Deer Hunting: Early Deer Success

By Judd Cooney

whitetail deer with good sized rack

I’d almost given up on the humongous buck I’d seen the previous two mornings. I’d been glassing since first light, and it was approaching mid-morning without the repeat appearance I hoped to see.

I was getting ready to go pick up my first early-season bowhunting client when a small eight-point stepped out of brush at the edge of the field. Then I caught a flash of antler in the dense brush behind him, and a couple of minutes later the object of my true affection stepped out of the brush and headed across the field. Since this was the third morning in a row seeing the buck, I figured I had enough of a pattern to hopefully set up one lucky client.

For my money, early seasons are the toughest to hunt because the scouting requires more patience and perseverance than later in the fall. An abundance of leafy trees and other brush conceal daily deer movement. The crops are still in the fields, further obscuring deer movement and also keeping their daily foraging travel to a minimum. Hot weather can curtail activity to early mornings or late evenings at best. The deer may even become effectively nocturnal, and this is especially true for wary mature bucks that are just starting to get in rutting mode but are otherwise lethargic and home-turf oriented.

Here in Iowa and across the Midwest, early season hunters are also limited to close-range bows or maybe a muzzleloader.

Considering all of these things, I was more than pleasantly surprised when that huge buck first showed up. I was glassing the new lease in hopes of seeing any shootable buck, not the deer of a lifetime.

That third morning the big boy and his smaller cohort were likely moving to a bedding area after feeding in an unharvested cornfield over an adjacent brushy ridge. The corn I was watching had already been picked, and they meandered across that small creek-bottom field and then up a slope to a dense stand of cedars that provided almost-impenetrable cover on the top side of the highest ridge overlooking the shallow valley.

After picking up my hunter, I took him back to the creek bottom where we quietly but quickly set up a hang-on stand with climbing sticks a few yards back from the edge of a finger of dense, woody brush that jutted out into the harvested corn.

From this vantage, the bowhunter would have a 40-yard shot at all three of the trails where I had seen the buck pass through the creek bottom, something I explained to him in minute detail.

Early the following morning, while the bowhunter got situated in the tree, I placed a doe decoy in the cornfield 20 yards out from the stand, quartering away from the hunter. Since the bowhunter was right-handed, I placed the decoy just off to the left of the stand.

To further enhance the setup, I staked a foam fawn decoy behind the doe with a couple of upright corn stalks bracketing its hindquarters. Any breeze would bring the lightweight fake to life, swinging it on its stake. But the stalks would prevent it spinning too far, which might spook a wary approaching buck.

To hedge our bets a bit, I placed a curiosity-scented smoke stick on either side of the decoys. The hunter had taken one up in the tree with instructions to light it as soon as he was in position, to help mask his own human scent.

The prevailing breeze drifted from the ridge where the bucks had been seen returning from feeding the previous three mornings, but it might get a little squirrely in the early morning, and I figured the pungent scent sticks would help should that happen.

I left, and at 8:30 the hunter saw the big buck loitering in the brush on the side of the ridge across from the stand. Then he watched in total frustration as it unexpectedly bedded down.

After waiting 20 almost-unbearable minutes he made a short series of doe grunts that got no reaction from the buck. After a third series of subtle grunts and tinkles from his rattle box, the buck finally got up and came down to the edge of the field where it intently studied the doe and fawn decoys.

There was just enough wind drifting from the upper end of the valley to move the fawn decoy enticingly. However, the buck hadn’t reached maturity by being impulsive, and he stayed back in cover as he circled downwind to scent-check the situation. But when he hit the drifting smoke scent, he headed straight for the decoys, nose in the air. At 40 yards the bowhunter made a perfect broadside shot, and the big buck was his.

I love it when a plan comes together like that. But the real message here is that it took three days of looking and planning to set up that one quick shot. Three days of scouting and one of hunting is pretty much my formula for early-season success.

I believe most hunters diminish their chance of tagging a buck in early fall because they shortchange the scouting, which is more critical for bowhunters because limited archery range requires pinpoint stand placement.

A few falls back, again prior to any client’s arrival at camp, I was glassing a ridge-top soybean field bordered by a mile-wide expanse of heavy timber that provided bedding cover and a natural sanctuary. I returned six mornings and evenings in a row, and in the course of a dozen discreet visits, I glassed a pair of 150-plus bucks, a half-dozen lesser bucks, and a whole herd of does and fawns entering and leaving the field on feeding forays.

On only two occasions with three days between did the big bucks emerge. But both times they left the field on the same trail, which followed a little ridge down to a creek bottom. A hunter glassing the area for a day or two would have surely missed this semblance of a pattern.

Most hunters have limited days in the field and don’t want to spend those days looking instead of hunting. But when it comes to early season deer, they would be more successful if they did curtail the hunting until they were able to do it based on knowledge and not luck.

No doubt an outfitter holds an advantage here. I and my guides gain as much information on whitetail patterns and movements as possible before the first early season clients arrive. Once clients do arrive, the daily accumulation of deer knowledge increases exponentially as hunters in the field add to what we are still collecting by continuing to scout and glass while the hunters are on stand.

The more history an outfitter or individual hunter has in a given area, the more pertinent and accurate the observations and decisions become.

We already had a tree stand in place overlooking the trail where I wanted to place a hunter, a stand where several bucks had been taken in previous years.

But woe to the outfitter or hunter who thinks he has all the answers just because he knows the lay of the land and has hunted there before, especially early in the fall when deer are just beginning to establish some semblance of huntable patterns. The best hunters I know keep scouting while they hunt and don’t hesitate to try new tactics any day of the season.

A few years back we had several bowhunters in camp for the first week of bowhunting in October. Most of the crops were still in the fields, and the weather had been hot and dry for several weeks, not ideal for deer activity and movement.

The second day of the hunt we put two clients in the woods alongside a creek, figuring deer would more likely hang in shady cover near water. Then I went to glass a nearby open CRP field in hopes of spotting a buck moving from one chunk of timber to another, and as it got light enough to see, two bucks did cross from a neighboring property toward a timbered slope that ran down to the creek where the hunters were posted.

The larger of the two was a massive eight-point, his cohort a stately 10-point. As they neared the timber it looked like one of those hunters might get a shot. But a pair of does stepped out of the woods, and that prompted a sparring match between the juiced-up bucks. The big eight was definitely top dog and chased the 10-point up a timbered hogback that ran from the creek bottom to the edge of the field—a place where we had no stands.

They did not return, but I figured the bucks might use the same ridge to return to the field that evening, and at 2 o’clock I backed my truck up to a tree at the edge of the field. In addition to me and my ever-present binoculars, the truck was carrying climbing sticks, a hang-on tree stand, and one very eager bowhunter.

While he got situated I placed a small buck decoy broadside to and slightly left of the stand, figuring a hepped-up buck looking for a fight would approach face-on.

I added a doe decoy in the field straight out behind the buck and a fawn right in front of her, lit two smoke sticks, and then got out of there.

According to the hunter, at 4:30 five does passed beneath his stand totally unaware, focused on the decoys. They spent a few minutes testing the smoke scent before ambling off.

At 5:00 the 10-point walked past the stand at 15 yards. Judging it the best buck he had ever seen in the field, the hunter forgot all about the bigger 8-point, and while the thoroughly shook hunter was struggling to get his arrow on the string, the buck faced off with the decoy.

To his credit, the adrenalin-charged hunter made a perfect 20-yard shot, and the 157-inch buck went down for the count a hundred yards out in the field.

Patient scouting doesn’t mean that you never make a quick move. There are times when what you see calls for prompt, aggressive action to best take advantage of a fluid situation. Sometimes you have to make that call based on a combination of intuition and what you learn scouting.

I spent the first four mornings of a five-day early season Kansas bowhunt glassing and each afternoon moving my stand. The farmer on whose property I was hunting was combining the grain fields, obfuscating any semblance of a pattern the deer might have been following.

My goal became figuring out where the deer were going to be next rather than where they had been B.C., as I came to think of the time Before Combining.

The night of the fourth day, a hunting compadre and I dug a pit blind in a weedy fence line that led from a dense creek bottom out across a harvested grain field with no other appreciable cover.

From a distant stand I had glassed groups of deer following this fence line the previous two evenings, and even though they had been too far away to field judge any racks, I figured it was the most likely spot to ambush a mature buck. A pit blind was the obvious choice here, a deadly yet often overlooked option. Few hunters would even consider digging a pit blind in this situation. Too bad—for them.

Half-hour before the end of legal shooting light, I put an arrow in the quartering-away chest of a heavily antlered 10-point as it trailed a group of does and fawns past the grass-camouflaged pit at 40 yards. It took less than an hour to fill the temporary pit back in.

If you spend three days glassing, and otherwise preparing for your next day of early-season deer hunting, you may considerably improve your chances of tagging such a buck.

whitetail deer curious about a deer decoy