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Early Season Whitetail Deer Hunting

Early Season Whitetail Deer Hunting

Mosquitos and heat and standing crops………….oh my. While early season whitetail deer hunting has it’s challenges deer hunters across the nation are beginning to figure out this time period may be the most productive time outside the rut for tagging out on a monster whitetail deer. Over the course of this article we will discuss when season opens in States across the nation, the challenges of hunting deer early season, and hunting strategies to implement during this time period that will help you score on a monster whitetail buck.

I simply love to hunt early season for whitetail deer. While I know some of my enthusiasm is based upon sitting in the house and being away from hunting for several months, I also know that on early season hunts we have large bachelor groups of bucks patterned we have been watching all summer. Because of this big bucks are pretty predictable on evening outings especially. Some of our largest deer ever killed were taken during the first 5 days of a season. For example a hunter hunted with us here at IMB from 10-1 to 10-5 in Illinois a couple years ago. I had been watching 7 record book bucks come into a beanfield every evening that was close to the interstate. One or two of the bucks was Boone and Crockett. What was weird was that these deer were literally utilizing a beanfield that was within 325 yards of an Interstate. The deer knew that close to the interstate that nobody would mess with them. On day two of the hunters early season whitetail deer hunt I ask him if he trusted me. He said, “Yes”. I then told him I wanted to put him in a place or a stand location that he would hate because it was close to the interstate. He grimaced and said, “Why would you put me there?” I then told him it was there I had 7 great bucks patterned and that all 7 would make Pope and Young and two of them were Boone and Crockett. Reluctantly he agreed to sit in the location. That evening after his hunt when I went to collect him he was standing at the road smiling. I ask him what happened. He stated, “7 bucks walked right under me. I shot the last one that passed by.” The buck ended up scoring 174 inches net. The results of early season whitetail deer hunting coupled with good scouting and a trusting hunter.

Opening Dates for Deerhunting in 2010

Prior to getting into the meat and potatoes of this article allow me to present the opening dates of deer season for the most popular states in America were today’s whitetail deer hunter can pursue early season whitetail deer hunting:

Illinois October 1
Iowa October 1
Missouri September 15
Kansas September 17
Nebraska September 15
Wisconsin September 18
Ohio September 25
Minnesota September 18
Montana September 4
Texas October 2
Kentucky September 4
Indiana September 18
Oklahoma September 4

Although other states are available from which the modern whitetail deer hunter may pursue trophy whitetail bucks, these are the opening dates of the 2010 deer season from which I would recommend early season whitetail deer hunting.

The Annoying Factors of Early Season Hunting

Some whitetail deer hunters simply don’t enjoy hunting early on in the season. I agree some annoying elements exist during this time. Of course is seems no matter where you hunt if you are early season whitetail deer hunting there is the ever present mosquito. Fortunately because the modern technology we can kiss the days of applying stinky mosquito repellent on our bodies for whitetail deer to detect. All one needs to prevent mosquitoes from spoiling hunting during early season for deer is a Thermacell. Repel mosquitoes for up to 12 hours. Powered by a butane cartridge (included), this convenient unit creates an invisible, odorless protection by heating a chemically treated repellent mat. Covers up to a 15' diameter area. ThermaCELL contains 50 times more of the same chemical repellents that are found in mosquito coils. Cordless and portable; endorsed by the NWTF. Features: Repel mosquitoes for up to 12 hours without sprays Invisible and odorless protection Covers up to a 15' diameter Cordless and portable - carry it with you 50 times more of the same chemical repellents in mosquito coils. With this tool there’s no reason to be bothered by mosquitoes any longer. I swear by them.

Also another annoying factor when early season whitetail deer hunting is temperature. Sorry guys but there is nothing I can do to resolve this issue. I would consult you to take the proper precautions when traveling to and from your tree stand to move slowly to avoid perspiration which results in human body odor. I have found and swear by the hunter specialty body wipes and human scent elimination sprays. I have literally done studies with stinky shirts, ashtrays, and carpet splattered with gasoline. I applied hunter specialties scent elimination sprays to the stinky messes and minutes later no odor was present. Irregardless, if you are going to participate in early season whitetail deer hunting you will be exposed to higher temperatures.

Another annoying factor involved during early season is that corn fields are still standing. This isn’t always a bad thing, and to research this issue in order to be successful I would ask you to read the article I wrote entitled “Deer Hunting Cornfields” which can be found at

The Positive Factors of Early Season Whitetail Deer Hunting

The positive factors surrounding early season deer hunting far outweigh the negative ones. To start with we all know that you can kill a trophy whitetail buck if sitting on the couch. When of the most important factors in consistently harvesting trophy whitetail deer is just being in the woods or time spent. Like all the hunters that attend our camps I tell them that for each minute they spend in the woods their 1 minute closer to harvesting the buck of a lifetime. Thus whitetail deer hunters who do not take advantage of early season whitetail deer hunting are missing out on many opportunities to be in the timber increasing the probability of their success.

Another positive factor for early hunting is that as long as the whitetail deer hunter has properly scouted agricultural fields or areas that deer are utilizing prior to season from long distances with binoculars patterning big bucks is a breeze. Mature bucks are different. If they feel pressured, such as might occur when someone tries to pattern them during early fall, they change their way of doing things. Some vacate the area while others practically become nocturnal. Both circumstances or degrees of either greatly diminish your chances of taking that buck once the season finally opens. Scouting during the late summer equates to setting up and watching from a distance to make certain your plans are working. Be careful not to put too much scouting pressure on the mature bucks. I rely heavily on farmers and ranchers to keep me informed on deer patterns. I talk to rural mail carriers and school bus drivers. Deer become familiar with these people and don't perceive them as a source of danger. If the situation feels right, I'll set up a trail camera to photograph a particular deer. Setting up such a camera on a trail or perhaps where a trail comes into a field or other feeding area is a way to document the deer's presence and confirm that he is indeed the one you're after. Perhaps the odds of closing the gap on a nice buck are likely the highest during the early season when travel routes and key food sources are the most predictable. But, after whitetails enter the hard pre-rut phase, your chances of bagging a big buck in his routine travels diminish considerably.

During early summer months whitetail deer most generally continue to enter the same food sources at the same places night after night until they are interrupted. One 3rd of all the whitetail bucks I have taken with bow and arrow have come at the result of participating in early season whitetail deer hunting, because I scouted effectively to determine where to hunt them. Early-season whitetails are animals of habit; they normally follow the same routine daily, although the times may vary a bit. Late-summer and early-fall deer feed in the same areas, especially where there are fields and crops or possibly falling acorns or fruits that ripen early. When you find these food sources, you're in pretty good shape, especially if you don't have the time or the opportunity to scout throughout the rest of the year. All too often early season success hinges on finding the deer goodies before the deer do. Knowing what foods are available in your hunting area could bring you to new levels of early season scouting. But more importantly, if you have a good understanding of where all the natural food sources are in your area, you’ll soon realize why deer prefer traveling a particular corridor over another at different times of the season. In one case it may be a grove of oak trees dropping a blanket of acorns that draw deer to the area. In other cases it may be a honey locust tree dropping bean pods or a persimmon tree bearing fruit. Of all the cash crops, soybeans have been at the top of my list for years. I’ve known a whitetail enthusiast from Illinois for a few years now that normally needs to re- plant a particular food plot twice each year. Hunters would be well advised to take advantage of beans from the get go. It’s best to look for deer goodies in small concentrations, which makes it much easier to narrow down a buck’s feeding pattern. Deer are opportunists and if you’re banking on a food with a short shelf life and haven’t taken the buck before it’s exhausted, chances are the opportunity will never be presented! A good example of concentrated foods might be small stands of acorn bearing hardwoods. It’s been my experience that white and red oaks are especially great choices, however, this doesn’t mean that deer won’t feed on pin oak, burr oak, swamp oak, shingle oak or shin oak. It’s simply implies that red and white oak nuts are most commonly found in the areas where I hunt in the Mid-west.

A giant factor is that while I can preach all I want to most whitetail deer hunters do not take to the woods for early season hunting. Therefore deer have remained undisturbed and it seems as if any location you attempt to pursue them from his virgin territory. This is the element of surprise. This is a huge benefit to any hunter knowing that the area he is hunting has been unmolested. Also by placing yourself in the timber during this time of year one is able to determine what trophy bucks are in your area, and adjust accordingly as the season progresses. Perhaps the element of surprise is likely the single most important key to early season success. Anytime you sweep an area in search of buck sign shortly before the season opener, you’ll always run the risk of breaking a link in their leisurely summer time pattern. Therefore, maintaining a low profile while scouting becomes the utmost importance. One of the better means will be glassing crop fields and timber edges from a distance. Naturally the top priority while glassing is getting a visual on a buck to hunt, but you should also be paying close attention to where they enter and exit primary food sources from their bedding areas.
“One sighting of a buck may not warrant moving in with a stand, but two or more should!”
There are a couple of ways to maintain the element of surprise with little or no impact on the deer herd. As mentioned, glassing from nearby roadways has been the normal practice for many, while others choose to setup with spotting scopes much like the tactic used in western hunts for elk and mule deer. Although I often use these same approaches to scouting, observation stands setup around the outside perimeter of the hunting area has been a personal favorite.
As I sit back and look at my nearly 30 years of bowhunting experience, a good percentage of the big deer I’ve taken were a direct result of spotting the buck from another stand first and then moving in for the kill. This tactic is often referred to as “working from the outside in.” Nevertheless, the whole object of this tactic is to first observe all deer movement to determine where their entrance/exit routes and bedding areas are. In doing so, you’ll be able to determine the best ambush point with the least amount of risk involved and the best odds of tagging the buck. One sighting of a buck may not warrant moving in with a stand, but two or more should! I recall about three years ago when I watched several record book whitetail bucks entering the same bean field in each evening during late summer months. Because whitetail hunters are so focused on hunting during the rut during this particular time frame in the state of Missouri no hunters were in camp and were not scheduled to arrive for several weeks. I knew by the time hunters arrived that the group of bucks would break up and disperse into different travel patterns or routines. Three days prior to the season opener of Missouri archery hunting I went out and hung a climbing tree stand where the bucks had been entering the field. The first evening out I arrow to my 13th pope and young whitetail buck. It was like taking candy from a baby. Many hunters across the United States vastly underestimate the success of early season whitetail deer hunting. Early-season bucks often travel in bachelor herds. Such bachelor groups can provide excitement if you're sitting in your stand and a group of them comes along. Remember that when you hunt bachelor herds, there are many more eyes looking and noses scenting for anything out of the ordinary than you'll normally have to deal with when hunting a single buck.

Hunting near crop fields early in the season, I prefer to set up on a trail back in the woods, such as the one I had created during the summer. Quite often, large-antlered, mature bucks tend to hang back and do not enter open fields until after dark. These woods-edge staging areas are where they stand and wait. That is where a hunter will have a better chance of bagging mature animals.

Hunting Staging areas is of vital importance when early season whitetail deer hunting. Staging areas are usually 10 to 25 steps off the field's edge. You can determine where they are by looking at tracks. Find where a deer has walked back and forth across a trail, rather than staying on it. Try to locate these staging areas well before the season starts. When setting up stands or selecting stand sites, I'll trim limbs and trees long before the season opens. I certainly don't want to do anything out of the ordinary that might alert a mature buck that something is amiss on his home turf. It takes only a few days of hunter activity in the woods for bucks to change their habits, especially where there is considerable hunting pressure. When I was growing up, if you did not shoot a deer the first week of the season, your chances of even seeing a buck the rest of the year were greatly diminished. Hunting pressure causes deer to change how they do things. But, to be quite frank, deer would likely change routines anyway because of the onset of the breeding season, changes in food supplies and even changes in cover. I set up several stands so I can take advantage of wind and sun, changes in food supplies, early harvest and/or early acorn drops. I hunt stands no more than three days in a row. If I haven't taken a deer within those three days, I'll shift to a new location. Mature bucks tend to pattern a hunter if the hunter spends too much time in an area. I'll move in hopes of taking another buck that was located during my scouting forays. If I don't do any good in the new location, I may return to my original stand after letting the area "cool down," encouraging the buck to return to his previous normal activities and routines.

Rattling for whitetail bucks during early season whitetail deer hunting is also very effective. During the early deer seasons, most bucks have recently shed their velvet, and testosterone levels are increasing. They spend more time rubbing their antlers on trees, shrubs and bushes. The first few days after the velvet comes off, bucks are all still the best of buddies. They lick and groom each other. Freshly out of velvet, they spar with each other, pull their racks apart and look around to see which other bucks might be watching. Later on, all that changes. Sparring matches can become serious fight-to-the-death matches. The sound of the rubbing antlers often attracts bucks. They come to watch their "competition." I have often "rubbed up" bucks during the early season, starting almost immediately after they've shed the velvet from their antlers.

Early season whitetail deer hunting affords the hunter the chance to hunt bed areas one would normally not invade. It's no secret that bedding areas are generally hard to hunt and that a mature buck will tolerate very little disturbance in his bedroom anytime of year. If you're limited by the amount of available hunting area, this fact should weigh heavily on your approach. Is it worth taking the chance that you'll spook a big buck from his bedding area if you don't have many such spots to hunt? Over the years, I've begun hunting mature bucks in a certain area as soon as I know such a deer is using it. Too many times I waited for the rut to heat up before hunting a specific area or stand site, only to be burned when the buck living there in early season took up residence elsewhere. My advice is: if you know a big buck is in a certain area, go ahead and hunt him — no matter what time of season it is. Of course, this doesn't mean you should throw caution to the wind. Hunt hard, but hunt smart. If there's a single time of the year when hunting a bedding area is easier, it's the early season. At this time, the leaf cover and heavy vegetation will allow a stealthy hunter to get closer to bedded deer without being spotted. I can't tell you how many times I've settled into a tree stand and shortly thereafter spotted a bedded buck from my elevated vantage point. Getting in undetected becomes a lot tougher after the leaves fall and is almost impossible during the late season. This is a great benefit to early season whitetail deer hunting.

To begin, you obviously need to determine exactly where in your hunting area mature bucks are bedding at this time of year. After many seasons of hunting early-season bedding areas, I now rely almost totally on experience to help me predict where bucks will bed then. However, one type of evidence will allow you to get on the right track immediately: rubs. All of the record-book bucks I've taken in early season have been in bedding areas or right on the edge of them when shot. In every case, the area contained a number of rubs. At this time of year, whitetail bucks generally aren't covering a lot of ground in their daily routine; thus, if you find a flurry of rub activity near thick cover, you're probably close to at least one buck's bedding area. If these rubs are bigger than average, the odds suggest that the buck is also. Know your area for early season whitetail deer hunting.

Don't let the size of the rub dictate whether or not you hunt an area, however. I've seen big bucks rub small trees; conversely, just last season I watched a yearling rub a tree as big around as a baseball bat. While we can make generalities regarding whitetail behavior, nothing is absolute. Also, at this time of year, it's very possible that a buck isn't alone. The pencil-sized rub you find might very well have been made by a yearling buck, but before the rut, he could be keeping company with an older buck or two.

I've learned that the bucks in a given location will adopt the habits of others that came before them. In other words, if you find a bedding area bucks are using during the early season, odds are good that in future years other bucks will do the same.
Don't waste this knowledge by going in each fall and stomping around looking for rubs and hanging a stand. Get a portable stand in place months in advance and trust your instincts. When you know of a traditional early-season bedding site, the first time you go into it all fall should be to hunt a pre-hung stand, not to scout and verify your suspicions. After a few seasons, you should have a handful of these early-season stands in bedding areas. When you reach that point, you should be able to start making some trips to the taxidermist before cold weather hits. If you're still searching for these early-season beds, be careful not to over-scout as you look for stand sites. If you find rubs located near thick cover, you're probably close to a good stand site. Don't stomp all over the place looking for the ideal location for your stand. Set up on the edge of the thick cover where you can see these rubs, then hunt the stand a couple of times. It might take a couple of moves before you put yourself in the right spot, and you might blow your chance before you discover just where your stand should be hung. While that might ruin your chances for the current season, don't forget the location in the future. Put a stand up in the right spot during the spring, and then stay away until bow season opens. Then, when conditions are right, slip in and hunt it when early season whitetail deer hunting.

I've found these bedding areas using rubs and then moved right in and killed a good buck, but the majority of my success is with stands hung in the spring, based on previous hunts and sightings. I now have a handful of stands set up and ready to go in early bedding areas even before the woods green up in the spring. While I'm also always looking for new spots, it usually takes a couple of seasons to get the buck patterns in a particular spot fine-tuned enough to "expect" success. Consistent success on mature bucks isn't something that will happen overnight. It takes years of learning mature buck habits in general and their tendencies within your hunting area in particular. So don't discard the lessons you learn each season. File them away for the future. Eventually, you'll know what the deer are going to do before they do it, not just after. This is when consistent success in bowhunting mature bucks can become reality.

Remember not to give your position away while hunting deer during the early season. I'll generally hunt most of these stands only once or twice during the early season. The one exception is when I know a mature buck is still using an area and hasn't been pressured enough to make him totally nocturnal. I sometimes hunt these same stands during the rut (with a different approach), and I don't want them burned out early. There are several ways to help ensure that doesn't happen. First, set up on the edge of the bedding area, not right in it. By fully using the wind to your advantage, you take a huge step toward keeping a stand location unknown to the deer. This doesn't just mean watching the wind direction as it relates to your stand site and the bedding area, but also how the wind relates to your approach route. It does you no good to have a perfect wind for hunting a particular stand if you approach it on a route that allows your scent to blow into the bedding area. You might have done this in the past and think you got away with it, as you didn't see any deer bust out of the area. With mature bucks, however, it's much more likely that they held tight to their beds, hoping that the danger (you) would pass them by. The majority of the time, this is exactly what happens. However, the real kicker comes with what the buck does (or doesn't do) next. He's been made aware that danger is lurking in the area, so the chances of his standing up and walking past your stand a couple of hours later have been reduced to almost zero. The ideal situation while being involved in early season whitetail deer hunting is for you to walk directly to your stand with a headwind the whole way. Of course, as we all know, such factors as terrain and property boundaries might not make this possible, but at all costs avoid having your scent blown into the bedding area at any time, including the approach to your stand.

Some bad news about early season deer hunting is that morning hunts can be rough while evening hunts normally rock n roll. I believe that during the early season, morning hunts are not only a waste of time but also actually decrease your chances of success on later hunts as well. In all likelihood, the buck is either going to be very close to the bed in which he plans to spend the day or is already in it. Neither situation is one that bodes well for a successful hunt. If he's not already bedded, odds are you could spook him as you make your way to the stand. And even if you get to the stand undetected, there's a good chance the buck you're after could slip by before shooting light arrives. If he's already slipped in and bedded, the chances of his getting up and moving past your stand are very slim during a morning vigil. The risk of spooking the buck is just too great. But while evening hunts are without a doubt the way to go in early season, they do have some drawbacks as well. Getting to your stand might be much easier, but getting out undetected can be tough. When you've gone to the trouble of finding a stand that can produce good bucks, the last thing you want to do is alert the local deer to your location. Many evenings I've had to wait a couple hours past dark for deer to clear away from the area around my stand. I've also had to walk miles out of the way back to my vehicle to avoid deer that were feeding in nearby fields.

Where and How to Hang Treestands for Early Season Deer Hunting

Again, keep the big picture in mind. Scout, and scout some more. If conditions are favorable to hunt a particular stand, go for it. If not, scout with optics during prime hours at first and last light. You might feel like you're being lazy just watching deer from your truck or checking out areas at midday, but the cautious approach will be rewarded later. It's better to learn the habits of the deer gradually through the course of the season than it is to hunt willy-nilly early on in ill-chosen stands that result in blowing snorts and stomping feet. That only makes killing a buck more difficult as the season wears on. It's just like the story of the tortoise and the hare: When you're hunting early-season whitetails, slow and steady wins the race.

Thick areas discourage many hunters because shooting opportunities are limited. As for me, I seldom let it bother me. I usually clear about three shooting lanes (clearing too much is one sure way to spoil a perfect setup) and settle for less visibility. I may occasionally have a buck pass by that does not offer a shooting opportunity, but it beats the heck out of sitting on an open field or in open hardwoods. Foliage is another consideration when deerhunting early season. Last year, I found the perfect early ambush location in the hardwoods when the woods were still thick and green. A secondary trail led from one ridge to another. While positioned between the two, I spotted a few different bucks, including one trophy class deer. The location remained hot up until the frosts arrived and the foliage diminished.

Hunting pressure should also play an essential role in the height you place your stand. The more hunting pressure there is, the higher you need to hunt. Equally important is using the terrain to your advantage when using the stand.

I would also suggest you avoid walking deer trails just because they are convenient. Regardless of where you walk, you are sure to leave human scent behind. Renowned bowhunter Myles Keller once said he wished he could drop out of the sky and into his stand. We know this is not possible, but we can decrease the human scent we leave near our stand sites by not visiting them consistently. Before determining the best way to get to and from a stand site, you must know the area. Once you do, you can choose travel routes. Normally, you may find that more than one route is needed. For instance, common sense tells us we should not walk through an agricultural food source in the predawn hours when walking to a stand, or through the same field after dark since deer may be in the field. It also makes sense to walk through the agricultural field after the morning hunt ends simply because deer would not be in the field. This is a far better thing to do than passing through a thicket, although it may offer a shorter walk.

When you hunt early season whitetails the more stands you have hung the better. Play musical chairs as not to overhunt an area. I have never been a believer in the old saying, “Stick with a place and it will pay off.” In fact, I believe that sticking with one stand will surely decrease the chance of bumping into a mature buck. You will leave less scent in a given area by not being there day after day. Also, because wind direction is never dependable, you can make it a point to hunt where the wind is favorable. That is providing you have a selection of stand sites to choose from. You can rest assured that a stand site will not produce when the wind is wrong. I also believe that we spook far more deer than we realize when traveling to and from stands. You can assume that deer see us more often than we see them, at least when we are on foot. I firmly believe the best hunting happens the first two or three times I visit a stand. Investing in a few stands is costly, but the investment is worth every penny.

The bowhunter is fortunate to have so many tree stands to choose from. There are ladder stands and an array of climbing and fixed-position stands available. Naturally, one must select the type of stand that is right for them, keeping comfort and safety in mind. The last thing you want when hunting early season whitetail deer is to be patterned by deer. There are also a few other considerations. First, consider the possibilities of theft in the area where you intend to use your stands. This may have some bearing on whether you want to use ladder or fixed-position stands. You should also consider noise, convenience and weight. I have had a few portable stands stolen over the years, but I still insist on using them because they are there and ready to hunt when I arrive on stand. Most of my fixed-position stands weigh 10 pounds or less, can be packed in easily and quietly hung in place. Of course, using portable stands also means you will need to use steps or a ladder. Climbing stands, though some are quieter than others, always make some noise when you go up and down a tree. This noise occurs at prime time, either early in the morning as you go up the tree or at dusk when you come down. But climbing stands do have their place. There are times when I locate a potential hot spot that I want to hunt right away. All I have to do is grab the climber and put it into action. I love my climers, and highly recommend Ol Man Treestands.

I suggest you give up on a stand site as soon as it dies. Keep it in mind for the following season and remember the period when it was hot. LetÂ’s face it; you have only so many hours to spend sitting in a tree stand, waiting on the right buck to show. Therefore, the moment an area dies you should move on and not waste valuable time reminiscing the past.

Don’t just sit on the couch this season and wait on the rut. Take my advice and head after your buck early. The dividends are high.

Darrin Bradley

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