Andy May made his way through the marsh this summer to reach a small island that has about three dozen oak trees on it to see which of those trees, if any, are producing acorns.
That is not how most people spend a day in late July. For May, this work leading up to the archery deer season is the difference between capitalizing on the first days of the season or watching them slip away without a punched tag.
“There were three trees that were producing and the rest weren’t. That is a really good early-season spot,” May said. “You wouldn’t know to key in on that unless you made the long trek out there to check it. I do every year because I have killed a couple good ones on there, but it really only gets activity when there’s acorns.”
May is a Michigan resident who is one of the most well-respected do-it-yourself bowhunters in the country. He has hunted in 19 different states, and early-season strategy looks different depending on the type of terrain being hunted. But May did not hesitate when asked his thoughts on how good the early archery season can be for hunters targeting a mature buck.
“I think it’s one of the best times to capitalize if you do your homework and you’re prepared,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of success early season, but it’s riding on the back of a lot of scouting.”
Bowhunting seasons are opening up across the country right now, and Outdoor News chatted with May more in depth about his early-season tactics.
Outdoor News: You mention early season being one of the best times to target a mature buck. Is that simply because of the lack of hunting pressure yet, or is there more to it?
May: I think that’s part of it. In a lot of cases the bucks are still in bachelor groups. They just have a whole different, kind of relaxed mood. They have numbers in their favor, and they feel a little bit more confident moving because they’re in a group. Certainly pressure has a big part to do with that as well.
ODN: What may be intimidating for many hunters in the early season is the vast amount of vegetation and cover in many situations. It can feel like bucks could bed anywhere. What are you looking for specific to bedding in the early season?
May: That’s so hard to answer because I’ve hunted the western plains for the opener and you might be sitting back and glassing a little riverbottom. You’re using your eyes from a distance to locate where these deer are living, where they’re bedding, walking out, traveling and you can make a very accurate strike for an early-season sit.
Around home, a lot of times it’s swamps and marshes where it’s so situational. Early season they’re maybe bedded not far from the food source because they haven’t been messed with a whole lot and they’re often still in bachelor groups. The pressure hasn’t kicked in and pushed them back into those secondary spots where they end up spending the majority of October — the little islands back in the marsh, the little points that jut out into the marsh.
Farm ground, they’ll sometimes bed in little creek bottoms, little ditches. On river bottoms they tend to bed on those little creek bends and oxbows. Even in broken up country where it’s a mix of ag and woods, they’ll bed in the timber, but usually they like to bed on some sort of elevation gain if there is some.
In hill country, they tend to bed more on secondary points off the main ridge, usually on the downwind side. They like to bed in the little drainages where it makes a round drainage cut on the side of the ridge where it creates kind of a bowl feeling. That’s where a lot of the mature bucks like to bed because the wind swirls in there and it’s really hard to get in close without them seeing you, hearing you or smelling you.
ODN: Let’s say you’re hunting in areas of agriculture like many people see in the Midwest. What really piques your interest as a food source early in the season?
May: I do feel like if you’re lucky enough to have a lush, green bean field, you’re probably in a pretty good situation if you have good bedding adjacent to it.
Where I’m at with an Oct. 1 opener, it’s not out of the norm for the beans to have already started turning. They’ll be hitting them, but not as heavy as they were. Then there’s usually a transition to corn. Alfalfa is really good, especially five, six, seven days after a fresh cut.
Corn is always a good bet in a high pressure situation. A lot of times they’ll bed in these little wood lots or creek bottoms that have corn around them or next to them because it creates more insulation. They feel safer.
I think guys tend to lean on the beans and alfalfa more because it’s easier to glass, but some of my biggest early season bucks have been coming out of a swamp or marsh into the standing corn.
Also, everybody talks about crops in farm country, but there’s a lot of browse that time of year too, native browse that can be really good.
ODN: Are you comfortable scouting along the transition of agriculture fields next to timber to gain information in season or a day or two ahead of opener?
May: Generally, I do feel comfortable checking an area as long as I don’t feel like I’m disturbing them when they’re bedded. I prefer to do it on a real windy day, maybe a condition where it hasn’t rained in two weeks where my scent just won’t lay down. Or when a rain is coming to wash it away. Sometimes you don’t get those situations, but I’m not afraid to go out and find out what I want to find out because I do feel like if I get that information my hunt is more effective than not knowing. I’m not afraid to do it, but I’m cautious and try to do it smart.
ODN: In areas where you don’t have agriculture, you hear a lot about hunters trying to locate a specific feed tree. That can be a difficult scenario in a situation a lot of people encounter where there’s maybe a thousand oak trees on a property.
May: In that type of situation I’m usually trying to find the closest tree or flat to where I think that deer is bedding. I would be doing a lot more reading sign, looking for tracks and using trail cameras and then really trying to push in.
That’s a tough situation, those early-season, big-woods bucks. It’s one of the hardest, but I’m looking for the closest destination to that bedding where I think that deer is going to travel. It could be at the head of a drainage heading out to a crop field. It could be one producing oak, it could be a greenbrier thicket, a honeysuckle thicket, a water hole, or coming down off a knob to hit a creek for a drink.
ODN: It’s a week or two before opener. What are the final steps you’re taking now to make sure you are ready?
May: That’s when I’m usually spending a lot of time glassing. I’m looking for sign. I’m looking for big tracks, and I’m checking cameras in specific spots where maybe there’s a buck I’ve located and I want to confirm he’s in there or want to get a little more information.
I personally don’t like to put cameras where I expect daylight activity, unless it is on a food source that maybe isn’t getting pounded yet and I can easily get to it without disturbing anything. I’m OK with just getting nighttime pictures because I feel like in most cases if a deer is in there I’ll have a good idea where he could be, and then I can make a solid plan.