Targeting Early Season Whitetails Along Shelterbelts

When it comes to early season whitetails in farm country, think shelterbelts for success.

Targeting Early Season Whitetails Along Shelterbelts

The author ambushed this tall-tined 8-point buck in 2017 by hanging his treestand in a shelterbelt bordered by corn and soybeans.

The late-summer sun, coupled with a sluggish wind out of the south, was baking the countryside as I parked my pickup near the cornfield. I’d recently received permission to bowhunt a good-looking piece of land and decided to take a quick walk through the property and hang a trail camera. I’d never set foot on the property, having only driven by and thought the likelihood of a buck or two living in it was good.

The land consisted of two parallel rows of trees, a quarter mile apart. The northern shelterbelt was a quarter mile off the nearest road, with the southern belt exactly a half mile off the road. Tall, green corn that the Midwest is so famous for was planted on the entire property. To the west, on an adjacent property, was a lush soybean field with a single belt of trees. A vegetated waterway snaked through the field, dry from the droughty summer.

Not having all afternoon to spend, I decided to speed-scout the northern belt. Briskly striding along the edge of the corn and beans, I spied what I thought was perhaps a few big thistle or kochia plants in the beans. Glassing through my binocular, I was surprised to discover it wasn’t a patch of noxious weeds but a trio of decent-size velvet whitetails. A narrow-racked 4x4, a high-racked 4x4 and a wide-racked buck with stickers fed unconcerned in the vivid green soybeans.

Not wanting to spook them, I backed out the way I had come in and circled around to the other side of the belt. Finding a well-traveled trail between the stately cottonwood trees and the corn fanning out into the soybeans, I hung a camera and beat a hasty retreat.

My Lightbulb Moment

A majority of Midwestern states open their archery season during the month of September. Most bowhunters I know dream of frosty November mornings and rutty bucks, and the opening bell of the season is met with apathy. A few token hunts are undertaken, but the rank vegetation in the woods coupled with hot weather and hordes of hungry mosquitoes can make it a miserable experience. Waiting for the first frost and onset of autumn is the action plan for most bowhunters, a group I used to count myself among.

In the mid-2000s, when deer numbers were exceptionally high across the Midwest, I viewed early season as a chance to fill a doe tag. Hunting the river-bottoms and woodlots, I put prime early season venison in the freezer. Harvesting a deer early would take the edge off, and I’d enter the rut primed to find a mature buck.

As I met and talked to more and more bowhunters, however, I grew envious when I saw their pics and online posts of beautiful early season bucks. I struggled to see, let alone shoot, bucks during early season, but these guys were harvesting great animals. What did they know that I didn’t?

The lightbulb finally popped in my mind when I switched careers. Part of my new job was implementing soil conservation practices such as grass seeding and tree planting. Spending nearly every day in the spring, summer and early fall in the field, I learned that whitetails, especially in the agriculturally intensive areas of the Midwest, had seasonal movement patterns.

The vast majority of the landscape is covered in crops. A cornfield, hundreds of acres in size, is just as inviting to a deer as a forest. Even though deer feed on soybean leaves and alfalfa during summer and early fall, standing cornfields provide cover. Almost without fail, an inviting field of soybeans or alfalfa are a short jaunt away from their bedding area.

Once the harvest of crops begins, deer movement undergoes a dramatic shift. Bucks will move miles to get to heavier cover, and fields that were visited regularly by whitetails will now be barren. Understanding the seasonal shifts is key to putting early season bucks on the ground.

Farm country is full of old buildings such as this one, and they can easily be turned into effective ground blinds.
Farm country is full of old buildings such as this one, and they can easily be turned into effective ground blinds.

Ag Country Challenges

My first foray out of the woods and into the crops nearly resulted in an opportunity at a big buck. I was hunting in a mature treebelt, consisting of boxelder and willow trees. Running east and west, both sides of the belt had been planted in corn. On the north side, the farmer’s planter must have been acting up, and there I saw a strip about 30 feet wide that hadn’t been planted for 100 yards. My trail camera captured a fair amount of activity, including a few mature bucks.

I was in Ontario pursuing bears so I missed opening weekend of deer season, but, upon getting home, hunted the cornfield for my first time of the year. The warm, calm afternoon was slowly transitioning into evening when I spotted a doe and fawn, briskly moving past my stand. They offered a perfect 17-yard shot, and I was full of anticipation for one of the antlered denizens of the cornfield to meander by.

In due time, a polished antler caught my eye. Unfortunately, he failed to read the script, and instead of following the doe’s lead, he crossed through the shelterbelt, and walked along the edge of the south field. My lack of anticipation of a divergent route was quickly evident, as the beautiful buck passed by at less than 20 yards, but he may have well been 100. The thick brush obscured any chance of a clear shot, and the buck moseyed out of my life.

In farm country, the trees in shelterbelts and small woodlots are often less than ideal for treestands. The boxelder, cottonwood, ash, Russian olive and willow trees typically present grow gnarly and stout, to withstand the harsh, exposed environment. Anticipating deer movement is critical because cutting a shooting lane for every opportunity is nearly impossible. Even a fawn will notice gaping shooting lanes during early season. While trimming a few lanes is almost always necessary, care should be taken to keep it to a minimum. Thoughtful analysis of the deer movement will minimize wholescale trimming. Even so, some deer seem to be able to slip by without ever offering a shot.

Ground blinds can come in handy in farm country. They should be set up and brushed in well ahead of the season because deer tend to shy away from them initially. The biggest downside to ground blinds is the lack of visibility. Whitetails tend to appear and disappear quickly in the dense vegetation, making shots difficult.

With some foresight and elbow grease, even gnarly, twisted trees can work for treestands. I bowhunt from the ground only if there is absolutely no other option.

Returning a week after spotting the bachelor group of bucks in the soybeans, I eagerly pulled the SD card from my camera. Plenty of buck pictures awaited me, but even though the season hadn’t opened yet, most animals were photographed at night. There was enough daylight action to keep me interested, and the next course of action was to get a portable treestand hung.

I immediately ran into a problem: The shelterbelt consisted of ash, boxelder, invading buckthorn and cottonwood. As is often the case, the cottonwoods were immense, with most having a diameter two tall people with outstretched arms couldn’t encompass. There proved to be one tree, however, that looked like it would work. The base was enormous, but 6 feet off the ground it trifurcated. Each of the three trunks were small enough that a stand would work.

A hot, sweaty hour later, with a combination of screw-in tree steps and climbing sticks, I had my sturdy portable stand 18 feet in the tree. My view from the sky was nearly perfect. I could see the adjacent soybean field, a large extent of the grassed waterway, and a good portion of the cornfield. Thick boxelder trees prevented me from seeing a deer approaching, but my shooting lane was nearly 30 yards long, giving me ample time to shoot when a buck showed up. My stand, hung in the trunk farthest north, had ample coverage from the other two trunks to make me nearly invisible. High on anticipation, I scurried back to my pickup, looking forward to opening day.

Hanging a treestand in farm country shelterbelt trees (boxelder, cottonwood, ash, Russian olive and willow) can be difficult at best.
Hanging a treestand in farm country shelterbelt trees (boxelder, cottonwood, ash, Russian olive and willow) can be difficult at best.

Shelterbelt Sightings

The afternoon of opening day was warm and windy. Farm country deer are used to wind, and the gusty breeze would keep mosquitoes at bay. Even though I didn’t expect to see a deer until nearly sundown, I was in my treestand 5 hours before dark.

As expected, I saw little movement as the evening progressed. Farm country deer have a lot of options, and deer sightings are generally fewer than in the woods. However, when a deer is sighted, it is often a good-size buck.

A doe and fawn popped out of a tree belt three quarters of a mile to my north, but that was it for a long time. Just as the sun began to set, I finally spotted a buck. A fuzzy set of tall velvet antlers appeared in the willows 200 yards to the south. The middle buck of the bachelor trio wandered out, feeding into the beans.

Once my excitement subsided, realization set in. There was little chance the buck was going to cover the distance to my stand, as he had feed surrounding him. Nipping the green leaves off the plants, he meandered around by the willows as twilight descended. At full dark, I descended my tree, thankful for the still gusty winds to cover any incidental noise and crept through the darkness to my pickup.

Resting the stand for nearly a week, I was back the following Friday. A carbon-copy of opening day, the afternoon was warm with gusty winds. And again, around sunset a buck popped out of the willows. This time it was the smallest buck of the three. Sporting a narrow rack, he rubbed his shiny, velvet-free antlers on a few small willows, before starting to feed my way. My heart began to pound as I took my bow from the hanger and prepared for a shot.

Again, the vastness of the crop field defeated me. The buck fed along the periphery of the corn and soybean edge, but just before he stepped within bow range, he fed into the middle of the field. Helpless, I watched him disappear into the dying light.

A view from the author’s treestand, hung in a shelterbelt of thick deciduous trees.
A view from the author’s treestand, hung in a shelterbelt of thick deciduous trees.

Third Time’s a Charm?

I was starting to run out of time. Farm country bucks are extremely sensitive to hunting pressure, and I knew it was only a matter of time before they discovered the boogeyman in the trees. The wind the next evening was perfect for the stand, and I rolled the dice. The cottonwood was starting to feel like home the third evening I sat in it.

The sun was just starting to kiss the horizon, and I was expectantly watching the willows. The scene before me was beautiful, with the rich setting sun casting a warm glow. Having spent the afternoon glassing the edge of the corn, I was trying to decipher how to sit amongst the rows to waylay one of the bucks when I caught a flicker of movement from the corner of my eye. The tall 8-pointer was striding along the corn, rapidly heading for the beans. The lane, which seemed to be so wide when I was hanging the stand, was quickly being covered by the buck when I eased my bow to full draw. He paused before entering the beans, surveying the field. My glowing green top pin found his chest.

Stricken from my arrow, he crashed into the beans, smashing through the tall soybeans as he blindly ran toward the perceived safety of the grassy ditch. As my arrow had flashed into buckskin, I was afraid my shot was too far forward. Before I had a chance to panic, however, the buck abruptly stopped his run. He paused, looking regal in the diminishing light, before crumpling to the earth.

A matter of seconds had elapsed since I had first glimpsed the buck until he was lying in the beans. I managed to take a deep breath to attempt to slow my racing heart before lowering my bow and descending the cottonwood.

My 2017 farmland buck was a beauty (featured photo). Not being a particularly selective hunter, the high, stout rack of the buck was perfect. After admiring him and taking a few photos, I was quickly given a dose of reality when hunting the early season, as hordes of hungry mosquitoes descended on me. However, even the incessant buzzing and biting couldn’t wipe the grin off my face.

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