Buckmasters Magazine

5 Keys to Early Season Bucks

5 Keys to Early Season Bucks

By Steve Bartylla

It helps to have a step-by-step plan.

I was getting frustrated. I was hunting a northern Alberta zone that had a five-day bow season. Arriving two days early, I figured it would be a simple task to observe some fields, pick a few bigger bucks and set up for the hunt.

Sunset on the first day of the season found me racing to the least promising alfalfa field. Since it was the smallest of the fields and right along the road, I’d assumed my odds of finding a big buck would be better on the larger, more remote locations. That hadn’t happened, so I was giving up hunting time to scout.

Slowing to a crawl, I pulled the truck behind a clump of brush.

Grabbing my spotting scope, I slipped into the ditch and set up just in time. There, only 150 yards from the road, a huge 8-pointer with a drop tine stepped into the field. Behind him was a solid 10. Noting where they entered the field, I decided I’d gladly shoot either.

Returning the next day with Elite Outfitters owner Larry Jolliffe, we headed to the corner where I’d seen the bucks and set up a stand in a tall poplar.

The next two afternoons in the stand passed uneventfully. We saw numerous deer, and Larry got some good footage of does and small bucks piling out of the corners, but the two shooters  never showed.

That changed on day three when Larry whispered, “Shooter! Get ready.”

As the 10-pointer I’d observed four days earlier stepped into view, I prepared for a shot.

Settling the pin, I squeezed the trigger of the release and watched the arrow blow through the buck’s lungs. After running a short horseshoe route through the field, the deer crumpled before our eyes. I’d filled my tag with just 30 minutes left in the season.

Early season bowhunting can be a challenge. Even in Alberta, where the rut comes much earlier than farther south, bucks aren’t even thinking about does. Frankly, they are in lazy mode and tend not to move more than they have to. Toss in abundant food sources, and it begins to feel like you’d have to be the luckiest hunter alive to fill a tag.

You can make your own luck, however, by following five keys to arrowing an early season buck.


Find the food and you’ll find deer. Early season isn’t an exception. In fact, it’s too easy to find food this time of year. The key is to find the food deer want most at that particular time.

Scouting cameras and long range glassing are the best ways to locate bucks on food sources.

Trail cameras are great, but I believe long range observation gives you more information and disturbs deer less.

For agricultural food sources and clear-cut regrowths, you can watch without leaving the truck. A good set of binoculars or a spotting scope is essential.

If you can’t see the entire area from your vehicle, look for some natural cover from which to make your observations. Sneak in at late afternoon and set up as far away as you can while still being able to view the entire food source. Pay attention to scent and the wind just as you would when hunting.

Food sources like oak ridges and honeysuckle growths can be more challenging, and trail cameras often are the best choice for scouting.

Don’t forget about water sources as possible ambush points.

5 Keys to Early Season BucksNAIL HIS PATTERN

Finding a buck is the first step. The next is determining his travel routes.

Daylight sightings can be plentiful during the weeks before hunting season, but they seem to end abruptly once hunters enter the woods.

That’s when getting closer to the buck’s bedding area can pay off. If you can pinpoint which trails he’s using to and from the bedding area, you can set up inside the woods and catch him during shooting light.

I use a tool I call a track catcher.

Rake a soft 3-foot section of each trail you believe a buck is using. Follow each one about 100 yards into the woods and create another track catcher. If a trail splits, place a track catcher on each of the branches.


A week later, check your track catchers for extra large prints that might indicate a mature buck.

If you think you’re far enough off the food source to catch daylight movement, set up a stand.

When hanging stands in spring, I clear multiple shooting lanes and am not shy about making them up to 5 yards wide. That’s not the case just before bow season.

When hanging stands within days of hunting them, cut as little as possible. Look for existing shooting windows that can be opened up with a quick snip or two.

The less walking around, leaving scent and altering the look of the area, the better.

I use a pruner instead of a saw. Whitetails are not afraid of the smell of fresh sawdust, but they are curious. When they smell sawdust, they’re likely to stop and check it out. The last thing I want is a big buck sniffing where I was standing a few hours before. A pruned branch leaves fewer odors behind.

Also, this is not an occasion to bring a friend. As nice as it is to hang stands with a buddy, minimized disturbance outweighs the benefit of someone helping.

Get in, get your stand up and get out. Use every scent-prevention precaution you would while hunting.

5 Keys to Early Season BucksGETTING IN AND OUT

Speaking of getting in and out, you need a plan. As much as bowhunters focus on getting to a stand undetected, it’s just as important to get out stealthily.

Crossing the food source is often the best entry option. When in the woods, stay off the trails and make sure the wind isn’t blowing toward the buck’s bedding area.

Getting out is trickier.

When hunting in the woods, you have the advantage of deer not lingering around the stand. Look for exit routes that avoid the food source and select the one that steers clear of the most deer activity.

When possible, use drainages or creeks because walking the bottoms is quieter and often sheltered. The route out is rarely the quickest or shortest, but it pays to go the extra distance.

When hunting right on a food source, a friend can be helpful. If you’re covered up with deer, have your hunting partner drive in to pick you up.

Whitetails living near agriculture are used to trucks and tractors, and spooking them with a vehicle is better than letting them watch you climb out of your stand.

If a friend isn’t available, it’s best to wait them out. Deer are grazers and rarely eat in one spot for the night. An extra 30 minutes in the stand will usually give you a chance to sneak out.

If you can’t wait or new deer keep filtering in, try snorting, howling like a coyote or barking like a dog. None of those options are ideal, but you might be able to scatter the deer enough that they won’t pinpoint your stand.


The final key to tagging an early season buck is making the shot. That sounds simple, but experience has taught me more shots are blown early in the season than any other time.

I believe we’re all a little rusty during those first few times in the stand each season.

Spend some time practicing from a simulated setup. If you’re a treestand hunter, shoot from a treestand in the back yard. If you’re a ground blind hunter, put out a popup and do the same.

Focus on proper form and wear your full hunting gear. If you’re going to catch the string on a grunt tube pinned to your chest, or snag the arm of that new jacket, it’s less humbling to do so while practicing.

I like to remind myself to slow down as I draw on a deer. Just thinking “slow down” is enough to get me to concentrate on the shot and minimize the urge to rush.


Early season hunting isn’t easy, and it’s not a good time to count on luck. Still, if you find a buck, peg his travel routes, don’t let him know you’re on to him and make the shot, it’s not impossible to fill a tag.

Read Recent Articles:

How to Choose a Bow Sight: What you need to know to make the right choice for your bowhunting style.

The Same Old Rut? When it comes to deer hunting, the rut is hardly mundane, routine or predictable.

Take It From Tony: The most respected deer expert you’ve never heard of shares a few words of wisdom.

This article was published in the August 2011 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.

Copyright 2024 by Buckmasters, Ltd.

Copyright 2020 by Buckmasters, Ltd