By John L. Sloan
A normally too-invasive ground set-up can be deadly when bucks are in bachelor groups, feeling all too secure.
Most deer hunters regard the early season as that time of year to shoot does or scout for the buck they want to chase during the pre-rut and rut. Some don’t even bother to hunt because of the heat or insects. There is nothing you can do about the heat but dress for it. As for insects, products like ThermaCell have all but eliminated them as a problem. For some of us, those first days of bow season, the early season, are the prime days of the year to harvest a mature buck. It takes some understanding of deer and deer habits that go beyond the information found in most magazine articles or on most hunting videos. In most areas, early season hunting means by bow.
There are five basic steps to early- season success. Once you understand them and commit to hunting those early days properly, you may well be amazed at just how fantastic that early hunting can be.
1: Understand the advantages to hunting early season bucks.
In the early season, the bucks are still in bachelor groups, following summer patterns. They are undisturbed if you’ve done your job correctly. There are fewer hunters in the woods to spoil your plans, and food sources are easier to find and plan for. The early season is the ideal time of year to use weather changes to your advantage. Let’s apply this fact to some actual hunting scenarios:
For three rainy days in Manitoba in early September, deer movement had been almost non-existent. Then the sky cleared, cool air came in and deer started moving to feed. Mike Guenther shot a dandy buck in velvet from a stand on a trail approaching a hay field. The buck had been seen on that trail three times in the week prior, always at a great distance. He was not spooked. There was no reason for him not to use that trail. His bachelor group had just broken up and he claimed that area. The does all came to the field at the opposite far end.
Another archer, Bob Shebaylo, was hunting a large Manitoba wheat field where a huge buck had been seen. He’d scouted the area one time and picked an obvious entrance trail through a thin strip of timber. He put a ladder stand up and waited for just the right day. A week later, on a cool evening with just the right wind, he slipped in and sat quietly. At last light, he arrowed the monster 8-pointer, which was merely doing what it had been doing all summer.
On a sweat-soaked, early-season morning in Alabama, I quietly climbed into a poison-ivy-covered sweetgum in a timber strip between a swamp and the edge of a clear-cut. All around me, the oaks were just starting to rain acorns. A storm was approaching. Just after daylight, I began to use my rattler bag to do some light sparring. The seven-buck bachelor group began to investigate the fake interlopers. First came the spikes - the decoys. Then came the few-pointers. The last buck in - 15 minutes after the first spikes - was a 5 1/2-year-old 8-pointer. I shot him at 32 yards.
This Alabama buck was in a bachelor group that responded to the author’s light rattling three months before the rut.
In all of these scenarios, the deer had not been pressured. Guenther and Shebaylo correctly observed weather changes and food sources based on deer sightings and correct scouting and stand placement to make their kills. I used an emerging food source, an approaching weather change and a deadly early-season tactic. My Alabama deer had just abandoned the food plots and began to forage heavily on the emerging food source - acorns. I capitalized on that information.
2: Scout at the right time for the right things.
Most of the scouting for early- season deer is totally non-invasive. Many hours are spent at dusk and daylight with spotting scopes and good binoculars, but some information will be gathered from chance encounters with deer in late summer.
You’ll spend lots of time looking for bachelor groups. You are not at all concerned with does. Only bucks. You will be looking for emerging and seasonal food sources - oak trees, fruit trees and especially mast trees at the edges of crop fields.
In your brief summer forays, try to match the hatch. In other words, do things that are normal for that area. If it is farming country, scout in midday and go in on a tractor or drive the truck. Don’t sneak; don’t even bother to wear camo or hide your scent. Just act like a farmer.
Look for the obvious and improve it. If you find a fence crossing, tie up the bottom wires or top wires to make it even better. I have one such crossing that produces every year. My stand is there year-round. (Sitting there, I saw seven bucks over three days last year.)
Look for secluded water holes. In hot weather, water plays an important part in a deer’s activity. They make superb midday stand sites. And look for obvious play areas. Deer play in mud holes or even sawdust piles. These become gathering spots for bachelor groups.
3: Understand the dynamics of bachelor groups and group structure.
In bachelor groups, regardless of the bucks’ ages, the youngest become decoys. They are the first to enter fields or investigate curiosities. If a spike finds no problem, the next oldest bucks come, and finally the oldest or dominant buck of the group follows. He might be a few minutes behind the rest. Here’s an example:
In early October 2005, I placed a ladder stand within shooting distance of a red oak dropping acorns. The oak was on the edge of an emerging food plot. At exactly 5 p.m., a spike entered. At 5:15, two more spikes arrived. At 5:35, a 3- and a 5-pointer showed. At 5:40, a 3 1/2-year-old 9-pointer took the field. Twenty minutes later, he was the last deer to come to the oak and I shot him. I had to sit motionless and allow all the other bucks to wander within 10 yards of me at times, but once my buck was convinced all was safe, he never looked my way. The same behavior is true for bucks coming to light sparring if they are still in bachelor groups. The young come first. Be patient ... very patient.
If planning your early-season tactics for bucks, you don’t usually want to be where does are because there is little if any interaction between bucks and does prior to the early stages of the pre-rut. Often they travel different trails, enter fields at different places and at different times. What you are looking for is a bachelor group and occasionally the lone, mature buck. This is exactly the opposite of pre-rut or rut hunting. Then you look for does.
4: Rattle and call properly for deadly results.
Sparring has been one of my most effective tactics in hunting early-season bucks. From Sept. 23-Oct. 31, 2005, I sparred in 23 different bucks and shot one of them.
The key is in how you rattle. You can use either antlers or a rattling bag. In the early season, I prefer the bag because I neither need nor want much volume. I will switch to the antlers once I hear the intensity begin to build.
Bucks begin antler engagement as soon as their velvet is shed. This early- season action is calm, playful and done by all bucks. On Sept. 11, 2005, I watched as 12 bucks entered a Manitoba flax field. At some point, all but two of them sparred. I was able to coax four of them more than 300 yards across the field before a large bear ran everything, including me, out of the country.
I have found calling to be less effective, but I do some calling when I spar. I use nothing but soft buck grunts; never, ever a doe sound. Bucks in bachelor groups or coming to sparring aren’t interested in does. So use soft buck grunts, two or three at most.
Bucks in bachelor groups are less cautious because they have so many eyes and sentries. Once the first bucks are convinced it is safe, you can get away with more movement than you would think. And hunting from a good ground location can be deadly. Unlike bucks coming to hard rattling, these deer seldom circle downwind of the sound.
5: Understand the change when a bachelor group breaks up.
This is when the dominant buck selects his territory. It is often right where he has been all summer, pending food-source availability. The breakup might occur at the same time the acorns begin to fall, resulting in the group relocating to some degree. The younger bucks might remain together for some time, but no longer in the company of the mature bucks. The dominant buck will now be seen by himself or perhaps with a slightly younger buck. And he’s harder to fool.
Now is when all of the information you gathered in your post-season scouting comes into play. Bring to mind all of the big rub lines and deep trails that appeared in the previous fall. That’s where you look for the dominant buck. A smart hunter already has stands in place. Be prepared to alternate stands and don’t overhunt them. Wait for the right days. Cold days following periods of warm weather are ideal. And still you are not concerned with does. Not yet. Sure, shoot does if you want. I certainly do, but not from the stands I have designated for early season bucks. Those stands are seldom hunted more than twice a week.
If hunting on the opening day is your tradition, make it a successful one! Learn to hunt early season bucks. It just takes patience and understanding. After all, the bucks are there. Why not hunt them before they’re on the move?
-- Reprinted from the August 2006 issue of Buckmasters Magazine