Early Season Big Game Hunting Tips
It’s almost September, that’s hard for me to believe, but true. The preparation month of August is ending on Sunday, and the hunting season starts with Doves on September 1st. Here in Colorado, and in many states, the archery season starts this Saturday, August 30th for deer and elk. After the archery and muzzle loader season (which is September 13th – 21st in Colorado), the rifle seasons start, the fall turkey season is in October, and then the waterfowl and upland bird seasons get under way. Months of hunting! Before I know it I will be preparing for the spring turkey season.
This year is especially significant for me because I have almost recovered from major back surgeries in March. Although I am not quite where I had hoped to be at this time, I am well on my way, and well enough to be taking a horseback elk hunting trip with my muzzle loader in about two weeks. I really wish I were going out this weekend with an archery tag for deer, but I can’t push myself too hard, I simply can’t miss that elk trip. But if I were hunting at the beginning of the seasons for white tail deer, or mule deer, or elk, there are some tactics I want to share with you.
Hunting deer or elk in the pre-rut season is quite different than during the rut (mating season), I will get to those tactics in a moment. For deer, the rut comes later in the year, usually late October and November, and for elk the rut generally peaks in mid-September. The rut is primarily driven by the photoperiod, or the amount of sunlight in a day. The reason for this is because of the gestation period the animals require in order to produce offspring at a time of year that the fawns and calves are more likely to survive; it’s really quite an incredible act of nature if you think about it.
So much attention is made of hunting during the rut because that is when the big bull elk and monster deer are most vulnerable, which in a way seems almost unfair to the animals that we hunt them during that time. Their minds are on breeding, they are gathering harems or chasing does, and they are more vulnerable than they are at other times of the year, excluding the harsh winter time when food is scarce. Wildlife biologists know what they are doing when they set hunting seasons, and it was long ago determined that hunting elk during September should only be done with primitive weapons (a bow or muzzle loader) because it is much more difficult to take an elk with one of these weapons simply because you have to get so much closer to the animal than you would with a high-powered rifle, and the shot is more challenging with a primitive weapon. That is the one thing that has always appealed to me about hunting elk; the challenge, and being able to see their behavior during the rut. But that is another article.
During the early archery season, both deer and elk are not yet focused on the breeding season, they are focused on building up their body mass that will be needed for the expenditure of physical effort during the rut, and the soon-impending winter. This is an important fact to consider when you head out for your hunt on opening day of archery season; you should center your attention on feeding and watering areas. Ideally you will have scouted the area you are going to hunt, either in-person, with trail cameras, or by doing research with satellite views of your hunting area. You need to identify the areas where the animals will be feeding, like open meadows with lush vegetation. If you are hunting white tails, you may know of feed plots that have been planted, and agricultural fields are an easy target. For wilderness hunting of elk and mule deer, still look for the open meadows with cover and water nearby.
Once you identify food sources, next look for bedding areas. Deer and elk are prey animals, meaning that they eat in a hurry to ingest as much food material as they can, and then they retreat to a bedding area where they feel safe and regurgitate their food from one stomach, chew on it, and then send it to another stomach chamber. Deer and elk have four stomach chambers to enable this process. Bedding areas for whitetails will vary with the landscape and available cover. A monster whitetail may feel safe in tall grass, or a minor depression in the terrain. Mule deer find security in a gully wash, or a high ridge under a tree. Elk like the thickest timber you can imagine walking through, preferably on the north side of slopes in the early season. Both deer and elk also feel secure when water is close by as a barrier, as long as it is not a rushing stream that creates too much noise for them to hear approaching predators.
Once you have determined the feeding and bedding areas, the next thing to do is find the travel routes to and from these areas. An obvious thing to look for is a game trail with fresh tracks and droppings. If you can’t find a trail, look for natural travel routes created by the terrain, such as ravines or saddles in a hillside or mountain drainage. Generally deer and elk will find the easiest path to travel on the terrain, but it also has to feel safe to them. So don’t look for travel routes on top of a ridge, but rather look in areas below a quarter of the height of the ridge. Whitetails tend to live in areas where their travel is more predictable, and while there are many game trails in the mountains, elk sometimes just go where ever they want and can be nearly impossible to predict.
When you have determined your area to setup your blind, tree stand, or still hunt, keep your distance from the areas I described above and approach them silently, downwind, and move slowly. If you are approaching in the dark keep you flashlight pointed towards the ground, or better yet use a red bulb in your flashlight. As the sun begins to light the area, look for movement using a binocular, and be on high alert of your surroundings. Somewhat of the inverse applies for an evening hunt, but the key to success is stealth and awareness of your surroundings.
If you spook a whitetail, it may be gone for days. If you spook a mule deer, you may see it again the next day in the same area. If you spook a herd of elk, they will likely run down hill, but will usually quarter the mountain and turn back uphill within an 1/8th of a mile, so don’t chase them downhill. Instead move laterally at your current elevation in the direction that the elk ran, and wait for them to come back up the mountain. I have had that happen quite a few times, but it is no guarantee; sometimes the elk will just keep on running and be in the next county within an hour. There are no sure things in hunting, but there are some things you can try that have proven to work.
For all of you that are heading out for the early archery hunts, I wish you success, and more importantly, that you take pleasure in the experience. It’s an exciting time of year for getting out and enjoying the outdoors. As a moral and ethical note, I will add that there is nothing wrong with taking a doe or a cow; they have to be harvested too in order to keep our herds at optimal numbers. A successful hunt is not judged merely by the number of antler points; it is determined by the experience. Happy hunting!