KEY TO EARLY SUCCESS
It's no secret that bedding areas are generally hard to hunt and that a mature buck will tolerate very little disturbance in his bedroom anytime of year. If you're limited by the amount of available hunting area, this fact should weigh heavily on your approach. Is it worth taking the chance that you'll spook a big buck from his bedding area if you don't have many such spots to hunt?
Over the years, I've begun hunting mature bucks in a certain area as soon as I know such a deer is using it. Too many times I waited for the rut to heat up before hunting a specific area or stand site, only to be burned when the buck living there in early season took up residence elsewhere. My advice is: if you know a big buck is in a certain area, go ahead and hunt him — no matter what time of season it is. Of course, this doesn't mean you should throw caution to the wind. Hunt hard, but hunt smart.
If there's a single time of the year when hunting a bedding area is easier, it's the early season. At this time, the leaf cover and heavy vegetation will allow a stealthy hunter to get closer to bedded deer without being spotted. I can't tell you how many times I've settled into a tree stand and shortly thereafter spotted a bedded buck from my elevated vantage point. Getting in undetected becomes a lot tougher after the leaves fall and is almost impossible during the late season.
FINDING THE SPOT
To begin, you obviously need to determine exactly where in your hunting area mature bucks are bedding at this time of year.
After many seasons of hunting early-season bedding areas, I now rely almost totally on experience to help me predict where bucks will bed then. However, one type of evidence will allow you to get on the right track immediately: rubs.
All of the record-book bucks I've taken in early season have been in bedding areas or right on the edge of them when shot. In every case, the area contained a number of rubs. At this time of year, whitetail bucks generally aren't covering a lot of ground in their daily routine; thus, if you find a flurry of rub activity near thick cover, you're probably close to at least one buck's bedding area. If these rubs are bigger than average, the odds suggest that the buck is also.
Don't let the size of the rub dictate whether or not you hunt an area, however. I've seen big bucks rub small trees; conversely, just last season I watched a yearling rub a tree as big around as a baseball bat. While we can make generalities regarding whitetail behavior, nothing is absolute.
Also, at this time of year, it's very possible that a buck isn't alone. The pencil-sized rub you find might very well have been made by a yearling buck, but before the rut, he could be keeping company with an older buck or two.
As you might remember from Part 1, two of the three mature bucks I had close encounters with during the early part of the 2002 Illinois bow season were accompanied by other bucks. I once shot a 170-class buck that had three other bucks with him. That was on Oct. 22, a time when most hunters would think that the bucks are alone and getting into a rutting mode.
When bucks are on their feet this time of year, they're usually moving at a snail's pace. So take your time and look things over when you get a buck into bow range. You don't want to shoot a nice 8-pointer when he has a much larger 10-pointer following him.
HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF
I've learned that the bucks in a given location will adopt the habits of others that came before them. In other words, if you find a bedding area bucks are using during the early season, odds are good that in future years other bucks will do the same.
Don't waste this knowledge by going in each fall and stomping around looking for rubs and hanging a stand. Get a portable stand in place months in advance and trust your instincts. When you know of a traditional early-season bedding site, the first time you go into it all fall should be to hunt a pre-hung stand, not to scout and verify your suspicions.
After a few seasons, you should have a handful of these early-season stands in bedding areas. When you reach that point, you should be able to start making some trips to the taxidermist before cold weather hits.
If you're still searching for these early-season beds, be careful not to over-scout as you look for stand sites. If you find rubs located near thick cover, you're probably close to a good stand site. Don't stomp all over the place looking for the ideal location for your stand. Set up on the edge of the thick cover where you can see these rubs, then hunt the stand a couple of times.
It might take a couple of moves before you put yourself in the right spot, and you might blow your chance before you discover just where your stand should be hung. While that might ruin your chances for the current season, don't forget the location in the future. Put a stand up in the right spot during the spring, and then stay away until bow season opens. Then, when conditions are right, slip in and hunt it.
I've found these bedding areas using rubs and then moved right in and killed a good buck, but the majority of my success is with stands hung in the spring, based on previous hunts and sightings. I now have a handful of stands set up and ready to go in early bedding areas even before the woods green up in the spring.
While I'm also always looking for new spots, it usually takes a couple of seasons to get the buck patterns in a particular spot fine-tuned enough to "expect" success. Consistent success on mature bucks isn't something that will happen overnight. It takes years of learning mature buck habits in general and their tendencies within your hunting area in particular. So don't discard the lessons you learn each season. File them away for the future. Eventually, you'll know what the deer are going to do before they do it, not just after. This is when consistent success in bowhunting mature bucks can become reality.
DON'T BLOW YOUR COVER
I'll generally hunt most of these stands only once or twice during the early season. The one exception is when I know a mature buck is still using an area and hasn't been pressured enough to make him totally nocturnal. I sometimes hunt these same stands during the rut (with a different approach), and I don't want them burned out early.
There are several ways to help ensure that doesn't happen. First, set up on the edge of the bedding area, not right in it. By fully using the wind to your advantage, you take a huge step toward keeping a stand location unknown to the deer.
This doesn't just mean watching the wind direction as it relates to your stand site and the bedding area, but also how the wind relates to your approach route. It does you no good to have a perfect wind for hunting a particular stand if you approach it on a route that allows your scent to blow into the bedding area.
You might have done this in the past and think you got away with it, as you didn't see any deer bust out of the area. With mature bucks, however, it's much more likely that they held tight to their beds, hoping that the danger (you) would pass them by. The majority of the time, this is exactly what happens.
However, the real kicker comes with what the buck does (or doesn't do) next. He's been made aware that danger is lurking in the area, so the chances of his standing up and walking past your stand a couple of hours later have been reduced to almost zero.
The ideal situation is for you to walk directly to your stand with a headwind the whole way. Of course, as we all know, such factors as terrain and property boundaries might not make this possible, but at all costs avoid having your scent blown into the bedding area at any time, including the approach to your stand.
TIMING YOUR HUNTS
Thus far, we've determined that early-season beds can be found by locating rubs next to thick cover and by applying what we've learned from hunting an area in the past. We also know we want to stay on the edge of the bedding area, so as to decrease the chances of spooking the buck(s) bedded there. Finally, we're also aware that we must slip into the stand without alerting the deer in any way. But this isn't the entire formula for success. In fact, maybe the most important element is when you hunt.
I believe that during the early season, morning hunts are not only a waste of time but also actually decrease your chances of success on later hunts as well. How strongly do I feel about this? I just checked my hunting log from the past three seasons and found that I bowhunted only seven October mornings, compared to 67 afternoons. And as proof that I've become even more convinced of this strategy with experience, last season I didn't hunt a single morning in October.
I realize someone reading this is going to think, Well, I know of a monster buck that was killed on a morning hunt during October. That might be true; there are exceptions to every rule. But what we're talking about here is playing the odds. For a single hunter (you) to consistently kill good bucks in early bow season, you need the percentages on your side. If you want to rely on luck to take that buck of a lifetime or if you're content to kill lesser deer, then you might want to continue to hunt early-season mornings. You must be true to yourself and what makes you happy as a hunter. I'm just pointing out that I believe hunting in the morning during the early season does more harm than good. For every good buck you tag on a morning hunt at this time of year, you'll spook 20.
Now let me explain why I think this way. Again, we must hunt bucks where they are during daylight hours, and it's been my experience that during early season, mature bucks spend this time in or very close to their bedding areas. If you slip into a bedding-area stand in the predawn darkness, you must consider where the buck you're hunting is going to be at that time.
In all likelihood, the buck is either going to be very close to the bed in which he plans to spend the day or is already in it. Neither situation is one that bodes well for a successful hunt. If he's not already bedded, odds are you could spook him as you make your way to the stand. And even if you get to the stand undetected, there's a good chance the buck you're after could slip by before shooting light arrives. If he's already slipped in and bedded, the chances of his getting up and moving past your stand are very slim during a morning vigil. The risk of spooking the buck is just too great.
But while evening hunts are without a doubt the way to go in early season, they do have some drawbacks as well. Getting to your stand might be much easier, but getting out undetected can be tough. When you've gone to the trouble of finding a stand that can produce good bucks, the last thing you want to do is alert the local deer to your location. Many evenings I've had to wait a couple hours past dark for deer to clear away from the area around my stand. I've also had to walk miles out of the way back to my vehicle to avoid deer that were feeding in nearby fields.
In the end, our wish is to be consistently successful at hunting mature bucks. It's an ongoing process, one in which we strive to get better as each season passes. Like most other bowhunters, I'm not at the stage I wish to be, but I'm certainly closer than I was a few years ago. I feel that to get to the point of being able to tag a good buck or two every year, I need to take advantage of every stage of the season.
My approach to early-season bucks has proved effective, as I've been able to put some of my best bucks on the wall in October. It's a time of mild weather and a beautiful changing of the seasons, and I want to be out there. To sit at home waiting for the rut also means losing a prime opportunity to fill your buck tag with a wall-hanger. And if you think it's exciting to have a big ol' buck chase a doe past your stand on a cold November morning, just imagine how your heart will pound when you have to watch him for 30 minutes as he approaches your stand on a warm October evening!