My college roommate Danny Rollins was a lot like a big ol’ nasty buck. At the very least, he could be patterned like one in the early season when much of the focus is on food. Early in the evening, Danny was either at a friend’s house scoring on his cheap beer and whatever food he could scavenge or hitting the bar with the best happy hour deal–particularly one that included grub. I knew exactly where he would be by the advertised bar specials of the week. To a whitetail, that part of Danny’s evening would equal early season when the bucks are still hanging together in groups and more focused on filling their stomachs. For the deer hunter looking to start his season right, there are more than a few lessons Danny’s life can teach them.
With bow seasons opening up very soon in many states, take a lesson from Danny’s early-evening ritual and focus on food for early-season bucks. But don’t plop down in a stand alongside a big field. Do that and you’ll see deer, but you’re less likely to actually connect on one. First identify which food sources bucks are hitting, then determine exactly how they are accessing them. With a bow, setting your stand just 10 yards too far from where a buck walks can mean the difference between filling a tag and never getting a shot.
1. CROP FIELDS
Before hunting a crop field, spend a few evenings glassing when and where a bruiser enters to feed. Hopefully, you’ve identified a couple of likely spots to scout out with the help of trail cameras prior to the season. Deer shouldn’t be pressured yet, so providing that the weather and wind remain consistent, bucks should show up in the same spot most afternoons. After pinpointing from which trail a nice buck enters the field, slip in early one afternoon and set up within 20 yards downwind of the spot. Try to keep the sun at your back.
With pressure light and the weather still fairly hot, if there is ample cover near the field, be careful about venturing too far into the woods. Deer are apt to bed close, and walking in will just blow them out of the area. Never walk down the edge of a field to access a stand. Go through the middle, where if deer step out and begin browsing the edge, they are less likely to cut your scent trail and spook before they’ve had a chance to filter your way.
2. MAST IS THE MAINSTAY
When white oak acorns are dropping, little else matters to whitetails. These acorns are among the most preferred whitetail foods in the forest. Check wide-topped white oaks before the season to identify whether acorns are present. Sometimes only a few oaks will be laden with the tasty nuts, so don’t just set up under the same oak you’ve always hunted.
Monitor when acorns begin to drop, and when they do, that’s where you need to be. Even if Farmer John just cut his corn field and littered the ground with waste grain or the soybeans are lush and green, the cover of the forest and the protein in the acorns will keep bucks hidden from sight unless you’re there to watch. Think about it: If I called Danny to tell him I was making grilled cheese sandwiches and then someone else invited him over for pizza, where do you think he’d go?
3. NATURAL BROWSE
If you hunt an area that is devoid of fields or any sizeable food plots, particularly areas such as the expansive pine plantations in the South, focus on natural browse that deer will seek out for food. The wild greens shooting up throughout these otherwise nutritionally barren forests can provide a succulent feast for whitetails, but you have to know where to look. Because most green stuff looks the same to the average hunter, you can spend your time with a Petersen’s Field Guide to Plants or you can go where plants are going to shoot up with the most verve and nutritional value. That would be in a first-year clear cut or recent burn.
In the former, ample sunlight allows new plants to grow quickly and produce more nutrition. In the latter, the fires that clear the understory also regenerate the nutrients in the soil, giving rise to heady growth. Find these spots bordering areas that provide ample cover and you have yourself a jackpot of possibilities. It’s kind of like that grilled cheese sandwich when there is no pizza to be had–it sounds pretty good. Likewise, if you know where natural fruits such as wild scuppernong or muscadine grapes are growing, or, even better, persimmon or old apple and pear trees from a former orchard, set up on those once the fruits begin to ripen. Deer will be on those like my friend on a free beer.
4. WATERING LOCATIONS
Last, remember that, like man–and my buddy Danny–deer do not live on food alone. They require liquid refreshment, and when it’s blazing outside, fair amounts of it. In a whitetail’s case that translates into water. Seek out isolated ponds or water holes that may provide the only water in an area, or look for abundant tracks along creek banks and swamp edges where deer are crossing and/or catching a sip. Deer will move in the cool of the shade along these natural traffic corridors and drink up before heading out to eat in the evening. Think of it as happy hour for deer. Set up along a beaver dam (deer will often walk across that rather than swim deep water), a shallow crossing or a track-pocked pond edge and it could well be happy hour for you as well.