Opening Day Whitetail Deer Tactics
By Bill Winke – An opening Day Bowhunt Video by the author is embedded at end of this video.
Whitetail deer are fascinating for many reasons, not the least of which is the wide variety of places where they can be found. Each habitat type brings a separate set of challenges and opportunities. So much of what we read about deer is geared toward classic scenarios: wood lots and timbered draws of the nation’s corn belt or big woods of the northeast, southeast and Canada.
While these settings may be fairly predictable and familiar to many of the continent’s deer hunters, there is first-rate hunting in places that seem a world away – places like North Dakota. When you hunt a location as unique as the northern plains the pieces of the puzzle get shaken up and you have to start from ground-zero as you try to put them back together again.
North Dakota lies between the wide-open plains of South Dakota and big bush of central Manitoba. Large grain fields represent much of the agriculture in the state with deer cover coming in small doses: river bottoms, a few scattered blocks of rolling timber and many nooks and crannies out in the prairie. North Dakota’s deer live in a most diverse environment. You might encounter sand hills bordered by oak savanna only a few hundred yards from a cattail swamp. Solving the puzzle of deer movement in a place like this takes more than a little study.
This month’s super stand is found in a pocket of North Dakota’s rolling timber which Minnesota bowhunter, Lee Murphy, discovered while hunting shed antlers several years ago. After striking up a relationship with the landowner, Lee was invited to bowhunt the property.
Since that day, Lee has made a lot of trips to North Dakota in an attempt to pattern the area’s big bucks. In the process, he’s learned that North Dakota deer are especially sensitive to hunting pressure and that opening week offers the best opportunity in the places he hunts. During the last three years, Lee’s hard work has been rewarded with three fine bucks all arrowed on September 2 – the second day of the season. Lee Murphy’s success is more than just coincidence. It’s the result of a solid strategy and a much better than average stand.
Water Is The Key
Most years North Dakota is beset with semi-desert conditions by late summer. Even some of the cattail marshes turn to mud flats. Water is in short supply and deer hit available sources both morning and evening. After scouting his hunting area carefully, Lee found a small trickle of water from a natural spring located along the edge of an alfalfa field. It was obvious that this was the hub for all the early season deer behavior in the immediate area.
The first buck Lee took from the stand fell to his arrow on September 2, 1995. “I always get to my hunting area a couple of days before the season starts so I can glass the alfalfa fields,” Murphy said. “I want to see where the bucks are coming out and when they’re moving. I was glassing on the morning of September 1 (North Dakota’s bow season doesn’t open until noon that day) when I saw three bucks I figured to be solid shooters leaving the field near the spring.
“The wind wasn’t right for the stand so I hunted a different area that evening,” he added. “I saw a few smaller bucks but no shooters. I didn’t hunt the water-hole the next morning either. It really isn’t a good morning spot because you’re likely to move deer from the field or the spring when approaching. The last thing I wanted to do was take dumb chances and mess up my best stand.
“The temperature had been about 90 degrees each day, so when the wind cooperated on the second afternoon, I headed to the water-hole wearing only a pair of shorts, my rubber boots and a Scent-Lok suit.
“The heat was stifling. Once I got on stand, I waited for as long as I thought I dared before finally pulling on a thin pair of coveralls. Does and yearling bucks started coming out about an hour and a half before sunset, but it was a good hour later before five rack bucks stepped into the corner of the field 25 yards away. 1995 had been very hot and dry, and the deer were water crazy. Most of them hit the waterhole before feeding, but for some reason the bucks began feeding out into the alfalfa field instead of coming to water.
“Normally, everything funnels between a small island of trees and the field edge where my stand is located. But for some reason these bucks began feeding away from me. By the time I had glassed them and brought my bow up, the biggest one was 37 yards away. My arrow caught him right through the lungs and he ran 100 yards in an arc back toward the woods I was sitting in before falling.
A Plan For Entry And Exit
Does often bed very close to the alfalfa field, so Lee Murphy has worked out a careful access route. A grassy swale through the middle of the field serves to keep him well hidden until he reaches the cover of timber. On afternoon hunts, Lee also goes to his stand very early – two to three hours before most of the deer start coming out – just in case a few should happen to be up feeding early.
As is often the case when hunting an evening feeding area, getting to the stand without alerting deer is a whole lot easier than getting out clean. Murphy’s stand is set up on the same end of the field where most of the deer enter and it is back a few yards into the timber from the field edge. He can wait until every deer has fed past him out into the central part of the field and quietly climb down. Lee sneaks out by sticking to the woods and heading east before swinging back north to his vehicle parked along a nearby field road.
When The Bucks Are Late For Supper
Opening afternoon of the 1996 season found Murphy right back in his water-hole stand. Only this year no good bucks showed up. Lee figured the big boys were arriving after dark and knew he had to change his plan. While shed antler hunting on the farm in past springs, Lee had located an area where most of the mature bucks bedded. It was to the east of the water-hole, across a wooded area and on the other side of another alfalfa field.
“I have a stand along the other alfalfa field near the buck bedding area,” Murphy said. “It’s really my morning spot. Bucks coming from down by the water-hole in the morning usually don’t get back to this area until after daylight. But I knew it would also be a good stand for bucks that were slow to get out of their beds and head for the water-hole in the evening. It takes a south wind to hunt the stand in the evening, something we rarely get in early September. But I got lucky. On the second afternoon the wind was dead out of the south.
“The big buck was only the second deer to come out on the field,” Murphy added. “It was at least an hour and a half before sunset. The buck was feeding in my direction but didn’t get within bow range for 30 to 40 minutes. I had plenty of time to study his big, velvet-covered rack. When he got close I could see that he was getting antsy. Finally, the buck shook himself and started loping in the direction of the water-hole.
He was still at a fast walk when he went through my shooting lane at 27 yards. I made a fatal hit and the buck was into the timber and out of sight in only two jumps. I heard him stop and walk slowly away so I waited and came back and recovered him later.” Murphy’s second buck was using the same water-hole pattern, but getting him required a little improvising. After the velvet was stripped months later, the antlers netted 157 6/8 points.
“The first week of the season is a time when deer are still patternable and not yet disturbed by pressure of man.”
After two straight tough winters in the northern plains, it was obvious in late summer that the herd had suffered from the deep snows. While glassing before the season, Lee saw fewer good bucks and less deer overall. But despite the die-off, it was once again the second afternoon of the season when a good buck approached the water-hole. The eight-pointer was carrying a velvet-antlered rack that later scored 124 points.
Murphy was surprised when the buck showing up at a range of only 15 yards walking through the timber to the south of the natural spring rather than out in the field. In five seconds the opportunity would be over. Lee had to decide quickly whether or not to take the buck. Given the fact that big buck sightings were so hard to come by, he chose to shoot. The double-lung hit resulted in a quick and humane kill.
Conclusion: While hunting a single early season water-hole pattern in the northern plains of North Dakota, Lee Murphy has taken three velvet- antlered trophies during the past three years. And all of them were arrowed on September 2. Unbelievably, Lee has taken two other Pope & Young class bucks on the same date: one from Montana and the other from a different part of North Dakota.
The first week of the season is a time when deer are still patternable and not yet disturbed by pressure of man. If you can find an especially strong draw during this time (be it a waterhole or a preferred food source) you have a good chance at taking a trophy. Spend some time glassing during the late summer in the area where you hunt. You may be surprised at what you’ve been missing. And maybe you’ll even find a stand as good as the one Lee Murphy found in North Dakota.