After much anticipation, the calendar finally flips to a day you’ve had circled for months: opening day of bow season. The best time of year is here, and the games have just begun. But bow season, especially when whitetails are your quarry, is a marathon and not a sprint. Deer behavior changes quickly throughout the fall, and your hunting tactics must change with it to stay in the action.
The race begins in summer when deer are most visible feeding in crop and hayfields. Days are long, which means there’s plenty of daylight to burn after work with an evening scouting and glassing mission. Cast a wide net by driving the surrounding properties in the area you hunt, keeping your favorite binoculars on the dash. Pair that effort with trail cameras overlooking deer trails leading into food sources, and you’ll set the foundation for a high-level inventory of the bucks in your neighborhood.
You’ll hopefully identify a cast of familiar characters that regularly show up on your cameras or while you’re glassing. Deer are very patternable in summer, but don’t let that fool you. Bucks shed their velvet in late August and early September, and with that comes a noticeable shift in behavior that requires bowhunters to adapt.
Early Season Tactics
The first days of the season are a great time to take advantage of summer patterns before bucks completely switch their habits. However, the window of opportunity is small, so plan your hunt and strike when you can. Trail camera data and hot sign, like fresh rubs or scrapes, will tell if you should swing for the fences or play it safe. Afternoon sits overlooking food sources are the most common ambush locations in the early season. Another option is observing from a vantage that allows you to cover the ground with your eyes and optics. This long-range scouting tactic can pay dividends if you can locate a buck from afar and then sneak into the area where you observed him the next day for a high-odds hunt.
Unfortunately, early season action is usually short-lived. The increased hunting pressure and activity in the woods can cause bucks to shift from their once-predictable routines. Food sources change quickly during the early season, too. Soybeans lose their luster as the leaves turn yellow, and deer begin seeking other options like acorns, which can be notoriously challenging to hunt during good mast years. You’ll have to pivot your strategy yet again to stay in action.
Midseason overlaps the infamous “October lull,” which runs through the middle part of October and is seen by many as a challenging time of year to hunt. Don’t be intimidated, though, because new challenges also open up new opportunities. Scrapes and rubs litter the woods in October, so take some time (preferably on a rainy day to minimize your ground scent and noise) to speed scout your area and push the reset button on your hunting tactics. Identifying fresh sign can help you identify nearby areas where you can expect bucks to bed. Make the most of your time in the woods during October by adjusting your treestand locations so they’re near buck bedding areas. Consider carrying a mobile hunting setup, such as a lightweight treestand or saddle, and capitalize on your new intel the next time weather conditions and wind direction are appropriate for your suspected hotspot.
A buck’s testosterone levels rise steadily throughout October, so don’t hesitate to use grunt calls or rattling antlers to entice a buck into bow range. In addition to fresh sign, be mindful of weather patterns. Cold fronts that cause significant changes in temperature and wind direction often spike deer activity, and that can create some of the season’s best hunting. Be sure to hunt the days immediately following cold fronts if at all possible.
Feast or famine is a great way to describe bowhunting during the rut. When a hot doe is in the area, it can seem like every buck in the county has taken up residence in your hunting area. On the flip side, you might feel like you’re hunting deserted territory when she drags her potential suitors with her on a chase that might last up to several miles in short order. Predicting deer movement is difficult during the rut, so logging long hours on the stand is critical to success. Concentrate your efforts downwind of doe bedding areas that cruising bucks will scent-check as they search for a doe in heat. Travel corridors, like funnels or pinch points, are high-odds locations to sit all day. An opportunity can present itself at any time during the rut, so stay focused and don’t get discouraged if you’re not in action. Your season can change at any moment when rut-crazed bucks are on the hunt for does.
Late Season Tactics
Bucks are exhausted and in dire need of food after running themselves ragged during the rut. Crops high in carbohydrates are ideal attractants during the late season, so focus your efforts around corn or bean fields if possible. If you don’t have crops in your area, spend your time hunting near woody browse found in clear-cuts, where deer can feed on the tender shoots of new growth. As in the early season, afternoon hunts intercepting movement from suspected bedding locations to feeding areas are the best spots to direct your attention. As the temperatures plummet and conditions worsen, a buck’s demand for food increases, so be sure to invest in quality cold-weather clothing that’ll help you sit on stand during the most frigid time of year.
Keeping tabs on bucks throughout the season is a moving target — no pun intended. From behavioral changes to the extreme variability in food sources, cagey whitetails force bowhunters to adopt an adaptive bowhunting style to fill their freezers consistently.