Bedding Areas...Too Close for Comfort?
There are a lot of influential factors that come into play when determining whether or not to move in on whitetail bedding areas; no two scenarios are exactly alike. Regardless of the time of year, the key component to moving in on bedded bucks is scouting. It may take multiple seasons of hunting a given property before you can begin to decipher the habits and movements of mature deer on a particular piece of land. Specific areas that draw mature bucks to bed will likely be utilized year after year, an extense knowledge of how deer use a given bedding area is crucial. It is also important to note that where a buck beds will likely change throughout the season. Summer beds are often typically found in dense cover near food and water sources. As the rut moves approaches, it is all about the does, and late in the season, bedding areas can be found near food, and in locations that offer the most direct sunlight, the south and east sides of slopes are likely areas due to the increased amount of sunlight throughout the day.
When it comes to early season hunting, most choose to hunt cautiously, which is smart; not entering areas that have a high likelihood of alerting deer gives you an opportunity to observe without disturbing the area. Hunting the fringes allows you to both scout and hunt with the lowest level of intrusion possible. The obstacle that we often face during early season hunts is exiting the field. It does not take long for the deer in a given area to notice the increased human activity, and they will change their behavior accordingly. That is why making a move without substantial evidence to do so can do more harm than good. If you are too aggressive with your tactics, you could easily push target animals out of the area long before the pre-rut fires up.
Making a move on bedded whitetails is highly dependent on your knowledge of deer movement. If your scouting and trail cams tell you that deer are on their feet during shooting light, you've got a shot. More often than not, the whitetails that you watch all summer, as they carelessly feed in bean fields, make an abrupt alteration in their daily behavior by mid-September. The window to strike on an early season buck is small, but with the correct intel, you may have a chance to get close and catch him off guard. If a buck feels comfortable, he will likely use the same access trail to food day in and day out; this makes him killable. It is important to note that you should avoid entering the bedding area itself, that is his sanctuary. If you decide to move in on him, cautiously hunt the edges.
Summer bucks, although relatively relaxed, are still very in tune with their surroundings.
This past week, I did something I rarely do early in the season. I moved danger close to a bedding area that I was confident held a couple of good bucks. However, the decision to move in was not random. On two separate occasions, at last light, while hunting from low-risk stands, I had spotted a good buck using the same trail to access a lush bean field. Trail cameras that I had repositioned a few weeks prior confirmed my suspicions; he was on his feet early and was very huntable. The trail that he was using emerged from a known bedding area and cut across a broad valley which then crept through a patch of tall CRP grass, and finally back up to the lowest point of the bean field. It appeared as though he was hanging tight in the security of the timber just on the far side of the valley before entering the open space and moving out to feed. My thought was that he did this for three reasons. First, he was waiting for the security of nightfall. Second, by staying low in the valley, he was able to pick up on dropping thermal currents in the evening as they funneled out of the valleys and then down the main drainage. Third, from that position, he could see if there were other deer already feeding in the field, therefore making it safe. Long story short, I made a move on him. I had hung a stand back in May that was within 100 yards of his bedding area and 20 yards from the access trail that he was using on the far side of the valley, very close to where he would hold-up before moving into the open. With a Northwest wind and temps dropping into the low 40's, I had a feeling he would be on his feet early. I knew that I had to get in front of him and get a shot before he reached the edge of the timber or else I would risk the likelihood of my scent being swept down to him with the dropping thermals. With a half hour of shooting light remaining, and a full moon rising behind me, he stepped out. To my surprise, he was not alone. For 5 minutes, I anxiously watched as two mature bucks slowly worked their way down the trail that led directly past my stand. As light was fading I settled my pin behind his shoulder and squeezed the trigger; the rest is history. Moral of the story, the conditions have to be right, and your confidence has to be high. There simply is not a lot of room for error when hunting bedding areas. I would not have made a move on him without knowledge of his daily activity and the consistency of routine behavior on his part. It was a risky maneuver that paid off.
Stand placement: This aspect is critical. You must have a stand that will keep your scent completely undetected. Why? The buck you are after will likely be one of the last to move; he will wait for all the other deer to move into the field ahead of him as a precautionary measure. That means that if one of the early risers picks you off as he/she passes your stand, game over. Most crop fields are a bit higher than the surrounding terrain which means that as the sun sets, thermals will begin to pull your scent down hill. A stand located on the low side of the trail may be the most logical location. Most early season stands are hung with the specific purpose of ambushing deer during the first 7-10 days of the season and are located in staging areas close to fields or on access trails to food sources. If you can figure out where they are bedding and the food sources they prefer, you have a good shot at patterning their movement. From there, trail cameras can tell you if you have enough daytime movement to move in.
Terrain: Can you get in? More importantly, can you get out? Finding access routes that leave you hidden are critical. Study topo maps to determine the best access and entry routes. If you do not have a solid plan on how to leave the field without alerting deer, the risk of spooking them may outweigh the potential reward. Once deer have entered a field to feed, if your only way back to the truck is through the field, the deer will quickly alter their feeding patterns to coincide with your intrusion, meaning that they will not enter the field until after dark.
Thermals: Thermals are tricky. There are plenty of hunters out there that have mastered the art of hunting thermals, but for me, they lead to nothing but anxiety. Most people will tell you that thermals go up in the morning, then down in the evening, which is true. However, toss in a 10 m.p.h. wind while thermals are rising or falling, along with rugged terrain and all goes to hell. In hilly terrain, thermal currents are a given; they will be there. I will not go into detail on what they are in this article, but I can tell you that when hunting rugged country, trying to figure out how thermals will react to given wind directions may as well be rocket science as far as I am concerned. Mastering thermal activity is indeed an art, I play them the best I can, but more often than not, the currents are not doing precisely what I need them to at dusk and dawn. What have I learned? Hunt high when you can if you are in rugged terrain. Once you get low, the terrain features and currents tend to swirl significantly and can create a mess when trying to remain undetected.
Prevailing wind: If the wind is not perfect, don't bother. Early season deer a bit more relaxed, but that does not mean that they are more tolerant of human intrusion. If the wind isn't right, and consistent, stay out of risky stand locations.
Confidence level: Your skill as a bowhunter, your assurance that you know exactly where they are, and that you can access the stand or blind you need to is imperative. Having a solid game plan starts with looking at topo's and mapping a course to and from your stand. If you are not confident that you can make it into a particular area, remain undetected, and then sneak out, you risk bumping deer out of the area permanently.
Deer population: In areas with high-density populations, it can be near impossible to slip in close to bedding areas. There are simply too many sets of eyes capable of busting you. This is where having a solid entry/exit strategy can be extremely important.
Weather: Will he be on his feet? A solid cold front is one of the most influential factors to get deer moving earlier than usual. A drop in daytime temperature of 10 degrees or more means a high likelihood of increased activity; 20 degrees can be downright amazing. During early season hunts many, myself included, tend to sway towards hunting the back end of a weather system. As the front moves through, and if there is substantial precipitation, deer will often remain close to security cover. When the front passes, the barometer begins to rise, temps drop, and wind speed picks up. Deer that have been bedded up for a day or so will be looking to feed, and when the wind begins to subside at dusk, they will often be ready to hit the field to make up for lost time. It should also be noted that on the flip side, my observations point to increased activity before weather fronts during the late season. The likelihood of snow covering up food sources can often get deer up and moving as the barometer drops prior to the front moving in.
Patterns: Have you scouted? Do you know his entry/exit routes? Often, the most challenging part of hunting risky locations is getting close enough to kill him. Trail cameras are an essential tool to get a better handle on how, and when deer are moving. However, the best form of scouting is to be there in person. If you can set up on a field 200 yards or more away, you can get a broad spectrum view of how deer are using it. One night of glassing can make up for two weeks of running cameras. A camera will only cover so much ground.
Some will disagree with me, but I prefer to stick to evening sits when hunting early in the bow season. While it is possible to beat him back to the bedding area, it is very difficult to make it in and remain undetected. More often than not, deer have left the fields well before dawn, and they will begin to slowly work their way back to the security of their bedding area. The easiest way to determine a mature bucks routine is with a trail camera because you will rarely catch him in the open at dawn. In my experience, a camera on the fringe of a bedding area will have the most activity 1-2 hours before sun up. I do not necessarily know why this is, but bucks tend to like to be in close proximity to their beds before daybreak. Possibly after a full night of feeding, they prefer the security provided in the bedding area to digest their food. Without solid evidence of a buck slipping up early, morning hunts can be very tough.
The easiest mistake to make when hunting mature deer is to rely on luck. It is easier to pick a pre-hung stand and hope that it pays off. Early in the season, more often than not, if you choose a stand that is not favorable to the prevailing wind and thermal currents, it will not work in your favor. Use the tips above to determine whether or not to move in. If you don't have a good feel for a target bucks habits, don't worry, the pre-rut will be here before you know it and the woods will bust open with deer activity.