On Dec. 2, the opening day of Pennsylvania's firearm deer season, many woodlands will appear stark and bare. The smell of decomposing leaves will permeate the air, the ground may be snow covered and riddled with deer sign, and white-tails of both sexes will smell, taste and feel the overpowering, irrational influences of the rut.
In September, everything is different.
When the special antlerless-only archery season opens Sept. 21 in urban and suburban Wildlife Management Units 2B, 5C and 5D, trees will still be lush with late-summer foliage. Farmlands, wild grasses and fruit-and mast-producing plants will serve a nutritious daily smorgasbord, and in most deer the diminishing hours of daylight will not yet have triggered the hormonal changes that will guide their behaviors in the coming months.
The most successful September archers will adapt their hunt to seasonal conditions. Georgia-based pro archer Travis "T-Bone" Turner, co-host of the Outdoors Channel TV show "Bone Collector," said the first behavioral change Pennsylvania hunters will notice will be in the deer's physical groupings.
"In September, when bow is the only thing that's in, the thing to key on is that the bucks are still in bachelor groups," he said. "They're still traveling together -- they have not split up yet."
A past winner of the Archery Shooters Association 3-D World Championship, Turner hosted a deer hunting workshop at the August opening of the Field & Stream store in Cranberry.
The early antlerless-only archery season, he said, is a slower hunt based on the rhythms of normal pre-rut feeding patterns.
"Mornings are not as productive as they are in the winter. Often, if you bust them in the morning, you'll do more harm to your hunt than good," said Turner. "Most of the time [in September] people who hunt in the evenings are more productive because deer are mostly a nocturnal critter. In the evening they're moving -- getting a drink of water, getting to a place where they want to feed. Key in on food sources and wait for them there."
Before entering estrus, mature does are still focused on parenting the current year's young. They're more cautious than later in the fall, when luring and running from rut-driven bucks is their prime concern. In September, said Turner, they're settled into comfortable feeding regimens and familiar travel corridors.
It's the wrong time of year -- and the wrong hunting season -- to be using doe-scent attractants. Food aromas -- persimmons, apples, pears, etc. -- work better, but Turner said he prefers to hunt-scent free and play the wind.
"Not to fool them, but to go for the total ambush," he said. "If you're downwind, they can smell the apples, but they can smell you, too."
Another seasonal adaptation involves camouflage. The brown, black and dark green that gets lost so easily on an autumn afternoon can seem out of place, or even attract attention, in September.
"You want to use something with a little bit of green," said Turner. "Realtree Xtra Green has just enough green in there for open spots up close or 100 yards away."
If buying a second suit of camouflage is out of the question, consider bungee cording freshly picked foliage to your camo gear.
If you haven't scouted ahead of Saturday's early-archery opening, you're about out of time. There are still a few days, however, to get your gear in order.
"Make sure you prepare. Not preparing is the main thing bow hunters do wrong," said Turner. "Visit your local pro shop."
If you're shooting fixed blade broadheads, have your blades tuned, aligned and spin tested. Like a stuck rudder in the water, poorly set or maladjusted blades cause the arrow to arc in the air. Damaged or badly attached fletching will do the same thing. If you're shooting mechanicals, ask the shop expert to insure they open properly.
"You'd be surprised how many bow hunters practice with field tips. When they get into their stand and shoot, they don't know how their arrows will fly," said Turner. "It's worse than just risking a miss -- you might wound that deer and never find it because you didn't know how your arrows shoot. Practice is important."
Get additional advice and more on T-Bone Turner at www.tboneoutdoors.com.