When it comes to chasing big, mature whitetails, the time of year everyone most likes to talk about is the rut. The chaos that comes with bucks fighting and chasing does, combined with the possibility that a giant you’ve never seen before could show up at any moment, makes that time of year wildly fun for us whitetail hunters.
But no matter how good the hunting can be during the breeding period, I’d argue there’s another special time of year when it can be just as good. Well, actually it’s more of an event than a time of year I’m talking about. It’s the magical early-season cold front.
These tend to be few and far between, and they’re never guaranteed. But when the switch flips and they happen, they can highly encourage deer movement and put the odds of success in the hunter’s favor.
Of course, as with nearly every other weather swing worth discussing, an early cold front doesn’t promise success. It’s still on you to do the homework to plan for this scenario. Here I’ll discuss some of the reasons I love hunting early-weather patterns, as well as tactics I’ve used to take advantage of them as a bowhunter.
Cold Can Make Him Move
As a general rule, opening day of archery season through about the first week or two of October can be considered “early season,” depending on where you hunt and when opening day is. And while “cold” fronts happen throughout the entire year, here we’ll focus on how they impact hunting during this early portion.
First off, at risk of stating the obvious, you can’t make cold fronts happen. You can’t accurately predict when they’ll occur, either. But having a plan when they do happen is critical.
As is often the case with fall and winter cold fronts, dropping mercury during early season seems to deer get onto their feet a little earlier in the evening and stay on their feet a little later in the morning. That can be the good-luck token you need to kill a buck with a habit of showing up on camera just a few minutes outside legal shooting light.
What makes a cold front so much more important early in the season is the fact that it’s sometimes the only help you’ll get. During the rut, you could be hunting a day where the weather is terrible all around — except that doesn’t matter if a “hot” doe brings a buck by your stand. During early season, you can’t rely on that random doe to force a wise buck to slip up.
Tough weather, nocturnal deer movement and an absence of rutting might seem like a too-tall wall to climb, but all those negatives can be overcome if the weather cuts you an early break. Whether it’s a slight drop from the high 90s or an unseasonably early frost, any sudden drop in temperature can be enough to force a buck to get onto his feet more than normal. Sometimes just a few minutes can make all the difference.
If you don’t have wind direction on your mind when it comes to hunting in September and early October, you should. Sure, many whitetails are still locked onto zero-pressure summer patterns and are bedding closer to food sources, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still wary. So play the wind, especially now.
In late summer and early fall, the predominant wind direction is most likely going to be something southerly. (This varies, based on location.) Thus, odds are you have most of your early-season stands set for that wind direction.
When a cold front rolls through, the wind direction of course will change to a more northerly direction in most cases. If you don’t have a stand ready and in place for such a wind, you could be missing out on major opportunities. Or if you hunt one of those stands that’s set up for a southerly wind, you could find yourself getting busted instead of at full draw.
Every deer hunter hunts a bit differently, and many have stands set up specifically for early-season hunting. I know for where and how I hunt, things change drastically from the first week of September to November, and again on through December and January.
With that in mind, I like to set stands in the summer for early-season hunting specifically. When I’m doing so, cold fronts are on my mind. If you get a wind switch and temperatures start to drop, being able to jump into a “front ready” stand is a luxury that comes with proper preparation. Also, it saves the noise, scent and general commotion of hanging new stands or setting up new blinds on the fly. More on that later.
Predicting good stand sites for cold fronts before they arrive could be just what seals the deal for you this fall. But what if you hang them in areas that don’t end up producing, and you realize additional tweaks are needed? Then it’s time to get creative.
Be Willing To Adapt
No matter who you are, when it comes to deer hunting, at some point you’re going to find yourself unprepared for a moment you should seize. Trust me on that. It happens to me all the time. When that moment comes, and in this case it’s an early cold front you’re not set up to hunt, being able to adapt and make moves on the fly can come in handy.
If you don’t have the right setup for a northeast wind on a September afternoon, never fear the run-and-gun (or in this case, run-and-bow) strategy. Don’t be afraid to grab a portable stand out of the garage and make something happen. “Hang-and-hunts,” as I like to call them are useful throughout the season. But in this scenario, they can be lifesavers. Sure, anyone can argue it’s better to be prepared early. But a willingness to react quickly and make a move sure beats the alternative of doing nothing at all.
Maybe you’re going to dive into a new area on a hunch, or you simply want to hunt the other side of a food plot with a new wind direction. Whatever the situation, at the end of the day it’s all about adapting. The more you’re willing and able to do that, the better your chances are of downing an early-season buck.
Putting all The Pieces Together
For me, deer hunting is like putting together a giant puzzle. When you’re pursuing deer, whether it be a certain buck, a certain age of buck, etc., you want to put as many puzzle pieces together as possible. This can be done throughout the year via scouting, trail cameras, shed hunting and data you collect during time spent in the stand. Each little piece of the puzzle you’re able to connect leads you closer to finding the final drops of a fall blood trail.
When I’m pursuing a specific buck, the puzzle pieces I’m constantly searching for are his home range, where he likes to feed/drink and his bedding area. But understanding how all those elements change throughout the year, and during different weather conditions and wind directions, can be more difficult.
It’s a constant cat-and-mouse game, but every little puzzle piece counts. Knowing how to utilize an early cold front is simply one of those puzzle pieces. If you can use the knowledge of an approaching front to alter your hunting strategy or intensity, you’ll be more likely to kill.
A Perfect Example
The best example I can give for taking advantage of an early old front would be the Minnesota buck that I shot on Oct. 11, 2018. It happened during a time many whitetail hunters refer to as “the lull.” Certainly it can be a tough time of year to punch a buck tag.
I had trail camera pictures of the buck all summer into early fall, and he rarely showed up in daylight. The first week of September, I got a few photos of him coming through where I could hunt, and he did so about 20 minutes before dark. But most other photos of him through September were either on the cusp of shooting light or right after dark. Sounds about right, huh? I know many of you can relate.
Based on this information, and given the proximity of my stand to where the buck was bedding, I figured my best shot would be to wait until a cold front to hunt him. I didn’t want to risk over-hunting the deer and contaminating the area if there was a slim chance he’d show up in daylight. And I couldn’t move any closer to where he was coming from, as I only had permission to hunt on a small parcel of land.
That led me to Oct. 11, when the weather forecast finally cooperated with my plan. Temperatures had plummeted from highs in the 50s and 60s to below 30. I figured if I was going to have an early-season chance at this stud of a buck, that was going to be the day.
As I sat in my stand that evening, I was absolutely on pins and needles. Every minute that went by without a deer sighting, I felt my chances slipping by. And then, there it was: a big set of antlers approaching me through the green forest.
Before I knew it, the buck was standing 20 yards from me, broadside, and my arrow was zipping through the air right at his heart. Had the weather not changed in my favor that day, I don’t think I would’ve gotten a shot at him.
Having that cold front timed just right was that last puzzle piece I needed. I’d connected enough of the other dots to know I had to stay out of that stand until the perfect conditions presented themselves. Otherwise, I most likely would’ve blown the buck out of there or caused him to simply not move through the area at all during daylight hours.
Early season can be one of my favorite times to hunt. Bucks are as patternable as they’ll be all year. And if you can start to understand a buck or get an idea of how he moves on a daily or even weekly basis, you can start to formulate a plan to get him in front of you. Gather every little piece of information you can. And then, if the hands of fate deal you an early shot of cold weather, don’t wait — react! It might be the best move you make all year.