Even after all these years, opening day of gun season is still the best day of the year for the serious deer hunter. Do you buy in?
Whitetails, or at least dreams of them, fill the woods. Anticipation sparks the air the day before as I arrive at camp in the Missouri River Breaks, a cabin in the aspen cutover, or back home in farmland hill country, for an age-old tradition and friendships renewed. A new season is a beginning: The world is happy and good, the possibilities endless. That’s the way it should be. But aren’t you also there to shoot a deer?
On the eve of one of my first openers, I told my Dad I might not shoot a deer right away, lest the hunting fun end. Dad put things in his usual simple but clear perspective: “Before you decide not to shoot a legal deer you’d be proud of, think about how much you’d want that chance back on the season’s last day.”
In the deer season of life, opening day is just as good as any other — and statistically even better — for shooting your whitetail. In many states, opening day’s kill comprises a third or more, sometimes almost half, of the entire season’s deer harvest. Are you ready?
Strategy For Success
Whitetail hunters make two common mistakes when choosing stand sites for firearm season’s opening day. The biggest is sitting where you always have. If your past results have been good, there’s nothing wrong with this approach. Even if your success has been waning through the years but the place still makes you happy and brings back fond memories, then stick with it. But don’t expect to shoot a whitetail every year as the habitat changes around you.
Another critical mistake is avoiding commitment. When comparing rifle hunting to bowhunting, the editor of this magazine once described this strategy to me as the “eraser” approach. That is the idea that your centerfire rifle or modern slug gun, along with good shooting, can take care of matters if you don’t select an ideal post. But not committing can also be a good way to be on the far edge of action.
What’s a better opening-day strategy? Think micro, not macro, and get specific. That means scout hard. Use Google maps. Figure out what the whitetails will do and where they will go when a little pressure puts them on the move. Pick a new spot and commit to it.
To start your search, look for one of these nine microsites that can provide the opening-day hunter with shooting in surefire range. No food plots, feeding fields or travel funnels in this list. You already know about those places. Instead we’re going to get off the beaten track — which is just what opening-day whitetails are trying to do.
1) Saddle In A Ridge
In rolling, hilly or downright mountainous country, whitetails often have two ways to go: up or down. For the deer that go uphill, a saddle or dip in any ridge makes the perfect spot for passing over without skylining or working too hard to get to another drainage.
Bucks and does alike will take this path of least resistance and most protection, and it’s a great place for a stand. Study topographic maps to find saddles, or just do it visually when you’re out in deer country. Hang a stand on each side of the saddle so you have options for varying wind directions. Hike in early, way ahead of other hunters, and sit all day. Also, whitetails that pass elsewhere might come back through going the other direction in the afternoon.
2) Creek Or Stream Crossing
How many times have you walked along a creek or stream and found the exact spot where deer like to cross? Tracks in the mud, and muddy slides down the banks, tell the tale of where whitetails prefer to wade or swim across a stream. Make a commitment to this spot by hanging a stand or setting up a ground blind in the vicinity.
In most cases, especially when the stream is small and relatively shallow, whitetails have no aversion to crossing a waterway, and on opening day they’ll stick to the places they’ve always done it. One of my favorite southern Wisconsin farmland stands is just over a berm from a ditched section of creek. I can’t see the deer when they cross it, but I sure can hear them splashing, giving me time to get ready.
3) Old Homestead
Much top-notch whitetail hunting takes place on the prairies and Great Plains. Personally, I deeply love the wide-open spaces of Nebraska, Kansas, the Dakotas and western Minnesota. I also love the kinds of bucks that roam these places.
Whitetails will use wide-open space for separation here. But whitetails still like cover, and some of the best places to find it out where the wind blows are abandoned homesteads, forgotten farmsteads, lost barns and old corrals — places where a few trees, shrubs, old lilac bushes, prairie grass and goldenrod has grown up. Hang a stand if there’s a tree, put up a ground blind, or hide behind an old stock tank, building or piece of rusty farm machinery. It’s something to see a buck coming, coming, coming across the big wide open, sometimes right to point-blank range.
4) Trail Intersection
There’s a reason the old timers called these places “deer crossings.” These hunters of yore weren’t talking about sitting along a single trail and hoping for a deer to pass by. Rather, they were talking about true deer crossings where trails actually converge or intersect, which essentially doubled (or more, if there are multiple trails) your chances for deer sightings. A number of trails are going be more productive than one deer highway.
Intersections often occur in river and creek bottoms, and they also happen in hill country where gullies or draws empty out onto valley floors. The challenge in hunting trail intersections is staying diligent on stand and not being surprised by a whitetail coming from one direction while you’re looking another way. But that possibility should also keep you alert and ready all day.
5) Corridor Meets Cover
Whether it’s for family, work or hunting, I do a lot of driving across whitetail country. When my wife is with me, she is always harassing me because she says my head is on a swivel and not on the road. She says I am looking for deer. But what I am really doing is surveying the landscape for the kinds of places I would hang a stand if I could hunt there.
The visuals always lead me places where a corridor of cover (examples: a brushy fenceline, grassy swale, creek bottom, waterway, finger of brush or ditch) meets a larger block of cover such as run of timber or a woodlot. The strategy is to intercept whitetails coursing along the smaller cover to reach the larger hideout. As a bonus, deer leaving the larger cover might also use the corridor on their exit.
6) Abandoned Pasture Or Orchard
Whitetails love forgotten places for the cover and the isolation. At first glance, most of these spots do not look much like traditional deer cover. That’s what makes them good. Abandoned and grown-over pastures, forgotten orchards, fallow fields, ignored meadows and places you’d hunt rabbits all fill this bill — and they make perfect places for pressured whitetails to find peace and evade hunters (except you).
My first whitetail, so long ago now, came sneaking through the plum brush, multiflora rose and berry canes of a lost pasture that hadn’t seen any grazing Holsteins
in 10 years. My brothers laughed when I told them I was going there for opening day, but they had even bigger smiles when we dragged out the big old doe. Get off the beaten path.
7) Three-Way Transition Zone
Whitetails are creatures of the edge. They like to be where a hop or two can put them into another cover type. This makes transition zones hotspots for your opening-day stand. For maximum whitetail attractiveness, look for places where three kinds of cover come together.
In farmland one of the best transition zones involves a crop field, wetland, and woodland or brush. In the big woods of the upper Midwest or Northeast, look for a clear-cut, mature timber and beaver pond or other wetland, or a creek. In the South, pine or hardwood timber, crop fields or food plots and swamps are the prime trio. My personal favorite transition zone (and it has been very good to me) involves a 10-acre crop field (usually in harvested soybeans or corn), a grassy marsh, and a narrow corridor of river bottom cottonwoods and ash trees. Dynamite.
8) Inside Corner
Fields are a fact of life across whitetail country. In fact, open areas are critical to good deer habitat. And yes, deer will cross open areas.
When field hunting, it’s tempting to sit at a point, attempting to cover too much territory. A better approach is to look for the “inside corners” where whitetails feel safer crossing from cover to cover. Because inside corners are less exposed, they are also more likely places to see a whitetail coming out to do some feeding on late afternoon of opening day.
Let’s not forget the big-woods hunters. I am one of them, too, in the latter stages of the upper Midwestern gun seasons, if my beloved prairies were fickle. Here, the logging truck and fire are a whitetail’s best friend. But if you don’t like watching the edge of a clear-cut or burn, or are hunting true big woods without openings, then you have to find a seam.
A seam is simply an edge, line or transition zone between two cover types. Typical seams that are productive include: the edge between mature timber and young buggy-whip saplings or brush; the edge between timber and marsh; and the rim of a beaver pond against the woods. A stream corridor is another kind of big-woods seam that will see likely lead to good deer traffic.
This year, give yourself an opportunity by changing things up for gun season’s opening day.
Think small, scout hard and get specific in your stand selection. A microsite might just get you a macro buck.