The temperatures in summer are hot and humid. Biting bugs swarm. Clothes stick. Sweat beads. Why would bowhunting whitetails be on your mind, you ask? Well, if you’re like me, hunting whitetails with archery gear is a way of life. And, part of my living depends on the discussion of hunting. So, bear with me and before long, you just may find yourself daydreaming of thick-racked bucks and the heart-pounding magic of a crisp fall morning.
The turn of the seasons sparks a desire in many bowhunters to head for the nearest hills in search of the elusive whitetail. As the heat of summer surrenders its stranglehold on the deer woods, whitetail bucks become highly visible creatures. A short drive down any country road during the month of August should produce the sighting of at least one decent set of antlers. The trouble is finding that set of antlers after the bow season opens. Therein lies the dilemma of bowhunting early-season whitetails. Let’s take a look at a few tactics that can increase your chances of scoring.
Many hunters make the mistake of tromping blindly through prime whitetail habitat in search of the ultimate stand site. Whitetails are extremely sensitive to human intrusion, making it very difficult to conceal one’s movements. This is especially true of big bucks. If not careful, you will unwittingly announce your future intentions to the resident deer herd. And, once a mature whitetail feels threatened, he will move to a totally different locale or become primarily nocturnal. I don’t have to tell you what that will do to your odds of arrowing such an animal. Then, what’s the answer, you ask?
That’s simple. Get yourself a good set of high-quality binoculars or a spotting scope and do your scouting from a safe distance. Crop fields should be your main focus at this time. Lush rows of alfalfa, soybeans and corn draw deer for miles. But before making a mad dash to the nearest “Back 40,” take heed of a few ground rules. Keep disturbance to a minimum. Set up in a row of trees or along a brushy fence line to screen your silhouette. Also, be sure to keep the wind direction in mind when investigating an area of interest. Always set up with the wind in your face, or downwind, so not to contaminate the area with human scent. A few afternoons spent along a verdant field edge should prove beneficial when pinpointing a location for your stand.
By careful and persistent observation, you will begin to learn the travel behavior of several bucks. Once you have established the daily routine of each buck, you will be able to plan a strategy. Start your reconnaissance by skirting the edges of fields during midday. Look for trails that receive a high amount of traffic if you are interested in tagging smaller deer. A large set of tracks found along a less-noticeable trail normally indicates that a trophy buck is frequenting the area. A sharp eye and a basic sense of deer behavior can lead you to these types of trails. Concentrate your efforts in a location that will afford the best chance of taking the class of animal you desire.
There are other low-impact methods of scouting that can produce results as well. Incorporating topographical maps, aerial photographs and computer-mapping programs into your scouting repertoire can lead you to areas that you otherwise might overlook.
Feeding Trails and Funnels
Setting a stand along a trail linking a bedding area to a crop field or other food source can be deadly in the first few days of the early archery season. In fact, the very first week of the season is usually an opportune time to arrow a cruising animal. During the latter stages of summer and into early fall, big bucks routinely travel between these two areas.
If you are interested in seeing a lot of deer around your stand, find a “funnel.” This is any type of natural or man-made structure that consistently forces deer to move through the same section of woods. The operative word here is “forces.” Deer become susceptible to death by broadhead whenever their movement is restricted to a certain part of the woods. It can be as simple as noticing a missing or broken strand of barbed wire where deer cross a fence from one piece of property to another. Or, it can be a fallen tree that forces movement to one side of the trail or the other.
Man also plays a significant role in the creation of funnels. Development is a common cause of funnel production. A new home, road or drainage ditch are all factors that can alter deer movement in some way or another. Basically, deer are lazy by nature. They will seek out the path of least resistance when traveling through an area. Keying on these habits can spell early-season success.
Here’s the Rub
If you set your sights on a buster buck, it would be in your best interest to locate as many fresh rubs as possible. Only antlered animals make rubs, and usually the bigger the rub, the bigger the deer. No other type of sign is more conclusive that a buck is visiting your stand site than a rub.
Locating fresh rubs isn’t as difficult as you might think. The edges of crop fields are a good bet. Deer that visit a field at night will usually leave a rub on the edge of the woods when exiting the field in the morning. Rubs typically face the direction of travel. The best scenario is finding several rubs along a trail system. Several trees will be clearly marked and will receive similar damage if the same buck is doing the majority of the rubbing. This is a relatively easy way of keeping tabs on an individual buck. Set your stand within 15 to 20 yards of the rub line and on the downwind side of the trail.
If all of your attempts at locating deer fail during the open season, I suggest choosing another effective method of scouting — placing a stand in a promising area simply to observe deer movement. You can opt to exchange your bow and arrows with a set of binoculars and a notebook for spotting and documenting your findings. If the spot looks promising, bring your bow just in case. Remember you are on a serious fact-finding mission, so exercise as much caution as you normally would practice when bowhunting active stand sites. Take a shower, sneak into the stand location, only hunt when the wind is favorable, wear rubber-bottomed boots, etc. You do not want to alert the deer to your intentions.
It should only take a few sittings to record and identify the travel habits of the deer in the immediate area. Be sure to choose a location where visibility is unobstructed. You need to be able to see a great distance in order to cover as much ground as possible. Pay close attention to how and where the deer move when passing through the area. Your observations will assist you in future stand placement.
OK, I’ll admit it. Getting fired-up about scouring the countryside in search of deer sign when the season is a few months away is difficult. It’s even worse when the thought of staying at home in front of the television in air-conditioned comfort enters your mind. But, no one ever said bowhunting was easy. So remember, in order to achieve success at bowhunting early-season whitetails, you will have to put in your time long before the season opens.