By Bob Humphrey
--To tag an early buck, you must adapt your tactics to the deer's rapidly changing world.
It was a bit of a surprise when my home state of Maine opened archery deer season in September. In past years, the season never opened before October.
Most of the local deer hunters knew how to chase whitetails in October and November, but they hadn't hunted deer so early in the year. Not surprisingly, their success rate dropped.
Fortunately for me, I had hunted the early season in other states, and I knew what to expect. I saw several does and missed a nice buck. I also learned a lot more about hunting in early autumn.
Summer's end is a dynamic time for white-tailed deer. More changes in deer physiology and behavior take place over roughly 30 days than at any other time of year. You need to know what to expect, when to expect it, and how to react.
When most early bow seasons begin, deer are still in their summer mode. They don't travel far, and most activity takes place during the cool hours of twilight or under the cover of darkness. They are most visible at twilight, as they come out into the fields to feed.
I spend a considerable amount of time driving back roads at dusk, glassing fields and pastures. A good pair of binoculars and a spotting scope allow me to watch deer from a distance without tipping them off to my presence.
Once I find a group of deer, I watch them for several days, if possible. Does tend to maintain regular habits at this time of year, often visiting the same field nightly, even using the same trail to enter and exit. Note where the deer enter or exit fields under a variety of wind and weather conditions. The more you observe from afar, the better.
In late summer, deer typically segregate by sex and age. Does and fawns stick together, usually in small family groups. They maintain smaller home ranges than bucks, and they seldom travel far from food sources.
Radio telemetry studies indicate that does at this time of year in agricultural areas seldom travel more than 1/4 mile from their feeding areas. If a group of does regularly visits a field, chances are they bed down close by.
Bucks hang out in bachelor groups. If you see one buck, there's a good chance more are near. While bucks don't necessarily avoid the does, they do use different areas. Still in velvet, they are submissive to the more dominant does.
As soon as the bucks shed their velvet, the bachelor groups break up.
Contrary to later in the fall, if you're after a buck, don't waste time hunting areas used mainly by does. The most important factor in finding deer early in the season is locating food.
In late summer, crops like clover and alfalfa can be deer magnets, and field edges are a great place to start the season. This also is a good time and place to use a decoy, especially in larger fields. Decoys put deer at ease and can even draw them into bow range.
It's best to use a decoy that is in a relaxed or feeding pose. I learned that lesson the hard way by using my archery target, which is an alert deer. Every deer that saw it stopped, stared, then turned and walked away.
Depending on where you hunt, and when the season begins, field hunting may be short-lived. Things change rapidly as daylight wanes and nights grow cooler.
As the herbaceous vegetation stops growing and loses nutritional value, deer acquire a sense of urgency in their feeding. Instinct tells them to put on a layer of fat for the coming winter.
Deer look for corn and soybeans. Setting up just back inside the woods off a crop field can be most effective at this time. Here, you can use trail tactics similar to later in the fall. Just keep in mind that deer may be bedding within sight. So keep any disturbance to a minimum.
At dawn, deer are in the fields, and if you try to approach, you only send them fleeing. Still, if you can approach silently and set up a little back in the woods, you might catch them coming back to bed. One of my favorite places at this time of year is a large cornfield bordered by hardwoods. A small stream runs through the woods. Under cover of darkness, I slip in by canoe. My treestand sits over a crossing where deer filter out of the field at midmorning.
Deer shift their patterns according to food availability. Apples and acorns are a particular favorite during early fall, and once they start dropping, deer might abandon the fields and open areas.
While orchard owners often welcome any assistance in controlling deer, working orchards are tough places to hunt. Deer tend to be skittish because of the human activity. You're better off finding a few isolated trees where the deer can concentrate undisturbed.
Old farmsteads are great places to look. Abandoned apple trees continue to produce fruit for years, and the overgrown cover offers deer more security.
Old topographic maps are helpful in locating abandoned orchards and overgrown farmsteads. Orchards appear as green dots on a white background. Fields and open areas around homesteads are white. If you see this pattern has changed on a newer map, or if you visit the area and see that it is now wooded, strike out on foot for a closer look.
Topography is helpful in locating wild apples, too. They most often grow along the edges of drainages where seeds wash down, take root and grow.
Up on the ridges, hard mast, mostly beechnuts and acorns, is becoming available. Deer prefer the sweeter white oak acorns, and this is especially true early in the season. If you have a choice, hunt white oaks instead of red oaks.
Still, deer will seek out whatever is most available and easiest to obtain. Where I hunt, red oaks are most common, and the deer are quick to glean the first fallen acorns. Later in the fall, when there is more mast on the ground, their feeding is more casual. But early on, they concentrate under the big trees that tend to drop the most nuts.
I like to pick up a pocket of acorns on the way to my stand. If I see deer moving by in the distance, I start dropping acorns. The sound of falling acorns is like a dinner bell to deer, and more than once I've used this trick to "call" a deer into shooting range.
Another favorite food at this time of year is found in the hardwood swamps. Starches in newly fallen maple leaves turn to sugar, and while it's conjecture on my part, maybe the deer have a sweet tooth. All I know for sure is I have seen many a deer feed on these fallen leaves.
In early fall when it's still hot, deer frequently go to water to drink. This is less critical where deer can get the moisture they need directly from vegetation. But in drier areas, a water source can concentrate deer as much as a food source. Even better is where both occur. One of the best setups I ever hunted was a stock pond in Texas ringed with live oak trees. Deer filtered by all day long.
Rattling and grunting are less effective now, but you can call in deer. Depending on where you live, the fawns are three or four months old, and the does' maternal instincts are still strong. Use a fawn bleat to attract nearby does.
I found a great call in my daughter's toy box. It's a stuffed cow. When turned upside down then back up again, it emits a calf-like bleat. The first time I tried it, a doe appeared seemingly out of thin air. Whatever call you use, imitate a lost fawn rather than a fawn in distress. Otherwise, the doe you call in will be on alert.
Unfortunately, this time of year you don't find many buck signs, which can be frustrating if you're targeting bucks. However, if you hunted the same area last year, you have an advantage. Remember that hot scrape last November? Scrapes are used year after year. In fact, the scrape area is used year-round. Look for bare earth with an overhanging licking branch. Once you learn to recognize it, you can find the licking branch over virtually every scrape. It is usually a branch extending out over a well-used trail, 4 to 6 feet above the ground.
Whatever you do, don't touch this branch. While scraping occurs primarily during the rut, deer might use this branch year-round for scent communication.
Many hunters ignore early season rubs, but these rubs reveal several important things. The first rubs are made by smaller bucks because they are the first to shed velvet. Knowing the local chronology of shedding is important. Where I hunt, the mature bucks usually shed around the second or third week of September. Thus, fresh rubs at this time are a more reliable indicator of a big buck in the area. Shedding generally takes 12 to 18 hours. During this time, the buck essentially follows its normal daily routine.
A lot of early rubbing occurs while bucks are sorting out the pecking order. Bucks use this "display rubbing" as a way to avoid combat. They show their prowess by beating the heck out of the local saplings rather than each other. These rubs might occur at random, or where two rivals happen to cross paths. They are of little value when trying to locate a stand for bowhunting, except to show that there are good bucks in the area.
If you notice a line of rubs, it's a good bet the trail is used by a buck. Though it may stop rubbing for a while once its velvet is shed, the buck continues using the trail unless it is disturbed.
Early bow season offers several advantages for the hunter who knows what he is doing. For one thing, he gets first crack at the best deer.