When I was growing up, I could never understand the articles I read about hunting early-season whitetails.
Nearly every one followed the same formula, which we've all heard. Find a bachelor group, watch them, hang a stand for opening weekend, sit there and kill the biggest deer in the group.
Simple stuff, right? For me it wasn't.
In fact, no matter how many mature mid-summer whitetails I'd watch through my spotting scope, they never followed the script in my home state of Minnesota. In fact, by about September 10th, they seemed to become a different animal altogether.
It wasn't until I started traveling out of state to hunt deer before my home-state opener that I realized that many of those articles contained more than a kernel of truth if you happened to be hunting early enough.
Most states open far too late to even have a chance to arrow a buck while his antlers are still fuzzy. Some states open in mid-September and depending on the exact date, might offer a few days with a chance of catching a late one.
I've seen this in my home state, and across the river in Wisconsin where I hunt. I'd never plan a trip to a mid-September-opening state, however. Even if the season kicks off by the 11th or 12th, most of the bucks will be hard-antlered.
Other states offer a much better chance. North Dakota and Nebraska, for example, both offer nonresidents guaranteed whitetail tags and openers early enough to have a good chance of tagging a velvet buck. Travel farther west, and you'll find a few more states that give you a good chance.
The good thing about the head-west strategy is, at least in my opinion, western whitetails are the easiest whitetails to kill. Their more-desirable four-legged counterparts draw most of the attention, leaving the lowly whitetail largely unpressured. This changes some during the rut, but is a gift during the early season when most other hunters are starry-eyed over elk and mule deer.
The eastern hunter might find a chance at a velvet buck in a state like Kentucky, but opportunities east of the big river are much tougher to come by. No matter what, if you choose to pick up an OTC tag and spend a few days hunting velvet bucks, you'll find that they can be the most bowhunter friendly deer around.
The first year I set my sights on killing a mature buck on public land, I did it in North Dakota. After glassing bucks for four days, I set up on one of the more predictable deer and arrowed him the first night I hunted him. At the time, it was the easiest big buck I've ever arrowed.
Since then, I've been back to North Dakota a few times, and other than occasional hunting pressure or poor shooting on my part, it has been a high-opportunity hunt. I've killed two velvet bucks and two that had just rubbed their velvet. Each deer was arrowed while heading out to food in the evening, which is a pretty simple pattern to figure out.
I've also had some really good opportunities at bucks in the morning, as they left the agricultural fields and traveled back into the thicker stuff to bed. And every single time I've sat in a stand in North Dakota, it has been on public land. That's a big one to me, because I love the challenge of arrowing a mature buck on public land, and I love the fact that I feel like I have a chance to do just that where anyone can.
Where They'll Be
Since I tend to hunt velvet bucks west of the Mississippi I can count on a few things. The first is that most of the public land I hunt will feature concentrated whitetail populations. They'll live where the cover is and where the food is. That also tends to be in creek bottoms or river bottoms.
There might be 100,000 acres of public land in a single area, but the whitetails will occupy a very, very small portion of it. From aerial photos, you'll see the best cover is along the water, and the food that your deer are concentrating on will be easily recognizable as well. These food sources will, of course, be large agricultural fields.
It's important to remember that when the deer are walking to and from those destination food sources, they'll also be browsing away the whole time. Some of the bucks I've killed in North Dakota were browsing on sweet clover along the river while they waited for lower light to head out to the main groceries.
They'll stage where the browse is good, and in early September, the browse is usually pretty good in a lot of places. This necessitates a bit of scouting, but the good thing is if you see a deer do something today, he'll probably do it tomorrow. Move in on that buck immediately and hunt him as soon as you can.
Of the mounts I've got on my wall, a 150-inch velvet whitetail immediately draws the most attention from our houseguests who hunt (and some who don't).
When the hunting-crowd houseguests find out he was killed on public land, they usually can't believe opportunities to kill velvet bucks of that caliber exist, but they do. There are several states that will sell you a tag right now to give you a chance at your own unique trophy.