July 27, 2023
From the many conversations I’ve had with fellow bowhunters, I’ve learned a bunch still struggle to kill mature bucks during the opening week of archery season.
I sympathize with these people, as I struggled with the formula for years myself. And to be honest, for the longest time I thought my early-season luck would never change. But then I had an awakening of sorts. To begin with, I started spending more time bowhunting areas where the local whitetails were a bit more “hunt friendly,” so to speak. These bowhunts taught me a lot about what it really takes to have a consistent success rate on opening-week trophies.
Not everyone can hop around to sample the bow openers in several widely separated places. But I’ve had the good fortune of being able to do so. This includes hunts in South Dakota (Sept. 1 opener), my home state of Wisconsin (usually opening the third Saturday in September) and Oklahoma (Oct. 1 opener). With the trend toward earlier bow seasons in many places, openers now are trickled throughout September on into October. These can present us with special opportunities.
I love chasing opening-week whitetails in Western states. The No. 1 reason is high visibility. As I’ve long preached in articles and seminars, firsthand observations will tell you more conclusively how whitetails are behaving and where they prefer to travel and feed than any amount of sign reading can.
I’m sure some would argue it’s possible to achieve the same results simply by relying on scouting cameras. I won’t argue that this isn’t at least partly true — in fact, later I’ll describe some scenarios in which cameras are extremely helpful. But I much prefer to hunt early-season bucks that have had as little human contact as possible. So if I can acquire needed intel with my own eyes, from a safe distance, I feel that’s an extra advantage.
I can also state from plenty of experience that open-country whitetails are somewhat easier to pattern than those in heavier (and more heavily hunted) cover are. We know it doesn’t take much pressure at all for a mature buck to alter his pattern as the season opens. So the key is to do what we can to get the job done as quickly and discreetly as possible.
Opening Day in South Dakota
Some years back, I was bowhunting with my good friends Pat and Branden West of Dakota Ranch Outfitters. I can always expect these two guys to have dozens of scouting camera photos of potential target deer in their western South Dakota hunting areas, and that was the case on this hunt.
As we were going through some of the photos just prior to the archery opener, something became obvious: A lot of the most interesting images had been captured in one area.
“All the bucks you see in those photos are coming to a huge hay field that is absolutely lush this year,” Pat noted. “I suggest we head there this evening to watch and see if we can pinpoint exactly how those bucks are traveling to the field. My plan is that we can then go back tomorrow and hang a tree stand or two.”
That evening found Pat, my run-and-gun buddy Matt Tande and I atop a tall hill overlooking the hay field. I can’t recall exactly how many shooter-sized bucks we saw during the final half-hour of daylight, but it had to be close to a dozen. And we were able to determine exactly where they were coming from.
So mid-morning on opening day found us back near the field and ready to put up some tree stands. Based on the forecasted wind direction for later in the day, we set up in a giant cottonwood in a wooded area bordering the western edge of the field.
Matt and I were back and settled into our stands in that tree two hours before sunset. Because of what we’d observed the previous evening, we expected no mature buck movement to occur until much closer to dusk. So you can imagine our surprise when a big 8-pointer strolled into view a good hour before dark.
To make a long story short, that buck ended up walking to within 15 yards of our position, which was a fatal mistake for him. We had slightly over two hours of observation time, a couple hours of scouting time and less than two hours of actual hunting time invested in that South Dakota opening-day bow buck.
An opening-day bowhunting plan had seldom worked out that perfectly for me in the past. However, based on what I learned then, I’ve tended to have much better results since.
I attribute this to several key factors, in addition to the obvious fact we hunt good areas. First, if at all possible, I’ve learned to try to spend at least a couple evenings watching the deer I’ll be hunting. Second, I avoid walking anywhere near my hunting spots until just prior to starting my hunt. And last, I’m extremely careful to not put too much pressure on a buck I’ve targeted.
The Early Food Factor
As if the hyper-flighty nature of mature bucks isn’t enough of an early-season issue to deal with, there’s also the fact feeding preferences can shift rapidly. At this time of year, I’ve seen numerous examples of deer abandoning a preferred food literally overnight and then concentrating on something totally different.
Here’s where I’ll admit to being a bit contradictory. Earlier I mentioned that I much prefer direct observation when trying to figure out early-season buck travel patterns. However, there are certain situations and/or environments in which that simply isn’t practical. Then I do rely on scouting cameras to assist me in trying to figure out where “my deer” are getting their groceries.
Of course, it’s imperative to place cameras where checking them will cause as little disruption as possible. Where I’ve had the opportunity to do so, I’ve even driven my pickup to within a few feet of cameras in order to check them. Pat West likes to do the same thing, for the same reason. The less human odor spread around your hunting areas the better, right?
Of course, the amount of human intrusion mature bucks will put up with often depends on how much they’re normally subjected to. Obviously, those residing in wilderness environments are seldom exposed to much human intrusion for most of the year. On the other hand, suburban, farmland and even many Western whitetails spend their entire lives interacting with people regularly.
Whereas wilderness deer get suspicious and nervous at even the slightest whiff of human odor, those living closer to development usually are more tolerant. That’s good news for those of us who hunt such environments. In addition, I’ve found that it can be a bit easier to pattern farmland and ranch deer.
Moving In On a Specific Buck
Some years back, I had the opportunity to bowhunt a giant Wyoming whitetail. The 14-pointer was one of five big bucks we’d been watching in the days leading up to archery season. The quintet was spending the daytime hours bedded in an expanse of rolling, wooded hills. Just before dark each evening those bucks would leave the hills and make their way across a 3-mile expanse of open prairie ground en route to an irrigated alfalfa field.
This brigade of bucks would remain in the field until just before daylight, then start the trek back to the wooded hills. About a quarter-mile from reaching them, they’d drop into a rugged draw, then walk its bottom for a short distance before climbing out the opposite side.
A quick scouting mission the day before the season showed that there was only one spot where the bucks could easily climb out of the draw. As luck would have it, a cluster of three fairly large oaks stood just 15 yards from a well-worn runway up the middle of that gentle slope. It took me under a half-hour to trim a few branches and hang a portable stand in one of those oaks.
I’d been in that stand only about 20 minutes the next morning when I spotted movement on the rim of the draw straight across from my position. The next thing I knew, those five big bucks had filed down to the bottom of the draw and were walking my way. The velvet 14-pointer was in the lead.
It took the bachelor group only a couple minutes to close the distance to a mere 20 yards. I waited until my target buck presented a perfect quartering-away shot angle, then sent a broadhead-tipped missile through his vitals. He went under 100 yards after the hit.
My quick hunt for that Wyoming whitetail is a perfect illustration of figuring out exactly what a particular buck was doing, finding the perfect ambush point and then preparing a stand site without ever alerting him or any of his traveling buddies. The ability to identify and act on their routine without disrupting it was key.
That brings up yet another important point regarding opening-week bucks. As they aren’t yet being distracted by any aspect of the rut, they’re able to dedicate all their senses to survival. Also, because bucks often travel in groups this time of year, it’s imperative we seek out stand sites with plenty of cover and ensure the animals we’re hunting never get our wind.
Don't Be Fooled
I’ve long believed the reason some early-season bowhunters carelessly scout their favorite areas right before the season is the behavior big bucks display then. As many of us know, it’s not unusual to spot even the oldest bucks out and about during broad daylight in the days leading up to the archery opener. In many cases, several big bucks will be traveling together and feeding in fields well before dusk. It’s as if they don’t even care about being observed.
But we must be careful to not let this seemingly carefree behavior fool us. It takes very little human pressure to prompt mature bucks to immediately adopt a more reclusive lifestyle or even relocate.
If you’ve guessed that I love chasing mature bucks in early season, you’re right. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of having a filled archery tag when my buddies are still struggling to fill theirs — or in some cases, haven’t even started their seasons yet. And even better, in some areas there’s always a chance an early buck will be sporting a gorgeous, velvet-covered rack. As far as I’m concerned, it really doesn’t get any better than that!