As the dog days of summer slowly wind to a close and those first early frosts delicately lie upon blades of long grass, I start to feel the itch. As soon as I feel that little tickling between my shoulders, I grab my bow and head out into the cool mornings and warm afternoons of the early season whitetail woods. Hunting deer in the early season is a challenge. The rut hasn’t even begun to move the big bucks toward titillated stupidity, and the deer herd in general is spending most of its time in the thick brush and heavy timber. Most hunters don’t bother with early season hunts, preferring to wait until the first days of pre-rut put bucks on the move. Yet for the savvy or simply impatient hunter, there is venison to be had in the early season. In fact, it can provide some of the most fantastic hunting of the entire year.
Getting out early has plenty of advantages, the first of which is that it gets you into the woods, scouting. The summer layoff can often make hunters a bit lackadaisical. The early season gives those who didn’t do much scouting a chance to reacquaint themselves with what the deer are up to and start making plans for later in the fall.
Those opening weeks will renew all of the enthusiasm and excitement one typically experiences later in the fall, and will generally make you a better hunter overall. This is because, while the early season varies depending on what part of the country you’re in—potentially occurring from late August to the first weeks of October—the general rules are about the same. Because the rut has not yet begun, hunters will have to read trails and identify feeding and bedding areas. Finding these areas is key because, although the bucks’ focus may shift with the season, it still gives a basic picture of where most of the deer are generally hanging out. This will help a hunter pick out solid places to hunt both for the early season and later in the season when the old standby places haven’t paid out.
Overcoming early season pitfalls
The primary argument against early season hunting: By going into the woods and disturbing deer in their summer haunts, you may push them out of the area, especially if you hunt in the morning. This can be true, especially if there are numerous does with fawns in the area—they can be especially wary. But there are a few simple things you can do to prevent this from happening, ensuring not only that the deer will remain in the area for the later season, but that you’ll get a chance to harvest a big-racked buck that hasn’t even lost his velvet yet.
The first and foremost of these precautions is scent control. Now, I’m not just talking about spraying yourself down with a basic cover scent before heading into the woods. No, I mean the whole shebang. The night before you go hunting, wash the clothes you’re going to wear in a cover scent laundry soap and then hang them outside. Shower before you leave and use a scent-masking shampoo and body soap. If you’re driving to the hunting location, put your pre-washed clothes in an unscented plastic garbage bag. Once you arrive at your destination, cover up with a high-end cover scent spray, making sure to get the bottoms of your boots and anything that may be at a deer’s nose level, because you don’t want to disturb your path. This leads us to the second—and perhaps more vital—precaution a hunter needs to take in order to be successful in the early season: choosing the right path.
It’s true that, no matter how quiet you are and no matter how much scent control you use, if you go wandering through deer paths and random fields and feeding areas, you will bump deer out, never to return. Therefore, in order to be successful in the early season and not blow out the rest of your fall, you have to figure out a couple of safe paths. This, of course, is easier said than done, but with a bit of research and understanding of maps, it can be accomplished.
Find entrances into your hunting area that are at least a half-mile or more away from the area you plan to hunt. Although this may make for a bit of extra walking, it’s worth it to keep the deer unaware of your presence. Find a good map of the area you’re planning to hunt and look for routes away from where deer are likely to feed and bed down. Plan out a few ways to safely reach and leave your hunting area and deer stand while staying away from the spots where deer may be bumped.
Get out there!
The real key to hunting in the early season is ignoring the misconceptions about doing so. Many deer hunters believe that, without the rut being underway, bucks are either entirely nocturnal or hidden far away from the rest of the herd in their own secret Narnias. Most hunters believe that, in order to be successful in the early season, you simply have to get lucky. But the reality is, although a buck’s behavior is different in the early season than it is during the rut, they can still be hunted in almost the same way, with a few differences.
Glassing is perhaps one of the most important things a hunter can do during the early hunting season. Spending the earliest part of the season simply watching deer is the best way to get an idea of where bucks are hanging out. Early season deer are exciting to hunt because of their predictability. They tend to visit the same food sources along the same paths unless they’re alarmed. Generally, outside of the rut, really big bucks will move into fields and food plots with other deer long after the does and small bucks first arrive.
The best time to locate them is at dusk and dawn. Watch the open areas you plan to hunt and note where the bucks enter and exit. Generally, mature bucks don’t use the same paths as the rest of the herd, but will make their own. By seeing where they enter and exit a field or feeding area, you develop a good idea of places to start hunting. Once you find an area in which a big buck is moving, start looking for scrapes instead of concentrating your efforts on rub lines as you would in the regular season. Though scrape activity will pick up more in the late fall, bucks will actively use scrapes all year long, visiting them most often in the early morning and late evening. Hunt for active scrapes between tall stands of timber and heavy brush, and feeding areas along a buck’s path. Bucks will often visit these scrapes on their way to and from feeding and bedding down. They make for great places to wait in ambush.
Calling for deer in the early season can also be a helpful tool. Although early season calling won’t bring about the aggressive and frenzied activity it will in November, it can pull out-of-range bucks in closer or draw them out of the thick stuff. Light grunts or fawn and doe bleats are most effective. When bucks first get out of velvet, a bit of light rattling can be effective as well. Now, you are not looking to make a bunch of sound as you would when the deer are in full rut and battling to the death. Instead, you are looking to simply mimic the sounds of friendly sparring that often takes place in the early season. Tick the antler tips together gently, mixing in a light grunt or two. Try to think of it as a lazy fencing match rather than the grinding, twisting, smashing fights you might imitate later in the season. Larger bucks in the early season will often move in to investigate the sound of a gentle spar just to see which other bucks are around.
Hunting in the early season can truly become an addiction. Unlike the chaotic beach-storming mayhem of the regular season, stalking bucks in the early season is akin to a Special Forces operation behind enemy lines. It requires observation, planning, and above all, patience in order to be successful. For hunters who do it, hunting in the early season means that summer is officially over and school is finally back in session.