September 01, 2023
Now, I’m not going to lie here. There’s no other time I’d rather chase big whitetails than during the late pre-rut and then right on through the rut. However, this doesn’t mean there aren’t other times during the season that I absolutely love getting after mature bucks. And one of those times is the month of September.
And why do I so love hunting September bucks? Well, to begin with, I can’t think of a time during the season when the travel patterns of whitetails are more predictable and exploitable. Just as importantly, however, is the fact that mature bucks haven’t yet been subjected to any hunting pressure. Which means, provided we’re careful about how we go about things, we should stand a fairly good chance of getting into position to ambush an early-season trophy.
A FAVORITE EARLY-SEASON STORY
When it comes to September bucks, I first have to talk about one of my more special early season kills. And though that particular deer is special for a number of reasons, it’s the way things so perfectly fell into place that makes the hunt so memorable.
To begin, the deer I speak of sported a set of antlers that could best be described as huge. Even better, however, was the fact that the monster Montana whitetail was displaying a very predictable evening feeding pattern that saw him arriving at a lush alfalfa field while the sun was still hanging just a bit above the western horizon.
After observing the field from a safe distance the evening prior to the archery opener, my good friend and longtime videographer Matt Tande and I laid out our plan of attack. We decided to pop up a portable ground blind close to where the buck was entering the field. And as a finishing touch, I decided to place a buck decoy approximately 30 yards out in front of the blind. It was my hope that the decoy would distract the giant whitetail enough that he wouldn’t become overly alarmed at the sight of our ground blind. To say that our plan worked pretty much to perfection would be a drastic understatement.
True to the behavior he’d displayed during our preseason observation, the big whitetail, along with three other good bucks, exited their daytime hideout just before sunset. The four whitetails then began their quarter-mile trek across a weed field in route to the alfalfa.
Interestingly, as the bachelor group began to close in on the alfalfa field, the three smaller bucks decided to ignore the decoy and head straight to the alfalfa. However, the giant buck had other thoughts and intentions. He definitely was locked on the decoy and rapidly closing the distance!
Waiting until the giant deer stopped to glare at the decoy, I drew my bow, took careful aim and released an arrow. Thankfully, I managed to keep my nerves in check enough to make an accurate 30-yard shot. We watched the buck go down after running less than 100 yards.
DECOYING IN SEPTEMBER PT. 2
In the event some of you might think it was just a fluke that I managed to get that big Montana deer to approach a decoy in early September, you’d be wrong. The 16-point brute is just one of three mature bucks I’ve managed to arrow while sitting over a buck decoy during early season. I believe one of those deer also is worth talking about, and though that buck’s rack sports “only” 12 point, I personally believe he’s equally as impressive as the 16-pointer.
Once again, the location was East Montana. And just as it was with the 16-pointer, the time was early September during the first week of the state’s archery season. This time around, however, Matt and I had placed a ground blind near the edge of a much smaller alfalfa field located about 200 yards from a dense willow thicket. A long-range observation mission the previous evening had shown us that at least one good buck was bedding in the thicket.
As it played out, the big whitetail emerged from the thicket just as the sun was slowly disappearing below the horizon. Thankfully, a half-dozen antlerless deer were already feeding in the alfalfa field. Prompted by the sight of those deer and my buck decoy, the 12-point wasted no time making his way to the field. Waiting until the big deer had his eyes locked onto the decoy, I drew my bow, put the 20-yard pin on his vitals and released an arrow. The hit was good, and the big deer went down within sight.
So here’s the way I looked at it back when I first started using a buck decoy during early September bowhunts. My reasoning was that there’s normally a fair amount of posturing, sparring and other somewhat aggressive behavior being displayed by bucks this time of year. The behavior is a direct result of resident bucks shedding their antler velvet, and then almost immediately trying to get the local pecking order figured out.
It’s true that I’ve not personally witnessed September bucks displaying quite the amount of aggressive behavior when approaching a decoy as they do during the rut. But that doesn’t really matter, since the name of game is to just get them to approach close enough to offer a decent shot opportunity. And after arrowing two very mature bucks that did just what was expected, I can’t argue the effectiveness of my early season decoy strategy.
THE FOOD FACTOR
Of course, it pretty much goes without saying that the number one strategy for hunting September whitetails has to be waiting in ambush near preferred feeding areas. And I’d venture to say that another almost equally popular strategy involves waiting in ambush along travel routes that lie between bedding and feeding areas. A big 10-point I arrowed a few years back in my home state of Wisconsin is a perfect example of the effectiveness of this very strategy.
Between late summer and early fall, I’d managed to capture dozens of scouting camera photos of the trophy whitetail. Try as I might, however, I couldn’t quite pin down exactly where he most preferred to travel and feed. But then, just a week before my home state’s archery season was scheduled to open, I caught a huge break.
Somewhere along the way, I’d decided to place a couple scouting cameras near the edge of a small CRP field that appeared to be playing host to a lot of deer activity. Over the course of the next few days, I captured a number of photos of the big 10-point and a very mature 8-point as they moved in and around the field.
As it went, a compromising wind direction on opening day kept me from hunting the stand I’d placed near the edge of the CRP field. However, the weather forecast for day two of the season sounded a lot more favorable, and I immediately made plans for an evening hunt.
Now, I really hadn’t held out much hope that the buck I’d targeted would make an early appearance, but that’s exactly what he. The sun was just disappearing below the western horizon when the 10-point strolled into view on the far side of the CRP field. After briefly checking his surroundings, the buck headed directly toward my position. At that point, it became a game of keeping my nerves in check.
Fortunately, I was able to remain somewhat calm and composed as the 10-point closed the distance. But though the big deer eventually did end up well within bow range, he initially didn’t offer a decent shot angle. However, after stretching my nerves nearly to the limit, the big whitetail finally did turn just enough to offer a great shot angle. The hit was perfect, and the 10-point made it less than 100 yards before crashing.
NAILING-DOWN TRAVEL ROUTES
I can’t begin to remember the number of times I’ve figured out exactly where a big, September buck preferred to fill his belly, but was never able to lay eyes on that deer near the food source in daylight. Such was the case on a past South Dakota bowhunt.
After doing a bit of midday scouting, Matt and I were able to figure out that a number of whitetails, including several mature bucks, were spending the daytime hours bedded in a chunk of thick river bottom cover located about a quarter mile from the alfalfa field. Sometime just before sundown, those deer would then begin their evening trek to the field.
Upon further scouting, Matt and I discovered that a good number of the deer were walking through a thick shelter belt located a couple hundred yards from the alfalfa. And as luck would have it, we managed to find a tree along the back side of the shelter belt that was just big enough for us to hang our portable stands in. The only downside was that our stands weren't much more than seven feet from the ground.
Now, in the event you’ve never experienced the “pleasure” of placing two tree stands just seven feet from the ground in a relatively small tree, I can personally attest that it’s not a very comfortable feeling. Believe it or not, we absolutely got away with it. After having a number of antlerless deer and small bucks walk by on their journey to the alfalfa without picking us off, our confidence soared. And that’s about when a big buck suddenly strolled into view. Long story short, the big 9-point remains one of my more memorable South Dakota bow-killed whitetails.
FIND THE FOOD, FIND THE BUCKS
I’m sure it’s obvious that the most common theme throughout this article is the importance that preferred foods play in the everyday lives of September whitetails. This is especially the case with mature bucks. During the month of September, and almost all of October, mature bucks will be doing everything they can to fill their bellies with as much highly nutritious food as possible. And during a good deal of this time, they aren’t being sidetracked by, nor are they hanging out much with, antlerless deer. Of course, there are the occasional exceptions.
I remember well a particular Wyoming 8-point that remains one of my favorite September bowkills. This is because my success was a direct result of using long range observation to pinpoint the perfect spot for a pop-up ground blind in a prime feeding area.
For two evenings prior to the opening of archery season, Matt and I had sat back a safe distance and watched a particular, lush alfalfa field. During those sits, we’d noticed that the 8-point and about a dozen other deer entered the field from one particular spot. Since there were a number of round bales lying in the field near that spot, we felt confident that popping up a ground blind amongst the bales would be the perfect strategy.
True to the pattern we’d witnessed the previous two evenings, deer began filtering into the field while the sun was just slightly above the western horizon. And as luck would have it, the big 8-point was one of the first to show up. Long story short, the entire group, including the 8-point, ended up feeding to within 25 yards of our blind. If memory serves me right, the buck’s mahogany-colored antlers possessed an inside spread of just over 20 inches. A truly memorable hunt for a gorgeous early-season trophy.
In wrapping up this article, I’d like to mention one last important factor regarding hunting September whitetails. Though it may appear as though mature bucks are displaying a rather carefree and relaxed attitude, trust me when I say that their survival instincts are still on high alert. And it doesn’t take much human interaction to prompt them to immediately adopt a totally different temperament. This means us hunters need to take all the steps necessary to ensure we keep our presence a secret!