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The Ultimate Guide to Early Season Deer Hunting: Strategies, Tactics, and Tips

Early Season Velvet Buck

As the summer heat begins to fade and the first signs of fall start to make their appearance, a unique opportunity arises for deer hunters. The early season, a period that is often overlooked, presents both a challenge and an opportunity for those willing to understand and adapt to the unique behaviors of deer during this transition. 

Early season deer hunting can indeed be a tough game. Mature whitetail bucks aren’t driven by the breeding instincts of the rut, nor are they forced to food sources by harsh winter conditions. Instead, they are in a state of flux, changing their main food sources and sometimes even their core areas as summer gives way to fall. 

However, it’s not all uphill. The early season also offers a distinct advantage: the deer haven’t been subjected to hunting pressure yet. This means that dedicated whitetail hunters who have spent their summer and early fall scouting meticulously stand a real chance at bagging a mature buck before the full intensity of the hunting season kicks in and turns the deer nocturnal. 

In this article, we will take a look into the best strategies, tactics, and tips for early season deer hunting. We’ll explore how to pattern bucks before the season starts, understand their dietary shifts, set up stands effectively, and adapt different strategies for private and public lands. Whether you’re a seasoned hunter or a beginner, this guide will equip you with the knowledge you need to make the most of the early deer hunting season. So, let’s embark on this journey and uncover the secrets of successful early season deer hunting.

Pre-Season Preparation: Patterning Bucks, Trail Cameras, and Food Plots

Preparation is the key to success in any endeavor, and early season deer hunting is no exception. The pre-season period is a crucial time to gather information, strategize, and set up for the hunting season. Let’s dive into the key aspects of pre-season preparation: patterning bucks, using trail cameras, and creating food plots.

Patterning Bucks

Patterning bucks before the season starts is an essential part of your hunting strategy. This involves understanding the behavior and movement patterns of mature bucks in your hunting area. Remember, mature bucks are experts at avoiding hunters, which is how they’ve managed to grow old. To outsmart them, you need to put in the work before the hunting season starts.

Start by identifying potential feeding and bedding areas. Look for signs of deer activity such as tracks, droppings, rubs, and scrapes. Pay attention to the times of day when you observe the most activity, as this can give you clues about the deer’s daily routines.

Using Trail Cameras Effectively

Trail cameras are a vital tool for patterning bucks. They provide a way to monitor deer activity without disturbing the area with your presence. However, simply setting up a trail camera isn’t enough; you need to use it effectively.

First, consider the placement of your trail cameras. They should be set up around major food sources and trails leading to these food sources. It’s also beneficial to place cameras near potential bedding areas to capture movement during the early morning and late evening.

Second, make sure your cameras are set to capture images at regular intervals, as well as when triggered by motion. This will provide a comprehensive picture of deer activity throughout the day. My camera of choice is the Tactacams and I like to place them 8-10ft up in a tree to keep them out of sight of anyone with sticky fingers.

Using a cell cam allows you to limit leaving scent in the area as the season gets closer. Pictures and even videos get sent straight to your phone eliminating the need to pull sd cards to check them.

Interpreting Trail Camera Pictures

Trail camera pictures can provide a wealth of information, but only if you know how to interpret them. They can tell you if nice bucks are around, but more importantly, they can help you figure out where those bucks are heading, where they’re coming from, and where they might be vulnerable.

Look for patterns in the pictures. Are there certain times when the bucks are more active? Are they frequently seen with other deer? Are there specific areas they seem to prefer? All these details can help you build a picture of the buck’s habits and preferences. Possibly even set up an excel spreadsheet to analyze the data and possibly identify any common patterns you may have missed otherwise.

Creating Food Plots

In addition to natural food sources, consider creating food plots to attract and nourish deer. Food plots are areas where you plant specific crops that are known to be attractive to deer. They not only provide a reliable food source for deer but also create an excellent opportunity for you to observe and pattern their behavior.

Choose plants that are known to be favored by deer and suitable for the soil and climate in your area. Some popular choices include clover, brassicas, and certain grains. Remember, the goal is to supplement the deer’s natural diet, not replace it.

Pre-season preparation is all about gathering information and using it to understand the behavior of the deer in your hunting area. By patterning bucks, using trail cameras effectively, interpreting the pictures they capture, and creating food plots, you can set yourself up for a successful early season deer hunt.

Understanding Deer Diet in the Early Season: From High-Protein Plants to High-Calorie Carbohydrates

Understanding the dietary habits of deer is crucial for successful hunting, especially during the early season when food sources and eating patterns undergo significant changes. Let’s look into the dietary transition of deer, the role of acorns, crops, soft mast, and the importance of water sources.

The Dietary Transition of Deer

As the seasons change from summer to fall, so does the diet of deer. During the summer months, deer primarily feed on high-protein plants, such as legumes, forbs, and leaves of woody plants. This protein-rich diet helps them grow and maintain their body mass and, for bucks, develop antlers.

However, as fall approaches, their dietary needs shift. They begin to transition from high-protein plants to high-calorie carbohydrates. This shift is driven by the need to build up fat reserves to survive the upcoming winter. Carbohydrates provide more energy than protein, making them ideal for this purpose.

The Significance of Acorns in the Deer Diet

Acorns play a significant role in the deer diet during the early season. They are a rich source of carbohydrates and fats, making them an excellent food for building up energy reserves. In fact, where they occur, acorns are often the most preferred natural food of whitetail deer.

There are two general groups of oak trees that produce acorns: white and red oaks. White oak acorns tend to drop earlier and contain fewer tannins, making them sweeter and more attractive to deer. Once the white oak acorns are depleted, deer will switch to red oak acorns. Be sure you can identify both types of oak trees and plan to hunt them accordingly. White oaks in the early season could be the ticket to harvesting an early season buck.

The Role of Crops and Soft Mast in the Deer Diet

In addition to acorns, crops and soft mast also play a crucial role in the deer diet during the early season. Crops such as corn and soybeans represent an almost limitless source of carbohydrates. Deer may overlook hard, dry soybeans in the early season, until a prolonged rain softens them up.

Soft mast, like apples, persimmons, and berries, may be far more important as an early-season food source than many hunters realize. These fruits are high in sugar and are very attractive to deer. When these fruits ripen and fall to the ground, deer will often prefer them over other food sources.

The Importance of Focusing on Water Sources

Water is a vital part of the deer diet, especially during the early season when temperatures can still be quite high. Deer need to drink water daily, and they will often visit water sources before they go out to feed. Focusing your scouting on water can be especially effective during drought years. A camera over a known water source can produce excellent results.

Understanding the dietary habits of deer during the early season can significantly improve your hunting success. By focusing on the right food and water sources, you can predict deer movements more accurately and increase your chances of a successful hunt.

Best Stand Setups for Early Season Deer: Adapting to Changing Conditions and Choosing the Right Sites

Choosing the right stand setup is a critical part of early season deer hunting. The early season is characterized by rapidly changing conditions, and your stand setup needs to adapt accordingly. Let’s explore the importance of adapting to changing conditions and the six best stand sites for early season deer hunting. This is a prime example why I saddle hunt. Being able to stay mobile and adapt to changing conditions will keep you one step ahead.

Adapting to Changing Conditions

In the early season, conditions can change quickly. Food sources shift as crops mature and are harvested, acorns start to drop and are depleted, and deer behavior changes as they adjust to these shifts. As a hunter, you need to be observant and reactive. 

For instance, if you notice that a certain food source is no longer attracting deer, it’s time to move your stand to a different location. Similarly, if you observe that deer are changing their travel routes, you need to adjust your stand setup accordingly. 

Six Best Stand Sites for Early Season Deer Hunting

1. Agricultural Fields: Deer are attracted to agricultural fields, especially in the early season when these fields are full of crops. However, it’s important to avoid spooking the deer when entering and exiting your stand. Consider setting up your stand at the edge of the field, where you can observe the deer without disturbing them. If you haven’t read my article on thermals be sure to give it a read. Deer will often come from the low side of a field where thermals tend to fall.

2. Food Plots: If you’ve created food plots, these can be excellent stand sites. Deer are likely to visit these plots regularly, providing you with plenty of opportunities for a shot. Try to position your stand near cover, so you can approach and leave without being detected.

3. Bedding-Area Funnels: These are areas where the landscape naturally funnels deer movement, often between bedding areas and food sources. Setting up a stand in these areas can be highly effective, but it’s a high-risk, high-reward strategy. You need to be very careful not to disturb the deer and ruin the spot.

4. Stands of Oaks:As we’ve discussed, acorns are a major food source for deer in the early season. Setting up a stand in an area with plenty of oak trees can be very productive. However, you need to be ready to move your stand as the availability of acorns changes.

5. Soft Mast: Areas with soft mast trees (like apple, pear, or persimmon trees) can also be excellent stand sites. Deer love these fruits and will often visit these areas regularly. However, keep in mind that soft mast generally doesn’t last long once it hits the forest floor. When the fruit is gone, it’s time to move your stand.

6. Scrape Lines: These are areas where bucks have scraped the ground and nearby trees with their antlers, often along their travel routes. Setting up a stand near a scrape line can be a good strategy, especially if the scrape line is fresh. However, keep in mind that deer generally visit early-season scrapes after dark.

The best stand setup for early season deer hunting depends on a variety of factors, including the available food sources, the deer’s travel routes, and the changing conditions. By being observant, adaptable, and strategic in your stand placement, you can increase your chances of a successful hunt.

Strategies for Hunting on Private Land: Keeping Bucks Calm and Avoiding Unnecessary Pressure

Hunting on private land offers a unique set of opportunities and challenges. The strategies you employ on private land can significantly differ from those used on public land, particularly in terms of managing pressure on the deer. Let’s look into the importance of keeping targeted bucks calm and relaxed and share some tips from experienced hunters on how to avoid unnecessary pressure.

Keeping Targeted Bucks Calm and Relaxed

One of the key strategies when hunting on private land is to keep targeted bucks as calm and relaxed as possible. Unlike public lands, where deer are often accustomed to human activity, deer on private lands can be more sensitive to disturbances. Any unusual activity, such as the scent or noise of a hunter, can put them on high alert and make them more elusive and turn nocturnal.

To keep bucks calm, it’s crucial to minimize your presence in their habitat. This means limiting the amount of time you spend in the hunting area before and during the hunting season. When you do need to enter the area, for instance, to set up stands or check trail cameras, try to do so quietly and quickly to minimize disturbance. Take your scent free routine seriously. I always leave all my camo in a bin covered with pine needles in my car. I never wear my hunting clothes until I get out of my truck and it’s time to hunt.

Avoiding Unnecessary Pressure

Experienced hunters understand that applying too much pressure can drastically reduce their chances of success. Here are some tips to avoid unnecessary pressure:

1. Smart Scouting: Use cellular trail cameras to monitor deer activity without physically being in the area. When you do need to scout in person, try to leave as little trace as possible. Avoid walking through bedding areas or prime feeding spots where you might leave your scent.

2. Careful Stand Placement: Place your stands in locations that allow you to enter and exit without disturbing the deer. This often means setting up along the edges of the deer’s core area, rather than in the middle of it.

3. Playing the Wind: Always consider the wind direction when hunting. You want to approach your stand from downwind to prevent your scent from reaching the deer. 

4. Limiting Hunting Pressure: Resist the urge to hunt every day. Overhunting an area can make deer wary and change their patterns. Instead, hunt strategically, focusing on the best weather conditions and times of day.

5. Silence is Golden: Be as quiet as possible when you’re in the hunting area. Noise can alert deer to your presence and make them more cautious. Use quiet gear, move slowly and deliberately, and avoid unnecessary talking or noise.

Hunting on private land requires a careful, strategic approach that prioritizes keeping deer calm and relaxed. By minimizing your presence, avoiding unnecessary pressure, and using smart hunting strategies, you have increased odds of killing that deer you’re after.

Strategies for Hunting on Public Land: A Different Approach for Rewarding Results

Hunting on public land is a different game altogether compared to private land hunting. It presents its own set of challenges, but also unique rewards. The thrill of harvesting a mature buck on public land, where the pressure is high and the odds are often stacked against you, is unmatched. Let’s discuss the different approach needed for hunting on public land and share some tips on how to hunt aggressively and effectively.

A Different Approach for Public Land Hunting

Public land hunting requires a different mindset and strategy. Unlike private lands, public lands are accessible to everyone, which means the deer there are usually more pressured and wary. They’re accustomed to human activity and have adapted to avoid it. This requires hunters to be more aggressive and proactive in their strategies.

On public land, deer are less likely to follow predictable patterns, especially mature bucks. They often take advantage of thick cover and rugged terrain to avoid hunters. Therefore, successful public land hunting often involves going deeper and hunting harder than others are willing to.

Hunting Aggressively and Effectively on Public Land

Here are some tips from experienced hunters on how to hunt aggressively and effectively on public land:

1. Scout Thoroughly: Spend as much time as you can scouting. Look for signs of deer activity, such as tracks, droppings, rubs, and scrapes. Use topographic maps and aerial imagery to identify potential bedding areas, feeding areas, and travel corridors. 

2. Go Deep: Don’t be afraid to venture into the more remote, hard-to-reach areas of public land. These areas often receive less hunting pressure and can be a refuge for mature bucks. 

3. Hunt the Thick Stuff: Mature bucks on public land often take refuge in thick cover. Don’t shy away from these areas. Instead, learn how to hunt them effectively. This might involve still-hunting or setting up a stand or ground blind near the edge of the thick cover.

4. Be Mobile: Being able to move quickly and adapt to changing conditions is crucial on public land. Using a tree saddle and staying mobile is the best advice I can give you. If a location isn’t producing results, don’t hesitate to move.

5. Play the Wind: As with any type of deer hunting, always consider the wind direction. Try to approach your hunting area and set up your stand or blind with the wind in your favor.

6. Hunt During Off-Peak Times: Hunting during the week or during inclement weather can increase your chances of success, as there will likely be fewer hunters on public land during these times. With my schedule hunting Mon-Fri isn’t an issue and that’s when I find less hunters to be in the woods.

Top Tips for Early Season Deer Hunting: Patience, Stalking, and Strategic Positioning

Here are some practical tips for successful early season deer hunting, emphasizing the importance of patience, stalking, and strategic positioning.

1. Patience is Key: Deer hunting, especially in the early season, is a game of patience. Deer are not as active during the early season as they are during the rut, so it may take longer for them to appear. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t see deer right away. Stay patient and keep your eyes peeled for any signs of movement. They are not being highly pressured yet so their guard still may be down.

2. Master the Art of Stalking: Stalking involves slowly and quietly moving through the hunting area in search of deer. This can be an effective strategy in the early season when deer are often feeding in open areas. Practice moving quietly and staying low to avoid detection.

3. Strategic Positioning: Where you position yourself can have a significant impact on your hunting success. Try to set up near food sources, water sources, and travel corridors that deer are likely to use. Use the wind to your advantage by positioning yourself downwind of the deer’s expected location.

4. Scout Ahead of Time: Scouting before the season starts can give you valuable information about deer movement patterns, preferred food sources, and potential stand locations. Use trail cameras, look for signs of deer activity, and observe from a distance to avoid disturbing the area.

5. Be Ready to Adapt: Conditions can change quickly in the early season, and successful hunters are those who can adapt. Be ready to change your strategy based on the weather, deer activity, and hunting pressure.

6. Practice Good Scent Control: Deer have an excellent sense of smell, and if they catch your scent, they’re likely to avoid the area. Use scent control products and play the wind to prevent deer from detecting your presence.

7. Use the Right Equipment: Having the right equipment can make a big difference in your hunting success. This includes a reliable weapon, appropriate clothing for the weather, and comfortable and quiet footwear for stalking.

8. Take Advantage of the Weather: Deer activity can increase dramatically after a cold front or a rainstorm. If the weather changes, consider heading out to your stand, as the deer are likely to be on the move.

Embrace the Challenge and Thrive in the Early Season

As we bring this article to a close, it’s important to reflect on the key points we’ve discussed and how they can shape your early season deer hunting experience. The early season is a unique period that presents both challenges and opportunities. It’s a time of transition for deer, marked by shifts in their behavior, diet, and movement patterns.

We’ve explored the importance of pre-season preparation, including patterning bucks, effectively using trail cameras, interpreting their pictures, and creating food plots. We’ve talked about the dietary transition of deer from high-protein plants to high-calorie carbohydrates, highlighting the significance of acorns, crops, soft mast, and water sources in their diet.

We’ve discussed the best stand setups for early season deer hunting, emphasizing the need to adapt to changing conditions and identifying the six best stand sites. We’ve also shared strategies for hunting on both private and public lands, underscoring the importance of keeping targeted bucks calm and relaxed on private lands and the need for a more aggressive approach on public lands.

Finally, we’ve shared practical tips for successful early season deer hunting, focusing on the importance of patience, stalking, and strategic positioning. Each of these elements plays a crucial role in your hunting success, and mastering them can significantly enhance your early season deer hunting experience.

However, the most important takeaway from this guide is the need for adaptability. The early season is a dynamic period, and the most successful hunters are those who can adapt to the changing conditions and deer behavior.

As you prepare for the early season, we encourage you to apply these strategies and tips. Remember, every hunting experience is a learning opportunity. So, embrace the challenge, learn from each hunt, and continually refine your strategies. The thrill of harvesting a mature buck in the early season is well worth the effort, and with these tips in your arsenal, you’re well on your way to a successful hunt.

Thank you for joining us on this journey through early season deer hunting. We hope this guide has been informative and inspiring. Now, it’s time to put these strategies into action. Happy hunting!

Join the Conversation and Stay Connected

Now that we’ve shared our insights and strategies for early season deer hunting, we’d love to hear from you. Do you have your own tips or experiences you’d like to share? What strategies have worked for you in the early season? Your insights could be invaluable to other hunters in our community. Let’s learn from each other and continue to grow as a community of passionate and dedicated hunters. Join us on Facebook or at

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