There are only a handful of states that offer bowhunters the opportunity to arrow a velvet buck. Nonresidents looking for this unique trophy will see North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Montana, Tennessee, and Kentucky at the top of the list. Ambitious archers are allowed the chance thanks to easy-to-draw tags and late-August/early-September openers.
A few other states open early enough for a shot as well, but you generally have to apply and draw, so these hunts will take some long-term planning. There are occasionally a few outlier deer still holding fuzzy on mid-September openers in some of the midwestern states, but those are lottery-odds deer, and they are usually scrappers, too.
If your heart desires a decent buck that hasn’t stripped his velvet, the options are pretty limited. The good news is that most of the states that provide for this opportunity also boast enough public land to get it done if you don’t have a private farm or ranch to hunt. Here are three great setups to get it done in early September.
On Their Food Whether you’ll spend your time on open-to-all ground, or a private parcel, you can count on one thing—destination food sources will play into your plan in a major way.
Andy May, Wired To Hunt contributor and well-known big buck slayer, has spent all of his velvet hunts in Kentucky. He has found the food pattern in play but not in a straightforward, “just-find-the-groceries-and-hunt” manner.
“To locate an older-age class deer, you’ve got to do things different from the average hunter,” May said. “Get off the road and grab a vantage point where you can see the little nooks that are hidden from the lazy road glassers.”
When scouting, May looks for field corners that are tucked away, low spots where fields dip into cover, and any other terrain features that allow bucks to feed while staying out of sight. This usually necessitates a guerrilla approach to scouting versus simply mounting a tripod to the truck window and parking in a field drive.
Slipping in with camo on and an eye to the wind is part of this process, but so is paying attention to exactly when, where, and what deer come out. It’s important to know which trail bucks follow to get to food, but where do they filter to once they enter? Do they stay in the shade on one side of the field until the sun sets or do they all work toward a drainage ditch that might have some water in it? Does any of this movement take them past a perfect stand tree or ground blind site?
Also, how many bucks are in the group and what size are they? This, according to May, is something you have to know.
“Bachelor groups of velvet bucks seem to believe strength comes in numbers, so when one starts to move, they all do. Usually the little bucks come out first and that seems to give the all-clear sign to the bigger deer.”
If you know there are four bucks in a group and the first two show right away, it’s time to get ready and stay on your A-game. You don’t want to get spotted by the 75-incher when the 140 is back in the cover browsing his way toward the field.
In Their Bed You should also consider the few out-of-the-ordinary things that might happen when the weather is really hot (which is almost always the case for early openers). First of all, the bucks could be bedded right in the food. A buddy and I ran into this in Nebraska in 2019 and we had to find a stealthy route into our stands just to avoid spooking them. The bucks were most likely avoiding the plague-level mosquitoes by bedding in a lush soybean field.
The hills around the field also funneled a nearly constant breeze down through it, giving the bucks a chance to cool off and detect approaching predators. As the evening progressed, they’d stand up and feed for a while before bedding down again. We killed two great bucks in two days on that pattern, which I’ve seen several times in my life.
At Their Water And the second unique early-season condition you might encounter? Limited water.
“One of the years I hunted Kentucky, the state was experiencing a serious drought,” May said. “Even though the topo feature on my onX said there should be water in multiple spots, everything was dry. I did eventually find a creekbed that had a few low spots still holding water, and they were like golden bait piles.”
If you’re going to hunt velvet bucks, you are going to sweat your ass off. The biggest one I’ve personally arrowed, a 151-inch 10-pointer, came by my stand in 91-degree heat. That public land buck had just filled his belly with river water before crossing to my side and making a big mistake. This year, with extreme drought conditions in most of the country, water is going to be a big factor for velvet hunts.
A simple Internet search for drought severity in your chosen state or region will bring up federal sites that track the week-to-week conditions. I’m religious about this on my early-season hunts, but sometimes I even take it a step further
If you use an app like onX, you can pull up the topo layer and see where water is supposed to be. Then you can toggle over to a satellite imagery layer to see what the water source actually looks like. This will tell you a lot about the likelihood that the pond, tank, or creek will be holding water when you’re hunting.
Mark the most likely candidates and then plan to scout each when you show up. If you find the one cattle guzzler in the section that is full of cold, fresh water (or warm, dank water), you’ve got your spot to kill a velvet buck.
Just make sure you get it done by about September 10 or 12 at the latest. If you don’t, the odds of a grip-and-grin with fuzzy antlers drop to nearly zero.
Feature image via Matt Hansen.