Seventeen feet below my tree stand, two young whitetail bucks slurped mucky pond water. One, with his 7-point rack, was legal; his smaller buddy wasn't. But even the larger of the two was less than what I was willing to burn a tag on, especially during opening weekend.
It was fun to watch these two bucks drink and then harass a lone button buck that tried to join their group. Farther out beyond the pond, several does and fawns munched on alfalfa.
The humidity was so high the dead-still air felt palpable on my skin. Deer surrounded me in nearly every direction. As the hunt unfolded, I realized it was one of the most exciting sits I'd ever experienced.
And then it became even more so. The old reliable twig snap alerted me to a buck in the cover, and one glance told me to get my act together. He ate a few acorns while his rack swung back and forth. As I came to full draw, the obviously mature deer walked slowly in my direction.
I had one shooting lane behind me, and he passed harmlessly through it without slowing down. I didn't want to risk stopping him with a bleat, so I let him go on
without interference, figuring he too would hit the pond.
I was wrong. At 50 yards he popped out and approached three bucks I hadn't seen enter the field. When they met up I saw all four were hard-antlered, and they broke into two pairs to spar. In total, six bucks and at least a dozen does and fawns were visible in front of me. Without loosing an arrow, at dark I sneaked out with a smile on my face and a strong desire to return.
It took a week before I could slip away and drive the two hours to hunt that property again. Reports from a few other hunters had been that it was simply too hot and windy to be any good. South winds carrying 75 degree air at 20 miles per hour were forecasted for the first evening, and the direction was all wrong for my pond stand. So I decided to sneak to another pond and hole up in a standing corn field.
Very few of the other bowhunters ever mess with this particular pond, simply because it isn't conducive to tree stand hunting. And area deer seem to know this; even before I was settled into my makeshift corn blind, I'd seen a pair of fawns on their feet.
All evening long I watched whitetails come and go before a lone buck caught my attention. He got a pass at first — but when he returned, I decided to try to crawl into range and meet him as he traveled the far side of the triangular-shaped pond.
The wind helped me get close enough, and when he tipped over in alfalfa after a short sprint, I ran back to gather my pack and then hustled my way to the buck. He was massive in body and carried nearly 20 inches more antler than I'd guessed — which, as we all know, isn't generally the case when field-judging.
A good friend and I struggled to load that buck onto my game cart, and we guessed at his weight as heat lightning flicked across the sky like snake tongues testing the air. The following morning, the 9-pointer would nearly bottom out my scale at 214 pounds: impressive for a deer killed on Sept. 19.
AT WHAT COST?
That Minnesota buck is one of many I've killed by bow in my home state, with a large percentage of them hitting the ground in September or October. An early-November firearms season pretty much ensures that if I haven't arrowed a mature buck by Halloween, I'm in trouble.
That reality for my entire bowhunting career has been a blessing in disguise. Sure, I'd love to bowhunt the rut in my home state, but I can't — at least, not without bumping elbows with the nearly 500,000 gun hunters who will be in the woods then as well.
The true window for me to wrap my tag around a mature deer's antler opens in mid-September and closes on the eve of firearms season. I can still bowhunt right up to the new year, but late season is far from a sure thing in my world.
My efforts to tag out during the early season have taught me quite a bit about whitetails, and just as importantly, about whitetail hunters. Of all of the things I pay attention to when planning stand sites and hunting time, the most important is hunting pressure. Weather and a host of other factors play second fiddle to how many hunters I expect to be out roaming the woods. Nothing kills deer action faster than hunters. Nothing.
Interestingly enough, it's what most of my competition thinks about weather, or deer movement, or moon phase or you name it that does me the biggest solid. I've written extensively about the myths surrounding deer movement in heat, rain or wind, but the part worth understanding most is that a lot of us give weather far too much credit for ruining chances of a good hunt. Truth is, deer will move in an awful lot of less-than-ideal conditions.
This goes for all times of the season, but it seems to be most prevalent on our minds during the early stages. We all pay attention to the forecast during the rut, of course, but poor weather during the "best" time of the season isn't as likely to convince us to stay home as it is in September or the beginning of October. After all, we reason, mature bucks aren't likely to be on their feet in daylight then anyway.
That's a weak argument, even if you're only concerned with killing huge bucks and nothing else. Most of us like to bowhunt because sitting in a tree stand is a great way to disconnect from the rigors of life and to watch nature move at its own rhythm. Stand time is good time, regardless of the presence of Booners or not.
And truthfully, no matter what standard of buck is large enough to get your heart racing, provided that deer lives on your chosen hunting ground, he probably puts himself in some position to be killed every single day of the season. If you're not there, those fleeting moments as he stages a few minutes before dark or slips to a pond to slake his thirst will result in his living yet another day.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE PRESSURE?
Aside from obsessing over the weather, one of the best ways to talk yourself into not hunting is to make the argument that your time in the woods will only educate the deer before the hunting gets really good.
I guess if you plan to stroll through the oaks with no plan and zero attention to being quiet or playing the wind, then yes, you'll educate some deer. But I'm of the humble opinion that we use this rationale far too much, which is a conclusion I've arrived at after extensive public land hunting.
Yes hunting pressure affects deer, whether it's self-inflicted or from other hunters, but it doesn't mean you're not in the game. And while you can't control a group of small-game hunters plunking bushytails or the neophyte bowhunter who sets up in the most obvious spots, you can control your own hunting pressure.
That doesn't mean eliminating pressure by staying home to await better days. It means your best bet is to hunt smart. My strategy after opening week — that short span in which I'm hoping for a gimme on a buck that doesn't know the calendar has flipped from summer to deer season — is to observe and scout. Often.
This strategy came out of the realization, years ago, that there were times I was hunting and had no faith a deer was going to walk by my stand. I was hunting just to hunt, and sitting whichever stands I had up because they represented the entirety of my options. That's a bad strategy, and something we should all be cognizant of — because it's pretty easy to get sloppy when the faith slips away.
These days, when I feel I don't have a lot going on, I go into observation mode while adopting low expectations. I play the wind and sneak in with a lightweight hang-on or climber or simply build a natural ground blind. My goal? Look over an area I'm curious about.
I do this a lot on private ground, and I'm religious about it when hunting public land. While going on these little fact-finding missions I'm still deer hunting, and occasionally I do get a crack at one, but most of the time it's a setup game.
I'm looking for the deer to give me something to work with. And contrary to popular belief, I'm not referring to only evening observation. Sunrise sessions can prove very valuable as well, as deer make their way from the dinner table to the bedroom.
This might be as simple as a buck poking his head above the cattails in a slough or a doe showing up next to a homestead I've written off as not worth hunting. What you observe today is usually pretty reliable for tomorrow, and occasionally I'll find the deer doing something unexpected and very reliable.
These situations often involve apples, acorns or some other here-today, gone-soon food source. And it's not just evenings when you can sneak out to observe the local deer.
No matter what, with this strategy I can minimize my impact on the woods and keep active at finding current deer movement. It's been my experience that while we always expect deer to be killable due to the desire to fill their bellies during the early season, some of the best ambush sites are productive because of hunting pressure from my competition.
The best way to figure this out is to see it with your own two eyes. Cameras and scouting for sign are two secondary options, but with both methods I feel I'm going into an area before I'm ready — and I don't like that. If I can watch a deer travel and feed, I'll see how it moves across the landscape and witness first-hand possible ambush locations as an actual deer interacts with them. That's invaluable.
IT'S STILL THE BUFFET, RIGHT?
The key to early season deer hunting is food. We all know that, and we've all heard it preached by every whitetail expert out there. You'll get no argument from me here, except that conventional wisdom on how to hunt food sources is often bunk. OK, maybe it's not bunk, but you have to question the source when you hear someone say how you simply find the trails the bucks are using to enter the fields or food plots and then set up on them.
On tightly controlled property with little pressure, this approach is a no-brainer. On ground with higher hunter numbers, though, this program tends to die by the end of opening weekend. Most bowhunters are addicted to field edges, and the deer figure that out pretty quickly — especially mature bucks.
There are places in their home ranges where they rarely encounter humans, as opposed to spots in which it's common. And that's not just seeing a human, but smelling one, or even smelling where one has been. Field edges on heavily hunted ground scream danger to mature bucks.
I'm convinced this is another reason hunters get soured on early-season hunting. They sit the edge of the soybeans, where the big boys hung out all summer, and as the evening ends the mature bucks are a no-show. Well, those bucks didn't leave, at least not all of them. They simply wised up.
Some might have gone nocturnal, but more than likely they're just staging in thick cover near the food source they plan to visit first. They might be 75 yards away, or 300 yards away, but most likely they'll be on their feet before shooting light has completely ticked away. They aren't going to risk poking their noses out in the danger zone when they can browse away for 15 minutes and wait for the safety of darkness to fully descend.
In early season, staging areas can be very productive, but again, pay attention to how you hunt them. If you bring your A-game you'll be OK — but if you stroll in with the attitude that early season stinks and you're not going to have a good hunt, you probably won't.
While sitting out the first weeks of bow season to await better times is an option, it might not be the best one. This is especially true if you're willing to hunt smart and keep your mind open to the fact that every single time you hunt, you could run into the caliber of deer that will keep you happy. Plus, you'll be hunting — which is a heck of a lot more fun than not hunting.