The Early Show!
Steps to Baggin’ that Early Season Brute!
It’s been three months since I heard the last gobble of turkey season and it already seems like an eternity has passed since then. I’ve stored my camouflage, guns, and other gear for the long and dull lull of the summer season and I can’t wait for it to be over. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like to dip my hook during those humid Iowa days just like a lot of other outdoorsmen. But there’s just nothing like smelling the explosive swell of gunpowder after taking a shot at those ever-sly whitetails with my muzzleloader.
I wasn’t raised in a family of muzzleloader hunters and honestly didn’t know the first thing about it. We always did the traditional shotgun deer drives during the first couple of weeks of December. I remember thinking, during those seasons, of what it would be like to have the advantage of being the first one out there to chase those big bucks that have been cruising the edges of Iowa’s fields and timber. It had always been my dream to take part in the early muzzloader season of Iowa’s October month.
I will never forget the first morning I stepped out in the timber to try my luck on an early fall morning with a borrowed muzzloader in my hand. I had done my homework, or so I thought, and just knew that I would be walking home that morning with a trophy of a lifetime. I remember crossing over a barbwire fence in the dark with a dull headlamp on. The coyotes seemed to be crying right underneath the stand that I was heading to. I’m not sure if the chill I felt was from the cool morning air or the eerie cries in the darkness. Nonetheless, I pushed on, determined that I would have the advantage.
I hunted morning and night for 7 days straight! I suffered the heat, mosquitoes, rain, wind, and more during those days. Finally, the last night that I could spend in the woods, I headed to a field edge with a blind and my oldest daughter (four years old at the time) by my side. I remember being so frustrated and I just couldn’t figure out why things weren’t as easy as I thought they should be. I was so defeated that I was willing to take my most “unstationary” child with me for the evening. Assuming that I wouldn’t see anything anyway.
My daughter, Rylee, and I sat in the blind from about 4 p.m. until sundown. We talked, played tic-tac-to, worked on spelling, watched some busy bushy tails, and did anything else to pass the time. Trust me, after that long in a blind, we were both ready to go! Before I folded up our chairs, I happened to look out of the blind once again. It was the prime time of dusk and there, creeping out of the edge of the trees; I saw the slow and steady movement of a whitetail! As the button buck cleared the edge of the field I pointed him out to Rylee, lifted the muzzleloader slowly to my cheek, and let the powder cloud explode! After the smoke cleared I was able to make out the small outline of my first muzzleloader kill. Yes, a button buck. After eight days of hunting a season that I thought would be a “chip shot” for a trophy, I filled our freezer with a much smaller prize. My daughter was excited and I was relieved not to pocket an empty tag. However, the events of that season made me more determined to teach myself the keys to having a successful early muzzloader season.
One of the biggest advantages to my early season success has been watching the late season travel patterns of deer. In January, as our Iowa late muzzloader season is ending, or the early spring of turkey season, I am looking for those major trails that the deer in the timber that I hunt have been using. I’m not talking about the trails that have a few tracks on them. I’m talking about those trails that are worn so much that you can tell generations of your deer herd have been using them.
For me, these have been key! Knowing the travel patterns of your deer year round are going to give you a huge advantage to playing their game. These trails often lead to regular water sources, key-bedding areas, and will teach you the trusted direction of travel your deer chose to use over the terrain that you are hunting. Knowing this will help you make some critical decisions on food plots, stand positions, and even playing the elements that Mother Nature sometimes throws at you.
For the early muzzloader season, you meet Iowa’s whitetails at a very interesting time during their annual cycle. By now they’ve rubbed their velvet and have established some sort of regular routine to their sleeping, eating, and traveling. They aren’t rutting yet, however, some of the younger bucks are starting to be interested and some say, the early rut is beginning. But if you’re waiting on a trophy, you are going to be tested in many ways! In my experience, at this time of year, the only thing you have going for you is to have your deer patterned!
This means that you have to do your homework! For me, August is a pretty key month in preparing for the early muzzloader season. One of those steps in my preparation is knowing where the food sources are that the local deer herd is using. I usually look at a topographic map or a satellite map of the property that I am hunting and make a note of what food sources are where. I mark corn and bean fields, knowing what food sources are in the fields around the property that I’m hunting. I mark the timber flats that will be dropping acorns during those fall months. I also mark the bodies of water that those deer might be frequenting at least once during the day.
If you mark the trails, bedding areas, food sources, and water sources you will begin to see an evident pattern of your deer. Putting this all on a map that takes in the terrain of the land will allow you to make a very well educated guess on where your deer will be arriving from on certain days that you are out hunting.
As I mentioned earlier, I do a lot of late season scouting during the late winter and early spring. Finding those bedding areas and trails are super helpful in making some critical decisions about the routines of the deer in the area. But one more invaluable assignment that I give myself is doing some long distance optic scouting during the couple months before the season starts.
There are a couple of ways that you can do this. One just costs your time, and the other will cost some money. The first method is simply getting out there and looking for your deer. August and September are pretty good months to start seeing your deer. If you have done the things I mentioned early, then, by now, you should know where to be looking for your deer. Remember, those big bucks are still mostly nocturnal at this time. However, once in a while they will show up before the sun goes down.
Find a good pair of binoculars or a spotting scope and settle in for the evening near the spot that you would like to watch. Remember don’t get too close. There is no need to be “on top” of these deer as you are only scouting them. Keep a distance between you and the deer. Preferably distances long enough that your quarry won’t even know that you are in the area. You’re truck from the roadside, the distant edge of a field, upper level of a barn, or a high hill looking down on the terrain are all great opportunities to see what’s out there. Remember, you don’t want to mess things up! Keep your patience and start making some notes on what you are seeing.
A much easier way to do this is invest in a good trail camera. We bought an inexpensive camera and I would simply place these cameras, starting in late July or early August and running all the way through the end of the season along the areas that I believed the deer would be making their appearance. Based on my homework, we placed these in areas of the property for two weeks at a time. After the time was up, I’d retrieve the cameras, load the pictures, and put them all out in another area of the property.
Soon we began to see certain bucks coming and going at certain times. We noted their feeding patterns and directions of travel as they began showing up in various areas of the property over a month’s time. Ultimately we were able to make our hit list from this valuable scouting and knew what bucks were out there for the taking! In addition by leaving the cameras up through season we could get some real time information on what the bucks were doing only a day or even a few hours before. Which is extremely valuable during a short season like early muzzleloader is.
Discovering this information led us to choose prime locations for our stands and allowed us the ability to change locations on a whim. Most of the mature bucks, even during these weeks of October, were still entering these feeding areas very late in the evening. Now, for a hunter, that just doesn’t work! What’s the answer? Move your stands and sets further in towards where they are bedding. Once again, if you’ve mapped all this out, you should have a general idea of where these deer are bedding. Cut that distance! Create a stand or set that is a few hundred yards closer to their bedding area along one of those major trails. If he’s not going to come out sooner, you have to get closer to him.
For me, tree stands seem to work best for this. It allows me to get into areas without causing much change to the surroundings. As you are creating these stands keep in mind the wind direction and scent control. Sometimes, I will even set up a few different stands so I can accommodate any wind direction there might be. You also want to be weary of your cover. Trim just enough so that you can see, but keep enough there that you are still covered.
Remember, most of the time, nothing is easily gained! You have to put in the work to get what you want. And with early muzzleloader season, sometimes there is a lot of work needed. However, all this work makes the moment you harvest your trophy all the more worth it. Keep in mind, you have one shot, and there’s no pun intended. Do your homework and I’m sure you’ll have a smile on your face by the end of the season. Good luck!