Maybe I'm just getting old, but there are a lot of things in the deer-hunting culture that get on my nerves these days. Focus on antler size is one. Another is the kind of advice that is doled out to bowhunters. A lot of it involves people who don't really even hunt their own deer and have no business offering advice to folks who do. This is a broad category, I know, but stick with me.
In it, is contained the writers and television hosts who will tell you that early-season bucks are the easiest deer to kill because they are always so easy to pattern. Insert gagging sound here. If you hunt a state like North Dakota, where the deer season opens on Labor Day weekend, then yes. You have a chance to kill a buck doing what he did all August.
What about the bowhunter in New York, who doesn't get to hit the woods until October? Well, good luck, because that summer pattern will have disappeared weeks before you can hit the woods.
Somewhere between those dates are an awful lot of state openers, and the truth is, if you're hitting the woods in mid-September or later, you're chances of getting a buck that has stuck to the summer routine are slim. It can happen, but don't rely solely on it.
The Dying Program
The reasons why things are so unreliable as the days creep further into September are many. Bucks that have gone hard-antlered change, and it's not really obvious why. Elevated testosterone levels seem to play a part, which means they aren't as likely to hang with other summer bachelors by that time of year.
I think there is more to it than that, however, because I see bucks hanging together all times of the year. They establish a pecking order and it seems to exist during much of the year, if not all of it so they know who they can spend time with and who they cant.
There is something that happens with them biologically that seems to drive them into a more secluded lifestyle. I've seen this with bucks I've watched for weeks. During the summer, they are like clockwork. As September hits, they simply show up less. When this happens on a lot of the properties I hunt, I attribute it partially the increased presence of other humans, because it's almost a given on public land. The more predators slipping through their summer hotspots, the more the deer seem likely to pack up the beach towels and get into the cover.
There is also the question of food sources. We tend to oversimplify a whitetail's diet when we discuss them by saying things like, "They are eating corn right now." Sure, they might hit a cornfield nightly, but they probably also browsed 37 other kinds of food along the way to the field and back to bed. That's what they do.
Some foods do dominate, obviously and it seems like there is something to that when the summer pattern is dying on the vine and the deer move into the fall. Acorns are an obvious catalyst for this change, but even on years when the hard mast crop is almost zilch, it seems like the bucks shun the open, easy-to-glass fields more.
Recognizing that this is going to happen is the first step to beating it.
The Opening Week Strategy
I hunt my home state of Minnesota as well as Wisconsin, a lot. Both open in mid-September, and both are states where I devote a lot of time to scouting and hanging stands. While you will catch me hanging field edge stands in both states, those ambush sites are what I call 'gimmes.'
I'm looking for that buck that might not have gotten the memo that he was supposed to stay in the thick stuff and he happens to show up in the fields on opening night. It happens often enough, at least once every couple of seasons, where I'm willing to devote some evenings to it.
If it doesn't happen, I've already got backup stands in place in staging areas. The deer are already bent toward hanging in the cover, and with the added pressure of other hunters in the woods, I notice an awful lot of bucks decide they'll move in daylight after the opener, but only if that means they can stay in the woods.
In fact, I usually have stands in place to play off of other hunters, because it's very common for bowhunters to push the field-edge hunting to the point where they are there nightly even though the activity has largely dried up. That's one of my favorite things about public-land hunters, and some of the other bowhunters with whom I share private spots with.
To be set up in staging areas before the season opens means you've scouted in the winter or the spring most likely. If you haven't, don't fret. Just reverse engineer where you think the deer are traveling from to get to their destination food source. You might only have to back up off of the soybeans 100 yards into the cover and you'll see that the bucks are still there, still moving, and still killable.
If you adopt this strategy, you'll have to resign yourself to the fact that you'll probably get it wrong. That's okay. Observe and move. Keep looking for the place where those bucks are hanging up and waiting out the clock.
Somewhere off of the field edge, is a place where part of that summertime pattern still exists. You just need to find it and then hunt it correctly.