By Josh Raley
It was a steamy morning in southern Louisiana. Projected highs were in the mid 90s and the humidity was hovering around 85%, yet that still wasn’t enough to keep me home. Without a doubt, my scouting mission would provide many encounters with snakes, ticks, and horseflies the size of actual horses. But the trail cameras I had hung a month prior were calling my name. After all, it was mid-August, and it was time to get my hit list ready. With great anticipation, I set off for the nearly three mile hike.
As I approached my first camera, the excitement was nearly more than I could handle. Inserting the SD card into my reader, I was amazed to find… does. Only does. Not a single buck. “That's okay,” I thought, “this was the set least likely to produce. The next one will be better.”
Another half mile and about a dozen biting flies later, I arrived at the most promising of my trail camera setups. This one was in a narrow funnel between a bedding area to the south and an open pasture and water for the deer to the north. Surely this camera would have what I was looking for, right? I was pleasantly surprised by the number of pictures. Unfortunately, they were almost all of a small reed dancing back and forth in front of the camera. Rookie mistake. Similar scenarios repeated again and again, resulting in a grand total of zero mature bucks located on this property. You read that right. Zero. The opener is about a month away and I have not located a single deer with any headgear. Sure I may find one between now and the season opener, but I have to plan for the worst.
If I had to bet, I'd guess I'm not alone in my preseason buck-less world. Twenty years ago, no one would have batted an eye at entering hunting season without knowing exactly what bucks are around. Unfortunately, we tend to base expectations from others, and hunting industry shows. Now we think that if we don't have at least a few “hit listers” then we are out of luck. But we should not despair. The next few months in the deer world are full of variables, and for many of us, we know that the properties we hunt will hold at least a few deer worth chasing. So what should we do until those deer show up? Here's my plan for having no plan on opening day.
1. Time To Back Out
This may seem counter intuitive, but I'm not going to be in the woods again (except to check a few oaks and soft mast crops) until opening day. Instead, I'm going to spend my time shooting, tending to my gear, and reviewing aerial photos. The season opens October 1st where I hunt. The last thing I want to do is put unnecessary pressure on the deer.
2. I'm going to be patient
The long off season is enough to drive any serious hunter insane. Dreams of opening morning and what it could bring have bounced around in my head the entire off season. But I'm not going to let the excitement cause me to make unwise decisions that could tip off the deer in my area. Patience is going to be key. First, I'm going to avoid potential hotspots until the conditions are perfect. This means watching the wind closely and timing my hunts to coincide with cold fronts in the early season. Second, I'm going to do a lot of observations sits. Will I get a deer in bow range on one of these sits? Probably not. But observation sits can provide maximum intel with minimum intrusion. Once I have gathered the intel I need, I can make my move. This leads to the third part of my plan.
3. Commitment to Staying Mobile
I like to go into the season knowing I’ve got different stands set for different scenarios. Because I don't know where I'll want to hunt this year, I'm not going to hang a single stand before the season. This means lugging my climber, packing my lock-on and sticks for a hang and hunt, or hunting from the ground. And it means that I’ll be able to easily adjust to the deer once I gain a better understanding of what they are doing during the season.
4. I'm going to cast a wide(r) net
Even though I had confidence in my previous trail camera set ups, I'm going to reach out to other parts of the property that have gone untapped. While the primary property I hunt is about 800 acres in size, I have really concentrated on about 240 acres of it. With no mature bucks showing up in that 240 acres, I'm going to place cameras throughout the rest of the property. This will allow me to survey the rest of the property without any additional pressure on my current area of focus.
5. I'm going to enjoy hunting to the fullest
Today's society has conditioned us to expect quick results with minimal effort. But there are many things I love about hunting that go beyond shooting a deer. Time spent hunting affords opportunities for adventure, camaraderie, and unplugging from the hustle and bustle of life. I'm certainly going to take the first ethical shot at a mature buck I get, but I'm not going to define success by antlers on the wall or even venison in the freezer. Success is time spent doing what I love, and that's chasing whitetails.
In short, opening day is one month away and I have no clue where the bucks are or if there even are any on the property I hunt. As bachelor groups begin to break up in the next few weeks and bucks start shedding their velvet, chances are at least one mature buck will disperse into my area. But if not, I've planned my hunt and I'm going to hunt my plan. And if I never release an arrow, that's okay, because time in a stand is a success in itself.