking through that field during the morning hours. It will drop your odds at harvesting a mature buck considerably.

The same is true if you hunt at night. If you are hunting over a field edge be prepared to have deer around you for quite some time. Make sure you have a good exit strategy that takes you around and out of site of where the deer are feeding. It may be the case that you simply just need to wait for them to feed out the area. I can’t count how many times I have been in the stand several hours after the sun has went down because I didn’t want to spook any deer. Another thing you can do, and do so at your discretion, is to have a buddy simply drive to your stand to pick you up. For whatever reason deer are far more tolerable to vehicle intrusion than they are human intrusion. The truck, not you, will spook the deer out of the area.

Hunt Rub Lines

Rub lines are a great indicator of a bucks travel corridor to and from feeding and bedding areas during the early season and can be a really dynamite setup for a hunter. If you are going to hunt a rub line make sure and do it during the early season. As the rut approaches bucks will abandon them as they are in search of does. Also don’t pay particular attention to rubs on a field edge; they can simply be there because that is where a buck was feeding. Field edge rubs give you an idea of where a buck was, while a rub line gives you an idea of where a buck will be in the future. Stick with the rubs that connect food sources to bed areas and vice versa, this is the bucks travel route.

I don’t like to hunt too close to either the food source or the bedding area when hunting rub lines. Instead I usually try and pick a spot right in the middle of the two. I do this because it gives me the greatest chance to slip in and out of my stand without alarming a feeding or bedded buck.

Harvesting a mature buck during the early season is a tall task, but as I previously stated I believe it is one of the better times to do so. If you have done your pre-season scouting and prep work to allow you to pattern a few nice bucks and follow some of the tips I provided above you may be on your way to tagging out before the rut is even getting started. To some this may be a bummer, as they don’t get to hunt the rut, but just remember a 160” deer in the early season is still a 160” deer during the rut! So get out early and put an arrow through him!