— By Dana R. Rogers
Deer behavior is totally different during late summer than it will be when the temperatures cool down later in the fall, which means your bowhunting strategy needs to be different at this time of year, as well.
When thinking of the early archery season, critical factors such as social-group makeup, food sources, dependence on water and relief from the sun’s heat need to be considered to accurately pattern early season deer.
South Dakota’s archery deer season opened Sept. 1 this year, while North Dakota’s archery deer opened a few days later on Sept. 4. This early in the season it’s key to remember that deer behavior the first few weeks of September is much more social than it will be around the first of October. At this time bucks aren’t infused with as much testosterone, which means they’re far more tolerant of one another. In fact, some bucks will still be in bachelor groups during the very early part of our archery seasons.
Because their testosterone levels haven’t completely ramped up yet, some bucks might still be carrying velvet on their quickly hardening antlers during the early days of the archery season. If you are in search of a velvet trophy, make sure you talk to your taxidermist if you hope to preserve the antlers in their velvet state. Quick measures such as freezing the velvet antlers or injecting formaldehyde into the antler veins prior to getting them to your taxidermist will be quite time-sensitive in the heat.
Doe groups will typically be in different areas during the late summer as they concentrate on feeding to produce protein-rich milk to rear their fawns that, in some cases, are still adorned with spots. Doe feeding activity at this time of year is likely centered around choice browse and nutrient-rich crops such as soybeans and alfalfa. On a side note, please consider saving any antlerless harvests for at least another month if you know a doe is still nursing.
Bugs can affect deer behavior, too, so keep in mind that deer enjoy a breeze for relief from bugs and heat. They will also seek shade that offers a few degrees of relief from the heat. That heat also provides incentive to seek out good water sources to help supplement what they already get from the green forage they consume.
As with any hunt, scouting as much as possible helps immensely, and the work you do weeks before the season opens will determine your success once you’re finally out trying to punch your tag. If you can get out a week or two prior to your hunt to glass early in the mornings and later on in the evenings to find deer on their feet, it can help you drill down on a location and a target.
This close to hunting season you need to tread lightly and scout smart. If you go walking or driving around the hunting property every day, the deer living there are going to react. That could be very counterproductive and cause them to leave, or at least force them to change their habits.
Do as much scouting as possible from a distance with your eyes and some good optics. Find high vantage points on the outer perimeter of your hunting areas, and spy on the deer with a spotting scope or binoculars, using a tripod or, if you’re in your vehicle, a window mount to help steady your setup.
I don’t like to use invasive scouting techniques this time of year, but setting up a few trail cameras on known water sources, funnels and trails is definitely something you should be doing to help take inventory in areas that have heavy cover or that you can’t reach with quality optics.
If you’ve got your heart set on tagging a big buck in the early days of bow season, identifying target animals in a specific herd is crucial. In the late summer bucks are loners or, as mentioned earlier, they travel in bachelor groups before photoperiod causes their testosterone levels to surge and they start shedding their velvet.
By glassing early and late from a good vantage point you’ll be able to cover more area and sort through a particular hunting area’s deer. You’ll find them going to and from food and water sources, but you’ll also find that most of their time will be spent bedded in leeward or shaded areas.
Feeding areas will be your best bet to spot deer, especially early in the morning and late in the evening, and during the early archery seasons here in the Dakotas that typically means focusing on green soybean fields, alfalfa or winter wheat. Fresh green forbs or tender shoots along creeks and drainages are also a good bet.
Once you have a food source pinpointed that deer are actively using, note their entry and exit points and try to discretely put them to bed. Scout smart, do it as often as you can at the right times of day, and keep in mind that farm-country deer change their feeding patterns as new forage becomes palatable while old food sources get tough or change. Once that happens, deer tend to change up their feeding behavior almost overnight, and you have to adjust.
One great scenario to scout for is a spot in a transition area between two viable food sources. An example in farm country would be a wooded corridor between an alfalfa field and a soybean field.
Set the Trap
You have to remember that you usually get only one or two chances at a patterned mature buck during the early season. What you need is a solid game plan to get yourself into position for a good shot, and if you think it through based on the buck’s observed pattern you may just find a weak spot. Stands along trails, water holes, creek crossings, or entry and exit points on feeding areas are always a good bet.
With the temperatures that we often see the first couple weeks of September, hydration is a regular need for deer, which means water sources are a great spot to spend your time waiting to punch your tag. Established deer trails at creek crossings are a good place if you can set up an ambush in a treestand or blind. Water holes and cattle tanks are also magnets for plains and farm-country deer, so checking those for traffic or setting trail cameras to monitor them can help you determine if they’re worth hunting.
Terrain funnels that connect multiple trails are another great spot for an ambush. Areas where deep ditches force animals to pinch from a bend to an upper ridge really constrict the width of travel, and these obvious locations can be seen from aerial photos with topographic overlays.
Spot and Stalk
However, if you are pursuing mule deer or whitetails in the great, wide open don’t pass up a good opportunity for a spot and stalk. If I’m whitetail hunting in the eastern half of the Dakotas, almost all of my time is spent in a treestand or ground blind, but the further west I hunt, the more I take the opportunity to go to ground level under the right conditions.
The undulating terrain of the western prairie often provides some good cover if you stay low. Trees and bushes are still carrying plenty of leaves during the early days of the season, so there’s usually plenty of cover to conceal a bowhunter on the ground. Just be sure you’re hunting downwind from where you expect a deer to show, or they’ll pick up your scent for sure. If the only stalk-worthy routes to a target are upwind or if the animal simply isn’t in a location where a high-percentage stalk can be made, mark it down and then move and find another buck.
Stalking during midday can be successful if you find the right situation. I prefer stand and blind hunting in the afternoons and evenings to maximize my efforts and probabilities for success. One thing you can do to help keep deer from becoming spooked upon entry or exit is to have a friend drive you to your location and leave or come pick you up later. In most of the Dakotas, ranch traffic is common and deer won’t be too alarmed by a vehicle that just seems to be passing by.
While stalking, wind direction should be your primary concern, along with the deer’s line of sight. If you can find a failsafe route that leads to a bedded buck, get moving using the terrain and foliage to your advantage. One other spot-and-stalk tactic to consider is that once you are within 100 yards you can slip off your boots and go just in socks or even use padded stalking shoes.
Stalking or crawling into a position where you can wait for a shot opportunity should be your optimum goal. If you can find some brush, a rock formation or even a small group of yucca to screen your outline until the buck stands you’ll be in an awesome position.
I’ve tried this many times, and I’ll admit the majority of my stalks have failed for one reason or another — swirling wind, being caught moving, too noisy, etc. One thing I recommend from many past failures is don’t attempt to make the deer stand. Lett him stand when he wants to stand.
I’ve thrown rocks, tried to make noise and done other things to get a buck’s attention and make him stand, but most of the time this only results in a startled, bounding animal that offers no shot or, in the best-case scenario, a buck that rises on full alert ready to jump the string. If you’ve stalked to within shooting distance, you may wind up sitting in an uncomfortable position for an hour or more, but it’s much better to wait it out rather than forcing the issue.
I’d also caution that you can actually get too close to a bedded buck. I’d suggest holding up at about 40 yards and waiting for the buck to stand on its own.
Minimizing mistakes and scent control are also very important factors at ground level. These may seem like pretty obvious statements, but if you haven’t had a lot of experience there’s a steep learning curve.
Bowhunting in any form requires getting close and staying undetected. Scent control during the late summer months can be tricky, but do your best. Keep your clothes clean, and try to keep yourself as cool as possible to reduce sweat. Showering daily and keeping scent-reducing wipes and sprays handy to help reduce or eliminate odor are absolute necessities. And, if I haven’t made it clear enough by now, remember to always play the wind.
From late August through September patterning deer can be fairly easy, but they won’t stay in these areas or continue using these late-summer food and water patterns much longer. Use your long-range optics to scout and get those trail cameras set on feeding areas and water sources for precise, up-to-date information.
This will be an exciting season for many bowhunters who have never hunted the first few weeks of September. If that’s the case, get to work scouting and good luck. As always when afield, respect the land, respect the landowner and respect the wildlife.
About the Author: Dana R. Rogers grew up in central South Dakota before serving in the U.S. Air Force. He now lives in the Black Hills and welcomes questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.