In my home state of Minnesota, the firearm season opens the first weekend of November. This means that for many years, bowhunters relinquished the woods to the orange army within the first few days of the month. When I was younger, that bothered me a lot. I wanted to hunt the rut, but it just wasn’t a real option. Instead, I had to figure out the early-season game to consistently kill mature bucks.
When I started traveling out of state to hunt the prime time, I realized a few things. The first was that the rut was often more of a snooze-fest than it was supposed to be. The second was that everyone believes the rut is the best time to be in the woods, so you’ll have more company than any other point in the season. Lastly, it became clear quickly that rut action is wildly unpredictable.
While I love sitting in a tree in November, I truly believe there isn’t a better, more consistent opportunity to kill a mature buck than opening week. This is due to many things, but the easiest to understand is the lack of pressure leading up to the opener.
I’ve interviewed dozens of public land hunting experts, and every one of them is obsessed with figuring out how to hunt around pressure. This is often priority number one, even before they start to figure out what deer like to do on any given property. Although to be fair, if you’re actively looking for areas with little to no hunting pressure, you’re also (by default) looking for places deer will be.
Opening week offers a special case in this realm. Not experiencing hunting pressure for eight or nine months tends to lull the herd into a false sense of security. This is damn near universal across regions and states, and it’s a huge advantage. A buck that just isn’t super neurotic about his survival is a buck that can be killed. Good luck finding a deer in November that isn’t keyed into the pressure, unless you’re hunting a tightly controlled property.
Of course, this easy-livin' mindset gets bucks in trouble during the first week, but so do their lifestyle choices.
While the rut offers up a chance to catch a cruiser in a pinch point or a funnel, a single hot doe can ruin the best laid terrain-trap plans. The same goes for one of your fellow hunters setting up with a bad wind just down the ridge from you.
Rut movement on a large scale is predictable. The bucks are going to cruise and chase, and that’s good. Individual movement, through specific spots during a variety of conditions, is less predictable.
Early-season bucks are a different story. While a pattern can blow up within a day or two of the opener depending on hunting pressure, mast, and a whole host of other things, there’s no time when bucks are more predictable.
If you do your homework in the pre-season and set yourself up with ambush options, you have a good chance of catching a buck on his summer pattern. This is a real opportunity in states with September openers, and can still be a possibility for states with early October starting dates.
The last real advantage opening week offers is the weather. A lot of hunters won’t go if it’s too hot, too windy, or it’s going to rain. They have the whole season to hunt, and it’s not uncommon to hear people say they are skipping a sit because it just doesn’t feel like deer hunting conditions.
The same hunters might not sandbag a day during the rut, even though unseasonal weather can have a greater impact on their success then. My favorite opening weeks involve warm temperatures or rainy weather. I know much of my competition will sit it out, and I know the bucks will still move because they don’t spend their time thinking that it just doesn’t feel like deer weather. They are used to it and will react accordingly.
The rut makes a lot of big promises but often doesn’t deliver. The early season, while it doesn’t come with the opportunity to see six bucks chasing in the same morning, does offer some real advantages. It might not feel the same as sitting in a tree on November 5th, but it might offer you a better chance to kill a mature buck, and that’s not nothing.
Feature image via Matt Hansen.