Late summer is a laid-back, take-it-easy time of year for whitetail deer. If a whitetail can ever be said to relax, it is now. In farm country, crops such as alfalfa, clover and soybeans attract the most deer. Where agriculture is not common, clear-cuts or burns are your best bet. A year or two after an area is logged, new vegetation will sprout, and the deer love it.
Segregation by sex and sometimes age is common. Bachelor groups of two to five bucks is the norm, but in places with a balanced herd you might see as many as a dozen young bucks hanging out together. Mature bucks don’t mingle with the little guys too much, preferring to either keep to themselves or selecting the company of another buck or two their own age.
What makes the early days of the season a great time to bowhunt, is that the deer are so dependable at this time of the year. None of this bouncing from one food source to another, no rutting activity, and most importantly, no hunters forcing them to adjust their daily patterns. It’s not unusual for deer to visit the same field or clear-cut each evening for weeks on end. The late summer pattern is even more carved-in-stone wherever irrigation is used. Here, deer will often key on the same irrigated fields for months.
Bucks Disperse Before Does
A mid-September bowhunting opener will usually be early enough to catch the deer holding in that late summer pattern. Anything later gets a bit iffy. The very best opportunities occur in the few states and provinces where the season opens in late August, or the first week of September, such as North Dakota and Manitoba.
While doe family groups will continue the pattern of visiting the fields well into October if not disturbed, that is not the case with bucks. The reason for the difference is the hormone testosterone.
Sometime in late September or the early days of October, bucks that have hung out together all summer, maybe even nibbled the same bean sprout a time or two, begin to look at each other a little cross-eyed. The rut is a long way off yet, but the bucks are beginning to feel those first pangs of aggression. Slowly but surely, the bachelor groups break up.
Hunt Field Edge Stands
Lots of hunters claim that stands along the edges of fields are fine for does and small bucks, but are not effective for big bucks. I disagree. As long as big bucks are accustomed to entering the fields while shooting light remains, what better place to wait for them? Ideally, I like to place my stand so that I can cover the trail I hope the deer will use to enter the field and at the same time, have open shooting to the field itself. If the buck comes down the trail you are watching great, but in many cases deer do not use the same trails each evening to enter the field.
This is when a field edge stand really has a big advantage over a stand farther back in cover. At the worst, you will be able to see where the deer enter the field and if necessary adjust your stand position for the next evening. Or you might observe that the deer feed close to a fenceline, ditch, haybales, rock pile or some other natural cover that you may be able to use as an in-the-field blind.
A friend of mine once shot a dandy buck from a farmer’s grain wagon and one of the first deer I ever took with a bow and arrow, I shot while using the hopper of a rusted out old combine for a blind.
Another advantage of the field edge stand, is that if you see a buck in the field and he is not feeding in your direction you can attempt to lure him into range using a grunt call and/or rattling antlers. Don’t overdo it with either this early in the season. Just a short contact grunt or two is all you need. Once you are sure that the buck has heard the grunt, tuck the call away. The same is true of rattling. Just tickle the tines to imitate the clatter a couple of bucks make while sparring. Remember, just tickle the tines, there are no knock-down-drag out fights taking place at this time of the year and bucks know it.
Evening Vs. Morning Hunting
Most early season situations lend themselves better to evening hunts. The reason for this is that you can arrive at the stand site in mid-to-late afternoon well before the deer are up and moving. This reduces the odds of spooking deer getting to your stand. In the morning, it is nearly impossible to sneak into a field edge stand without deer in the field spotting you.
If you can figure out where the deer are bedding and the route that they are using to get there, a morning stand along that route can be excellent. I always like to position the stand as close to the bedding area as possible. Big bucks are notorious for abandoning the fields well before first light and slipping into the bedding area during that pink flush of dawn.
When deer are bedding close to the feeding field, I do not attempt to hunt the mornings. Doing so will only serve to alert the deer to the fact that they are being hunted and once that happens, the main advantage of the early season hunt, the element of surprise, has been lost.
Deer don’t give up on a prime food source very easy and you should not either. Most of the time when deer suddenly alter their pattern and fail to show up in a field at the accustomed hour, it is not because they have abandoned the field, rather they have just altered their arrival time. Hunting pressure is usually the catalyst for this action. It might be you or maybe other hunters. Sometimes, it’s not even bowhunters, but small game hunters, berry-pickers or hikers who are to blame. To a mature buck or doe any intrusion is reason enough to take action and in most cases that action will be to delay entry into the field until after dark.
But the deer are in the habit of rising early from their beds and wandering to the field and usually they will remain on that time schedule at least for a few days. However, because they are now leery of entering the field in daylight, they will hang back in cover and nibble on whatever is available while they await the comfort of darkness. Move back off the field edge with them and you can enjoy another evening or two.
In my book, there are three time periods each season when your odds of taking a mature buck are best. The first of these periods is the one we just covered, the second is the rut and the third period occurs during the waning days of the season. Don’t miss out on the first chance this year, plan to be there, to take advantage of whitetails from the git go.
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