September Sins: 6 Reasons Why Early Season Hunts Fall Apart

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Why didn’t your plan for that big velvet buck work out? Here's a look at the most common offenses

September bucks are easy, right? The August trail camera pictures and bachelor group glassing sessions make some of those big summer studs seem tame enough to cuddle. “You could set a watch by him,” the old saying goes. But then opening day arrives, and that deer you thought you knew betrays you worse than a middle school romance. 

The author with an ancient 6-pointer taken in late September.

True enough, early September provides a special opportunity. I’ve been hunting it since 1997 (best I can recall anyway), when Kentucky moved its archery season back from its traditional Oct. 1 bow opener, and it’s when I’ve taken several of my biggest bow bucks. I started outfitting early season archery hunts last fall, and if the world doesn’t burn down before then, we have a full camp coming in a few weeks. 

I’ve learned that even the best-laid plans for September deer usually fall apart, same as they do the rest of the season — but the odds of getting a mature buck in bow range are higher right now than at any other point in the season. So what squanders an early season hunt? These are the worst offenders.   

Believing Bait Is Magic

Baiting is legal in Kentucky, and at this very moment, there are untold thousands of corn piles scattered across the commonwealth. I’m not writing this to argue about baiting. It wouldn’t bother me much if the practice was banned — but for now it’s not, and it’s an advantage, and so I use it. A corn pile is effective in September, but only if used as a piece of the entire puzzle.  

You can use bait to draw in numbers of does and little bucks from a long way. But good luck steering a big one too far off his normal routine with corn. Home ranges are small this time of year, and you need to put bait where a buck is already living to make it useful. I like to think of my corn piles as something to slightly alter a buck’s normal routine, to where it’s favorable for me to set up an ambush and get a shot. As such, bait is at its best in a staging area, and if I have my choice, it’ll be nearer to a bedding area than a food source. 

Not Watching Your Step

Speaking of bait, don’t walk across your corn pile. Ever. Most of my early season setups are planned in such a way that my hunters never cross the area where I expect the shot while getting to the stand. On the way to your stand, if you’re walking across the field, food plot, or bait site where you expect deer, you already have strikes against you. There are exceptions and stands where you have no choice. Sometimes even big ones mess up. But day in and out, if you plan your setups with an “access first” mindset, you’ll be money ahead.  

Every aspect of an early season setup should be planned with access in mind. (The Grigsby / Realtree 365)

Not Being Aggressive Enough

Hunting the wind is always good advice. But it's possible to be too cautious. The clock is running out on summer patterns as soon as the season opens. In many staging areas in particular, deer can show from about any direction, and you can’t game the wind for them all. Check the wind forecast and do your best — but sometimes, you have to roll the dice and go hunting to kill a buck. 

My biggest September deer (the giant 6-pointer shown above) walked into a clover plot when the wind was almost perfect for him, and almost dead wrong for me. I was actually set up on a different buck that had been walking in from the other end of the field. The Big 6 was an old, nocturnal monster, and I never really considered him in play. Lucky for me, he appeared with daylight to spare, and never caught my scent.

Everyone assumes they should be passive in the early season. Don’t. The summer pattern will change whether you’re hunting a buck or not — and if you spook him, there’s always November, and that’s a long time away. Strike while the iron's hot, and don't overthink it.   

Thinking It’s Over, When It’s Not 

Most bucks change their pattern after shedding their velvet. It’s when many mature deer make a split from their summer bachelor groups. In my experience, it’s common for a buck to “go dark” right around the week of Sept. 10. But a few bucks will revert back to their early season ways a week later, and stick to that pattern for a few days — especially if a good cold front passes through. Several of my September bucks — including that big 6-pointer — fell between the 15th and the 20th of the month.  

Not Practicing in Low Light 

Every September buck I’ve ever killed has been in the last 10 minutes of shooting light. All of them. Big bucks usually show up late, and that is a fact of life. Anticipate this ahead of time. Practice shooting your bow in low light. Consider using a larger aperture peep (or adding a kisser button to the string). Range references from your stand ahead of time, while you can still see. And don’t give up and climb down when there’s five minutes left on the clock. You’re better off skipping the whole first hour than the last five minutes. 

Changing the Plan Too Soon

Everything about the early season can make you second-guess. Has he found an oak dropping somewhere? Did he stop hitting these beans because they turned yellow? Shed his velvet? Did I spook him? Or somebody shot him?  

The answer to all the above could easily be “Yep.” But it’s also perfectly natural and expected for summertime patterns to fade as September wears on. An early season hunter spends a lot of time prepping. When the season finally arrives, trust your plan and stick to it for at least a week. Persistence kills big bucks, regardless of the phase of the season. A little luck helps, too.