Bowhunting World 2003

Opening Day Whitetail Tactics – by Bill Vaznis

The key to early-season action is food. Lush alfalfa fields, cornfields, and other crops are where the deer are now!

What is the absolute best time of year to ambush a trophy buck? When asked, most bowhunters would probably cast their vote for prerut or the peak of rut, when bucks are really on the move and not totally mindful of their environment, 24/7. Others might even opt for the late season, when they have a chance to catch a weary buck leaving his sanctuary
to search for food just before nightfall.

However, there is an increasing legion of devoted disciples who know that
you simply cannot pass up hunting on opening day if you’re truly intent
on taking a big deer with a bow.

When my pals and I first began bowhunting for whitetails, we always put in for mid-November vacation time, when we hoped the breeding season would be in full swing. Granted, we’d see a lot of bucks during those weeks, but their exact whereabouts on any given day were, like their behavior, difficult to predict.

One morning a buck might pass just beyond range, but we wouldn’t see him again for the rest of the season. And, if we didn’t get a crack at a
good buck then, we knew we were likely to lose those racked deer from the
herd to firearms hunters, leaving fewer bucks to pursue in the late season.

As a result of our failures, we began to focus on the prerut, when a buck’s travel patterns are somewhat predictable, especially around rubs and scrape lines. Even so, this still only gave us 10 to 14 days to locate a good buck, precious little time to gamble away an entire seasons efforts, even if you add the peak of the rut into the mix.
Like others who have played this game for many seasons, we finally were
struck by a good dose of deer-hunting reality.

We asked ourselves, why concentrate all our efforts on the prerut and peak of the rut? Like most deer hunters, we watch for deer and deer sign early in the vyear, paying particularly close attention to terrain features and ground cover that attract and hold deer — at least until the heat and biting insects of summer finally drive us from the woods.

Even during those months we cruise backroads in the early morning and late evening hours, glassing meadows and fields for feeding deer.
All it took for my buddies and I to lengthen our time afield and increase
our success was to change our attitude about the early weeks of the season.

I’m now a firm believer that getting serious about early season can really increase your chances of waylaying a trophy. ln fact, the opening morning and first afternoon can offer you the yery best odds for a bruiser buck. Doubt my words? Then read on.

First-Day Deer

The first year I seriously hunted during the early season , I caught a fat buck flatfooted as we both worked through standing corn, taking him 20 minutes into the season with a single arrow through the heart. The fact that he ignored my kneeling form and paid no attention to me as I took the l4 – yard shot is indicative of early·season bucks. Since then I have caught several racked bucks unaware as they went about their business on opening day, including two dandies sparring at sunrise!

What makes deer extra vulnerable on the first day of the season? That’s easy— first-day deer have not been spooked, pressured, scared, jumped, jolted, pushed, or otherwise harassed by humans since the end of the late bow season. As a result. it can take them a critical extra second or two to react before fleeing the scene. They’re also fairly predictable in their daily routines, which is generally centered around food
during those weeks, rather than chasing and breeding does.

“Arrowing a buck on opening day is still no easy task,” cautions ]eff Grab, big-woods specialist and co-owner of North Country Expeditions. “If you want to punch your tag early in the season, you
have to first know your hunting grounds like the back of your proverbial hand, and that means plenty of postseason and spring scouting. There is no such thing as spending too much time in the woods.And even when that is all said and done, you still have to go to ‘summer school,’ and learn to scout long distance.”

Early-season hunting means even earlier-season scouting, like in July when a buck’s antlers are already showing promise. I like to slip into strategic locations, like a knoll overlooking a known feeding
area, and glass for bucks as they emerge to feed in the late evening, or retreating at first light. I pay particularly close attention to secluded feeding areas adjacent to those preferred by yearling bucks and
family groups of does and fawns, as this will likely be where a mature buck will hang out to feed.

When you locate such a spot, you’ll find the buck will feed there
daily, and you can almost set your watch to his comings and goings.
It’s important to scout on the sly, as you don`t want to disturb the deer and their daily routines. This means staying downwind of any high·priority locations, as well as donning full camo dress. Quality binoculars are a must, as the very best bucks can often appear only in low-light conditions. Swarovski, Burris, and Zeiss are among the best, with the new Nikon 8×32 SEs getting my nod for their extraordinary ability to turn dawn and dusk into broad daylight with a simple
twist of the focusing ring.

Nikons new 14 – power, image-stabilizing binoculars can easily be carried into the field and hand held for a steady look at distant deer—a remarkable feat considering the beefed-up magnification. I used a pair of StabilEYEs last fall, and found them more practical than a high-
resolution spotting scope for keeping tabs on big-racked deer.

“Once you have the general location of several bucks pegged, it’s time to sneak in and do some on-the-ground scouting,” says Grab. “It’s important to wear scent-free clothing and rubber boots to help
make sure your human odor does not drift into known concentrations of
deer—and even then try to do your reconnoitering in the middle of the day, preferably for only an hour or two during or just before a rain shower.” Grab also believes in preparing several treestand locations, ground blind ambush sites, or still-hunting routes without putting any
stress on the deer herd.

Even with many hours afield, locating a mature buck is never easy, especially in thick summer foliage. More often than not, these bucks bed near feeding areas, and, as a consequence, do not travel much during daylight hours.

When l have a good hunch a mature buck is lurking nearby, I’ll stay put until the last glimmer of light fades from the scene. Several times l have seen bucks arise from their daytime lair only to begin feeding area. Upon first glance, such spots appear somewhat out of place, like
somebody was there with a weed whacker or a lawn mower. This is really a secret staging area where a lone buck will feed on secondary food sources until late in the evening. You can bet your last broad-
head that a buck is bedding within a stone’s throw of this “safety zone,”so be quiet and watch the wind while you’re in
the neighborhood.

“So far, so good,” says Grab, “but you must be extremely careful you don’t undo all your hard work at the last minute. Once the velvet has been removed and the buck’s antlers are hard-boned, I stay as far away from my hunting turf as much as possible.”

At this late point, Grab emphasizes that he won’t scout the area from a distance, sneak around feeding areas and travel routes at midday or even hang treestands. “I do everything I can to make my first day afield a surprise attack, and unless bad weather prevails or any of the bucks I have been watching are harassed by dogs, bird hunters, or other
bowhunters, I expect lots of action opening day.” .

Mistakes To Avoid

The biggest mistake early-season bowhunters can make is to traipse about
their deer woods erecting stands and cutting shooting lanes the last week or so before the opener. Even spotlighting, where legal, should be avoided. No matter how careful you are, you will invariably put pressure on the local herd, and they will adjust their daily routines accordingly.
When opening day arrives, it’s important to be totally prepared and avoid sloppy mistakes that can come from months of hunting downtime.

Maybe we don’t walk quietly in the woods, or don’t pay close enough attention to wind direction or available ground cover as we do after weeks of the routine. And if that isn’t bad enough, we`ll forget our safety belts, binoculars, and even our face masks! In effect, we
don’t have our act together yet, and as a result we make mistakes and errors on opening day that we might not make later in the season.

Remember, just because “your” buck is going about his daily routine oblivious to your intentions doesn’t mean he’s stupid. All it takes is one dumb mistake on your part, and he’ll hightail out of
your life forever. Last summer, I watched several record-class bucks feed on a farm I bowhunt regularly in upstate New York. One buck, a heavy-beamed 8-point, always entered a hayfield through an overgrown pasture, an ideal ambush site for a still hunter. On the first afternoon
of the regular season I began sneaking and peeking my way through the pasture. Unfortunately, the buck caught me trying to slip through a small opening, did a double take at my crouched form, snorted, and then vamoosed. Although I saw him cross a road more than a mile away during the peak of the rut, I never again spotted him on the farm.

But, had I waited for the prerut or peak of the rut to get a shot at him, I may not have seen him at all. One thing’s for certain: come July I’ll be glassing for velvet bucks, trying to learn as much as possible about the local herd , hoping for another chance at him on the next season opener. These days, instead of several weeks of howhunting,
I have several months to enjoy the sport. What a way to stretch the season!

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