Becoming a Student of Whitetail Deer – By Steve Bartylla
Part 2:A Seasonal Guide To Hunting White-Tailed Deer
I remember the day as if it were yesterday. I was thirteen years old, still in the infancy of my bowhunting career. The scene was set on a large freshly picked cornfield, on my uncle’s dairy farm in northern Wisconsin. The time was approximately an hour before closing on the opening day of the bowhunting season.
My stand was in a big old oak tree in the northwest corner of the field. That evening I witnessed fourteen whitetails enter that cornfield. The last one, still a good fifteen minutes before closing, was one of the largest bucks I have ever seen to this day. Unfortunately, they all entered the field in the northeast corner, a good eighty yards away from my stand.
The irony of this day was that my uncle, an avid bowhunter himself, had just informed me that morning that I was wasting my time hunting this early in the season. “Deer don’t even start moving for another month,” he had said. Although I had the opportunity to see that buck two other times that season, I never did get close enough to even draw my recurve. I did, however, begin laying a foundation of valuable lessons about hunting the early stages of the pre-rut period that particular fall.
THE CHALLENGE: To Develop Techniques That aid in Increasing Success Rate During The Early Prerut Period.
I define the early pre-rut period as the window of time between velvet shedding and the start of serious rubbing and scraping activity.
This is the time of the year when the mature whitetail bucks are doing everything in their power to bulk up as much as they can for the later stage of prerut and the rut itself.
It is also the time when many changes are taking place both within the woods and within the deer community. New preferred food sources are appearing rapidly while many preferred late summer forages are disappearing or losing their appeal.
The oak’s mast crop, in many cases, begin dropping within a few weeks of the time the soybeans begin to dry out and lose some of their appeals. The ears of corn begin to mature about the same time the grasses in the overgrown fields completely dry out and die.
At the same time, the deer population is going through some dramatic changes. The does are starting to rid themselves of the burden of suckling their fawns.
While the formerly peaceful bachelor groups of bucks are beginning to become unsettled and begin to disband.
The point is that the changes occurring at this time of year cause a total upheaval in what was normal whitetail behavior for most of the summer. This poses quite a challenge to the individual that elects to venture into the woods with the goal of harvesting a white-tailed deer during the early season.
Hunting the early stage of pre rut period is one of the more difficult times of the year to harvest mature whitetail bucks. What constantly amazes me though, is the fact that
many hunters believe that the chances of success are so low that they refuse to even enter the woods until the later stage of pre rut begins.
Granted, in many geographical areas the conditions are not as nice as later in the season. It’s too hot, the bugs are too thick, all it does is rain, this is one of the last chances to go golfing or fishing, the deer aren’t moving anyway.
These are all excuses I’ve heard echoed many times justifying why many hunters refuse to enter the woods during this period. I may be a little more fanatical about chasing whitetails than some,
but I can’t comprehend sacrificing any part of the season. Therefore, I was forced to develop techniques that aid in increasing my success rate during the early pre rut period.
This period, much like any other, is all about being in the right place, at the right time, while employing the right attitude. If you would be so kind as to indulge me, I would like to take this opportunity to share the techniques I have developed to increase my odds of success during this challenging period.
My Techniques that Aid in Increasing My Success Rate During the Early Prerut Period.
Early pre rut Period SCOUTING Techniques
I believe that the single most important factor for consistent success always has been and always will be the hunter’s knowledge of his prey’s behavioral tendencies. Since, like people, each deer tends to be at least somewhat individualistic, the only way I’m aware of nailing down the patterns of the deer in my area is to spend time scouting their behavior in the woods. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter if you’re after the king of the woods or the first deer you see, your success rate is going to be linked to the amount of knowledge you gathered through scouting deer. Simply put, you reap what you sow.
The best times of the year that I have found for scouting the early pre rut period, are spring and fall. Although winter is the most productive time to scout for the later stages of deer hunting season, it isn’t as productive for the early pre rut period. Because of the rapid changes occurring during this period, I have found that late-season scouting can be a little too out of date to be entirely useful. This does not mean that the information gathered at that time is useless, it just isn’t quite as applicable. The information gathered in the spring and fall serves as the foundations for my pre rut stand locations.
CAPITALIZING EARLY ON FOOD SOURCES
The approach I utilize for treestand placement varies as the pre rut period progresses. For the first two weeks of bowhunting season, stands should be generally placed within shooting distance of the hottest food source in the area. Although exact placement varies slightly in each situation, I personally like to place my stands about five yards into the woods. This placement allows my outline to be broken by trees closer to the food source while still providing a good view of the source itself.
By selecting a stand site that provides a good view of the food source, along with a concentration of deer activity, the hunter enjoys several benefits.
For the first several weeks of hunting, it is not uncommon for whitetails to feed during daylight hours. Many times I have witnessed mature bucks feed an hour before dark during this time. I have found this to be especially true in areas that receive minimal hunting pressure, are tucked back in the woods, or on food sources that are small in size and bordered with heavy cover.
1. Setting up near the food source enables the hunter a larger margin for error. It is a simple fact that deer trails tend to converge as they reach the feeding areas. Therefore, you can increase your odds by covering more trails the closer the setup is to the food source. Employing this method of stand placement allows the hunter to not only covers the trails within bow range, but they also cover at least part of the food source itself. Even if you misjudge which trail your quarry will be utilizing, you still may have an opportunity to harvest the animal as it feeds. Many times I have witness deer entering a food source some distance away, only to have them meander their way within shooting distance as they feed. By hunting these locations early in the season I can help to balance the scale back to my favor.
2. Along with increasing the odds of a deer coming within bow range, the hunter also has the chance to gather valuable data about the deer movement. By observing these areas, it is possible to supplement the information gathered through long-distance surveillance and scouting with observations made from the stand. Observations provide pinpoint accuracy when determining which are the preferred trails for the deer in that area. The benefits derived from patterning mature bucks are obvious and noting the trails that does frequently also provide a benefit. When the rut phase begins, the trails frequented by does are excellent places to set up on the buck that will eventually be trailing her.
3. Knowing the odds of seeing deer are good is also a motivational tool that helps to keep hunters on their stands during conditions that are less than desirable. During hot, muggy, insect filled days, seeing deer can be an important motivational tool to keep a hunter in their stand. Much is written about the many reasons to setup away from the feeding grounds. I fully buy into and employ the logic behind most of these statements, but to every rule, there is an exception. I have found this brief period of time to be one of the exceptions to this rule.
MOVING DEEPER INTO THE WOODS
As the season progresses, it is best to put all the research gathered to use and begin to move the stands closer to the bedding areas. It is not difficult to determine when its time to abandon the stands near the food sources. The quality and numbers of deer sightings just begin to plummet. At this point, the hunter is best served by setting up as close as possible to the whitetail’s bedding ground, without alerting the deer to your presence.
I have found that if I’m provided with a good route to and from my stand, getting within a couple of hundred yards of their bedroom is generally possible. Of course, this distance varies due to a number of factors, such as topography, the density of cover, wind directions and the level of noise generated when approaching the stand. If all you are after is any deer that passes within bow range, then setting up on heavily used deer trails exiting bedding areas is the ticket. If a harvesting a mature buck is your goal then a slightly different approach is in order.
During the spring scouting trips, two different categories of bedding grounds should have been noted. The ones with minimal buck sign and widely varying bed sizes are the results of family groups of does and their fawns. The mature buck’s bedding areas consist of predominately large beds, with rubs and scraping activity within or nearby. A buck’s bedding ground generally does not have impressive trails entering and exiting the area. This is simply because the number of animals utilizing this area just is not as high as the family group’s bedroom. In its simplest form, a doe and two fawns leave more sign than a lone monarch. Conversely, the monarch’s bedding area usually has scrapes and rub lines leading to and from it.
These locations are where the treestands should be placed in an effort to catch him venturing in or out of bed. Buy choosing ambush points along these routes, as close to the bedding grounds as safety allows, your chances of catching him during legal shooting hours are increased dramatically. When employing this tactic, it is important to approach and depart your stand under the cover of darkness. I have found that, during the middle portion of prerut, dominant bucks rarely are seen in feeding grounds or moving during periods of light. This is why it is so important to not only be close to the bedding area but also be in your stand and ready when he slips up and decides to move during the twilight hours.
I also believe this tendency to move under the cover of darkness is one of the reasons they lived long enough to become the dominate buck in the area. Whether its a genetic trait to be more nocturnal or a matter of intelligence, bucks that move freely during legal shooting hours don’t have a long life expectancy.
EMPLOYING THE PROPER ATTITUDE
That brings us to my last early pre rut technique, employing the proper attitude. I believe the proper attitude in bowhunting, or in any other endeavor, is essential.
If you believe you will succeed, your chances of success are much greater than if you anticipate failure.
When approaching a hunt with a defeatist attitude, its hard to be at your best. Whitetails are intelligent and wary creatures, those are the main reasons so many of us enjoy pursuing them. Because of this, they demand the hunter be at their best to enjoy consistent success.
If I believe I am going to see a mature buck, I will work harder to eliminate my odor, pay more attention to my approach, be more alert, and sit on my stand for a longer period of time. All these factors obviously increase my odds of a successful hunt.
Therefore, I do my best to employ them. By putting in the time and effort to thoroughly scout the areas I intend to hunt, its a lot easier to believe I will have a successful hunt.
The techniques I have laid out before you have done much to increase the enjoyment I have found hunting the dreaded early stages of the pre rut. I have no doubt that they can do the same for others as well. Whitetails are challenging animals to pursue. By lengthening the amount of hunting season you participate in, it only stands to reason that your chances for success will be increased. The enjoyment factor is also increased by sitting on food sources early in the year. Nothing makes time fly past faster than watching fawns as they chase each other around in the field.
Besides being enjoyable, observing deer is a learning experience. During most other stages of hunting season, hunters find themselves tucked back into the woods while sitting in stands that deer pass as they meander to their destinations. This limits the amount of observation that can take place. Many times, while sitting on a food source, I have been able to increase my knowledge of a deer’s mannerisms. These opportunities are priceless when the hunter is in their early stages of development. Even now, after years of observing deer, I still find myself getting a little better at reading what “mood” they are in after every extended encounter.