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Early Season

Keys To Early-Season Whitetail Hunting

by Don Higgins   |  September 22nd, 2010 0

Using a recurve, the author arrowed this hefty Illinois buck on Oct. 15, 1995. It was the second P&Y whitetail he'd shot from that stand on that date. Photo courtesy of Don Higgins

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.

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.

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.

As you might remember from Part 1, two of the three mature bucks I had close encounters with during the early part of the 2002 Illinois bow season were accompanied by other bucks. I once shot a 170-class buck that had three other bucks with him. That was on Oct. 22, a time when most hunters would think that the bucks are alone and getting into a rutting mode.

When bucks are on their feet this time of year, they’re usually moving at a snail’s pace. So take your time and look things over when you get a buck into bow range. You don’t want to shoot a nice 8-pointer when he has a much larger 10-pointer following him.

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.

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.

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