A single trail-cam picture of a very unique velvet buck convinced me to point my pickup truck north and place the tall mountains of eastern Kentucky in the rearview mirror. The season opener was finally here, but it was practically hot enough to fry an egg on the country road that cut directly through some of the prettiest farmland in southern Illinois.
The endless sea of thick soybeans, standing corn and isolated woodlots helped me forget all about the annoying temperatures and biting insects that go hand-in-hand with the early season. However, there was no way the heat or hungry bugs were going to keep me away from the high-racked buck that was sporting a forked crab-claw at the end of its main beam.
My stand was tucked just inside a patch of white oaks, which bordered a soybean field that was covered up with hot sign. The older bucks had been hanging back in the dense cover before hitting the beans and my setup was perfect for this early-season pattern. At first, a few bushy-tail squirrels bouncing around in the dry leaves were about the only action keeping me awake after the long drive. Then heavy steps and the distinct sound of popping sticks caught my attention directly below the ridgeline. The underbrush was thick, but I was able to pick out tall tines and a crab-claw point on the left main beam of the approaching deer.
Without hesitation, I quickly came to full draw and settled my 30-yard pin on a narrow opening just ahead of the buck. A single note bleat brought the buck to a dead stop and the impact of the arrow created a heavy thud that echoed across the bean field. I can't think of any better way to kick off the season than making a long-tined bruiser eat some dirt on opening day. With that being said, let's take an in-depth look at some high-impact strategies that will give you first-strike capabilities on early pre-rut bucks this season in your neck of the woods.
Advances in technology have really brought deer scouting to a whole new level for hunters. As a young boy, I got so excited when those old game trail timers were first introduced. Basically, a simple dental floss-like thread was connected to a digital timer that could be stretched across a worn path. Unfortunately, this primitive scouting tool only provided the time when a deer crossed. Hunters were left wondering the sex, size and even the species of the animal that had crossed the trail. At the time, there was really no way of knowing whether it was a giant 10-point buck or a stray dog that had walked past your tree stand.
With today's technologically advanced trail-cameras, you can capture high-resolution pictures and video footage that includes the time, date, temperature and even the current moon phase. There are even some units like the Smart Scouter and the new Moultrie model that allow you to conveniently view your trail-cam photos from your home computer or cell phone. These cameras have extended battery life and allow you to monitor activity near your stand without disturbing or contaminating the entire area. All of these innovative features are great, but many hunters still fail to get the most out of their trail cams. However, there are some fairly simple techniques you can utilize to successfully pinpoint and pattern an early-season shooter buck.
NETWORKING TRAIL CAMS
Positioning a single trail camera over a deer path will only provide you with one piece of the puzzle. After extensively studying topographic maps and aerial photos, try hanging a network of trail-cams instead near possible feeding areas, bedding locations and staging points. I recommend using the more advanced cameras that email photos to your computer near highly sensitive bedding areas or core locations. Strategically placing several cameras within your hunting area will enable you to piece together a time frame of the daily habits and patterns of a shooter buck. This invaluable information will ultimately make stand placement and selection much more productive.
Consequently, networking trail cameras allows you to establish a predictable pre-rut pattern that can be exploited easily. For example, carefully positioning multiple trail cams near several early-season food sources, travel corridors and possible bedding areas can tell you exactly when and where to hunt a particular stand. The buck you want to shoot might only be hitting a bean field during the late evening hours or visiting an apple orchard right at daylight. In most cases, there will be noticeable habits or routines within a larger pattern. The trick is using a network of trail-cams to pick out the daily habits that can be used against a smart buck.
UTILIZE MULTIPLE STANDS
Setting up multiple stands to meet challenges dealing with prevailing wind currents and pre-rut transitional pattern shifts can be crucial during the early-season. A common mistake made by many hunters is completely relying on one or two setups. The problem with this strategy is that a big buck can pattern us a lot quicker than we can pattern him.
In addition, a couple of hang-on stands are not going to get the job done when the wind switches directions or early-season patterns change due to hunting pressure and food source shifts.
The late summer months are the perfect time to lay out an early-season stand placement game plan. Choosing a rainy day and sneaking into your favorite hunting area to hang multiple stands can pay off big during the opening weeks of season. For good reason, the rainy weather helps eliminate unwanted scent and can muffle a lot of the noise that is generated from positioning stands and trimming shooting lanes. The key is to set up stands overlooking several early-season food sources, major travel corridors, staging areas and along the edges of preferred bedding locations.
It's also not a bad idea to mark alternate climbing stand locations near these same areas to compensate for slight changes with daily patterns or wind directions. Utilizing a lightweight climber allows an early-season hunter to be more mobile with the ability to quickly adapt to changing conditions. Again, easing into key locations during a rainy day and trimming shooting lanes can save you a lot of aggravation in the long run. Marking these alternate stand sites with a handheld GPS unit or reflective tape can be very helpful, especially when you're trying to setup before daylight during a morning hunt. Without question, hanging multiple stands, cutting shooting lanes and marking alternate climbing stand locations well before opening day will allow you to get the jump on an early-season buck.
PRE-RUT PATTERN SHIFTS
Focusing on early-season food sources can be all it takes to punch a buck tag during the pre-rut period. Glassing agricultural fields just before dark or setting up trail-cameras along entry trails can tell you exactly where to hang a stand. During the opening days of season, it's not uncommon to find bachelor groups of bucks routinely hitting the same food source on a daily basis. Hanging a stand overlooking entry trails leading to the food source or along the edge of these agricultural fields can be a first-strike strategy that is productive during the early part of the season.
However, this predictable daily pattern will often be short-lived due to increased hunting pressure, changing food sources and shorter days. Hot stand locations overlooking open-area food sources will eventually go cold. In most cases, big bucks will suddenly disappear, and all you're left with is a bunch of slick-headed does and smaller basket-racked bucks. During this first early-season pattern shift, you better be ready to make a move or you will likely end up eating that expensive buck tag in your pocket.
SET THE STAGE
For the most part, the mature bucks have not left the country, but they are simply holding back in the cover and waiting for darkness to safely enter these open areas. Moving to a staging area that is located somewhere between a buck's main feeding and bedding locations can produce when the field action drops off. The ability to enter and exit these staging areas without bumping or spooking deer will play a dramatic role in your overall success. Try to look for isolated pockets of cover that are located close to the food source.
Veteran bucks will often congregate and hold tight to these areas before moving into the fields at dark. Sometimes the staging area might be within 20 or 30 yards of the food source.
SPLIT THE DISTANCE
Another potential early-season hotspot is buck travel corridors that connect bedding to feeding areas or lead directly to protected watering holes. Splitting the distance between these key locations and setting up stands accordingly can generate a lot of action during the pre-rut. It's important to note that doe trails will typically be worn more noticeably than the buck travel routes. Once again, you need to rely on your trail cam to tell you exactly which travel route to focus on and when to hunt a stand location.
PUSH THE ENVELOPE
Let's face it: sometimes the soft and subtle tactics just won't get the job done when dealing with heavy-racked studs. Bucks that are packing around a lot of bone on their heads often stick to a strict nocturnal schedule. For some of these bad boys, the rut is about the only time that they move much during the daylight hours. With that being said, conventional stand locations overlooking field edges, staging areas, travel corridors or pinch points are about useless. For these hard-to-handle bucks, you've got to slip into stealth mode and really push the envelope.
Hitting the woods during the opening days of the season with the following high-impact strategies can generate close encounters with bucks like this one killed by the author.sically, to punch a tag on a nocturnal giant you have to hunt highly sensitive locations like the edges of bedding areas. As mentioned earlier, these stands really need to be pre-hung before season to prevent disturbing the area. It's also imperative to carefully plan how you enter and exit these stand locations. Clearing entry and exit routes will enable you to reach these stands without alerting a buck to your presence. Try slowly stalking to and from your stand to prevent making a lot of noise. The last thing you want to do is sound like a wounded elephant crashing through the woods. In the past, I have even cleaned out trails during the summer months with a weed-trimmer to cut down on noise.
Hunting these super sensitive stands with the wind in your favor is also a crucial step in the process. Wind direction has to play a factor in determining when to hunt these areas and how to enter the stands as well. If at all possible, try to hang your stands at least 20 feet high on the tree to keep from getting busted when the wind swirls or temporarily changes directions. Over the years, some of my best bucks have been taken during the early segments of season from these sensitive bedding area setups. Complete silence and scent reduction strategies have played a major role in my success.
Undoubtedly, the early-season is going to cause more problems with scent control than any other time of the year. Hot temperatures naturally cause hunters to sweat, and perspiration obviously leads to human odor. High-impact scouting, super stand setups and the fastest bow on the market won't really matter much if you're stinking up the entire woods! The good news is there are some things you can do to sneak past a buck's main line of defense. These scent-reduction tips have enabled me to get up close and personal with a number of monster whitetails during the challenging early-season period.
First of all, wash all of your clothing with a scent-eliminating detergent and store these items in an airtight travel bag. Next, shower with an odor neutralizing soap and shampoo.
Be sure to apply odorless deodorant to problem areas and wear a lightweight base layer of clothing in the field. Also, walk slowly to your stand and thoroughly spray yourself down with a scent-eliminating spray along the way. During extreme temperatures, wipe down with pretreated scent-eliminating wipes and only put on your outer layer of clothing after reaching the stand (See scent-reduction sidebar). All of these scent-reduction tips can possibly save you when the wind swirls or changes directions at the worst possible time.
This season don't wait for cooler temperatures or the much-anticipated rut to hit the woods hard. The opening weeks of season are some of the best times of the year to pinpoint, pattern and tag one of those top-heavy giants that have been haunting your dreams. Now's the time to forget about the heat, stop worrying about mosquitoes and utilize these first-strike strategies to lay the smack down on a monster early-season buck from your favorite honey hole.