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‘TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE SEASON

Opening Day is a special time among all hunters, but perhaps especially so among North American hunters, because of our often-short seasons. I’m at our Kansas farm on December 1, 2020. Opening Day of our short Kansas rifle season is tomorrow. As near as I can figure, the next move is up to our deer. 

Much effort has led to this moment and we have no idea what might or might not happen. In June, we planted sorghum (milo) and then went 40 days without rain and failed utterly. In September we plowed it under and tried again with winter wheat (and this and that). Coming up nicely now and our deer are hitting it hard. We’ve kept our woods quiet and done the best we know to do but, again, from tomorrow morning on, all the moves are up to the deer. 

Kansas has a great reputation for big whitetails. If you believe the stuff out there, you’d think a record-class buck hid behind every tree. Maybe, but not in our little slice of southeast Kansas. We take some big deer, but most of our better bucks are just nice whitetails and some are very average. 

Last year was an exceptional season, far better than expected. The weather was a bit too warm, the moon a bit too bright and yet our deer cooperated nicely. Only one of our hunters, friend Mike Walsh, who perhaps I most wanted to take a nice buck, failed to get a shot at a buck he liked. It was almost weird, because despite mild weather and bright moon, we had rutting activity throughout our rifle season, perennially set for just 12 days from the Wednesday after Thanksgiving, very late, when the primary rut should be over. 

Honest, when we started our little whitetail operation, it never occurred to me that we might achieve 90 percent success. For sure, in some years we haven’t come close! But, in the astounding 2019 season, with weather too warm and moon too bright, we took 11 bucks for 12 hunters. For sure, not all were huge. Truthfully, most were not. But, except for one precocious young eight-pointer with unusually wide antlers, most were grownup deer, the kind we want to take. A couple were exceptional, as good as we can expect in our area. 

Boddington and John Sonne with the first buck of the 2020 Kansas rifle season, taken the morning of Opening Day. A buck like this suggests all the work leading up to the season paid off…but that depends on how the rest of the season goes.

So, one year following what neighbor/partner Chuck Herbel and I both view as an almost unbeatable deer season, we must wonder what the morrow will bring. The primary rut should be waning, the secondary rut coming on. The woods are full of rubs and scrapes. That’s normal, but in most years, we see more rubs than scrapes. This year it’s just the opposite: Scrapes outnumber prominent rubs. Wish I was enough of a whitetail expert to explain this. In any case, on the day before rifle season there’s plenty of sign and many of the scrapes are being tended regularly. 

We know of several nice bucks. For sure there are others we haven’t seen and may not see. One of the cool things about hunting any rut period for whitetails is that this is a time when bucks show up that have never been seen or captured on trail cameras. The converse, of course, is that bucks seen regularly may vanish completely. And some of the biggest bucks we’ve ever seen were glimpsed once and never again. 

Kansas law allows feeders, so we use them, as we use food plots and minerals, trying to set an attractive table. We do our best to put our stands in ideal places. And, although a wild whitetail might approach from any direction at any time, we play the wind, making stand selection based on wind direction in conjunction with most likely deer movement. 

After that, it’s sort of up to the deer, and the weather and the moon, which, with a short, fixed season, are factors we can’t do anything about. In my experience here, our deer are fair-weather creatures, liking it not too warm and not too cold. When December temperatures soar into the 60s and occasional 70s, reduced movement is predictable, but when temps plummet into the low teens our deer seem to shut down. 

This year the forecast is good, mostly high 20s/low 30s for lows; 40s and 50s for highs, temps that have long seemed ideal for our deer. For the first time in several years, the moon phase is also excellent. The full moon has just passed, so it will be too bright the first couple of days, but getting darker and better throughout.

It’s also up to the hunters. Because of our thick oak ridges with heavy leaf litter, hunting from stands is our only real option. Sounds easy, but is not, especially from open treestands in timber. The late gunwriter John Wootters, a real whitetail hunter, described stand hunting as “extremely hard work,” requiring intense and constant concentration when done right. 

The instant you relax your guard, the buck you want is right there…and it can be too late. My attention span is pretty short, so I am not a great stand hunter. Some years back, when the Kansas farm was new, I was in a favorite ladder we call the Ridge Stand. I’d seen nothing all morning so, about 9:30 (which is really too early), I decided to call it quits. I was about halfway down the ladder when a smashing ten-point strolled by, not a thing I could do about it. 

So, in the morning, we’ll get our hunters out on stands. They’ll be in good places, with consistent deer movement (if there is such a thing) and, usually some known bucks in those areas. Maybe I’ll take a leftover for myself, or maybe I’ll go back to the house and work on a story (like this one). Either way, I’ll start to worry. Will the deer cooperate? When they do, will our hunters (me included) be paying attention? Will the decisions be good and the shots true? All that lies in the future, but I’ll be doing a lot of worrying for the next 12 days. Wouldn’t have it any other way!–Craig Boddington

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