August 26, 2022
By Alex Comstock
Is that him? My hunting buddy Garrett, perched in the stand a couple feet below me asked the question. I glanced up from behind the video camera, feverously looking for a glimmer of an antler or flicker of a tail. “Is that him?” Garret asked once more, this time sounding more frantic. Almost appearing out of thin air, there he was. The buck we were after cleared the incredibly thick and dense shrubbery and stepped into our clear view. I quickly fixated the camera on him, as he was already within 20 yards.
Three steps later, the buck paused, and Garrett released an arrow. Moments later we were high-fiving, elated with joy as a three-month plan had just come to fruition. It was Sept. 18, 2021, and we had just killed our target buck on opening day of Minnesota’s archery season. If we can pull it off, so can you! Here’s what we did to arrow our target buck on our first trip to the stand. Better yet, here are some tips for how it can apply to you. Let’s talk about how to tag out right out of the gate.
Do You Have Historical Data?
The most important part of killing a target buck on opening day is having history with the animal. Garrett sending an arrow through the buck we called “Owatonna” on opening day of the 2021 archery was possible because we had a year of data on the buck that we collected in 2020. After acquiring a new hunting property going into the 2020 season, we deployed numerous trail cameras. We had this buck on camera through-out the fall, and in October we gained valuable insight from another hunter in the area. That hunter had the buck on camera in another location almost all late September and early October in daylight. By the time we had this information in hand, it was too late to make a move based on it.
But, after the season came and went and Owatonna was still alive, we knew we had the intel that would help us kill him in ’21. If you have any kind of historical data to utilize when making a game plan to kill your target buck on opening day, you need to use it. Deer no doubt have historical patterns. The million-dollar question becomes: Can you use the information you have about a deer from 1, 2 or 3 years prior to essentially know what he’s going to do before he does it?
In our case, the critical piece of information we gained was finding out where this buck spent most of his time in daylight in September and early October 2020. During spring 2021, we went into this “new” area to dissect it. It became apparent to us how Owatonna was using the corner of our private land that we could hunt. The game plan had started; now we needed to fill in the details.
Oftentimes, bucks’ summer patterns change just before the start of deer season. This can make punching a tag on opening day extremely difficult in some areas. As such, the exact date of your opening day is extremely important. Here’s what I mean. To kill your target buck on opening day, you need to have a bead on his daily pattern going into opening day. It absolutely cannot be a guessing game. The goal should be for you to be so confident in the buck’s movements that you know you’re about to kill him when you enter the stand. You want to be sitting in your stand as confident as ever that it’s going to go down.
In my home state of Minnesota, opening day in 2021 was on September 18. Traditionally, that’s right on the edge of when buck’s start to change their summer pattern. From year to year, there’s a 50/50 chance whether bucks will still be locked into their warm season pattern or have already shifted into their early fall pattern. Once bucks shed their velvet in late August or early September, they typically will break apart from bachelor groups, seek out fall food sources and shift into their “fall range” prior to breeding season.
Some bucks may shift very quickly after shedding velvet, seemingly becoming nocturnal in a matter of days and changing their home range drastically. However, some bucks may take much longer to abandon their lazy summer feeding pattern. This is something you’ll need to determine through scouting and by using trail cameras, where legal. The later your opening day falls on the calendar, the harder it will be to capitalize on a buck’s waning summer pattern.
When it came to figuring out a way to kill Owatonna on opening day of the 2021 archery season, Garrett and I focused on the intel we’d been given by the other hunter. We’d been told he moved out of the area in October, so we decided we’d need to kill him prior to that timeframe. That was our deadline, so to speak. Based on the intel you’ve gathered on the whereabouts and seasonal pattern of your target buck, make an attack plan to tag him before he either moves into another area or becomes less active in daylight hours. Start by keeping notes about the buck’s daylight movements from the year(s) prior. Pay attention to his use of certain food sources, bedding areas and travel routes around the time of year when your season starts.
If the buck proves the pattern correct and uses these same spots again during the summer prior to hunting season, pay close attention to the wind direction and weather patterns. Learn how those things influence his movements. Then choose your stand location accordingly and be there waiting for him on opening day.
Use Scouting Tools
Check your local regulations and use the scouting tools you have available to gain as much information as you can about a buck’s pattern. For me, two tools have assisted more than anything in summer scouting: cellular trail cameras and good optics. I’m a huge fan of summer observation from a distance. If you hunt agriculture areas or any kind of open terrain, put your glass to use to help figure out exactly how deer are moving. Trail cameras can only tell you so much, whereas physically watching how a buck enters a bean field or how he crosses a pasture can tell you so much more about his movements. This is a tactic I’ve used with great success in Nebraska and other states with lots of open ground.
However, in northern Minnesota, we’re hunting timber with virtually no ag fields around. Therefore, it can be extremely challenging to scout deer in the summer using binoculars or spotting scopes from long distances. In turn, we use trail cameras, especially cellular cameras, as our “eyes in the woods” to keep tabs on mature bucks 24/7.
In June ’21, Garrett and I placed a cell cam in the small block of woods where we thought Owatonna lived. In search of his core area, we found a trail crossing that we figured he had to be using. That’s where we placed the camera and immediately left. All that was left to do was wait. We were confident it was a matter of time until he showed up. And a couple days later, we got photos of a big buck just starting to grow out his antlers, but we immediately knew it was him. We’d located him; that part of the equation was figured out.
Reduce Pressure At All Costs
There are a few different schools of thought when it comes to summer pressure on a hunting property. Some hunters discourage it entirely, while others claim it’s no big deal if done sparingly and with a plan. In my eyes, the layout of the property and the way deer use it matters most. If it’s a spot that doesn’t hold many bucks in the summer or if bucks transition onto and off the property nomadically, pressure may not be as important to you during the hot summer months of June, July and August. But if the property is the core area of the buck you’re trying to kill, it’s paramount you keep pressure to a minimum.
Now, by no means I am saying you can’t step foot onto your hunting property. It’s just that everyone has a little something different to work with. If you own hundreds of acres and plant food plots and the whole fixing, you’ll obviously spend time on the property during the warm season. In that case, you might limit human pressure at bedding areas and sanctuaries. While hunting Owatonna, we were dealing with small 5-acre parcels of woods. The buck used these locations daily, and there was zero chance we were stepping in that timber all summer. Could we have gotten away with certain things? Most likely. But we didn’t want to leave anything to chance.
The cell cam allowed us to monitor the area all summer without having to disturb it. The plan seemed to be working, as Owatonna continued to show up on cell cam at all hours of the day and night throughout the summer. As we neared opening day, he still was showing up in daylight in the evening. The plan was starting to seriously take shape.
First Time In
If there’s anything I’ve learned the past few years, it’s the power of the first trip into a hunting spot. It’s never a guarantee of course, but Garrett and I both have had success more than once when hunting a spot for the first time — when it’s “fresh” and totally unpressured. Hunting a spot for the first time is a key concept to this article. Although in principle we’re talking about killing on opening day, really we’re talking about killing on the first trip in. This might be on day one of the season, or the first day conditions are right for your stand site.
What I’m getting at is this: If you have historical data, a summer pattern to go off of, you’ve kept your pressure to a minimum and now you’re ready to strike, you better strike on the right day. Let’s say you’ve got two years of historical data on a buck. You know that every time he shows up in daylight on cell cam, it’s with a south wind. You know this, but the night before season starts you check the forecast and you’re not going to have a south wind until the third day of season. It can be painstakingly difficult to sit out the first two days, or hunt somewhere else completely, but it’s what needs to be done.
Don’t risk going after that buck on opening day just because you’ve been waiting all summer. Be patient and wait until the conditions line up as best as possible. In our hunt for Owatonna, opening day was supposed to be beautiful and cool. Then on the second day of season, the temps were forecasted to jump back up for a week. We figured if we didn’t make it happen on opening day, it would be much harder to kill this buck. Knowing that Owatonna hardly ever graced the cell cam in daylight in the morning, we went in for the first time the afternoon of opening day.
Our confidence level that first afternoon was sky high. That was key to this hunt. We could feel it in our bones that the plan was going to work.
After putting the puzzle together all summer long, it’s time to strike. This brings us to the most important part of the equation: You. It’s your job to close the deal — to hunt smart and make the shot. On that first trip to the stand, you need to be on your game. You’ll often hear hunters talk about being “rusty” on their first few trips to the tree stand each season, often forgetting things in their pack, making too much noise, etc. After spending months away from the stand and not hunting, they’re getting reacclimated to everything.
But if you’re going to kill on opening day, you don’t have time to “get back in the swing” of things. If you’re truly planning on killing your target buck on the first trip in, this cannot be you. You need to have every “i” dotted and every “t” crossed. You’ve got to be ready to go. As Garrett and I headed to the property the afternoon of the 2021 archery season opener, our confidence was truly peaking. After a friendly game of rock, paper, scissors to determine who was in the shooter stand (which Garrett won), we were ready to put Owatonna down.
So, on opening day we arrived early, with plenty of time to hang our tree stands quietly, trim a few shooting holes and be ready to go. Garrett and I waited anxiously. We were on pins and needles, ready for the moment to occur. Owatonna appeared at 6:30 as if on cue. He stopped at 14 yards, Garrett released his arrow, and just like that it was all over. It doesn’t always happen like this, but when a plan is executed perfectly, there’s no better feeling.