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First Days Afield: Early-Season Strategies

September 16, 2013 - Lee Lakosky, with Duncan Dobie

Folks often ask Tiffany and I about our favorite time to bowhunt for big whitetails. Our answer sometimes surprises them.

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Without question, the early season is my favorite time of year to be in the woods hunting. It’s also when we shoot most of our big bucks. If we’re going to shoot a big deer, it’s probably going to be early in the season or late. More often than not, it’s going to be early, especially because we hunt exclusively with archery gear at that time of year. We’ll normally shoot our best deer within the first 10 days of the season in early October.
That makes sense when you think about it. Deer are still in their late-summer feeding patterns, and they’re still pretty much following their summer routines. The rut hasn’t started kicking in yet, and they haven’t been bothered by a lot of hunting pressure, so they’re still fairly visible. In Iowa, archery season opens Oct. 1. If you have the right setup, I’d even go so far as to say our early-season hunting is good right up until the end of the month. But to keep it that good, and to hunt the older age-class deer we hunt, you have to be able to get in and out of your stand without spooking the deer.

Early-Season Food Factor
2009bBy the time Iowa’s archery season starts Oct. 1, I’ve been watching the deer all summer, and I know where they’re feeding and bedding. I’ve been studying trail-camera photos, and I know which deer are on our hit list. I know our best chance is going to be during those first few days right after the season opens.
I hear stories all the time from hunters who tell me, “I was watching a certain buck all summer long feeding in my bean field, and I had a good stand setup, but as soon as October rolled around, he disappeared.” That deer didn’t disappear. He just changed his feeding habits because the beans that hunter was watching turned yellow and dried up.
When that happens, if you don’t have a good food source for your buck to shift to, you won’t see him again, because he’s going to be on that next good food source on the farm across the road. That’s why our smaller, more remote food plots are so important, and that’s why we’ve had such good luck hunting them. As soon as the beans start going away, we have clover, winter wheat, Buck Forage Oats and other greens in our smaller food plots that the deer will automatically shift over to.
When you have your own place to hunt on and you can design your own food plots, you more or less control your own destiny. You can say, “OK, I have a big bean field that the deer will be moving off of around the Oct. 1. So if I plant some lush clover or oats in a couple of small, remote food plots back in the woods, those deer will naturally switch over to that new food source.”
Then all you have to do is make sure you can get in and out of your stand without spooking any deer. That is so important. You can’t afford to let those big deer know you are there. If you can do that, you’re chances of seeing the buck you’ve been after are excellent. That’s exactly how we’ve been able to shoot a lot of our big deer, including one of my biggest and best bucks ever, Gnarles Barkley.
I had watched Gnarles all summer feeding in a large bean field with several other bucks, and I specifically went and dozed in a small clover field just for him. I knew those beans would no longer be a prime food source in October, so I purposely planted that clover field 300 yards from the bean field right in the middle of the timber where I knew he had to be bedding during the day. Whenever he came out of the timber into the bean field, he always used the same trail, so I had a good idea of where he was bedding. I put the clover field on the other side of that timber because I figured it had to be close to where he was bedding during the day, and I knew he couldn’t help but find it.
I dozed that field during summer, and limed it and fertilized it with great care. I nurtured it and pampered it like it was the most important food plot I had ever planted. By Oct. 1, that clover was lush and thick — 12 inches tall, with no weeds in it. And sure enough, by late September, we never saw Gnarles on the bean field again. Then, the first day in early October that Tiffany and I went to check that field, he was there feeding in the clover. I didn’t kill him that day, but I did kill him in the clover a few days later when the wind was right.

A Winning Early-Season Scenario
2003-DSCN0219Tiffany and I know the deer at our farms like to feed and congregate in the larger fields at night. This is pretty typical of deer everywhere. Even if they’re not feeding all that much around daylight, they’re socializing or just hanging out around the edges of our larger food plots containing corn and beans in the mornings. Within an hour of daybreak, however, almost all the deer in the field are going to start working their way back into the timber, where they routinely bed down for the day.
Because our smaller food plots containing clover, wheat, oats and other desirable greens are tucked into remote spots back in the woods, deer will often hit those middle fields in the timber as they are coming off the larger fields and moving toward their daytime bedding areas. Because we strive so hard to keep the pressure off our deer, they feel safe and secure in those secluded food plots.
If you can sneak into one of those smaller food plots in the timber and get set up in your stand an hour before daylight without alarming any deer, there’s an excellent chance that you might intercept one of those big bucks as he is coming off the larger field and moving toward his bedding area. The key is for that buck to feel so confident in his surroundings that he’ll still be out 30 minutes to an hour after first light. If he’s experienced the least bit of pressure, he certainly won’t expose himself in the open.
As far as early-season tactics go, this strategy has worked extremely well for us the past few years. As a result, we’ve taken some of our best mature bucks during the first 10 days or two weeks of archery season. This might sound a little boastful, but killing a 3-year-old buck is relatively easy compared to killing a 5-year-old. If you’re going to kill a mature 5-year-old buck or older, like Gnarles Barkley, you’re going to have to do it over food early in the season or late.
Your chances of getting him during the rut are going to be very low because he’s not going to be around. He’s going to be lying low, avoiding those other bucks, or he’ll be with a doe in some remote spot. Many of the older bucks we hunt are very non-aggressive, and they won’t come to rattling horns, grunting or any kind of calling. I’ve learned that the hard way. If you try to grunt one in, they’ll often go the other way. They’re smart. They’re survivors. They don’t want anything to do with younger, more aggressive bucks that are itching for a fight.

Conclusion
Food is the only real sensible option to get close to older bucks during daylight, especially early in the season. Find out what they’re eating, and hunt them close to the source. Better yet, plant your own food plots on your own land, and you’ll have a lot more control of the situation. When you have the food source, a low-impact hunting strategy will be vital if you plan to target an older buck.

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Hunting Mature Whitetails the Lakosky Way, available at shopdeer.com.

Using Rubbing Posts
2) putting limb on rubbing postxWe use rubbing posts in most of our larger food plots and also in some of our smaller plots in the woods. Often, I’ll leave a small tree out in a new food plot that I’m just putting in. That tree usually becomes an immediate signpost rub; that is, a scent-marking tree. Because many of my larger food plots were originally old fields with no trees in them, in those situations, I’ll place a rubbing post in the ground near my critical stand locations.
8) rubbing postBasically, my rubbing posts are roughly 8-foot-long cedar or hardwood posts 5 or 6 inches in diameter placed 2 feet in the ground within 30 yards or so of a tree stand that will be just inside the tree line on the edge of the food plot. I always attach two or three freshly cut branches to the posts with fresh leaves on them just before the season or a few days before a hunt. I drill large holes into the posts, place the branches in the holes and then put screws through them so they can’t be dislodged. I might freshen up the rubbing posts with new branches as the season progresses. They’ll stay green for several weeks, and I like to use cedar or other preferred branches from trees that the deer like.
Because these rubbing posts serve as a community signpost, every buck coming through the area will come by and check them out. If there are a bunch of deer out in the field, the bucks love to come over, posture up and rub the post, or use one of the branches as a licking branch and leave his scent. They often make scrapes under each branch, and every buck approaching will come in and work that scrape. Or they might walk over and hit another scrape along the tree line. Having a rubbing post close to your stand is a great way to entice the deer to get within bow range, especially if they are across the field or just entering the field from the woods.
Another advantage of having a rubbing post out in front of your stand is that it can be a distraction, just like a decoy. If one or more bucks come out, or if a giant happens to come out, those bucks will definitely be preoccupied with the post long enough to give you time to evaluate that big buck’s antlers and set up for a shot. Rubbing posts are great hunting tools, and they’ve worked well for us through the years.
— Lee Lakosky

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