Hunting early can deliver your best chances for bowhunting success all year. Don't believe it? Don't scoff until you try these proven tricks.
By Tony Peterson
The whitetail rut is often touted as the time when anyone can arrow a good buck. Certainly, this much-anticipated period opens a few doors that are otherwise closed throughout the season, but it’s far from a guarantee for most of us. This is particularly true if you live in a state where the general firearm season kicks off during the first half of November.
In my home state of Minnesota, for example, the latest we’ll see a gun opener is the 9th of November. During some years, it’ll be as early as the 3rd. For hunters in states like Minnesota, or anyone who simply wants to tag out early and move on to other fall pursuits, it’s not all doom and gloom. The answer is often making it a point to hunt opening weekend—and often, the entire first week of the season—a small but important window that can prove to be every bit as productive and consistent as the hallowed rut.
Truth be told, hunting early can even be better than the highly unpredictable rut, with one huge caveat: You’ve got to be properly set up for opening-day success.
Here’s a smart Nine-Step Plan to help you score early:
Step 1: Figure Out ALL Of The Food. We often pin our bowhunting hopes on a single, destination food source. This might be the food plot that we put in and worked all spring and summer, or it might simply be a lush alfalfa field on a parcel we’ve got permission to hunt. For public-land bowhunters, it might be a neighboring bean field. Whatever the destination is, figure it out. And don’t stop at one, because that alfalfa field might get cut the night before the season and suddenly become much less attractive. Or the wind might be totally wrong for your food plot. Or the acorns might start dropping the week of the opener. Or,—you get the idea.
Step 2: Scout To Hunt. The problem with most scouting efforts is that the primary, and often the only, goal is to determine if a good buck is in the neighborhood. Maybe we identify an obvious summer food source, throw up a few cameras, and call it good. And what we find out is what we already knew. To build a solid opening day plan, you’ve got to understand when and why the deer are using the food. And how they get there. This necessitates a two-fold scouting strategy. The most obvious is to watch from a safe distance with your optics. Nothing ground-breaking here, but remember to pay attention to wind direction and all other conditions, each night you’re out. You might find that the bucks that seem so reliable might only take a certain trail when the wind is straight out of the west. If that’s the case, you’d better know it.
Step 3: Advanced Scouting. Not all soybean fields are pool-table flat and provide 100-percent viewing opportunities. Many, particularly those in bluff country, tend to be irregular shaped and often fall off in elevation at the edges. This means you can’t glass where the bucks are likely to be without getting right on top of them. In this scenario it’s time to bring in a few trail cameras, so you miss as little as possible when it comes to usage of a destination food source. If you can’t monitor the food source because it’s on someone else’s property, or at least not located on the public ground you hunt, watch and monitor the suspected travel routes. It’s the best you’ve got.
Step 4: Start Building The Plan. Consistent success during opening week involves smart options. The bachelor group hitting the beans is a good start, but what if the beans turn yellow five days before your opener and the deer have vanished? What if the wind is terrible, and you’ve pinned your hopes on a single stand? Don’t do that to yourself. Scout enough to find at least a couple of spots worth sitting, and make sure they don’t all require the same conditions to work. Both south and west winds will probably be blowing over a typical early season stretch, so factor that into your plan.
Step 5: Get ’Em Up, Get Out. By mid to late August, you should have a good idea of what the local deer are doing. Now is the time to get stands up on private ground. If you’re a public-land bowhunter, you might be able to hang stands ahead of time, or you might just have to scout for suitable trees, and mark the locations of your potential ambush sites. Use flagging tape or reflective tacks to mark your routes into and out of your stands, and mark every location in your HuntStand app. Even if you’re on a small property, give yourself at least a few good options.
Step 6: Know The Opening-Day Risks. The first day of the season is always exciting, but it’s also a time when we feel pressure to put all of our pre-season work to good use. And that pressure can cause us to make critical mistakes. No matter how excited you are, you’ve got to make smart decisions. If the conditions are absolutely right for your best spot, get in there. If not, move on to Plan B. Even in states with a late opener, you’ve probably got a few days of reliable patterns before the pressure and changing conditions blow them up. For the private-land hunter, that might be a week. For the public-land hunter, it might be two days. Plan accordingly.
Step 7: What Happened? If opening day doesn’t pay off, figure out why. Was it all does and young scrappers, in areas that held big velvet bucks browsing away for much of late summer? There’s a reason. Those bigger deer might now be staging just off the food, until they are hard-antlered, or they might have decided to stop off at a nearby pond on their way to the groceries. Either way, if you strike out opening day, don’t consider it a failure; consider it a chance to learn what went wrong and adapt. Hunt through your best setups as the conditions allow.
Step 8: Close, But... Let’s say it’s the second night of the season and you see your target buck, but he steps out at 150 yards and feeds away from you. You’ve got a few options. The first is to try to contact grunt him in, which is typically a low-odds possibility. The second is to move stands the next day and try to pick him up at that exact spot. The third is to hang tight and hope he does what he’s supposed to, when you get the chance to hunt again. I’ve killed opening-weekend bucks doing all three, and even crawled up on one that gave me too good of a stalking opportunity. Consider all your options carefully, then make your decision and go for it.
Step 9: Sealing The Deal. Patience (and persistence) pays. If you’ve set yourself up with enough options and enough intel to make good decisions, you’ll likely get your chance. This is especially true if you make the commitment to hunt through the heat, the wind, the rain, the relentless mosquitoes, and whatever else that will keep your competition at home. In the end, you must take heart that the bucks are there, and they’ll be moving—somewhere. When you boil it down, opening-week success often depends on your willingness to build a good plan and see it through, no matter what Mother Nature throws your way, or how much, or how little, the local bucks follow the script.