What’s a Good Opening Day Game Plan?
Triple-digit temperatures create less-than-ideal bowhunting conditions. But out West, opening day of archery season can bring either a blizzard or a heat wave. 2020 brought the latter. Just days before the opener, my husband and I began second-guessing our elk hunting plans. If we arrowed an elk in the backcountry, it would be tough to pack out the meat before it spoiled.
We changed our agenda last minute and decided to chase mule deer instead. Their smaller stature would make them easier to pack out in one trip and we had a spot in mind that was a much shorter distance from the truck. Just a few hours into opening day, I arrowed a mature mule deer buck for the first time. The experience taught me a lot, especially the value of adapting. But the plan wasn’t accidental, either. We’d scouted the area over the summer and knew how the deer would move in hot weather.
There’s a lot of hype among bowhunters around opening day. Many have annual traditions, like hunting camp — but others make a tradition of skipping the opener to avoid the heaviest hunting pressure of the year. Here’s how to create the perfect plan for opening day for you.
The Date Makes a Difference
Archery seasons usually open in late summer or early fall. Some states also hold late archery seasons that open during the winter months. The date of opening day should determine your hunting plans. For example, white-tailed deer won’t be doing the same thing in October as they will be in December. If you intend to hunt game animals that are in rut, even a few days’ difference can affect their locations and movement patterns.
Understanding basic wildlife biology and the patterns associated with it will help you make a game plan for opening day based on its date. If you’re hunting a new area or species, local wildlife biologists can answer questions about habits and patterns.
Know the Food Source
Game animals have to feed. If you find the preferred food source, you’ve got a good shot at finding an animal. To make the most of your time in the woods, know what they’re eating and when. Ungulates like deer and elk primarily eat vegetation, and their favored choices are seasonal. The articles “Understanding a Whitetail’s Diet” and “Your Regional Guide to Whitetail Food Sources” are comprehensive breakdowns of what whitetails are eating based on the season.
What’s the Weather?
Weather patterns affect wildlife movement in a big way. Many bowhunters study forecasts to try to predict the movement of deer, elk and other species. Deer are crepuscular, meaning they are the most active just after sunrise and before sunset. Though their activity is minimal during the day, during extreme heat deer are far less likely to move. However, hunting in the heat can be a great time to hunt over water sources.
During a cold front, when temperatures take a big drop, deer often become more active, especially if those fronts occur during the fall months. And while cold fronts can provide great hunting conditions, extreme weather usually does not. Just as most bowhunters don’t want to be out in blizzards, windstorms and heavy rains, animals also seek refuge from severe weather. For a more in-depth look, read “How Weather Affects Deer Hunting.” As opening day gets closer, check the forecast and form a game plan based on what the weather is doing.
Don’t Let the Wind Blow It
Nothing can blow a hunt like the wrong wind direction. Whitetails have an amazing sense of smell. Bowhunters learn to use the wind to their advantage by choosing stands and blinds based on wind direction. That’s why many bowhunters will hang multiple treestands or position multiple ground blinds in the same area to play the wind.
Check the wind before you head out. You want the wind to blow your scent away from wherever you expect deer to approach. Set up downwind of the deer trail. Crosswind setups can also be productive. If you have multiple setups for opening day, you’ll be able to get into a good position regardless of what the wind is doing.
Consider the Pressure
After months of dreaming about bowhunting, opening day is the first chance, which means the woods might have a little added pressure from other hunters. But don’t let the thought of extra pressure keep you home. Use it to your advantage. Some bowhunters choose to get set up extra early, and then sit tight to see if other bowhunters push wildlife their way as they walk through the woods.
Be Prepared to Adapt
Whether it’s a result of unexpected wind, weather or whatever, be willing to take months of planning and throw it out the window at the last minute. A secondary plan can quickly become the best one for the circumstances, especially if you’ve done the proper preparations in the offseason.
Many hunters say what they do in the offseason is what brings success when the season opens. Practicing as much as possible with your equipment ensures you’re ready to make the shot. Scouting multiple areas gives you multiple options. Do both e-scouting and put your boots on the ground.
Opening day is an exciting time to get out, and all your planning could pay off with a punched tag. But if plans change or don’t go as expected, the good news is that you still have a tag in your pocket and the rest of the season ahead of you.