Whitetail Weekly, Trail Cameras for Early Season Success

If you asked most hunters when they felt as though they had the best chance of harvesting a buck many would choose the pre-rut and rut phases of the season, and with good reason.  We all know that at any moment a hot doe can pass through, stir up the woods and bring the bucks out of hiding.  The late October/early November time period can be a truly magical time to be in the woods and I do everything I can to spend as much time hunting in that time frame as I can.

Despite my efforts during that time of year I have to say that over the last few years my most consistent success in terms of seeing, getting close to, and even harvesting good bucks, has not come in November.  It has come at a time of the year that many would normally overlook.  In the last three seasons my dynamite buck days have come in the first few days of October.

Watching bucks grow in July can be an exciting time.

I know what people say and think about early October.  While it’s true that the weather can be warm (70’s and up are not uncommon here in Michigan) and the bugs can drive you nuts (thank goodness for my ThermaCELL) there is still some great hunting to be done and if you do a little work ahead of time you can put yourself in the middle of the action pretty consistently and give yourself a chance to get your season off to a great start.

For a deer lover like me summertime is a deer watching bonanza.  Between glassing fields and running trail cameras I am constantly watching deer and it seems like you can’t go anywhere on the property without spotting a deer or two.

There is a distinct lack of pressure and intrusion in the deer woods and the thick undergrowth allows deer to hide well and feel secure when/if something does intrude on their area.  Agricultural fields and food plots provide optimal feeding areas and the lack of pressure results in deer that are relaxed and will hit food all throughout the day.  Deer are slaves to their stomach as well as creatures of habit and during summer those two facts combined with their relaxed demeanor leads to very predictable patterns and routines.

Running trail cam's during the summer has proven to be a great way to get the drop on good bucks early in October.

We run our trail cameras all spring and summer and watching velvet bucks grow is one of my favorite parts of the entire year.  Seeing those first good bucks start to separate themselves from the crowd and put on the inches is awesome and it really gets you excited for what type of fun the fall may have in store.

While watching deer feed in the field in July can really get you fired up for the season it is important to realize that by the time October rolls around many of those deer may no longer be in the area.  As the summer winds down, the crop fields start to yellow and the bucks begin shedding velvet there is a great likelihood that at least a few of those bucks you’ve been watching will begin to head off to their fall ranges.  While it can be disappointing to watch a good buck all summer just to have him disappear as the season nears it is important to focus on what’s still around instead of what is gone.

Picking up on the patterns, habits and hang-outs of the bucks in July and August can be a crucial piece of the puzzle but the most useful information is going to start showing up as the calendar hits September.  At this point the bucks will have begun shedding their velvet and often times you will quickly begin to see certain bucks change their routines or vacate an area all together.  This is the time to begin setting your early October hunting plans into motion.

The bucks that stick to their patterns as you get into September are the ones that will more than likely still be following those same patterns when the season opens on October 1st.  These are the bucks that you need to begin focusing on and begin devising a plan for.

When this buck stayed on his pattern around this plot through mid September I felt we had a good chance of encountering him on the first few days of the season.

Heading into the 2013 season we had a few decent bucks on our property that had been filling up our trail cameras all season long.  As we got into September it became increasingly likely that the 3.5yr old buck we had nicknamed “Puppa” was going to be staying in the area as we entered the season.  I was pretty excited that he had stayed around because he was a nice buck for our area and was also displaying some pretty consistent habits that I had picked up on via our trail camera pictures.

September 14th I did my final camera check before the start of the season and was very excited to get pictures of Puppa continuing to frequent the same cameras that he had been all summer.  I began to sort through the pictures we had of him and it became obvious that he was using our largest food plot quite regularly.  I also noticed that there were a lot of pictures of him in or around the plot in the evening including several pictures of him in the plot well before the end of shooting light.

After looking through these pictures it became pretty clear that if I was able to get the right winds to sit any one of the three stands in that area I was going to have a pretty good chance of encountering this buck.

Come the evening of October 1st I was sitting on the edge of the plot and had him and another buck enter the plot about 5 minutes before dark.  I was unable to get a shot at him that night but was able to stay undetected.  The following night I sat a different stand 50yds away and was able to seal the deal with a 23yd shot as he prepared to enter the plot a full hour before dark.

I was able to arrow this nice 3.5yr old buck on the second day of the season after setting up on his summer patterns.

We live roughly 3hrs from our hunting property and don’t have the luxury to sit and glass our fields several nights a week.  In fact, neither I nor anyone else in our group (or our neighbors) had seen this buck in person all summer long.  Despite that I was able to use the trail cameras to not only find him but also to pattern him and allow myself to set up on him the first day of the season and feel as though I had a pretty good chance of seeing him.

This isn’t something that happened simply by chance either, in two of the last three seasons I have had great encounters the first few days of the season on bucks that we’ve watched all summer and have been able to pattern and set up on.  If my aim was truer I would have been able to also share the story of how I used this technique to harvest a nice 4.5yr old 10pt as well back in 2011.

At the same time we’ve also watched bucks all summer just to have them virtually disappear as we near the season.  The key is to be able to determine which bucks are still around come early to mid September and then use your summer’s worth of information to put together a plan of attack for those first few days.

The window for really making this work is pretty small and you are banking on the element of surprise to catch them off guard before they know they are being hunted.  After the first week or so of the season there is a really good chance that a buck with a few seasons under his belt is going to quickly abandon that feeding pattern and become much more cautious (a time many hunters call “the October lull”).  If you can stay undetected via good access/exit routes and by playing the wind you may be able to get two or three encounters with the same buck and hopefully seal the deal.

We watched these two bucks all summer long and I was able to set up on the 10pt on the first day of the 2011 season.

I will add a word of caution against getting too overly aggressive this early on in the year though.  Ideally this time of year I try to stick to stands on the edges that allow me to slip in and out quickly, quietly and cleanly.  You are setting up on known movement so don’t push in too far, take advantage of the feeding pattern and let the deer come to you.  The last thing you want to do is go diving in deep only to get busted by your target buck on the first day of the season.  Ignorance is bliss and the longer you can keep him from knowing you’re hunting him the better.

While the early season may not be the most common, or even the best time of the year to harvest a big buck it can still be a very effective time of year.  By doing your homework ahead of time you can put yourself in position to start the season off with a bang.

There are only a few good windows throughout the year where you can catch mature bucks with their guard down.  Don’t let this one pass just because the calendar says it’s too early.

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