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Aggressive Tactics for Early Season Whitetails

 Archery seasons open across North America during the month of September. As soon as the velvet comes off the antlers, change is underway. To capitalize on the opportunities at this time of the year, you must strike fast and hunt aggressively. By Bernie Barringer I had about a 10-year stretch during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s where I had patterned bucks prior to the Iowa archery season and I was certain I would shoot one on opening day, which fell on October 1 each year. I started watching these bucks in late August as they would come out in the open soybean or alfalfa fields each evening. I would watch them through the month of September and found the consistency of their movements became more erratic as the month of September wore on, yet I went into opening day with a feeling that I had a real chance of arrowing one of these bucks at the opening bell. I never did. In the past couple decades, I have learned about some of the things I did wrong back in that time period. I now think I could have done a better job, especially since we now have the advantage of scouting cameras, but patterning a buck during August and early September is one thing, shooting that buck on the first of October is another. There are better options. Across the Midwest, and western US, whitetail archery seasons open on or about September 1. I now travel to states that offer a much better chance of shooting a buck on these early openers. Now living in Minnesota, I have a much better opportunity to shoot a buck early in the season which starts in mid-September. States with these early archery openers offer excellent chances to bag an early season buck if you are willing to hunt very aggressively and strike fast when you see an opportunity. By late September, the odds are stacked against you. I believe there are three reasons why you must act fast if you are to take home an early season buck. Let me explain. Bachelor Groups In August, bachelor groups of 3-8 bucks of various ages are visible in the evenings and because they are totally unpressured, they don’t seem to mind they are being watched. They use consistent patterns to enter the fields well before dark. They aren’t pressured by hunters and have lots of eyes, noses and ears to rely on, so the living is easy. The first week of September brings change as the velvet falls off. I have seen bucks lose all their velvet in a few hours and in one case, I watched a large buck thrash a bush for 15 minutes on September 4, going from full velvet to hard antler in that short period of time. Testosterone is beginning to surge and those bachelor groups begin to disband. By the middle of September, most bucks are alone and becoming more and more reclusive, so there is a two-week period of opportunity each year in states with early archery seasons. The Hunt is on Mature bucks, in particular, are very good at figuring out when they are being hunted. The see branches trimmed along their trails, they smell human intrusion and they have a sense that they have been through these negative experiences before. They just seem to know that they are being pursued and they react accordingly. Daylight hours are getting shorter and they are less likely to enter open areas before full dark. While you must be aggressive in your attack of these bucks, you cannot ignore good woodsmanship. One of the mistakes I made back in those early years was going out to the stand which I felt held the most promise no matter what the wind and weather conditions. I feel you are much better off to hunt a particular buck when the conditions are right, even if you have to wait a few days into the season to make your move on that particular buck. Have a stand for more than one wind direction so you can hunt every day. You have to act fast and strike when the conditions are right for any particular buck for which you have some information about his daily movement patterns. Drop what you are doing, take an afternoon off work, cancel an appointment, do whatever it takes. This window of opportunity is short and you must make the hunt a priority to capitalize on it. Food sources change Here in the upper Midwest, crops are rapidly changing during September. Soybeans are a preferred food in August, but by early September, they are mature and losing their appeal. Acorns are on the ground, further moving the bucks around. You arrive at a hunting location one day to find that lush alfalfa field you have been watching is suddenly mowed to stubble and the hay bales are being moved out of the field. Things are changing fast and patterns are falling apart. GPS tracking of whitetails have shown that bucks move to new areas during the month of September. They tend to have late summer home ranges and fall home ranges. That buck you saw a dozen times in one field may be setting up a new home a couple miles away two weeks later. Successful early season bowhunting during the first couple weeks of September requires a sense of urgency. To put yourself within range of one of those bucks you watched in the late summer, you must devote a lot of energy and time to information gathering, then strike as soon as the opportunity presents itself. Things are in a state of flux and the consistency that gave you confidence earlier is falling apart by the day. Waiting just one day may one day too many.

5 Important Keys to Opening Day Success

By Bernie Barringer Every bowhunter can relate to this scenario: You have watched a particular buck off and on all summer. He’s been quite visible in the fields feeding in the evenings and he’s even somewhat predictable in his habits. This could be the year you actually pattern a buck in the pre-season and shoot him on opening day or shortly thereafter. After all, you see it on TV and in magazines, it’s bound to work for you sometime. Just a few short days before the season, he’s gone. He’s not in the field during the last hour of daylight, and he’s not even in the fields of nearby properties. You’ve checked them all. You’re sure-thing just turned into a bust. What happened? Chances are he’s not gone. And he hasn’t even “gone nocturnal” on you. He’s still in the area and, unless some sort of pressure caused him to move out, he’s conducting business as usual, just a little differently than what you are looking for. When you were watching the sun go down on him during early August, what time was it? 8:30? 9:00? Now it’s September and the sun is long gone at that time. He may be coming out at the same time, but the darkness just caught up to his patterns. There are still ways we can put ourselves within striking distance of him during the daylight. Let’s take a look at how to solve this puzzle. Key #1 – Bucks are individuals First of all we must talk a little bit about “patterning” to begin with. Some of the things I have seen in print would lead you to believe that bucks have some sort of internal alarm system that tells them where to go and what to do at any given time. In 40 years of bowhunting and observing whitetail behavior I am becoming more and more convinced that what we refer to as patterns are really overrated. Sure, individual bucks tend to bed in the same areas given the same environmental conditions, and they tend to feed where the best available food is found, but that’s about all that’s cast in stone. It seems to me that bucks have an instinct to switch things up occasionally, because the ones who don’t are more likely to be turned into venison than those who do. A buck gets up from his bed, stretches a little and heads down the trail towards somewhere he knows he can get a bite to eat. He comes to a fork in the trail and instead of going left like he did for the past three days, he goes right. He doesn’t know why he went right, any more than the guy sitting in the stand wondering why he didn’t show that night. Some deer are fairly consistent, some are frustratingly random. Trying to pattern deer is like pushing a rope. You simply can’t make any headway. It would help us all to put the idea of putting a deer on a specific schedule and think more in terms of trends and tendencies. We will be better off and a lot less frustrated if we do. If we think in terms of what the buck might do on any given evening based on the environmental conditions (temperature, wind speed and direction, etc.) we can get ahead of his movements better than we can if we concentrate on what he has been doing. Of course we are not going to throw out all our observations of his behaviors we have stored in our memory, but we should just view them as one small piece of the whole puzzle rather than the complete picture. Key #2 – Mistakes can be deadly Some deer are prone to be homebodies and some range widely. GPS studies have shown that some deer have very small home ranges and others travel quite a bit. One thing that these studies have shown us is that most bucks have at least two home ranges that they know well; they can exit one and enter another when they feel hunting pressure. If you have a buck that disappears on you for a while, he may be in a secondary area. The worst thing you can do is get aggressive and try to move in and find out what happened. You want him to settle back into a comfortable mode when he arrives; if he smells you or sees more disturbances, it’s another strike against you. If the buck figures out he is being hunted, you chances of putting your tag on him plummet. When he senses intrusion in the way of ground scent, sudden changes like the appearance of a trail camera or a bunch of cut branches, he may bug out for a few days. If he smells you directly or has a bad experience such as a situation that causes alarm, he may be done with that particular spot for the season. It’s hard to sit tight when you really want to know what’s on that trail camera, but you are much better off to wait for a light rain that will smother your ground scent to go check it. There’s no faster way to kill a spot than to walk in and check your trail camera every day. Put the stands up early and trim shooting lanes well before the season. No matter when you go into the woods, minimize your scent impact. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to hunt a stand on opening day when the conditions are not right. Patience is critical. You may only have one chance, so you want to make sure you have the odds stacked in your favor. If the wind isn’t right, hunt somewhere else or don’t hunt at all. Key #3 – Find the bedroom door It pays to be familiar with the preferred bedding areas. An entire book could be written on how deer choose beds based on the conditions through

Hunt Early-Season Staging Areas

By Bernie Barringer Many a heart has been broken by a whitetail buck during the earliest parts of deer season. I am sure you can relate. You watched him all summer, drooling on your spotting scope. He came out into the field at a predictable time in a predictable place several times a week. Could this really be the year you score on a great buck in the first few days of the season? What could possibly go wrong? Several things can go wrong and usually do. This scenario seems to hold so much promise, yet the numbers of hunters who have actually pulled it off are remarkably low. There are three primary reasons why the wheels come off your plans. First of all, many hunters forget to take into account the changing daylight hours. You see the evening sun shining on those huge velvet antlers in early August at 8:00 p.m. but by the time the archery season opens, it’s dark at 8:00. The bucks haven’t changed their stomach-driven timing, but the shorter daylight hours have caught up to him. He’s coming out at the same time, but you can no longer see him. Secondly, the buck’s hormones are beginning to work against you. As the velvet comes off, the bucks begin to change their demeanor. They no longer tolerate the presence of small bucks at their side, and they are reluctant to wade right out into the open like they did during the lazy days of summer. They hang back in the trees and survey the field, watching the body language of the does and smaller bucks, biding their time until they feel safe. They are paying more attention to the wind than they were a month ago. They rarely travel far without the safety of a breeze on the side of their face. The good news is these bucks start using predictable staging areas between their bedding areas and the fields. This is where we will focus our efforts, but we need to be careful not to ruin it on number three. The third thing that goes wrong for many hunters is something over which we have more control. Many hunters blow it when they launch their first early-season attack. They move in too soon, or they screw it up when they put up a treestand on the edge of the field where the buck has been coming out, leaving too much scent and too much sign in the form of cut branches, smashed underbrush and obvious disturbances. Or they just can’t wait for the perfect wind. They let their anticipation overtake their patience and try to cheat the wind. You may only get one chance at this and you better make sure you wait until it is right. In most cases, if you put your stand right on the edge of the field, which seems like the most logical place, you have just reduced your chances significantly. Remember how the buck is hanging back and looking for anything wrong before heading out into the field? You just put yourself right where he is looking. You need to move back into the staging area. These mature bucks hang back 30-60 yards from the field edge and patiently observe. Sometimes slowly browsing around, sometimes making scrapes and rubs, and sometimes just standing and staring intently for painfully long periods. This is where you need to set up, not right on the edge of the field. It helps to know the location of the bedding area and the general lay of the land between that bedding area and the field where you have observed these deer. Bedding areas can change based on weather and human disturbance, but there are specific areas where they tend to bed year after year. The areas they choose to travel between the bedding area and the food will allow them good concealment cover and the opportunity to quarter the wind whenever possible. When they arrive at the edge of the field, the does and young bucks often move right out into the open while the mature bucks hang back. Interestingly, does and small bucks usually trot out a few yards from the edge of the brush before they begin to feed. When the older bucks finally do enter the field, they often stay right on the edge, alternating between observing and nibbling, before working well out into the open. Once you have a general idea of the direction the bucks are approaching the field, it’s time to figure out exactly where they are staging. Put your system into motion. Having a system is important because it allows you to set up quickly and efficiently with a minimum of disturbance. There are cases where the staging areas will be the same year after year, but things like crop rotations, wind directions, availability of water, hunting pressure and even obscure activities like firewood cutting will change the deer’s habits from year to year. The first thing I like to do is move in carefully during the late morning and set up a few trail cameras. Late morning works well because the dew is off the plants, yet it gives your scent some time to age before the deer show up in the afternoon. Believe me a buck knows the difference between scent that is eight hours old and scent that is three hours old, and he will react accordingly. When I cautiously penetrate the area, I am looking not just for the trails deer are using to approach the field, but specifically for fresh rubs. Scrapes are important but secondary sign; rubs are more reliable indicators of where the bucks are staging. Rubs found right on the man trails are most often made by younger bucks; the rubs you find in the thick stuff off to the side of the main trails are the ones you really want to see. Put a camera on these areas and then don’t go back to check them for

Don’t Overlook Scent Control for Preseason Work

Much has been written about controlling your scent while hunting, but controlling your scent impact and intrusion while scouting, hanging stands and checking trail cameras can be just as important. By Bernie Barringer Controlling human odor is a multi-billion dollar business in the hunting industry. Many people are in search of that mythical “scent elimination” nirvana which when found will forever end the frustrations of a deer smelling them and reacting in their typical negative way. Of course total scent elimination is a myth and probably always will be, but hunters spend millions each year in hopes of at least reducing their scent impact while hunting. There are some great scent killing products that have been shown through scientific tests to kill human odor, and many of them are remarkable effective. So hunters continue to spray themselves down with Scent Killer each time they head out to the treestand. At times the act of reducing your scent can be a deal maker or deal breaker. In the right situation, it might just be the difference between getting a shot versus watching the north end of a southbound whitetail buck heading for the hills. What many of them do not realize, is that the impact of their scent can tip off a whitetail buck not just when they are hunting, but even before the season starts, and during the season whenever you are in the deer’s zone of awareness. The cumulative impact of leaving human scent in a deer’s area, especially a mature buck, can cause that buck to simply pack up and move to a place where he isn’t as disturbed. At best, it might just make him go nocturnal, thus reducing your chances of getting a shot at him. Most hunters find themselves in the wood for three reasons other than actually hunting. Here are a few tips on reducing your scent while scouting, hanging stands and checking game cameras. Preseason Scouting In 40 years of bowhunting whitetails, I have come to the conclusion that I have done the most damage to my hunting efforts by tipping the deer off to my intrusion while looking for their sign. A big key to killing a big buck is learning his tendencies. I like to know his preferred bedding areas and his preferred feeding areas whenever possible. Two of the best ways to learn those areas are finding sign of his presence and first hand observation. Tracks, rubs, beds and trails are all good indicators of a buck’s presence. I have become convinced that the best way to learn his patterns is to get out there and look at the sign first hand, just one time, and to reduce your impact while doing so. I spray the lower half of my body—anything that will rub on the vegetation—with Scent Killer each time I go out. I also wear camouflage and walk carefully as if I am actually hunting. First hand observation for me is usually setting up on the edge of a field and glassing for evening activity. I do this glassing from my truck with a window-mounted spotting scope whenever I can, but if I am walking out to the field, I will only do so when the wind is right and I can sneak in and out undetected, never allowing my scent to blow across the field or into the bedding area at any time. Hanging Stands This is where a lot of people blow it. I know I have really screwed up a couple times by doing it wrong. To put up a treestand, especially for bowhunting, you have to get right smack on top of their activity area and that’s dangerous. We have already discussed the importance of spraying down with Scent Killer anywhere on your clothing that might come into contact with vegetation. Two more things can really tip a buck off to your activity, things you touch with your hands, and drops of sweat. My strategy for hanging stands involves getting in, getting set up, and getting out as soon as possible. I do this on days when the wind is right so I do not have any scent stream blowing into the area I suspect the deer may be at that time. I also prefer to do it with two people because it seems to go much faster, which offsets the impact of having double the scent in the area. Using two people also helps make sure you get everything to the location and set up in one trip rather than two. Wear clothing that will wick sweat and always wear a hat or headband so you do not drip sweat onto the ground or your equipment. Set up as early as you can; once you have confidence that you have found the right spot, make a move on them so the area has time to “cool off” before you hunt. Checking Game Cameras Game cameras have become a huge part of my hunting and scouting all year long. I confess I am borderline addicted to using them. I have had to force myself to reduce the number of times I check them. Each time I enter the woods to check the camera I am leaving scent and potentially spooking deer by bumping them. I try to check my cameras only once every 2-3 weeks in the preseason, and whenever possible, I check them right before a rain that will wash away my scent. I even use scent killing wipes to remove my odor from the game cameras. I wear rubber boots and reduce my odor impact with Scent Killer. I used to make an effort never to kneel down by my cameras, but as my knees have gotten older, that has become harder so I do check them on one knee at times. The real key—at least for me–with these game cameras is to resist the temptation to check them too often. Scent control and reduction is not just for hunting season.