High stands placed a safe distance from deer activity may give you the vantage point you need to see a large racked whitetail. Author photo
August 01, 2012If you really want to challenge yourself this fall, try hunting a mature whitetail in the early season. This is one of the most difficult times for most hunters to score on a mature buck in Michigan. Between the intense heat, mosquitoes, and ticks it's not the most enjoyable time to head into the woods. Also, the early antlerless seasons have added new amounts of hunting pressure before the regular archery season even opens so the mature whitetails are wise to the upcoming onslaught of human activity in the woods. Despite these setbacks you can still put yourself on the doorstep of a mature whitetail if you're willing to do some pre-season work.
In 13 years of committing to hunt mature Michigan whitetails I have only been able to take three bucks before October 10. This may not seem like great odds, but I find a lot of enjoyment in tracking down a mature buck to hunt in the early season. Almost every season I am able to find a mature whitetail to hunt the first few days of the season. Putting a tag on one of these elusive whitetail is entirely another matter.
When I hunt the early season or the majority of October for that matter I am usually trying to accomplish one of two things; either (1) Observing an area to monitor overall deer movement in an area I know a mature buck lives or (2) I am attempting to shoot a particular buck.
Rarely do I just sit in a tree anymore during the early season just hoping a mature whitetail is going to materialize and offer a shot. During the pre-rut and rut phases this could possibly work but during the early season you are more than likely educating the local deer hear and more importantly the mature deer in the area. By hunting in a high traffic area during this time with no real plan the chances of putting an arrow into a mature deer are virtually zero. In addition you're educating the doe groups in the area to your stand locations and possibly altering their habits which could ruin your chances of success during the exciting rut phase.
Locating a Mature Whitetail
Traditional Deer Sign
I don't recommend doing excessive scouting on foot just prior to the season but if I don't have a potential buck located I'll hit the ground and look for one. I look for large tracks and large rubs mostly. I'll keep my scouting around food sources and then attempt to predict the most likely beds and/or travel routes from my familiarity with the area and previous scouting. I would recommend doing this just prior to or during intense rain fall or very dry/windy conditions as to keep scent and noise to a minimum.
A mature whitetail is relative to the area you hunt. On heavily pressured public land and 2 year old buck is a major challenge while on private land in southern Michigan a 3 or 4 year old buck may be roaming your area. Obviously the more mature whitetails you have in your area the easier it is to locate them. I typically start keeping my eye out in mid spring but midsummer is when I really start looking for mature deer to pursue.
Trail cameras when used properly are a great tool. I have found a trail camera placed in strategic locations during the summer months will often show a mature whitetail in your area. The most common areas I place my cameras during the summer months are near water holes, fruit bearing trees, beans, alfalfa, winter wheat/rye grass, and scrapes. Water and food are obvious draws in the hot summer but scrape activity will really start to increase in late August and September. My observations are that the mature bucks (4 years and older) will rarely work the scrapes but will scent check them. Because the bucks are in bachelor groups the younger 2 and 3 year old bucks will hit the scrapes often bringing the older bucks in for a picture at times as well.
Resist the temptation to put your cameras in thick cover or near known bedding areas. Also keep in mind that checking your camera too often can be just as bad as hunting an area too often. Leaving human scent at any time is a negative so place them in areas that are easy to check and try to avoid crossing trails the deer use. Deer are also getting conditioned to these cameras and reacting negatively to the flashes (IR flash also), sounds, and even sights of the cameras. I have observed dozens of videos of deer spooking at just the sight of dummy cameras while they are being videoed from a different angle. Camouflaging your camera or better yet, mounting it higher out of direct eye sight of the deer will help this issue. Black flash or low glow cameras are also a good idea if you really want covert monitoring.
From A Distance
Much of Michigan is not conducive to glassing in the summer but the farmland in southern Michigan is set up nicely. High stands placed a safe distance from deer activity may give you the vantage point you need to see a large racked whitetail step out of his security cover and into a lush bean field. I spend many evenings in the late summer glassing food sources and the edges of bedding areas in hopes to catch a glimpse of a target buck. While this is fun to do all summer long I usually wait until two weeks prior to the opener to really put in some serious time. Deer patterns change during the summer as preferred food sources change, human pressure increases, and bachelor groups break up. A buck you see in mid-August may be a mile away in early October. Make sure you are monitoring from a spot where you have no chance of being detected.
While I can't physically be in more than one place at one time the time lapse mode of many new trail cameras allows you to monitor a large area during the morning and afternoon hours without invading your hunting area. Mounting a camera in a spot that overlooks a preferred food source or edge of a bedding area allows you to monitor several areas without physically being there making your scouting that much more effective.
Although I don't use it often, shining deer right after dark can give you a clue as to where a mature buck is eating, traveling and bedding. If an older buck is in a field not long after dark he is mostly likely bedded very close.
Moving In For The Kill
Once I locate some potential whitetails to pursue I try to develop a plan for the early season. I try to find a buck that is showing some vulnerability to move in on. Maybe the buck is hitting a water hole with some regularity or entering a bean field in a certain corner with a north wind. Try to find a weakness and you have something to work with.
In my personal experience most mature Michigan bucks are not out feeding freely during daylight in the early season very often. I see it in late summer but once they shed their velvet and bachelor groups break up they become much less visible. When I do make a move it's often set up close to his suspected bedding area attempting to get a shot during legal shooting hours.
If I'm set up at the food source it's likely he won't reach me until it's too late. Now keep in mind there are certain areas where a mature buck may be comfortable hitting a small food plot or food source during day light if the surrounding pressure is lower or he feels the area is safe. I will say though that this sight is pretty rare at least in southern Michigan. Use your own best judgment when choosing a set up and unless you already have a stand in the perfect place it's probably best to hang and hunt the ambush spot on the same day. Once you enter that area a mature buck will most likely know you've been there so your best chance of shooting him is the first time you invade the area.
Remember, mature bucks trust their nose more than any of their other senses and will almost ALWAYS use the wind in their favor for survival in the early season. This means they will smell what's up ahead of them making set up for the hunter very difficult. Use terrain features to setup near that aid in keeping you from being detected. This could be a pond, creek, downfall, ditch, a road, etc. Also hunting high, 25 feet plus will also reduce your risk of being detected but foliage in the early season often keeps me 15-20 feet or lower depending on the setup and available cover. In the case of hunting lower, paying attention to the wind is of vital importance.
A light rain, weather front, or favorable moon phase timed with the right wind gives your stealth like access and may stimulate early movement as well.
Ultimately, if you see a mature buck just prior to or during the early season move in on him immediately but not recklessly. The mature buck's pattern or movement timing will likely change very quickly due to the intense pressure all around him from other hunters. Undetected setup with the right wind for the buck and the hunter might just give you an opportunity. Going after a mature whitetail with a questionable wind will most certainly end in disaster possibly ruing your chances at that deer for the rest of the season.
Early season success on mature deer certainly doesn't happen every year, but if you really want to challenge yourself and possibly increase your enjoyments of the early season give it a try. There isn't anything much more satisfying than taking down a mature whitetail early in the season while you still have the exciting rut to look forward to.