There are just a few things I do well, and until the end of the first month of bow season, I thought finding and hunting whitetails was one of them. This year has been really tough. After a drawing a complete blank one weekend, I went back to the drawing board.
I had hunted all the classic early-season staples—food plots, white oak acorns, crab apples, and persimmons—and well worn trails and, according to the hunting magazines, good spots. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong.
“Quit whining, it was one weekend and you are just over reacting as usual,” said my little brother, a talented wildlife biologist who manages several large plantations on the Savannah River. “You are over thinking things—it’s hot and there is a ton of food in the woods right now. You were probably asleep when the bucks came through.”
But I did rethink things and came up with a few observations to keep in mind.
Food is the key if deer are not breeding, but this time of year there are white, red and water oak acorns, food plots, soft mast and browse. How do you know exactly what deer are eating? My friend Dr. Grant Woods, a noted deer researcher, has written about a method he calls “scouting from the skinning shed.” When you do harvest a deer, find its largest stomach and carefully cut it open and examine the contents. A lot of acorns of plants will be in small pieces, but there will be plenty of whole items to tell the story. It’s a fool proof way to figure out what deer, or at least that deer, was eating. The crab apple tree I was hunting, for whatever reason, did not draw deer this year. They lay rotting under the tree. Skinning-shed scouting would have saved me a lot of time.
Another key to isolating preferred acorn trees is deer scat. If there are piles of it under a tree, deer are spending time there feeding. It is one of the key things to look for when selecting an acorn tree or food plot to hunt.
Trails are important and worthless. Remember that deer are in the woods 365 days a year and travel on some trails in the winter, different ones in summer and some last month. Like an old woods road, trails don’t disappear in a season. Unless you have solid proof—your own two eyes or trail cam photos—don’t waste your time hunting just trails. Ask me how I know.
History might be the best weapon in your hunt for early-season whitetails. While helping a buddy load a mature doe into his pickup, I asked how he knew to hunt sawtooth oaks. “They always hit those sawtooths this week and every time I came out of the woods last week, they were standing underneath them,” he said.
It was simple enough. History had taught him that these trees usually dropped in the third and fourth weeks of the season and he was able to ground truth that later. History helped narrow down the possibilities and a little scouting put him in the perfect spot.
With my brother’s sage advice ringing in my ears, I will stop over thinking the hunt when I hit the woods this weekend. My eyes and notes from last season will guide me to that sweet spot, not the advice of outdoor writers a thousand miles away or my thoughts about what the deer should be doing.