Ever wonder why so many big bucks are killed the first few days of the early season? It's simple if you understand that in most parts of whitetail country deer are in the "feeding phase" of the "feed-breed-feed" cycle when the season opens and deer possessed by the "need to feed" are some of the most huntable deer of the season.
The Need to Feed
The beginning of hunting season typically finds whitetails in the "feeding" mode of the cycle. They have been "on the feed" since late summer chowing down on the most nutritious foods they can find. Winters can be tough on whitetails; with little food available, they need fat reserves to make it through. Researchers at the University of New Hampshire found that roughly half of whitetails daily nutrition in winter comes from tissue fat and adult does in good condition enter the winter with a 90 day fat supply. It's as if something is telling them to eat now because you won't have time for it once the breeding starts. And it's true; once the rut kicks in, it is all about finding does and taking care of "business." A mature buck will loose 25-30 percent of his body weight during the rut. So they have topack on the pounds now.
How and What Deer Eat
Deer scientists refer to whitetails as "concentrate selectors". Unlike cattle which will mow down just about anything in its way, deer are actually very fussy eaters. Their long narrow snouts allow them to pick and choose the choicest morsels. When they find something they like (typically a food high in nutrition) they tend to concentrate their feeding efforts on it. They will leave clover and chicory food plots for acorns and but often won't eat brassicas until it matures or has been frosted a time or two. Like a person at an all you can eat buffet, they choose what they crave and pass right by the other stuff.
Bucks are often found grouped up in the early season and it's not uncommon to see groups of bucks feeding together. This is a great time to inventory your buck population by setting up cameras in feeding areas or doing some long distance "buck watching" with binoculars, or better yet, a spotting scope.
As hunting season approaches, whitetails will likely be on planted foods like beans, alfalfa, clover and chicory. Forages like these have been available all summer and whitetails are in the habit of visiting the same food sources on a regular basis. No food plots, or planted fields? They'll be on fresh green growth like late season forbs and grasses, fresh, plant tips and newly emerged leaves. At some point in late summer (usually September) to early fall, soft and hard mast generally becomes available. A good mast crop will often result in a shift in feeding patterns. Soft mast crops like apples, pears, persimmons and a host of berries are rich in sugar and whitetails crave them like kids crave candy. Hard mast crops like acorns and beechnuts are rich in carbohydrates and fats, the stuff that builds fat reserves for the tough winter ahead. Acorns are the ultimate whitetail attractant. Whitetail bucks are definitely "slaves to their stomachs" during the "need to feed" cycle of the early season.
Hunt 'Em Right
Early season is a great time to hunt mature bucks. Early season bucks still in their summer feeding habits can often be patterned and set up on. They haven't been hunted since last season and it is possible to catch them with their guard down. If you are going to hunt a mature buck in the early season, you had better get him early because, after a hunt or two, he will feel the pressure and his pattern will change; hunt him a few more times and he will be on "red alert" for the rest of the season. The early season mature buck play is to find a food source being used by a good buck or two, set up on the area, and strike before they figure out the hunt is on.
Hunting early season bucks on food sources is one of your best bets for taking a mature buck. Evening hunts are generally most productive in the early season when food sources like bean fields are generally being used by multiple deer including does/fawn groups. These deer serve as sentinels for the old boy you are after and he is generally the last to show up in the feeding area. All evening long, you will have dozens of eyes to beat as well as plenty of noses. Your scent will be saturating the ground area with scent molecules as the sun sets and the cooler heavy air drops to the ground. To make matters worse, leaving the area undetected is almost impossible with evening sits. Dropping out of a tree is a great way to tell every deer in the area that something is up, and that something feels an awful lot like last hunting season. It is always best to have a buddy pick you up with some kind of motor vehicle to run the deer out of the field before you appear out of nowhere. Hunt the same field five nights in a row and chances are each night will produce fewer and later sightings.
Mast tends to spread the deer out and draw them off the fields. Savvy hunters stake out acorn flats and old abandoned fruit orchards with scouting cameras to find out who is using what and when. Old apple orchards and other fruit sources are great ambush places as they often attract solo bucks during daylight hours which make for an easier set-up than hunting large green fields. Bucks on mast sources can be fairly easy to pattern, provided the mast source stays constant. An apple tree dropping a bushel of apples one weekend is likely to be bare the next. White oak acorns on the ground can change feeding patterns in a nanosecond. The trick to early season food hunting is to strike while the iron is hot and stay on top of what the whitetails are using.
Hunting the early feeding phase of the fall feed-breed-feed cycle is a terrific time to take a great buck. Their guard is down and they can be fairly predictable. The rut may be more exciting and no one wants to miss it but when it comes to hanging big bucks on the wall, nothing beats "the need to feed".