Bow Hunting The Early Season

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DEPT_archery-talkJul-12Warm weather, the potential for velvet antlers, and archery-only opportunities — what else could the hunting archer ask for?

I hate mosquitoes. No, truth is I loathe the pesky little buggers. It is only my sheer passion for all things bowhunting that allows me to overcome my disdain for these most irritating of creatures, particularly in the early archery seasons. In fact, the ability to hunt as early as August was one of the most compelling reasons for my leap into the wonderful world of bowhunting in 1989.

Warm Weather Advantage

No doubt, each fall brings a crescendo of weather changes culminating in the eventual, and almost inevitable, deep-freeze we call winter (except on the southern West Coast, of course). As archers, we enjoy several months of open hunting seasons. If you’re hard-core in your relentless pursuit, you are well-acquainted with the trials and tribulations associated with late-season negative temperatures. On the flip-side, early seasons offer mild, and often downright warm, conditions. As summer transitions to fall, early season bowhunters savour the short sleeve weather. With its own challenges, by comparison, early season bowhunting is more comfortable than the often-frigid November whitetail rut. No need for layers, lightweight clothing and footwear is generally all that’s required early on. In Alberta, where I do much of my early season hunting, August 25 marks the season opener. Each province and jurisdiction has its own respective opening dates, but in general they are indeed, early.

In short, early summer-like conditions allow ungulates to enjoy their daily bedding-feeding-bedding patterns. As such, patterning whitetail deer specifically can be much easier in the early season. Ask any whitetail guru, and they will all say that there are two prime windows of opportunity to take a trophy whitetail: one is the early opening week-or-two of the season, and the other is during the peak of the rut. Until bucks strip their velvet in the early season, they remain lackadaisical in their approach to daily life.

Velvet Potential

For many, velvet antlers are an object of desire. Soft to the touch, and magnificent to look at, velvet antlers are a sight to behold. Throughout much of Canada, most deer shed their velvet by the first or sometimes even second week of September. My wife, Heather, and I have taken mule deer still in full velvet as late as September 19, but as a rule, if you’re looking for velvet in pristine condition, the clock is ticking as calendar transitions from August into September. For the most part, the elk rut is already underway by late August so velvet elk antlers are out of the question. Moose, on the other hand, are different. Late August bowhunting opportunities will commonly produce bulls in velvet. While I’ve never taken a full velvet whitetail myself, I’ve been in on several hunts where my partners have. As for my own early season velvet trophies, I’ve taken several, but the most beautiful was an early September central barren ground caribou.

The practical reality of hunting velvet-antlered ungulates is that they are often still in their relaxed summer bedding, transition, and feeding patterns. Facing no immediate urgency to deal with harsh weather, preparation for the rut, or in some instances migration, they can be easier to pattern and, in my experience, generally less alert. In turn, big game can be easier to stalk and/or ambush in the early season. Conversely, this all changes almost overnight when velvet sheds or is rubbed off. As the weather cools, and the earliest stages of the rut cycles begin, ungulates in general suddenly switch gears, becoming noticeably more alert, cautious, and edgy.

Extended Seasons

Certainly the masses turn to archery hunting to elevate the challenge. Taking the game to a new level is attractive, but in the end, it’s also about extending our time in the field. While select jurisdictions offer early muzzleloader and even rifle hunting opportunities, most provide even more extended seasons for those willing to use bow and arrow.

Take my home province of Alberta for example. Select Wildlife Management Units (WMUs) are open for gun hunters in the early season, but the majority open the first of November and run straight through the month. Bowhunters, on the other hand, are granted the privilege of hunting with archery gear throughout September and October, with a many opening as early as late-August. This privilege effectively triples the amount of time we can spend in pursuit of our target game species. The key — it must be done with a bow.

Early Options

One of my favourite early season strategies is hunting mineral licks. While temperatures are still high and summer weather prevalent, deer, elk, moose frequently visit licks, and even predators like black bear and others. Set a stand or ground blind on or near a lick, settle in for a vigil, and it’ll only be a matter of time before one or several game species drop in for a drink.

I’ve had great success on early season licks, and I know of one fellow who arrowed a huge bull elk as well as an enormous bull moose on the same lick in a matter of just a few hours during the last week of August. If you’ve got the patience, sitting on a mineral lick is arguably one of the most popular early season methods employed by bowhunters.

Spot-and-stalk is another high-odds strategy employed by bowhunters. In fact, early mule deer can be one of the best targets with high odds for success. For several years now, Heather and I have been faced with choosing between an early bighorn sheep hunt and an early mule deer hunt for the August opener. Both are incredibly appealing but with most canola, barley, and alfalfa crops still standing at that time of the year, it makes for ideal conditions to locate and slowly sneak up on unsuspecting mule deer. Comparatively speaking, I know of more trophy-class mule deer taken with a bow during the last week in August than at any other time of the fall.

Likewise, tree-stand- or ground-blind-hunting field edges can be very productive in the very early archery season. I’m not a big advocate of hunting field edges, but up until about the first week in September, field edges can still be great places to capitalize on a shot opportunity as animals head out to feed in the evening, or return to cover in the morning. In the early season, lush alfalfa and pea fields can be great places to look for heavily use trails entering and leaving the woods. Sometimes a shot opportunity can be produced by something as simple as placing a stand or blind within 20 metres of that pounded trail. Some species like whitetail deer and elk can be easier to pattern in the very early season, while moose and mule deer, for instance, can be a bit more nomadic in their movement. When its ripe, oat fields can be great producers as well, but this cereal crop doesn’t typically ripen until mid-to-even late September. Ungulates and black bears in particular can often be found gorging themselves on ripe oat crops. Locate an active field, do some recon and you’re sure to find a suitable ambush location along the field’s edge.

Parting Thoughts

Admittedly, I find hunting the very early archery seasons a challenge. While the opportunities are exceptional, I’m not a big fan of hot weather. It generally takes me a few days in the field before I get into the groove. If you like elk hunting, it can be a great time to capitalize on the earliest stages of the rut. Young bulls and cows are often tuning their vocal chords, and the odd herd bull just might be eager to challenge a newcomer. I haven’t been as lucky with the early season elk hunting but I know several who have taken the biggest bulls of their hunting careers during those first few days of the archery season.

Aside from the opportunities, be sure to prepare properly for those first few days afield. Make sure your equipment is in good working order and your bow is sighted in for the broadheads you’ll be hunting with. Other than that, if you can handle the bugs and the heat, remember, there is nothing like bowhunting the early season. Good luck this fall; may your arrows fly true!

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