Common deer-hunting dogma emphatically states that hunting whitetails during the early season is a fool’s game, that all you can do when the weather’s hot, the bugs are out, and the bucks are lethargic is screw everything up for later in the year.
To that I say, “Hogwash!”
I’ve always believed there are two times (the rut notwithstanding) when you have a great chance of tagging a mature buck: The late season, when bitter cold drives deer to food, and the very early archery season, when bucks remain in small bachelor groups that often follow predictable patterns.
A caveat, however: You have to hunt the early deer season smartly, or you surely risk negatively impacting whitetail behavior where you hunt.
If you’re going to hunt the early season for white-tailed deer, you must to follow these 10 commandments—not suggestions—or as sure as the sun rises in the East, you’ll screw up the rest of your hunting season.
1. Thou Shalt Scout, Scout, Scout
The importance of glassing and targeted trail-camera use cannot be overstated. But you have to scout smartly and minimize human intrusion into the hunting area. That means glassing field and food plot edges from afar at first and last light, judicious trail camera use and minimizing walks through the woods. Be alert to immediate pattern-changing events, like bucks stripping velvet from their antlers and the sudden appearance of preferred foods like acorns.
2. Thou Shalt Not Overhunt Your Stands
As obvious as it may sound, the more you hunt a specific stand, the more deer avoid the location. The key to early season hunting is to pattern buck movement via scouting. Then, when weather conditions are perfect, move in to hunt them. Give a stand maybe two tries, then leave it alone for a few days (but continue to scout daily).
3. Thou Shalt Hunt Evenings Only
Hot, early season weather sees deer move heavily in late afternoon and into the night, then leave the field and food plots for bed before shooting light or shortly thereafter. It’s a low-percentage game to try and get to a morning stand in the dark with deer on their feet and in the fields, so why try it? A better move is to glass from afar during the day and plan an evening ambush when you can get to a stand before the deer are up and moving.
4. Thou Shalt Watch the Weather
There are many weather variables that can affect your chances. Rising afternoon thermal currents are a help until the sun dips below the horizon, the air starts to cool and thermal currents begin to flow downward, so monitor them constantly. Wind direction has to be steady and perfect. Also, watch for arriving storm fronts; a falling barometer can get deer moving earlier than usual.
5. Thou Shalt Be Mindful of Scent
While you can never be 100 percent scent-free, you have to stay as clean and odorless as possible. Wear garments freshly laundered with non-scented detergents, shower before every trip afield, generously use scent-eliminating sprays and keep your pack and other gear in an odor-free environment prior to heading out. Contrary to common thinking, I often employ a scent wick lightly covered in doe-in-estrus scent downwind of my stand “just in case.” I know the rut’s a long ways off, but I’ve never had deer react adversely to this smell, regardless of the stage of the season.
6. Thou Shalt Travel to/from Stands with Care
This is a critical and often overlooked piece of the puzzle. Wear your rubber boots and try to not touch any flora on your hike to and from the stand. In brushy areas I sometimes wear rubber gloves, so my hands won’t leave telltale scent on the vegetation. Take a circuitous route that avoids the trails you think deer are most likely traveling themselves. Can you walk in a creek? So much the better. After dark, if there are deer in the field, many folks believe having someone drive right up to the stand to pick you up won’t spook deer the way a person climbing down from a stand will.
While this may be true, I find that simply staying up in my stand until the deer are gone is the best move, assuming the wind is in my favor. I’ve sat up in a tree for as much as three hours after dark waiting for the deer to leave. I then hike out through the field, not the woods, to avoid inadvertently bumping unseen deer. Wear a headlamp with a green or red—not bright white—light. Be creative and never forget that low impact is key.
7. Thou Shalt Hunt Water
When the weather is hot, deer have to drink a lot. I love hunting isolated water sources as much or more than food sources during the early season. I once killed a very nice 4-year-old 10-point in mid-September that came to a small stock tank a half-mile from a huge alfalfa field 4 hours before sundown. My trail camera had tipped me off to the pattern.
8. Thou Shalt Set Stands off the Field Edge
Bucks often enter fields right at dark or shortly thereafter once shooting light is gone. They often hold back from the fields before entering, sight- and scent-checking the does and young deer that inevitably arrive first for any signs of nervousness and danger. That’s why stands set 50 to 100 yards off field edges are often best for both getting a shot and being able to egress the area after dark. So what if you can’t observe the field? You know what does look like, right? You’re there to kill a buck, not watch a nature show.
9. Thou Shalt Hunt Bedding-Thicket Edges
If summer scouting has shown deep-woods buck movement very late in the day near fields and food plots, don’t be afraid to strategically hunt the edges of bedding thickets as you attempt to catch deer leaving their bedrooms right at last light. Get close—but not too close—to the bedding area, set trail cameras and use extreme caution when checking camera cards, setting a stand and ultimately hunting it. Of course, the weather has to be absolutely perfect; I like a stiff breeze that will cover my noise and blow my scent out of the area. Make sure you have a quiet egress route, too.
10. Thou Shalt Practice Pest Control
As the sun begins to set on a hot, humid evening, you can be sure that mosquitoes and other annoying, biting bugs will be out. You have to keep them off you to avoid pesky bites, and swatting at them only increases the chances a deer will spot you. A Thermacell is a great, scent-free way to keep tabs on skeeters at. When the bugs get super bad, I’ve been known to don a full head net, thick pants and a shirt that won’t allow bugs to penetrate, and lightly dab on a DEET-based mosquito repellent. I strap the Thermacell to my thigh while sitting in my treestand seat.
- This article was originally featured int he Septemeber 2021 Game & Fish Magazine. Learn how to subscribe.