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Early season tactics for muzzleloader bucks — part 2

Early-Season Food

Hunting the edges of a large soybean, corn or milo field is a great evening strategy. If a buck steps out 150 yards away, he’s probably within range for most muzzleloaders. The big fields are good places to prove your shooting skills, but don’t overlook the small fields tucked behind a hillside or timber some distance from the nearest road. Mature bucks like these secluded places because it better suits their reclusive ways.

When deer stop coming to the crop fields, don’t wait too long to find out why. There’s a smorgasbord of sweets and soft mast foods ripe for picking, and the deer have likely found one. Depending on the area, it might be honey locust or persimmons one week, and white oak or red oak acorns the next.

Hunt Rub Lines

Few things get me more excited than following a rub line comprised of big rubs. There’s good reason for that — they’ve played some role in nearly every buck I’ve taken in the early season. And a good example of that is the rub line that led to the spot where the big 10 was taken.

A mature buck won’t tolerate even the smallest trace of human scent as he travels the rub line. That’s why it’s important to make every effort to maintain the element of surprise. That means paying close attention to the wind, practicing scent control and planning smart entrance and exit routes. If you can do that, there’s a fair chance of shooting the maker within the first time or two hunting the stand.

Hunt Transition Routes

A buck doesn’t reach maturity by rushing to his nighttime feeding area for sake of being the first to arrive on the scene. With age, bucks become wiser and more reclusive. They might begin the transition to food an hour before sunset, but as a rule, refrain from setting foot in the field until last light, and sometimes not at all.

Likewise, they don’t stand around in wide-open spaces after the sunrise. Most leave the fields well before light and head for their daytime beds.

By hunting the transition route, you stand a better chance of intercepting a buck not only after first light, but also before last light. This reminds of a big buck my friend Bill Meck took in Iowa last year.

“I took up hunting the early season four years ago,” explained Bill. “The first year I stuck to hunting the field edges to capitalize on early-season feeding patterns. The strategy paid off with a buck the second evening. The following two seasons my lucky streak continued along the edges.

“Last year I spent the first four days hunting the edges of a hay field. It had been unseasonably warm and the deer simply weren’t moving. A few does and a couple of young bucks came to the field, but it wasn’t until last light. By Tuesday evening I was starting to see the same deer.

“Given the fact the deer weren’t moving until late, I decided to change tactics. I had a stand on the side hill that has never been hunted before the peak rut. The hillside is a natural travel corridor that deer often pass through on their way to the corn and soybean fields.

“The wind was blowing from the southwest, which was near perfect for that particular stand. I hurried home from work, gathered up my gear and headed out the door. When arriving, I followed the cornfield edge, and then used a ditch to conceal my approach for the last 100 yards.”

“It was quiet the first hour, but around 6:00 something drew my attention toward movement along the hillside. I brought up the binocular and saw a piece of antler through the thick foliage. It was definitely a buck, but how big was another question. He turned slightly, and I spotted the right main beam and tall tines. There was no doubt, he was a definite shooter.

“I put down the binoculars and slowly brought the Thompson/Center up. The buck turned slightly and made a few steps downhill. If he continued in that direction, I’d never get a shot. I thought about grunting, but held off for fear of making matters worse. It was the right decision, because he took two more steps and stopped quartering-away. His head and rear end were hidden behind foliage, but I could clearly make out the vitals. It was now or never, so I centered the crosshairs and took the shot. The buck charged out of the smoke, but only went 60 yards before stopping. By the time I reloaded he had already laid down behind a deadfall. Every once in awhile he would raise his head and look around, but I could never get a shot.

It was nearly dark when I heard him thrashing around, and then it got quiet. It was agonizing, but I waited another half hour before climbing down. I went to the deadfall, but he wasn’t there. That had me worried, so I backed out and went for help.

“My buddy Craig and I went back an hour later and found the buck stone dead at the bottom of the hill. Words can’t explain my thoughts; I was both shocked and elated. Prior to laying my hands on the rack, I had no idea how big he really was. The buck had a 10-point main frame, and he’s definitely my biggest to date.”

Rattle The Bones

One of the biggest mistakes I see hunters make is waiting until they’ve actually spied a buck before they rattle. As a rule, for every buck seen, I assume at least one passed unseen, and within earshot. That’s why blind rattling is one of my favorite early-season tactics.

One year in mid-October I had spotted a big 11-point leaving a bean field at first light and heading toward a known bedding area, a gnarly section choked with cedars, hedge and thick briars. After watching the buck follow the same routine again, I went to ground scouting and discovered a rub line that led in the same direction. That afternoon I hung a stand in a cedar along the rub line, perhaps 100 yards from the bedding area

The next morning the wind was near perfect, so I climbed into the stand a good hour before sunrise. It was just starting to break light when I heard bucks fighting in the distance. It was still too gray to shoot, so I waited another 10 minutes and rattled aggressively. I hadn’t even hung up the antlers when three bucks exploded from the thick cover, and the big 11-point was in the lead. When he entered a small clearing, I mouthed a grunt to stop him, and squeezed off. Before the smoke had cleared, the buck was already down.

It goes without saying; if rattling worked for me, it can work for you.

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