There are two myths in deer hunting that need to die. One is that we are all experts at judging the age of a buck on the hoof. The other is that hunting mornings during early season will only cause irreparable harm to your future chances of success. (The thinking here is that it’s too hard to get close to a buck’s bedding in the morning, causing you to spook deer and ruin an area for all of fall.)
When it comes to the latter myth, it pays to think about the rules of “always” and “never.” Whenever someone uses either in relation to deer behavior or hunting strategy, they are making a blanket statement that can’t possibly encompass the reality of every scenario.
September morning buck kills are a real possibility, but only if you plan them out deliberately. You need to get into position between food and bedding, which is simple enough. But, it’s how you get there that matters most.
MeatEater contributor and public land whitetail killer Dylan Tramp regularly hunts mornings early season, but only if everything is right.
“The key is to scout evenings and hone in on a food source,” Tramp said. “If you’ve got a shooter hitting the groceries, figure out how he gets there and how he’ll likely leave. With that info, you can start to look for pinch-points or funnels between his feeding and bedding areas.”
From there, Tramp says it’s best to plan on a route to your stand that offers a buffer between you and the fields or destination food sources. It’s also crucial to move through the area plenty early (earlier than you would for any other morning hunt) so you can be settled well before the buck arrives.
You might think the property you hunt doesn’t allow for a morning setup in September, but every buck that spends even a little time moving in the morning is killable. It just takes more work than sitting on a field edge for an evening hunt.
I learned this a few years ago in Minnesota, where the deer were hitting alfalfa and soybeans then working their way to a gnarly valley to bed. The only way to get between food and bed was to leave ridiculously early and sneak through a half-mile of standing corn before posting up on a hillside that led to the valley. It sucked, quite honestly, but the 9-pointer I shot two hours after sunrise on the second morning of the season didn’t suck.
Details Matter, A lot
As Tramp noted, the key to planning early season morning routes is to limit potential exposure to deer and blow up your hunt before it starts. This means understanding where you have to park your truck, how long it’ll take to get to your stand, and how you’ll get there without veering off course.
I despise using headlamps because a mini spotlight bobbing its way through the predawn woods isn’t helpful for keeping deer around. Flashlights are necessary when you’re creeping through the woods at 5 a.m., though. Because of this, I use one with a red light and carry it in my hand, not on my head, to keep the beam low.
I also mark my trails with reflective tacks, but instead of pushing them in at eye level, I’ll pop them in at about knee high. This way I can keep my light low (usually partially covered by my finger so it throws even less glow), and then shine it nearly straight down.
It’s also a good idea to understand the real timing of your walk in, which will take longer than you think. When I set up entrance paths, I time the walk from the parking spot to my stand. I know that I can easily double the amount of time it takes—doing it in the dark and trying not to make noise is a different beast than simply hiking out at midday.
All of this factors into the time I need to be walking away from my truck headed toward my stand. These small details don’t really matter during the rut, but they can make or break a hunt this time of year.
Understanding Morning Movement
A lot of hunters believe that bucks are bedded down before the sun ever breaches the eastern horizon in September and early October. That’s simply not true (and also falls into the “always” category of deer malarkey).
I’ve dealt with some rare, ultra-cautious, mature bucks that were on that program, but for the most part there is a big difference between bucks leaving fields and bedding down for the day. They’ll often visit water, swing through an oak-covered ridge, or simply browse their way back to bed. I’ve seen mature bucks on the move late into morning many times (largely because I’m out there hunting mornings in mid-September to witness it).
Some properties aren’t as conducive to killing a September buck in the morning, or are just set up better for an evening hunt. But there are tons of opportunities out there where an ambitious hunter can kill a buck when most believe it’s not possible.
It is possible, and often absolutely worth the effort.
Feature image via Matt Hansen.