By Ken Piper
Late September and early October are when baseball’s boys of summer get serious and compete for their sport’s ultimate prize. If you hunt deer with a bow, I don’t care if you’re the world’s biggest baseball fan, skip the playoffs on TV and go to the woods instead. For my money, there’s no better time to put your tag on a record book buck.
Okay, okay, I know what you’re saying: “Ken, you’re out of your mind! The rut is the best time to harvest a bruiser buck.”
Hear me out.
Sure, the rut is a must-hunt. In fact, I’ll concede that your chances of tagging a real MONSTER buck — the kind you see on the cover of Buckmasters — are better then. The rut is usually the only time the really big (180-inch-plus) boys show themselves.
But those 2½- and 3½-year-old 140- to 150-inch bucks are another matter (check out Bob Humphrey’s story “What Makes Them Different?” in this issue). They haven’t yet become as shy and nocturnal as their older brothers and fathers, and you can really catch them off guard during the first week or two of the bow season. I’ve bowhunted as a non-resident in Illinois for the past eight seasons and in Kentucky for four. Over that time, I’ve hunted every month of the season. When I return to Illinois this year, you can bet I’ll be there for the season opener.
“The rut gets the big press and everybody wants to hunt in November, but the big problem with the rut is its unpredictability,” says Doug Doty, owner and operator of Illinois Whitetail Services, LLC, an outfitter in southern Illinois. “You make all your plans, get to the woods and find all kinds of sign, but you can’t rely on anything. There’s sign everywhere, but a buck you see today might be in a different county tomorrow. There’s a lot of luck involved.”
The early season, he says, is different. “The weather is usually more consistent. Yes, it’s hot, but it’s been that way for three months. If you get a warm spell during the rut — and if you book a hunt somewhere you might as well figure that’s going to happen — it can shut everything down. The other thing about the early season is that bucks are still in bachelor groups. Your odds of success go up dramatically when you have more than one good buck coming to your food source.”
Doug and I often talked about how bowhunters overlook the early season. In 2008, I decided to put my money where my mouth is. My father, Ken Sr., and I try to do a bowhunt together every year. We were together when I took a 206-inch BTR 12-pointer in 2004, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything — except maybe if I could be there to see him take a big buck with his bow.
Last year, Dad and I arranged to be at Doug’s for the first week of the Illinois season. We put the date on the calendar and began crossing off the days. In the meantime, I received an unexpected invitation from Nikon to hunt in Kentucky two weeks before the Illinois hunt.
Nikon's Jon LaCorte was the first to tag out during the writer's early bow hunt in October of 2008.
The Kentucky hunt turned out to be one of those experiences you remember the rest of your life. It started with Nikon’s Jon LaCorte taking an impressive 156-inch buck. Then, on the second morning, we were chased out of the woods by flying debris and falling trees as the remnants of Hurricane Ike ripped through the Midwest. Later that day, we were back in the treestand watching the sun set on a beautiful afternoon hunt.
The following evening, I arrowed a tall-tined buck that the guides had seen frequenting a soybean field throughout the late summer. Three other hunters in camp scored that evening, and we ended up with five of seven hunters taking record-book bucks, two of which were in velvet. One of the other hunters took a cull buck with several days yet to hunt.
“The early season is all about patterning the bucks,” said Tim Oldham, manager for Five Star Outfitters. “We start watching them in August, glassing the crop fields in the evenings. You can zero in pretty quickly on what’s going on. From there, you just have to set up and be ready when your opportunity happens.”
Like Doty, Oldham says the field edges are the place to be. “Depending on what part of the country you’re from, you might be tempted to go into the timber, but what we’ve found is the bucks aren’t far from where you see them. If you glass a buck entering a bean field from a certain corner, chances are he’s bedding within 150 yards of that corner. He might be used to the farmer being in the fields, but he’s going to know if you’re careless. It’s critical to wait for the right wind and to ease in quietly when setting up a stand.”
When I asked Tim about his hunters’ success in the early season versus other times of the year, he said it wasn’t even a contest. “Once the bucks are in hard antler and the food sources start to change, things get tricky,” he said. “Think about this: For the past eight years, our first two camps of the season have been completely filled by the same guys. They know that those first few weeks are when they can count on the deer to do the same thing, so they keep coming back.”
I didn’t think there was any way the Illinois hunt could even come close to the Kentucky tag-fest, but I was wrong.
Dad and I met up with Doug and the two other hunters who would be sharing camp with us, Bret Zecher and Phil Fontaine from Mansfield, Mass. The first morning of the hunt dawned bright and sunny, and acorns began to drop from the oaks around my stand. It wasn’t long before several does came in to munch on the nuts, and it wasn’t long after their arrival that a worthy buck came strutting in. It wasn’t a giant but had 8 typical points, a spread outside its ears and a neat kicker point near its right base — in other words, definitely a shooter for me.
The buck was approaching head-on, so I waited until it passed beneath my tree before I stood up and drew ... and drew ... and drew ... and drew. Every time I got to full draw on that buck, it stopped behind a tree or branches. Each time, I held as long as I could before letting the bow down. All this was going on with the buck at 15 yards and about eight does at varying distances around the stand. Finally, on the fourth draw, the buck spooked and ran 40 yards before stopping to look back. None of the other does had spooked, and the buck wasn’t looking at me. The only thing I can figure is that one of the does made a sudden movement that spooked the buck at just the wrong time. He never came back in and I never saw him again, but it was an incredible morning in the stand.
Ken Piper took this long-tined 11-pointer during an early season bow hunt in Kentucky.
Bret was the first to draw blood when he connected on an 8-pointer. Later, on the last evening of the hunt, Ken Sr. shot an old 8-pointer about an hour before a 180-class buck got by me at 50 yards.
So, two of four hunters connected and one had multiple opportunities at record-book bucks. Six of seven opportunities (Kentucky) and three of four (Illinois) are strong numbers, especially considering we’re talking about bowhunting.
Early bow hunts have some drawbacks, however. First and foremost, it’s almost always HOT! And I mean high 70s or even mid-80s. The mornings aren’t too bad, but the evening hunts can be brutal. But that’s when Oldham said they have an overwhelming majority of their success. On the Nikon hunt, all seven of the bucks were taken in the evening, so I’m not going to argue.
The high temperatures are not only uncomfortable, they make scent control difficult. Consider using scent-killing wipes like those made by Primos (Silver XP), Scent Killer (Field Wipes) and Scent-a-Way (Wash Towels and Field Wipes). When it’s that hot, you’re going to sweat.
Bugs are another problem. Gnats will drive you insane, right up until the mosquitoes come out and suck you dry. I swear by my ThermaCELL unit to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Also watch out for ticks, both deer ticks and turkey ticks (also called seed ticks). Ticks can carry serious diseases such as Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, so keep shirts tucked into your pants and your pantlegs tucked into your boots. Take a shower as soon as you get home and give yourself a tick-check.
Another handy gadget for hot weather is a camouflage umbrella. The setting sun can be absolutely brutal, and while a hat helps keep the sun out of your eyes, it doesn’t do anything to relieve the extra heat. Attach the umbrella to a branch (use a zip-tie if necessary) to block the sun before it hits your body; you’ll be amazed at the temperature difference.
For all its discomforts, the early bow season offers too many advantages to ignore. While no hunt is a guarantee, there is no time in the woods that is more predictable for a bowhunter than the first few days of the season. Glassing the fields can be a boatload of fun, and you can take the kids and your spouse. If you do, don’t forget your video camera. At the very least you’ll spend some quality time with your family, and you might just be getting the inside track on a record-book buck.
For more information about hunting in Illinois with Illinois Whitetail Services, LLC, contact Doug Doty at (618) 926-1481 or on your computer at www.illinoiswhitetailservicesllc.com
For more information about hunting with Five Star Outfitters in Illinois or Missouri (Kentucky hunts won’t be available in 2009), contact Tim Oldham at (812) 598-6742. For Ohio or Missouri information, contact Joel Snow at (937) 539-5682.