By Dana R. Rogers
Each year, some great animals are tagged just hours after the season opens. However, the tactics used are quite different from those employed later on when the rut is in full swing or when there’s snow on the ground.
Here are a few things to consider when chasing bucks and bulls during the early seasons.
I run a lot of cameras in hopes of finding a specific animal or two to target during the early season. If you’re picky at all, you really have to find the right animal, and if you’re not getting pictures of a target animal going to a food or water source in daylight, you’re probably not going to kill him.
Early season camera setups for all species can focus on water sources, feeding areas, and the travel trails and corridors between them. During the hot days of August and September, deer, antelope and elk require water daily to survive, so these locations are often your best bet for taking inventory and drilling down on where animals want to be, and when they’ll be there.
Water is not only one of your best scouting locations, but it’s also tough to beat hunting over.
A ground blind for pronghorn is by far the most effective technique for punching a tag. Set up on the right water during the right weather, and an archery shot opportunity is nearly guaranteed with proper preparation.
Late afternoon and early evening sits in a stand or well-concealed blind also work very effectively in high-use deer and elk areas that are secluded. Elk also wallow frequently, and finding a hidden wallow can tip the odds of tagging a good bull on a hot September afternoon. If the water in a wallow is muddy and stinky, you better believe the elk are using it. If you found a wallow, consider packing in a lightweight tree stand or building a ground blind out of local vegetation.
Whatever the case, stay in the shadows so you can pull your bow back undetected. Be patient, and feel free to make a few soft calf/cow sounds throughout your sit.
If you prefer the space offered by today’s hub-style, portable blinds, take the necessary time to place them well ahead of the season. This allows wild game to grow accustomed to them. Natural blinds allow you to begin hunting immediately, but the same can’t be said for freshly placed pop-up blinds.
Whether you’re using a fabricated blind or building one out of the brush, always consider prevailing breezes and available cover before setup. Also, remember that guarding water is time-consuming and can be hot in September. If you know you’re going to have to wait it out in a blind for the day, take a lunch, bring something to read and drink plenty of fluids.
Because the days are long and hot, elk will retreat to cool hideouts in the timber. The heat encourages the elk to move from bedding to feeding areas in the night or at the very end of shooting light when it’s a lot cooler. A water hole loaded with fresh tracks can be golden. Find these spots, and put them in your GPS.
Hunting Food Sources
If I’m hunting antelope or elk and have access to private property, my first choice would be good alfalfa fields. Otherwise, I typically target grazing areas where I know there has been enough moisture to keep the grass and forage from burning up.
For deer, early season food sources seem to change on a weekly and sometimes daily basis. It can literally happen overnight. For example, when those bean fields start to turn yellow, you’re done. You have to find another food source or field, and you have to keep in mind that all of the bean fields are going to start to turn pretty fast.
If you find a field or pasture while scouting and are looking for a place to set up, remember that a lot of fencerows running between crop fields are very thick on the outside edge next to the crop field while the interior is more open. With a set of ratcheting hand pruners and a small folding stool, you can quickly carve out a couple of small shooting windows and be hunting in no time.
Spot and Stalk
If you don’t fancy the idea of sitting all day in sweltering heat, a spot-and-stalk hunt for elk, antelope or deer can be possible under the right conditions.
Stalking antelope, elk or deer is a great challenge, but it isn’t impossible. To make the best of this tactic it’s best to seek out terrain that gives you an edge and be proficient at longer-than-average shots. Steady binoculars, a powerful spotting scope, a laser rangefinder and a flat-shooting compound bow are the tools of the trade.
The savvy bowhunter can glass from a distance until a target animal beds in a good location that sets up nicely for a spot and stalk hunt. You’ll want broken terrain with some vegetation sprinkled in to hide your stalk. That type of terrain is far more bowhunter-friendly than wide-open flat land, which is probably just going to wind up with a busted stalk and spooked animal.
Never dismiss even the scantest cover while stalking, as it only takes a single fold of topography, knee-deep sage or a waist-deep creek to make a successful stalk. Knee pads and leather gloves are a must, as you’ll surely encounter sharp rock and ground-hugging cacti.
Move only when your target animal has its head down to feed, looking away or lazily sleeping. Push your bow ahead to slowly move toward the game on your hands and knees, or slither on your belly behind any available cover.
I’ve learned the hard way that you should wait for the animal to raise on its own and present a shot. Throwing rocks or making a noise typically results in a blown-out animal. Use your rangefinder to range — and range again — before you get ready for the shot in a comfortable position to wait him out.
When elk hunting, if the glassing game paid off, you should know the elk’s general pattern and can capitalize by playing the wind and setting up in key spots for your own vocalizations. Capitalize on the opportunity when it comes your way.
You’ll know when you’ve slipped into elk’s bedroom, but be careful if you’re messing with bedded elk, because if you’re too aggressive you risk running them off to where you might not be able to hunt them.
In other words, don’t jump right into bed with the elk. Instead, consider hunting a different herd early while waiting for the thermals to start rising later in the morning. If you don’t get a on a bull early, then head for deeper cover to stalk from downwind if you must.
With the wind in your face, slip into dark, north-facing timber where bulls bed for the day. Just because elk bed in timber doesn’t mean they sleep the day away. Bulls can get up to reposition, graze and sometimes even slip off to wallow. Slow way down, and glass your timber surroundings. You can slowly work your way into the cool timber with fresh sign and try some cold-calling such as social mews and calf calls that elk do daily. You are trying to set the stage for a bull to swoop in and hook a few cows.
If you are in close proximity to a bull, you may get a bugle, but chances are that a bull will come in silent. In order for a bull to come into your call, he will first try to circle you and double check the validity of the sounds by confirmation from the wind. You will need to anticipate this type of movement, so plan on making sounds and moving downwind from your vocalizations or perhaps even setting up a decoy.
After a few sequences of calls, set up and wait for 20-30 minutes. If nothing happens, continue moving through the timber for the next setup. Be stealthy and deliberate with each step, and always keep the wind in your face.
Antelope and elk are rutting from mid-September through early October, so using decoys to play on their sense of community is another tool to keep in your arsenal. I love decoys made by Heads Up Decoy and have also used the full-body 2D versions from Montana Decoy Company with great success.
If you’ve never tried it, decoying antelope is a blast. Experience the excitement of a charging pronghorn buck, chuckling a warning like a steam engine, and you will definitely be hooked.
With antelope, decoys are normally designed to imitate an immature buck, and for good reason, as mature, dominant bucks will attempt to chase the fake upstart out of the country while marshaling collected harems. Lone bucks can be worthwhile targets, but the best bucks will typically have a group of does gathered that they are trying to protect.
If you spot a worthy buck, attempt to stalk within 200 yards or so without being detected by the antelope, then raise the decoy and see if he’s interested. If you go unnoticed after a time, produce a series of chuckling snorts to get his attention. Kneel and use the decoy as cover as the buck closes to within range, then draw your bow behind this unlikely cover and pop up to shoot over the decoys back.
You must be ready to shoot from point-blank range out to 50 yards, if you are proficient, and you must shoot quickly. For a pure adrenaline rush, nothing beats decoying.
With antelope and elk, calling is also a big part of decoying. Like the antelope chuckle, you can use the bugle for elk, but I’d advise to use it sparingly. Mastering a few good cow calls, or at least passing as a real elk, is critical. I’m certainly not a very good caller, but if you watch some YouTube videos, listen to real experts and practice, you can really improve.
For elk, I like to use the Heads Up cow on my bow or hunt with a 2D Montana Decoy elk off to the side and behind me. Calling elk is far more effective with a few friends doing most of the calling 50-100 yards behind you to pull in a hung-up bull.
Odds and Ends
Antelope scrapes om a fence crossing shouldn’t be overlooked. These hotspots are often shared by several bucks at the corner of overlapping territories. Look for a large, hoof-scraped area and multiple clusters of scat topped off with the smell of urine.
The best way to locate scrapes is to target a particular buck, a trophy you have pinned your hopes on, and spend long preseason days spying on him from a safe distance through a spotting scope.
The last hour of daylight can be a magical time, so hanging in there until last legal shooting light is critical. A tougher chore is getting out of your stand without spooking game, as exit strategies are crucial.
If you’re hunting a crop field, consider having a buddy pick you up in a vehicle or tractor. Deer or antelope are probably familiar with farm equipment and are less likely to run off to parts unknown when they hear or see it.
Shot selection and timing are always critical. If you’re hunting a water source, remember wild game coming to water is usually very skittish and hyper alert. Deer and antelope will often head bob or false-bolt before settling to drink, trying to catch ambushing predators of guard.
Don’t move a muscle until you see a buck’s neck muscles moving water upward. Be ready once your opportunity does present itself, and execute your shot. Don’t be in a hurry. If you’ve done your homework it’s just a matter of remaining calm and making your shot count.
Whichever species of big game you pursue during the heat of the early bow-hunting season, I think you’ll find success by trying these techniques and staying flexible.
As always when afield, respect the land, respect the landowner and respect the wildlife.
About the Author: Dana Rogers grew up in central South Dakota and now lives in the Black Hills. Contact him at [email protected]