Most hunters think of the rut as the best time to kill a big buck, but there are valid reasons why early season can also be good — and sometimes the earlier the better.
It didn’t feel much like deer hunting weather — temps in the 70s, muggy and buggy — yet there I was, perched in a ladder stand 80 yards from a persimmon patch roughly the size of a house. It being so warm, I didn’t expect much action until the waning moments of daylight. So it was somewhat unexpected when a doe and fawn showed up with two full hours of daylight remaining. That turned out to be the tip of the iceberg.
It wasn’t long before a young buck showed up, followed by another, and another. As the afternoon wore on, the number and age of bucks arriving to feed on newly dropped nectar of the gods grew. I stopped counting individual rack bucks at 10, though I know there were more. None quite made my personal minimum, but the experience of seeing that many adult bucks in one place at one time was reward enough.
The assembly was somewhat unexpected, though it should have been. It was early muzzleloader season in Kansas, a state that has a lot of bucks, at a time when those bucks tend to be at their most visible and potentially vulnerable period. While most deer hunters favor cooler temps and the hot action of the rut, early season offers some alternatives that rival and may even exceed the rut if your goal is to bag a big buck.
What Happens in Vegas…
One advantage of early season hunting involves social interaction. In late summer, whitetail bucks begin forming loose associations called bachelor groups or bachelor herds that will remain together to some extent into the early fall. They may include as few as two or three deer, or more than a dozen depending on deer densities and food availability.
I use the term “loose” because the groups can vary in size and individual deer from day to day. The bottom line is that if you see one buck at this time of year, chances are good you’ll see another, and another, and another — and they tend to get larger as the evening wears on so be patient.
The Other Rut
When talking about deer, the term “rut” is typically applied to that magical time when even the wiliest whitetails drop their guard and wander around during daylight hours. When referring to ourselves, we humans ascribe the term rut to a monotonous routine we’re stuck in.
While we don’t call it that, whitetails also sometimes get into a fairly repetitious routine, but only early in the season. While the rut is exciting, it’s also very random. To the contrary, whitetails are at their most routine, and most “patternable” very early in the hunting season.
While deer — particularly bucks — tend to be fairly routine, it doesn’t take much to throw them out of their early-season patterns. Studies have shown deer move increasingly less during daylight, and more in thicker cover as hunting pressure increases. Like the savvy fisherman who wants first water — to be the first to cast a fly into a particular pool — you want to be the first in a particular patch of woods. And if you did your scouting properly, your fist sit should be your best as deer will quickly begin patterning and avoiding you.
As already mentioned, deer tend to be rather routine in the early season, and one of the more common patterns is that daylight activity tends to be compressed into the first and last few minutes of the day. Deer don’t like moving around when it’s warm, and more importantly, in full daylight. Their eyes function best in fading light. Knowing this, you can maximize your effective hunting hours by concentrating on the first and last hours of the day. There’s no need to sit those long, all-day vigils like you will when the rut kicks in. And because the days are much longer in the early season, you may be able to hunt peak hours and still put in a full day’s work.
For several reasons, early-season hunting tends to be more relaxed. Some of it has to do with weather. You don’t have too, nor do you want to move too quickly when it’s warm. Deer season is a marathon, not a sprint, so you want to pace yourself and work up to speed slowly. Early success also brings certain benefits. With a deer or two in the freezer, and potentially at the taxidermist, the pressure is off so you can relax and get more enjoyment out of the weeks and months of deer hunting still to come.