All summer you’ve been setting stands, running trail cameras, and glassing visible bucks. Everything you have learned is assessed to create the perfect opening day plan. You can see it now; Mr. Bullwinkle is already riding home in the truck. You wait all summer for that initial crack at an early season buck.
Then opening day comes and goes. You’re left blaming the weather or the wind but regardless something went wrong. Maybe it was a neighboring hunter alerting your target buck, possibly the changing crops made him change patterns, maybe you spooked him yourself running trail cameras. After a couple more days the excitement wears off and you’re faced with the hard truth. The perfect opening day plan crumbled.
Now is the time to make the most important decision. It’s time to make some changes and put together a revised early season hunting plan. Changing techniques now might be the only thing that will turn around your early season hunting. Learn four ways to salvage the season after everything goes wrong.
We look forward to opening day but whitetails can’t read a calendar. They simply notice an increase in human presences, changing food sources, and shorter days. Human presences include any activity before the season such as checking trail cameras and setting stands. Long after you leave the woods your scent lingers around announcing your visit.
So if the weather and wind are not right on opening day it’s time to hold off hunting that location. If you already hunted that stand during the early season on a warm, sunny day then do not go back again until the weather turns bad. Wind, rain, and a changing barometric pressure cause all deer to begin moving. That will give you an increased chance at seeing your buck. Pulling back and leaving the stand alone during those warm days is the best decision.
In most conditions the best stands can really only be hunted 5-6 times a season. Unless the conditions are perfect don’t burn them out on days that are not perfect.
Binoculars are one of the most valuable tools a hunter can have with them. This gives you a much larger range of visibility.
Seeing what is moving on other areas of the farm is invaluable. Just because you’re hunting doesn’t mean you can’t scout everything within sight. Around swamps, field edges, ditches, and grasslands make sure to always be glassing them. Pay particular attention to the edges where there is transitional terrain. When things don’t go right get into an observation stand that provides greater visibility to see what else is happening. Good observation stands are also locations that have a high percentage to kill a buck. They are simply in areas that provide a bit more visibility than a thick cedar swamp.
During the early season, patterns can be very predictable however they don’t last long. Therefore if a buck is noticed in an unexpected location, make an immediate move. Don’t wait for another sighting or waste time doing an in-depth scouting trip. Take a quick look at the location and setup in the best tree. Extreme scent control and a spare set of climbing sticks are invaluable at these times. Make a couple quick shooting lanes without spreading around your human scent then hunt the stand. Chances are you’ll have only a small window before something changes causing him to change patterns again.
Just two years ago I discovered a new clover field that had been planted and the alfalfa was lush green. I decided to hunt the edge of a tiny swamp that bordered the alfalfa. It didn’t take long before a good nine pointer entered the field eighty yards away. Soon after, several does filtered into the field. Finally, two smaller bucks arrived and started sparing along the edge. Everything was still eighty yards away which is too far. Then it happened! One of the largest Michigan bucks I’ve ever seen entered the field thirty minutes before the end of hunting light. My jaw dropped.
After the minutes ticked by and the dark started to settle in I began to get nervous. It was not going to happen tonight but I was coming back for a second chance. I made some adjustments to get closer but the next day the farmer sprayed Roundup on the alfalfa to kill it. I knew better but I hunted that location four more times anyway. The moment the food source changed, he moved. Not once did I see another deer visit that field in the following days.
Food is king and during the early season food sources change very quickly. When acorns, apples, corn, or other food sources change, then change with it. Don’t waste time hunting around an inferior tree stand that will not produce. The early season is only going to last a week to ten days. Don’t waste this valuable time on an inferior stand location.
Get Into It
Early season is all about food but that does not mean hunting short crop fields. In Michigan killing a mature buck in a short crop field is not a predictable pattern. Those bucks you see during daylight in September often no longer enter those same fields during daylight. The only exception is hidden fields with extremely low hunting pressure.
Instead of hunting the short crops move off the edge and get closer to the bucks bedroom. Remember that many bucks have seasonal bedrooms that are closer to the food sources. These are still locations that are brushy, swamp cattails, tall crop, or thicker locations. These are places a buck feels secure but will be closer to a preferred food source.
I prefer to give myself an eighty yard zone from his bedroom. At around eighty yards I feel I can enter the woods quietly without a bedded buck noticing me. Inside that distance and it becomes much harder to setup undetected.
When opening day does not turn out then make a move. The buck you’re after is likely still nearby, you just need to catch him during daylight hours.
Hunting early season bucks is high on my list of time periods to kill a mature buck. Often you can catch a predictable pattern and exploit those relaxed, food focused periods. Unfortunately there is only a small window to capture that activity.
Opening day in Michigan happens during a transitional period for both the bucks and food sources. Therefore lots of deer are already shifting, making preplanned opening day plans a gamble. If you can catch them before transitioning out of their summer habits then you’re successful. Far too often plans go sour. Without a backup plan you’ll have to wait until the rut to get another crack. Next time things go wrong; look for changing weather, follow the food, get into the thicker stuff, and don’t be afraid to get mobile.