It's never to early to start planning your next whitetail hunt. Here are a few tips designed to help you ambush mature bucks.

Early Returns

Too hot and buggy to bowhunt? Not if you piece together a solid gameplan to ambush mature bucks that includes finding preferred food sources and travel routes, and pinpointing the right bedding cover. 

Wiping the sweat from my brow, I couldn’t help but notice the painful irony. Here I was, bowhunting early-season whitetails and seriously parched from the long hike into my secluded treestand – hidden nicely in a big oak at the edge of a small, cool, crystal-clear farm pond. Of course, a check of my loaded pack found the ever-present water bottle mysteriously missing. Giardia be damned, that pond water looked good.

Thankfully, the local whitetails had similar thoughts, as a steady parade of thirsty does was soon doing its best to keep my mind off my own hydration. First to drink at the waterhole was a lone mature doe about 3:30 p.m.; early, I thought, for such a warm, sunny day. Yet it wasn’t a fluke. Right behind her was another doe and two yearlings about 4 p.m., soon followed by another baldheaded trio a short 20 minutes later. The third mature doe seemed to have gotten a whiff of me – helped along by swirling winds – but my scent regimen seemed to be doing its job. She soon relaxed, and so did I.

The does were just a memory when the eighth deer of the evening made its appearance, still a full hour before sunset: a fine sleek Wyoming 8-point. Seconds after the buck strolled into my shooting lane at just 10 yards the Rage Hypodermic-tipped Gold Tip XT Hunter was on its way, and soon I was tagging my first Wyoming whitetail – using one of my favorite early-season tactics that has worked dependably for years across the Midwest. When you break it down, bowhunting whitetails in the early season is mostly a mix of haunting sites they’re frequenting most: food and water. To capitalize on hot sites, it’s also critical to remain as incognito as possible – meaning smart stand entrance/exit trails, and an uncompromising scent-control regimen. Details definitely matter. Warm temps help scent carry farther and linger longer; get sniffed out by a mature buck now and your smoking-hot pattern will likely turn late-December cold.       

Looking for a new early season whitetail hotspot? I’d urge you to check out Eastern Wyoming, where this past fall I found whitetails not only plentiful, but up and on their feet literally hours before nightfall – consistently. Better yet, the plethora of regular daytime activity also included mature bucks – and lots of them.

An Early Midwest Gameplan

At times, western whitetails that have grown up in remote, wide-open terrain seem almost a breed apart from their hyper-alert Midwestern/Eastern cousins – the day-in and day-out reality for most of us. Typically, mature bucks don’t make many mistakes early in the season. Which is why I tracked down a couple of Minnesota whitetail masters – guys who have been bow-bagging outsized, ultra-wary suburban whitetails within just a few minutes of densely populated Minneapolis, for years. To further up the “difficulty ante,” Mark and son Kyle Herr like to take turns filming each other’s bowhunts, but their incredible video footage – and walls full of suburban trophies – is not only a testament to their shooting skills, but also to their day-to-day hunt strategies, and smart, year-round scouting. Recently, I sat down with Mark Herr to tap some of his early season strategies that he develops and shares with both son Kyle and daughter Kayla.   

BW: Why do you enjoy hunting the early season?

Mark Herr: “Early on, there is a short window to pattern a mature buck, but we almost always come very close to closing the deal during this period. Hunting early like we do is sometimes like the ultimate chess match – but the more scouting and ‘homework’ you do seems to translate to more success.”

BW: How is the early season different in general where you hunt? Are any special precautions/techniques necessary?

M.H.: “All properties have different deer movement patterns, depending on available food. As far as precautions, never push into the timber very far; deer at this time are typically bedding very close to food sources. Also, try very hard to only hunt the correct winds.”

BW: Describe some favorite early-season stand sites.

M.H.: “My early stand sites are typically picked several weeks before opening day. I try to pick stands on the edge corners of feed fields, or brush lines running through the field, to conceal my entry and exit. We had a stand near a water hole just off a soybean field, where almost every local deer would visit to drink, or just stand in the water, before moving out of the timber to feed. If you watch deer movement enough, you may be able to try things you would not otherwise consider. Once we were hunting a soybean field to the north of some timber, and the deer would pour out of the northeast edge of the timber, but always stay within 10 yards of the beanfield edge. And 80 percent of the deer would travel west. So we hunted 10 yards into the timber and climbed about 20 feet high. No deer could smell us with a south wind; our scent would carry over their heads. But, this approach could be risky. We played the odds, because we knew most deer traveled so close to the timber edge. Be observant, do your homework and sometimes you can get away with a gamble.”

BW: How do you access stands to ensure you don't alert local deer?

M.H.: “When entering and exiting stands we try hard to stay as scent-free as possible; we wear rubber boots, try to touch as little foliage as we can and we don’t kneel at game camera sites. If you can, enter/exit stands using areas that see very little deer movement. We have all seen a mature deer hit where you may have walked – or even set something down – then freeze and walk away. We watched a giant buck bed on public land years ago. We thought we had a good idea of his direction of travel, so we set up really early on his exit routes, and we had a hunter walk through wearing hip boots about an hour before dark. He bent under a low-hanging tree limb and pushed it up with his hand. With about 20 minutes of legal light our target buck was coming down that trail right toward us – but when he got within five feet of that limb he suddenly froze, then turned and walked away. The takeaway? Once you find a good stand site, do not walk all around it looking for more sign.

BW:What’s your opinion on hunting early-season mornings versus evenings?

M.H.: “We rarely hunt early-season mornings. Yes, the window to kill a big buck is very short early, but it’s very difficult to ambush a big buck still on his feet during the morning, in daylight. If you can pattern a buck traveling a good distance – say along a treeline, or a fence line going back to bedding, then a morning hunt can work. The situation has to be such that you can get set up between feeding and bedding without issue.

BW:How important is it to determine the bedding areas of the bucks you hunt? Do you believe you know where most are bedding, and if so, what types of cover do most prefer?

M.H.: “We think most big bucks bed very close to their food in early season – if the cover is thick, and there is very little human disturbance. We have been very successful with this approach. In one of our areas, there is a brush line that extends into mixed cattails and brush, and when the acorns start to drop the bigger deer always seem to come from that type of cover. So, setting up close to the bedding area without being detected is a very large piece of the puzzle. We have noticed that, just prior to dark, mature bucks will consistently funnel through the thickest 20 yards or so of timber, right where it meets the escape cover. Typically, they’ll wait for complete darkness to move further.”

BW:How important are trail cameras in your arsenal, and when do you start hanging them? How many cameras should an Average Joe bowhunter have in his arsenal?

M.H.: “Trail cameras are a huge piece of the puzzle. We rarely hunt a property unless we are targeting a ‘hit-list’ deer. He may not be the best deer we’ve seen, but will be mature—one of the bucks making the most mistakes at that particular time. We run cameras through the entire season to determine who has survived, and start again the first week of July. The average hunter should own as many as possible to cover different farms, or available acreage. They will help you pass younger bucks if you feel like you have a legit chance to harvest a mature deer. Most guys will also hunt with more caution if they have photos of a giant using their area.”

BW:What are some important pieces of early season gear?

M.H.:“We make sure we always have a grunt call. We have killed several mature bucks early with their help.  We had a big buck grunt very loudly right at sunset a couple years ago, during the second weekend of the season. Kyle grabbed his call and grunted back, and that buck came in hot like it was November. That type of aggression so early is hard to explain, but all deer are different, and you have to take advantage of their mistakes, because they don’t make them often. That was a five-year-old deer that scored 150 and had a live weight of 290 pounds.” 

Opening Day Arsenal

Early season deer hunting tipsAmbushing a mature buck in the early season is all about paying attention to the tiniest of details, and your gear arsenal is no place to cut corners.

Smart scent control starts with the obvious: Paying attention to things that come in contact with foliage which means a good waterproof/scent-reducing rubber boot like the 16-inch Game Changer series ($190-$210) from Rocky Boots (740-753-9100; www.rockyboots.com). Game Changers feature an athletic-inspired design that is lighter and less bulky than most rubber models, yet offers an aggressive outsole for great traction in most any terrain.

Tap off your shower-to-field scent control regimen with a good field spray, and use it liberally and often to combat odors on clothing and gear—especially often-overlooked things like packs and treestands. Proven sprays include Wildlife Research Center’s Scent Killer Gold (www.wildlife.com), ScentBlocker’s Trinity Blast (www.robinsonoutdoors.com), Hunter’s Specialties’ Scent-A-Way Max (www.hunterspec.com), and the Primos Control Freak series (www.primos.com).

Any good early season whitetailer will be spending plenty of time in darkness. Get into and out of your stand sites more efficiently with help from the latest lighting systems from Bushnell Outdoors (www.bushnelloutdoors.com). There are five new flashlights in its new Rubicon line ranging from the ultra-compact 152-lumen model ($30) to the powerful 1080-lumen model ($100), all equipped with a standard light setting and a special Red Halo low-lumen mode designed to light your way without compromising natural night vision. And, the neat new H250L Auto-Dim LED Headlamp ($50) automatically adjusts from long-distance brightness to dim for close-range viewing.

Like Minnesotan Mark Herr suggests, a good grunt call can be worth its weight in gold—even early in the season. Last fall the new Stretchback Grunt ($33) from Duel Game Calls (855-802-0865; www.duelgamecalls.com) helped me call in and arrow a 160-class brute of a Kansas buck, and you can bet I’ll be packing this fine call again come September.