It was Labor Day on the calendar, but the photograph reeked of mid-November. My buddy, Ross, a local farmer and fellow white-tailed deer hunting nut, sent me a stunning photograph of two giant bucks, antlers hopelessly locked, bodies hopelessly lifeless. The smaller buck was a 150-class 10-pointer with chocolate-colored antlers; his dueling partner was a Boone and Crockett Club candidate with a broad, gnarly rack.
"These were found by a neighbor of ours just the other day," Ross' written message said. "What's up with that? I thought bucks locked antlers only during the rut."
I used to share my friend's belief. Aggressive behavior—in the form of sparring, fighting, chasing and vocalizations—was something bucks only did as they challenged each other for breeding rights during the fall. The rest of the year, bucks were meek, sly creatures that ghosted through life while trying to keep a low profile. Experience and observation, however, have proven that belief wrong.
I first saw the error of my ways one August evening several years ago. My friend Ted Marum—a highly successful whitetail guide from Buffalo County, Wisconsin—and I were out glassing and filming whitetails during the last week of August. As a small bachelor group of bucks fed into a lush alfalfa field, a lone buck wandered in from a different block of timber. The other bucks stopped feeding to watch the new kid, and the closer the stranger walked, the more agitated the larger bucks in the group became. Finally, one of the larger bucks in the bachelor group strutted down toward the lone buck. Posturing aggressively, the two bucks circled each other, then clashed antlers briefly before the intruding buck trotted off the field.
"Wow," I said after lowering the video camera. "You don't see that often this time of year."
"Actually, I think it's just the opposite," Marum said. "I've seen 10 knock-down buck fights in my life, and seven of them happened in September, right after the velvet shed. I think bucks are extremely aggressive toward each other during that period."
When I asked my friend to explain himself, his response made perfect sense. "For starters, bucks have spent the summer in bachelor groups. They definitely have a pecking order established then, but since their antlers are in velvet, that pecking order is largely based on body size and posturing. Once bucks lose that velvet, they're no longer afraid to damage their antlers. Not only that, but their testosterone levels start rising as fall approaches. You take a buck with any kind of attitude, and now he's got antlers to back him up. Put him next to another belligerent buck, and there's gonna be some fighting."
The breakdown of summer bachelor groups only amps up the tension. As bucks break away from their bachelor groups to establish home areas for the fall, the most dominant bucks settle into the best habitat. Other bucks disperse to find their early fall hangouts—and inevitably run into bucks they've never met. On occasion, these bucks decide to duke it out to see who's the toughest. Marum (as well as most wildlife biologists) believe these early dominance battles are important, because they save bucks a lot of hard, and potentially more dangerous, fighting once the rut kicks in.
This phenomenon holds obvious implications for early season whitetail hunters, who typically focus their efforts on ambushing bucks as they travel to food sources. While there's certainly nothing wrong with this approach, my experience has proven it's also possible to push a buck's aggressive buttons during the early season. Rattling, calling and decoying—all tactics primarily associated with hunting rutting whitetails—can also be employed during the salad days of early fall. Indeed, if used properly, these aggressive hunting methods can help you bag a mature buck that might have eluded you if you'd only opted for the passive, ambush-style approach of the typical hot-weather hunter.
Here's a look at using aggressive hunting tactics for early season bucks.
Dupe 'Em With Dekes
I've been a decoy nut for many years now, but I never thought of using them prior to those few frantic weeks before the rut. That changed, however, after Marum and I talked about early fall aggression. Only a few weeks later, Wisconsin's archery season had just begun, and I'd wrangled not only an afternoon out of the office, but an invite from Ted to hunt his home farm.
"The wind should be perfect for you to sit in that back bean field," Ted had told me on the phone the night before. "And a buddy of mine was hunting there last week and saw three ‘shooters.' They were jacking around with each other, but nothing came close."
"Sounds like a good place to stick a decoy," I said, half-expecting my friend to laugh.
"That's exactly what I was thinking," Ted replied. "Keep antlers on it and face it away from your stand and into the field." I agreed, and toted the plastic buck with me for the half-mile walk to the stand.
Does, fawns and turkeys kept me entertained for much of the evening, and the pleasant fall breeze and changing colors helped remind me of why I bowhunt. Dusk was falling when I noticed movement on the field edge more than 100 yards away. One quick scan with my binoculars proved it was a mature buck with his nose deep in beans. Normally, I'd have felt desperate in this situation, because with only mere minutes of shooting light left, it was unlikely the buck would feed within bow range before dark. But I had an ace up my sleeve; the decoy was facing dead-on toward the feeding buck, so I reached for my grunt call and issued the whitetail version of, "Hey dude!"
The buck's response was immediate and decisive. Lifting his head from his supper, he spotted the decoy instantly. The buck raised his head, stared at the fake for a long minute, then plodded in assuredly to introduce himself to the stranger. By the time I'd grabbed my bow and clipped my release to the string, the buck was 50 yards away and closing. When I hit full draw, the buck was nose-to-nose with the decoy. Thirty seconds later, I heard the buck crash in the nearby timber, my arrow deep in his vitals. From the time I'd spotted the buck to the time he died, less than 2 minutes had passed. I was thrilled as Ted helped me drag the buck out of the woods. Our unique plan had come together perfectly.
I've come to believe early season hunting is one of the best times to decoy whitetails. Not only are bucks highly curious and often aggressive (especially toward a buck they don't know), but much of the hunting done at this time of year is on or near food sources such as fields or oak flats. These open-cover sites are where decoys shine, as one of the keys in decoying is simply getting a buck to spot your fake. But there are other fine points unique to early season decoying. The first is to use a buck decoy. Though a doe deke could certainly lure in a buck during the early season, it will also prompt curious does and fawns to investigate and these "girl groups" will mill around your fake until they spook and alarm any bucks in the area. Second, face your decoy toward the expected entry trail of a buck. When the real deal appears, he'll interpret the direct stare of your impostor as an aggressive maneuver. Assuming he's bigger, this should be all it takes to tempt him in.
Grunt, Rattle And Roll
Like decoying, calling and rattling are tactics most hunters reserve for the rut. But the hard truth is that whitetails grunt, bleat, mew and "talk" to each other all year. Further, bucks can—and do—fight and spar with each other any time of the year that they're in hard antler. This makes shelving your deer calls until November as big of a mistake as keeping your decoy in mothballs.
Need proof? My buddy Doug Wiles was afield on the mid-September opening day of the Wisconsin archery season last fall. He was hunting in an "Earn-a-buck" zone, which meant he first had to register a doe before he could kill a buck. Such was Doug's mission when he spotted a small group of does and fawns picking their way through an oak flat. Plucking a small "can" call from his pocket, Doug coaxed in the lead doe, which responded to his bleats with a chorus of her own. In the span of a few minutes, the doe had returned a dozen calls and wandered within bow range. My buddy promptly sent an arrow over her back, but after skittering off, the doe began bleating again, louder than ever! Doug responded in kind, and soon heard another whitetail marching steadily toward him from behind. This deer was no doe, but a 10-point monster that Doug estimated would score 160 Pope and Young Club points! My friend sat and watched helplessly as the curious trophy plodded past at 15 steps and sauntered over to harass the does. Soon the entire herd disappeared over a hill—and Doug enjoyed a long, hard cry!
Rattling antlers work for the same, obvious reasons. If bucks are sorting out dominance by engaging in everything from sparring matches to full-blown battles, it only makes sense they'll investigate horn tickling and the occasional full-blown rattling session. Will they come charging in with the fury and drive they exhibit during the rut? Probably not, but if your antlers or rattling bag coax a buck within bow range, I doubt it will matter to you whether he came in running or sneaking.
Successful early season calling comes with qualifiers, however. Though bucks can be vulnerable to calls at this time of year, they rarely speed into the fray, often preferring to slink in silently—and usually downwind—of the "deer" they're hearing. Remember, the incoming buck probably doesn't recognize the "voice" of the deer he's hearing, and unless he's the bull of the woods, he's not taking any chances of being surprised. Also, the thick cover typically present during early fall prevents him from seeing very far, which makes him rely on his nose even more. Finally, remember that the mood of the deer often has more to do with his willingness to come to a call than any other factor; some bucks are simply lazy or non-aggressive, or the buck might simply be a wimp that's never up for a challenge.
How do you overcome these challenges? For starters, make sure your stand or blind is located near an obstacle that discourages a buck from circling downwind. Setting up within bow range of a fenceline, creek bank, field edge or other obvious barrier will discourage a buck from circling and will help "steer" him in for a shot. Second, when calling to bucks you can see, do your best to judge the mood and/or personality of the deer. If the buck stares your way but won't come, call softly whenever he puts his head down or looks away. You can often get in a buck's head by badgering him with calls from an intruder buck. But if he seems nervous or spooky, save your efforts for another day. The buck might have just been whipped in a fight, or simply isn't feeling randy at the moment. Finally, remember to adjust the volume of your calling/rattling to the conditions. It's always easy to amp up the volume on a buck that's not responding, but nearly impossible to change his mood if you've taken things too far and intimidated him.
It's easy to pigeonhole decoying, calling and rattling by saving these "aggressive" tactics for rutting bucks. But whitetails are highly social creatures that participate in a pecking order that is dynamic and ever-changing. Decoys, grunt tubes, can calls and rattling antlers can, under the right conditions, push a buck's aggressive buttons long before breeding begins. Fool just one good buck with them, and I'll bet these tools will become part of your arsenal as soon as the deer season opens!