Whitetail hunters today face new challenges. As more and more states and provinces adopt extra-early openers, the October tactics we’re accustomed to employing just don’t seem to cut it for hunting late-summer bachelor groups.
The whitetail is one of the few animals with the ability to adapt and overcome any habitat obstacle it’s faced with. Meanwhile, we humans, as smart as we are, sometimes have a hard time adjusting tactics. We tend to overthink things sometimes, and more importantly, underthink the most obvious.
To be successful during these early days of deer season in places such as Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina and the whitetail areas of Wyoming, our game plan needs to change. Hunting a deep hardwood ridge in Tennessee the way you would during October might leave you scratching your head, wondering where the deer are.
GET THE EDGE
These late-summer bachelor groups are usually found on natural edges and are keyed in on the best food they can find. It could be a soybean field, an overgrown place with a lot of natural browse or a favorite clover food plot.
Most of us have a basic idea of whitetail behavior. We know they live in the woods and move at dawn and dusk, but that’s not enough. We must dig deeper to connect on these early-season bucks. Usually at this time of year they aren’t bedding far from food. High temperatures and an abundance of food and cover make this possible. They’ve been unpressured all summer and feel comfortable hitting these food sources with predictability.
Using trail cameras and good optics at this time of year can really help us key in on where we need to be for opening day. As with anything else, the more time spent in preparation, the better the odds of reward. And if we use our brains to think outside the box instead of giving animals human qualities, we can magnify our chances even more.
This time of year, a basic understanding of deer behavior certainly will help. However, if we use what our trail cameras and our own observations, tell us, we can start to get a more in-depth look at individual deer behavior. Generically classifying deer will only get us so far. Whitetails might not have personalities in a human sense, but they’re individuals. Only after realizing each buck is unique can we fully use his quirks to our advantage.
WHICH KIND OF BUCK IS HE?
There are three types of bucks we might encounter at this time of year. While every hunter’s situation will vary somewhat, our examples will involve a mineral site. Your situation might be a soybean field or clearcut, but the points will apply just as well with one as another. Just by using the info of our cameras, it’s easily apparent which type of deer we are dealing with. It just takes an understanding of which pattern to look for with each personality type.
THE SOCIAL BUTTERFLY
This type of mature buck hangs all summer with two or more others. These companions often will vary from bucks his own age all the way down the chart to those that have just passed their first birthdays.
Although this mature buck presents certain challenges, he’s the easiest type to kill in early season. The first reason is that you have his buddies’ inexperience on your side. Instead of holding tight to his bed the way Mother Nature has programmed him to, every afternoon he’s largely at the mercy of his younger, less wary companions.
As the sun gets low, these younger deer become impatient and start to stand and stretch. Before you know it, the youngsters start easing out of the bedding area, headed toward the mineral site. Behind them is an older buck that knows better but follows the pack anyway. Usually he’s bringing up the rear moments behind these young guys, leaning on them putting themselves in harm’s way if there’s any danger in the area.
The cons presented by this type of trophy deer are worth noting, though. First off, your scent-free game must be totally on point. You’ll more often than not have several other deer close to you before the oldest one steps out. With that many eyes and especially noses moving about, there’s no room for a scent or other mistake.
The next type of buck we see in late summer is one adhering to the “buddy” system, traveling with one other buck. Such deer have always intrigued me, as they often display interesting personality traits.
Buddy bucks are usually of the same age or only a year apart. They tend to do everything together — even rut. I’ve witnessed this on several occasions, even in November still finding them somewhat together. The bond between them must be treated with respect, because once it’s been unraveled, the result can be a mess from a hunting perspective.
Let’s say you have two buck tags and consider both of these bucks to be “shooters.” If you mainly want the larger of them, don’t take the lesser one first. Patience is key here; you must hold out for the one you really want.
If you remove one of these bucks, the other is immediately left in a vulnerable situation. He’ll immediately search out another buck with a similar personality, no matter how far away that might take him. Usually it will happen some distance away. Of all the big bucks I’ve seen use this system, I’ve never had one stay around after the loss of his buddy.
The hardest mature buck to hunt in late summer is the loner. Some deer just prefer to do their own thing on their own schedule, and that describes him perfectly.
Many factors come into play here. If you have a ton of does and fawns using your place all summer, it becomes a nursery. Old loner bucks don’t usually like to hang around that much other deer activity.
These old does are hard on the bucks this time of year. An aggressive doe will stand up on her rear legs, then use her front hooves to smack bucks away from mineral sites. These same nurseries become hotspots in November, but for early-season hunts so much overall deer activity can be bad. Our old loner buck always shows up by himself, and we often see him leave immediately whenever other deer approach.
What makes him so hard to kill is his genetic programming. We like to give deer human qualities and overthink the obvious. In doing so, we tell ourselves these bucks are super smart and only live in the wooliest of places. But this isn’t necessarily true — we’re just misidentifying what really is going on.
We see does with their fawns every day and at all times, so we assume they’re dumb to our game. This isn’t true at all; in reality, these old does are the smartest deer in the woods. We see the adult doe more because she must feed more regularly to produce adequate milk, as well as teach the two “parasites” that are sucking her dry where to find their own food.
The second deer we see in daylight with great regularity is the yearling buck. We see him often because it’s the first year he’s out on his own, and he’s still operating on his mom’s schedule. The 2 1/2-year-olds we see less often, and the 3 1/2s even less.
By the time a buck reaches 4 1/2, he’s physically mature. And if he has a loner personality, he’s decided he has no deer to take care of but himself. His urge to stay tight to cover until nightfall is strong. Not by using a human brain, but a small brain that’s programmed with only three basic instincts: eat, sleep and breed. And during late summer, the breeding part isn’t on his mind at all. He’s simply focused on survival.
For that reason, the loner is usually the hardest buck to kill in early season. Without the presence of any companions coaxing him onto his feet a little before dark, he generally won’t be in any hurry to head out of the bedding area. That means you’ll probably be left with only nighttime photos of a phantom.
These deer are killable. However, this is where a basic understanding of weather and moon phases comes into play. To kill this buck might take every trick you can think of.
Try to find a pattern. High-pressure, low-humidity days seem to put these deer on their feet earlier in the afternoon. So do cool, rainy days. But the pattern varies from deer to deer, so you’ll have to figure this out on your own. Every one of these loners is different, as their personalities would suggest. Cameras and careful observation often will reveal huntable patterns you can tap into.
Not every whitetailer bowhunts where the season opens during the velvet period. But if you do, remember these examples of what you might encounter in your summer scouting and early-season hunting.
As G.I. Joe always said, “Knowing is half the battle.” And that could never be truer than when dealing with specific bucks. For many bowhunters, the days of just “deer” hunting have changed to a focus on specific deer that are relatively mature. Learning your target animal’s personality type will greatly enhance your odds of taking him when the season starts.