Morken: Mapping out a plan for early-season whitetails

This North Dakota buck is frequenting a small woodlot a couple miles from the primary habitat along a river bottom. Bucks may find any number of places to bed such as these small groves and right in crop fields like soybeans when they are available to them in the early season. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)

The Minnesota bow opener was still a ways off and weather can change in a hurry, but it sure felt like fall on Sept. 1 with temperatures in the mid-50s at dawn.

Anyone who lives for the hunting season knows what it does to a person’s spirit to feel that crisp, cool air for the first time again each year. For me, it could not have come at a better time, with the North Dakota archery opener for deer on Sept. 4.

It’s tough to beat North Dakota for hunting. From pheasants and waterfowl to whitetails and mule deer, it offers a wide variety of animals to pursue.

North Dakota is where my bow season started before shifting my focus to the Minnesota season that opens up on Sept. 19. A lot can happen in a whitetail’s patterns from early to mid-September after they shed their velvet, but here are a few keys to how I’ll try to get on a good buck this early season.

Scout first, be flexible

If you listen, watch or read almost any whitetail-specific media platform, you will often hear how important long-range scouting with glass is to early-season success.


The goal here is to use either a spotting scope or binoculars to get eyes on a good buck and then move in on them the following day hoping the buck takes a similar pattern. This was the strategy I started with in North Dakota where I hunt in the eastern part of the state.

The use of spotting scopes for long-range scouting in the early season can be a great way to find a buck and then move in on him. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)

The terrain here is relatively flat river bottom with strips of timber that parallel the river right in the heart of farm country.

Green food sources adjacent to bedding are my focus the first couple weeks. Good bedding cover here typically means areas along the river where there are no mature trees. The open canopy allows the sun to reach the ground and creates thick, tall swaths of grass and brush that the deer love.

I also see bucks bed right in green bean fields in the early season. That is where scouting first instead of just going into the trees to a pre-set stand becomes so important.

I set up my Maven CS.1 spotting scope overlooking a hidden bean field the night before North Dakota’s opener on Sept. 3. I did hear a couple deer cross the river, but I didn’t see anything on that field in daylight.

A couple miles down the road, I saw a handful of deer far away from the river or any tree cover. They had to be bedded right in the beans before getting on their feet, and my theory is maybe they are protected better from the mosquitoes by getting off the water.


It’s important to be flexible this time of year. The bedding you know holds good bucks in November might not be where the deer are now.

Be more aggressive

Why are we so hardwired as whitetailers to be passive?

It is something I have struggled with mightily over the years. There is this fear that bumping a buck is the worst thing we can do as hunters, but early season can be the time to be aggressive. Bucks rarely travel that far in daylight this time of year, so it becomes that much more important to get in close to them.

Being aggressive doesn’t mean not taking a smart approach. Maybe it is identifying a likely bedding area and getting up the courage to move within 75 yards of that for an evening sit on the right wind. Maybe it’s hunting off the ground more. Maybe it’s pulling a set down and moving 70 yards to where you’re seeing deer movement that day.

For me this year, it also means hunting more mornings right in or near bedding under certain conditions. I will do this more in North Dakota than in Minnesota. That’s because of the differences in terrain and my ability to access these areas in North Dakota along the river.

I spent this summer getting my dad’s old 14-foot aluminum boat up and running just so I can use it deer hunting.

I have waypoints set all along the river on my onX Hunt App that will allow me to put the boat in and motor under the cover of darkness to areas where I can anchor to the bank and sneak 30 yards into a tree. The goal here is to either catch a deer coming back to bed or view long stretches of bedding where I can at least gain some knowledge for a future hunt.

Access changes


While standing corn can make for a lot more cover for deer to disperse in, it can also be a great tool for hunters to use during the early season to disguise their access into the stand. This map shows an ideal setup for a south wind that uses access next to standing corn and through a creek to get into a tree undetected. (Map graphic from onX Hunt App)

I have written many times how important I think strategic access is.

Along with being more mobile by using a tree saddle, I believe it to be the biggest reason I have enjoyed the most encounters I have ever had with good deer over the last three seasons.

Sometimes smart access means just taking a longer route. I’ll use everything from waders, canoes, kayaks and motor boats to get into areas along water. I also look at standing corn as an awesome access opportunity.

Some of the land I hunt in Minnesota is incredibly hard to get into without deer knowing. It is riverbottom surrounded by agriculture fields on the tops and bottoms of steep ridges.

Does and bucks alike bed high on points and in areas of the bottom where they can see long stretches in front of them and use the wind at their backs to detect danger behind them. Simply taking the easiest path into a tree rarely works.

I love corn years on certain parts of the farm because of how it allows me to get in undetected. One spot I am excited to hunt this September and October is a creek crossing down low on the property. There is a main ridge that runs east and west with a small, narrow field down low between the trees and the river. The main ridge meets up with a north/south-running ridge, with the creek running parallel below it.

Deer love to bed on that north-facing ridge on south winds because they can overlook that entire bottom. That makes getting into a good position on bean years difficult.


On corn years like this one, I’m able to sneak along that north edge of the field and up the creek before slipping into a tree I have prepared for my saddle. It’s a natural pinch point for deer when exiting that main ridge and it’s also an easy watering area. It’s the first place I’m going to look at if I get a hot day with a south wind early this season.

Eric Morken is a sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press Newspaper in Alexandria, Minnesota, a property of the Forum News Service. Morken covers a variety of stories throughout the Douglas County area, as well as statewide outdoor issues.
What To Read Next
Get Local