It was the last evening of my early-season bowhunt in Missouri, and uncertainty about my decision to pass on several 130-class bucks earlier in the week began to creep through my mind. Then just before dark, a high-racked giant topped the edge of a hardwood ridge that ran parallel to a power line. The buck cautiously worked his way toward my stand, which was completely concealed by the leafy branches of a wide-bodied oak at the top of the hill.
A quick surge of adrenaline shot through my entire body as I came to full draw and waited for the buck to enter a cleared shooting lane. A few more steps created a perfect broadside shot at 30 yards. The gentle squeeze of the release generated a loud smack as the arrow collided just to the right of the buck’s massive shoulder. The buck piled up well within sight of my stand, ending another perfect early-season bowhunt. Without question, the opening weeks of the season can be a great time to pattern and connect with a trophy-class buck.
THE EARLY-SEASON ADVANTAGE
Many hunters miss the boat during the early season by waiting for cooler weather and better conditions to hunt. These guys look forward to climbing in the stand during the fabled rut, when a buck’s neck is swollen and his testosterone levels are off the chart. According to legend, this mythical period is the one time when bruisers with cranked-up hormones temporarily lose their minds and throw caution to the wind while chasing does across the countryside.
I’ll be the first to admit that the period of the rut can be an intense and exciting time to be in the woods. Unfortunately, sometimes the only thing predictable about a buck during the rut is the fact that he is very unpredictable and probably harder to pattern than at any other time of the year.
On the other hand, during the opening weeks of the season, the white-tailed deer is a completely different animal. Bucks are generally traveling in bachelor groups and are locked in a strict feeding-to-bedding pattern that you can almost bank on. A combination of limited outside hunting pressure and a predictable pattern creates a window of opportunity for hunters looking to take a trophy-class buck. On that note, let’s take a look at four key secrets to early-season success that will enable you to consistently tag giants well before other hunters are even considering being in the woods.
1. Scouting —
A High-Impact Approach
One of the worst moves an early-season hunter can make is stomping through the woods just before opening day and contaminating the entire area with scent and noise. This is a great way to make a veteran buck switch to a nocturnal schedule and eliminate any possible shot opportunity during daylight hours. There are two ways you can avoid running into this nocturnal nightmare. One is to simply scout smarter rather than harder by glassing known early-season food sources from a distance. Spending a few evenings scanning these areas is sometimes all it takes to find a buck that is worth hunting.
Glassing a food source from a safe distance weeks before opening day will allow you to determine what bucks are frequenting the area and the exact location of preferred entry points. In many cases, bucks will enter and exit the food source from the same location on a daily basis. This information will come in handy when deciding where to place a tree stand. The second high-impact scouting technique involves studying a topo map or aerial photo. These handy scouting tools will allow you to pinpoint perfect ambush setups like natural funnels, pinch points and possible bedding and feeding areas without ever stepping into the woods.
2.Stand Placement —
Early Season Hotspots
Without question, using a light climbing stand to set up near a known entry point that leads into an early-season food source can be very productive. Bucks that have not been spooked or bumped before the season will stick like glue to the same pattern until the food source changes or outside hunting pressure alters behavior. Not entering the area and waiting to hang the stand just before the hunt will allow you to catch a mature buck off guard. I’ve used this quick-hit strategy to tag a number of nice bucks on opening day, especially during evening hunts. If you hunt the stand with the wind in your favor, the buck you’re after won’t even know what hit him until it’s too late.
Another early-season tree stand hotspot would have to be along ambush points near funnels that connect feeding and bedding areas. Once again, locating saddles, mountain gaps, pinch points, ditches, old logging roads or fencerows on an aerial photo or topo map will enable you to choose the best possible stand locations without walking through the entire area. All of these hotspots will naturally funnel deer movement and are where you need to be when the big boys have stopped entering the food source until after dark. In most cases, your best option is to set up as close as you can to the bedding area in order to catch a buck that moves primarily at night.
3.Scent Elimination —
One of the most important steps a hunter can take in the woods is to make sure he’s as scent-free as possible. This is especially true during the early season, when hot temperatures and perspiration go hand in hand. My bowhunting experience has taught me that nothing is 100 percent effective in eliminating scent, but everything you can do to suppress human odor can help you in a pinch. We all know that simply hunting the wind can be a tricky ordeal, and wind currents often change or swirl at the worst possible time. This is where total scent control can play a dramatic role in your overall success and significantly increase your shot opportunities.
My total scent-control system involves several painstaking steps that can be somewhat aggravating, but I strongly believe this process has enabled me to fill a trophy room with bruiser bucks. The first step involves washing all of your clothing in a scent-eliminating soap like Hunter’s Specialties laundry detergent. Next, place your clothing, boots, and gear in a scent-safe plastic bag that you can store in a plastic container along with fresh-dirt-scent wafers. Before entering the field, shower with a scent-eliminating soap and shampoo and apply a generous amount of deodorant.
Once in the field, thoroughly spray down with a scent-eliminating spray and wear light clothing. I actually change into my boots and pack my hunting clothes to the stand to prevent picking up any unnatural odors from the vehicle and to cut down on perspiration while walking. Before climbing into my stand, I usually snap on a combination of Hunter’s Specialties Fresh Dirt and Cedar Scent wafers to my clothing or hat. This scent-control ritual has saved me a number of times in a pinch when the wind refused to cooperate or didn’t act exactly the way the weatherman said it would.
4. Sticking With It —
Improvise and Adapt
Simply having the mindset that you’re not going to allow excuses like hot weather and biting insects to keep you out of the woods can make all the difference in the world. If you work to live but live to hunt, you have to take advantage of every opportunity that is available. Look at it this way: Every year, a number of monster bucks are taken by hunters during the early pre-rut period across the nation. This season, why don’t you make sure that you are one of them! The ability to improvise and adapt to meet the challenges of hunting the early season will ultimately make you a better hunter.
With that being said, let’s take a look at some innovative strategies that will allow you to handle problems with heat, perspiration and bugs this season. Recently, there have been huge technological strides made relating to hunting equipment and clothing. On my Missouri hunt, the weather was hot and the bugs were hungry. However, I stayed cool and bug-free with the Silvermax line of clothing from Medalist. The clothing has a 360-degree layer of pure silver, which is a proven antimicrobial agent that inhibits the growth of bacteria while neutralizing ammonia and denatured proteins that cause odor.
The Silvermax material also reacts to your body and conducts heat away from your skin. Medalist also offers complete bug protection with the Microskin Bugproof layer, which is extremely lightweight and repels biting insects without chemicals. My scent paranoia keeps me from using conventional bug sprays, and in the past I have suffered long hours in the stand getting devoured. However, this bug-proof system helped eliminate this problem and allowed me to stay in the woods longer.
This year, use the right equipment along with the four secrets of early-season success to hang your tag on a giant well before the rut has even started. It’s a great way to jumpstart your season!