Early Season Tactics

October 9th, 2009 / Posted by David
Early Season Tactics

Perhaps the odds of closing the gap on a nice buck are likely the highest during the early season when travel routes and key food sources are the most predictable. But, after whitetails enter the hard pre-rut phase, your chances of bagging a big buck in his routine travels diminish considerably.

Someone may have led you to believe that the key to shooting a decent buck in the early season is just a matter of trekking across as much prime real-estate as possible. Sure, on occasion a hunter gets lucky and tags a good deer the first week of the season, but for the majority of others this tactical approach results in something closer to a crap shoot. To consistently pattern an old timber warrior before the season opener, there’s much more planning, scouting and research required beforehand. Let’s take a look at a few early season tactics that have worked not only for myself, but many others as well in the past.

Gain Access Early

In the early years, gaining access to bowhunting real estate was certainly much easier than it is now. It wasn’t uncommon to have several pieces of ground sowed up within a couple of days going from door to door. Unfortunately, as people with big money enter the picture, the days of finding a place to hunt through a friend-of-a friend are slowly approaching an end.

You can bet if you’ve been watching a buck that’s highly visible, some other hunter is working on it too! Personally, I never stop working on keeping the areas I have and looking for new ground. This might entail stopping by on occasion to shoot the bull with the landowner, or possibly offering a portion of the game you’ve taken. Believe me when I say, it’s a small price to pay.

Zero In On Key Food Sources

High in protein, the soy bean is one of the whitetail’s favorite early season foods.

High in protein, the soy bean is one of the whitetail’s favorite early season foods.

All too often early season success hinges on finding the deer goodies before the deer do. Knowing what foods are available in your hunting area could bring you to new levels of early season scouting. But more importantly, if you have a good understanding of where all the natural food sources are in your area, you’ll soon realize why deer prefer traveling a particular corridor over another at different times of the season. In one case it may be a grove of oak trees dropping a blanket of acorns that draw deer to the area. In other cases it may be a honey locust tree dropping bean pods or a persimmon tree bearing fruit.

Of all the cash crops, soybeans have been at the top of my list for years. I’ve known a whitetail enthusiast from Illinois for a few years now that normally needs to re- plant a particular food plot twice each year. Hunters would be well advised to take advantage of beans from the get go.

It’s best to look for deer goodies in small concentrations, which makes it much easier to narrow down a buck’s feeding pattern. Deer are opportunists and if you’re banking on a food with a short shelf life and haven’t taken the buck before it’s exhausted, chances are the opportunity will never be presented!

A good example of concentrated foods might be small stands of acorn bearing hardwoods. It’s been my experience that white and red oaks are especially great choices, however, this doesn’t mean that deer won’t feed on pin oak, burr oak, swamp oak, shingle oak or shin oak. It’s simply implies that red and white oak nuts are most commonly found in the areas where I hunt in the Mid-west.

A few years ago while scouting in Illinois, I discovered a small grove of persimmons consisting of about a dozen trees, of which only half were bearing fruit. Setting up in the grove the first evening of my hunt in November, I arrowed a nice buck just two hours later. Although I’ve never found persimmons anywhere in my home state of Iowa, you can bet when traveling to the southern states where they are more common this fall, I’ll be looking for the sweet treat.

Element of Surprise

Aerial photos and topographical maps can be used year a round for mapping out all the pertinent information such as, bedding, trails, rublines and scrapes in your hunting area.

Aerial photos and topographical maps can be used year a round for mapping out all the pertinent information such as, bedding, trails, rublines and scrapes in your hunting area.

Perhaps the element of surprise is likely the single most important key to early season success. Anytime you sweep an area in search of buck sign shortly before the season opener, you’ll always run the risk of breaking a link in their leisurely summer time pattern. Therefore, maintaining a low profile while scouting becomes the utmost importance. One of the better means will be glassing crop fields and timber edges from a distance. Naturally the top priority while glassing is getting a visual on a buck to hunt, but you should also be paying close attention to where they enter and exit primary food sources from their bedding areas.

“One sighting of a buck may not warrant moving in with a stand, but two or more should!”

There are a couple of ways to maintain the element of surprise with little or no impact on the deer herd. As mentioned, glassing from nearby roadways has been the normal practice for many, while others choose to setup with spotting scopes much like the tactic used in western hunts for elk and mule deer. Although I often use these same approaches to scouting, observation stands setup around the outside perimeter of the hunting area has been a personal favorite.

As I sit back and look at my nearly 30 years of bowhunting experience, a good percentage of the big deer I’ve taken were a direct result of spotting the buck from another stand first and then moving in for the kill. This tactic is often referred to as “working from the outside in.” Nevertheless, the whole object of this tactic is to first observe all deer movement to determine where their entrance/exit routes and bedding areas are. In doing so, you’ll be able to determine the best ambush point with the least amount of risk involved and the best odds of tagging the buck. One sighting of a buck may not warrant moving in with a stand, but two or more should!

Hunting Pressure

Although the majority of hunters consider the rut the most productive time to sit on stand, it doesn’t necessarily mean their odds of bagging a buck are the greatest. Because hunting pressure is normally at an all time high, coupled with unpredictable travel patterns, bucks can be here today and gone tomorrow. Obviously, if there are fewer hunters in the woods during the pre-rut, it’s self-explanatory why your odds of bagging a buck on a routine travel route will never be greater. Let me explain why.

First, bucks are most patternable during a time frame that I like to call the early “pre-rut ramp-up,” which runs up to about a week prior to peak rut activity. If left undisturbed, most are quite comfortable in their core area during the first month or so of the season, therefore actively making scrapes and rubs that help us identify their whereabouts. Another advantage of hunting this ramp up period involves bachelor bucks. Because some bucks are still traveling together, chances are the rub lines and scrapes you find were made by a group of deer and not a loner. This alone has proven time and time again the deadliness of hunting rub lines and bed to feed travel routes during the early season. Unfortunately, all too often after the first phase of hunter’s trek across the sacred ground, the bucks are scattered to parts unknown.

Secondly, with each passing day moving closer to the madness of the rut, priorities change from feeding to locating a harem of does. Because of this transition, feeding and travel patterns become the least predictable of any other time of the season. There’s simply no rhyme or reason to there travel patterns and in some cases bucks leave their core area haunts for long periods of time searching for hot does.

Many bucks are pushed into nocturnal seclusion, feeding only during the twilight hours. This probably explains why some hunters complain that they were seeing a lot of deer during the early season and as the rut approaches, they seem to evaporate. If you’re going to be an early season hunter, then you need to focus your efforts on early season strategies that put you in the transition routes early on!

Play The Wind Game
Some hunters never consider the wind when setting up stands and consequently void the element of surprise their first time out. When hunting from stands without considering the wind, you’ll always run the risk of pushing deer out of the area. I’ve come to understand over the many years that knowing how to play the wind game should be an essential part of any hunter’s strategy. During the warmest part of the season winds can be so unpredictable, even the most experienced hunters can mess up a good ambush site. Certainly most have experienced hunting fickle winds such as thermal eddy currents and what I call, “back drafts” created by some barrier or break line in the terrain.

For example, a few years ago my son and I were hunting the smaller ridges of a narrow draw that paralleled two higher ridges on both sides. The problem wasn’t identified until the first day we sat in our stands and It cost one us an opportunity at tagging a big 10 point spotted the week before.

As the southwest winds blew across the north/south ridge, I noticed on occasion a warm thermal back draft coming back up the ridge. At the time I didn’t think much about it until the buck unexpectedly came down the ridge rather than up as we expected. Obviously, the old warrior had used the back draft to his advantage before, because just short of shooting range another blast hit me in the face and the big buck vaporized. In this case, the back draft was created by the wind rolling off the encompassing higher ridge.

Mapping Your Area
Here’s a tip for those of you who want keep track of your stand sites and the type of winds you might expect or experience in various terrain features. Aerial photographs and topographical maps can help you keep track of the four polar coordinates and what the winds might do before leaving your front door. Mark your potential stand site locations on the map during post-scouting and pre-scouting, but pay close attention to the rise and fall in elevations. In doing so, you can sometimes predict what the wind will do under certain conditions. The key to success here will be hunting the stands only when the wind conditions are perfect.

Furthermore, position your stands in such a way that you’re able to cover nearly any wind condition that might crop up. This may entail having as many as 5 or 6 strategically placed on the same piece of ground, but your odds of getting busted are reduced considerably.


Whether you’re hunting the early season or not, maintaining the element of surprise should be the most important detail of your plan of attack. Since deer feeding patterns are by far the easiest to undermine, concentrate your long distance scouting and observation stands near primary food sources. Always remember, don’t get hung-up on a single food source that you may have read about that worked for someone else. Continue scouting throughout the season and keep your eyes open for new sign of a feeding frenzy. Chances are within a few days of observation, you’ll be able to locate that hot stand site that will lend way to tagging a buck. As the pre-rut ramps closer to the final days before the peak rut, change your strategy to hunting doe transition routes from bed to feed. I’m confident that if you follow these simple early season rules, you’ll be tagging a buck too! Good luck and happy hunting!

Gain The First Light Advantage!!
Interestingly, most hunters find it increasingly difficult slipping into stands as the season wears on. By early November deer have become educated and probably know your every move. Although getting to a stand is normally easier in the evening, the morning hunts can be a nightmare.
The main reason why success rates are lower during the first two hours of the morning than the last two hours of the evening is because deer are still feeding when we try to approach our stands. A good tip here is to wait until first gray light when deer move off the fields. In many cases you’ll be able to spot deer feeding and make a plan to slip around them unnoticed. You may have to take the long way around or possibly choose another approach route, but your chances are still better than blundering across open fields or noisy timber in the dark.

If you’re previous observation revealed a buck feeding in the same area in the evenings as morning, it might be best to abandon morning hunts and stick to the evenings. Slipping into stands in the evening has proven much easier, since deer normally haven’t reached the feeding area yet.

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