As the summer months begin to wind down, hunters are reaching their boiling point. Treestands have already been hung, trail cameras are providing the proper reconnaissance, and there simply isn’t any more gear that needs to be organized that will lessen the anxiety of the pre-season. While most deer hunters covet the months of October and November to begin their vacation day and weekend forays into the woods, their reasoning is often dictated only by their state’s hunting season dates.
While some deer seasons don’t start until the leaves begin to fall and the forest floor is crunchy with an overnight frost, the key word in that statement is “some,” but not “all." For hunters looking to break out of the off-season monotony and begin hunting a full month or more before their home state's season opens, there are plenty of options. While many may balk at the notion of heading out of state to hunt deer before the rut, don’t overlook the early rut hunts in southern Florida or the easily patterned hunt for velvet bucks in the western state of Montana. Just because the weather might be warm, buggy and overall better suited for a fishing trip, early-season hunts offer a different kind of excitement.
Here are four great options for early-season success.
While not thought of as a bucket-list state for deer hunters, you should not overlook the Sunshine State. While deer bodies and antler inches are certainly dwarfed by their cousins to the north, deer hunting in Florida offers something that many other states simply can’t — an early rut hunt. While some sections of the state don’t begin hunting until October, two sections begin bowhunting in either early August (Zone-A, far south Florida) or mid-September (Zone C, the middle portion of the state). In addition to the earlier season offerings by Florida, for potential whitetail slammers, Florida has both Seminole and Gulf Coast whitetails.
What is unique about Florida is that their rut period is both defined and undefined. It is undefined in that rutting activity can take place nearly any time of the year, and records indicate the fawns are born in nearly all of the 12 months. While this certainly doesn’t sound like it would make for an intense rut/chase period like those seen in the North, this complex deer rut is also extremely localized. The defining portion of this rut comes from the very specific timing that the rut occurs in different areas. For instance, deer might have a peak rut in mid-September in one location while a short distance away the rut occurs, more traditionally speaking, in late October. Luckily, and unluckily, Florida is composed mainly of either hunting areas that require a drawn permit or private areas that require a guide. In both of these instances, rut times for the specific area are often documented. Expect average 8-10 point deer with a spread ranging from 14-17 inches as a trophy class animal. Who’s up for a family vacation? Good deer hunting can be had within an hour of Orlando and even closer to the beach.
Annual License: $151.50
Archery Permit: $5
Deer Permit: $5
For more information: http://myfwc.com/hunting
Kentucky is quickly moving out of sleeper -tate status and into one of the acknowledged big buck centers of the entire country. While Iowa might still hold the hearts of many hunters, the opportunity granted by Kentucky and the easy-to-get over-the-counter tags is attracting more and more hunters every year, and for good reason. The bucks are big, the deer are plentiful, and hunting season stretches from early September until late January.
For hunters looking to get a crack at the biggest whitetails Kentucky has to offer, consider their early season hunts often termed velvet hunts. These archery-only (no crossbow) hunts generally kick off the first week in September across the entire state. While it is termed a velvet hunt, some of the deer do begin to shed their velvet early in the season. If a soft-horned deer is more to your liking, schedule your hunt to begin on opening day, because by the middle of September most deer will either be hard-antlered or in the process of shedding their velvet. If you don’t get your deer early in the season, a return trip to the state to hunt during the rut rifle season is an excellent way to make the most out of your license fee. For the price, Kentucky offers the hunter a bargain-basement price for exceptional whitetails.
Annual License: $140
Deer Permit: $120
For more information: http://fw.ky.gov/Hunt/Pages/Deer-Hunting.aspx
When South Carolina comes to mind, the first thing I think of is the plantations that offered deer hunting that I saw on all the hunting shows when I was a kid. Today, these same plantations still offer deer hunting and the opportunity to hunt bucks-only as early as the middle of August. While the majority of states’ early-season hunts regulate hunters to archery tackle, hunters on private lands in South Carolina can begin using their rifle in zones 3 and 6 on the first day of the season in mid-August. The rest of South Carolina’s hunting zones have varied season dates including areas that open as archery-only in August and then transition to rifle season at the beginning of September, while others simply open later — so make sure the area you select will suit your needs.
As in Florida, the bucks generally taken here won’t rival those from states like Iowa or Illinois. Most plantations are QDMA-managed to allow younger deer to thrive and only allow hunting for mature deer with either spread or point requirements, so keep that in mind when searching for an outfitter. Despite high hunting pressure, the overwhelming number of deer often allows hunters multiple opportunities during a three- or five-day trip. Along with all of this, one of great things about these hunts is that multiple bucks and wild boar can be hunted. This is an excellent opportunity for youngsters to take advantage of their summer vacation, and if you are looking to fill the freezer while getting out of the summer funk, South Carolina might just be your place.
Three-Day License: $40
10-Day License: $75
Big-Game Permit: $100
For more information: https://www.dnr.sc.gov/hunting.html
If you have never hunted in Montana, you owe it to yourself to try it once in your lifetime. The Big Sky Country is a diverse habitat that holds everything from elk to bighorn sheep, with a smattering of everything in between. While most people think mule deer when they think of Western states, don’t overlook the dandy whitetails that abound in the river bottoms of Montana. Similar to Florida, Kentucky and South Carolina, Montana offers an early archery-only whitetail season that starts the first week in September. Despite the weather feeling more like archery antelope season, the early weeks of September find whitetails slipping out of river bottoms into crop fields right before dark — a perfect place for an ambush.
Deer during this time are still holding their velvet, and big bucks are often in bachelor groups ruling over the plentiful forage. One of the hitches to hunting Montana is that obtaining a deer tag requires more pre-planning through the draw. The good news is this hunt can be done both guided and unguided through the use of Montana’s extensive private land opportunities. One thing to note is that some areas of Montana have been badly hit by EHD/blue tongue the last two years, so talk to local fish and game officials to find out the extent that it has taken a toll in the area you are planning to hunt. Another option with similar hunting opportunity lies in the state to the south of Montana, Wyoming. It still requires a draw, but units often have leftover tags available. Concentrate on the Black Hills area in Northeast Wyoming.
Deer Combination License Cost: $580
Application Period: Applications due by March 15 each year.
For more information: http://fwp.mt.gov/hunting/
Early-Season Hunting Tips
One thing that is for certain on most of these hunts is that you must get used to hunting in T-shirts. Along with a change in clothing, a change in approach is a must, as deer move even closer to daylight and dusk than you may be used to, opting to bed up for most of the day in the shade and out of the sun. While limited deer movement may sound like a good reason to avoid hunting during August and September, don’t let the shorter deer movement hours fool you. During this time the deer are still in a feeding pattern, and they can often be patterned down to nearly the minute on a particular trail or field edge. While many big bucks tend to go on a more nocturnal feeding routine once their velvet is rubbed, during these early seasons they are still utilizing the fringe daylight hours to travel. These bucks are also still traveling in bachelor groups, and having had no pressure for the better part of nine months, they don’t take into consideration the potential of a hunter lying in wait. Much like the rut, the early season gives hunters an advantage and allows us to take advantage of a mature deer while its guard is down. For those that can stand the heat, early-season opportunities are an excellent way to start the season off with a bang.
Beating The Heat
While many deer hunts require all-day sits in frigid temperatures, early-season hunts are the exact opposite. Instead of Heater Body Suits and disposable hand warmers, a different gear list is required to minimize scent and survive the heat. Having cold feet is without a doubt a part of late-season rut hunts, but there is nothing worse than getting swarmed by unforgiving mosquitos.
ThermaCELL: Don’t leave home without it
Lightweight Clothing: Scent barrier or not, make sure the clothing breathes
Sunglasses: It is hard to find a non-reflective pair, but impossible to look into the sun
Scent-Free Sunscreen: One day in the sun without it can ruin the rest of the trip
Battery-Powered Fan: Hang it in the tree/blind; it turns the hide into a tropical paradise
Ozonics: It’s hard to be scent free when you are sweating, and Ozonics helps cover it
Water Bottle: Dehydration is no fun and can be dangerous
Face Paint: Not for coloring your face, but breaking up the white of your arms/hands
Brimmed Hat: Keeps the sun out of your eyes and off of your neck
Cover Scent: You can never have enough
Scent-Free Lip Balm: Quite possibly man’s best friend in dry and windy conditions