"Early season deer hunting" means different times to hunters across South Carolina because season opening dates vary from game zone to game zone.

But one constant is that early season tactics are different from those used the rest of the year. Successful hunters must have a well-defined game plan for this specific time of year. In the Lowcountry, bow and gun hunters share Aug. 15 as opening day. In many other areas, however, bowhunters get a jump on gun hunters.

One thing is certain: If you go to the effort to prepare for hunting early season bucks the same way a bowhunter prepares, you'll be well set for hunting with either weapon.

One highly successful and resourceful hunter is Will McElveen, a 23-year-old from Murrells Inlet. His knowledge far exceeds his age, mostly due to a lifetime spent in the woods growing up and bowhunting extensively for the past seven years. He hunts a lot of areas but spends much of his time hunting in the Williamsburg County area.

"We have an Aug. 15 bowhunting season opening, and gun hunting doesn't begin until the first of September," McElveen said, "so I prepare for the early season for bowhunting tactics, but the things I do for bowhunting will work if I elect to use a rifle later on. Since we can only shoot bucks until mid-September, I plan my entire early season strategy around bucks.

"I figure where they bed, where they eat, where they water and how I can get into their backyard without getting busted."

McElveen has three primary focuses for his early season hunting, which targests thickets in and around the edges of swamps and agriculture fields that are abundant in his hunting area.

"Cover, water and food are the keys to my early season areas," he said. "Bucks are much easier to pattern during (the) early season than they are in October and November because they are more predictable. In the thickets and swamps, I look for funnels and edges of swamps where bucks tend to travel. It's a little cooler and shady in the swamps, so that's a big plus.

"A trail camera helps me pinpoint buck activity, but it's important to check it sparingly. I stay out of a buck's area as much as possible, getting just enough information to know where he's traveling. When I find a buck while scouting in preseason or during the early season, odds are good he'll stay in that area if I don't spook him. My hunting strategy will depend on having the right wind direction for that area before going in."

McElveen said stand positioning is also key because of the heat and the afternoon sun.

"I'll dress lighter in early season, using mesh mosquito camouflage for ventilation and insect protection," he said. "Since I often hunt afternoons early in the season, I'll place my stand so my back is to the west. That keeps me from baking in the sun, helps me see deer better looking away from the sun, and if a deer has to look toward the sun to see in my direction, it helps hide me.

"If conditions force me to face west, I'll make maximum use of natural cover such as leaves and limbs to break up my outline. I avoid that scenario when I can. But you have to do what's necessary to get the edge on a big buck. I climb high to minimize the wind, even if it's in my favor. You never know for sure which direction a buck will appear. My kill-zone target area with a bow is smaller if I'm 25 feet or higher in a tree. That's why I practice a lot, to hit that small target so I can climb high and minimize the wind factor."

Water is another early season key for McElveen.

"The weather is still hot, and deer need considerable water," he said. "I look for a water hole that's between the bedding and feeding areas, and I'll set up on that. Often, bucks won't come out into agriculture fields until dark, but they will move into position to come out just after dark. That makes afternoon hunting in the woods near a water hole a high-priority target for me."

McElveen frequently uses climbing stands but has a few permanent stands in specific areas that are traditionally very productive.

"Bowhunting from permanent stands can be excellent," he said. "I still build them high off the ground, but since they are there year-round, deer get used to them. When I hunt them, I still ensure the wind is right, I am as scent free as possible and employ all the stealth I normally do when hunting from a climber."

Another hunter who excels in the early season is Bill Cline, who lives in Fairfield County. The season opens later there, but as an avid bowhunter, Cline works hard in preparation for the early archery-season opener.

"Bow season opens on Sept. 15, but not the deer hunting in terms of scouting," Cline said. "Actually, it's a never-ending process for me, but several weeks before the season, I've got most of my stand locations selected for the beginning of the season."

Cline said one of the keys for bowhunters to be effective is to know their land and make best use of what they have available.

"One of the keys to success is, of course, hunting the right area at the prime time," Cline said. "Preseason scouting and periodic scouting as seasonal patterns progress is essential. In the middle of September, in some areas the hardwood bottom swamps will be excellent places. But on another tract of land, it may be the edge of a 3-year-old cutover that is the prime place. There's no cookie-cutter pattern that fits every tract of land."

He also has a few keys to his strategy.

"I key on specific things in the areas I hunt," Cline said. "One is the food source. I find the potential food sources prior to the season opening. Until deer get locked into the rut, food will be a primary draw. Persimmons are great where you have them. When the acorns begin to fall, that's hard to beat.

"Ripe persimmons have a bit of a golden look to them, at least from my perspective," he said. "And for bowhunters, it might as well be gold. If I set up properly, the odds of seeing deer skyrocket. But I can also see gold in acorns or a harvested corn field. My point is, every hunter needs to find the specific early season attractions on the land they hunt. If you have deer, then these specific hotspots exist. Find and hunt them for early season success."

Of courese, any ag fields should be investigated.

"Other food sources, such as agriculture crops, will attract deer," Cline said. "If hunters have access to cornfields, when the corn crop is harvested there will be deer from far and wide coming to that area.

"Find a travel funnel or thicket the deer will travel to get to that feeding ground. Set your stand up properly, have the wind to your advantage and be patient. You're likely to see more deer than you would have thought possible."

Cline uses a climbing stand, allowing him maximum freedom to change stand locations as deer habits change.

"I spend a good deal of time prior to the season locating my potential bowstand trees," Cline said. "I'll have different trees selected and limbed, if necessary. This way, I'll always hunt with the wind in my favor. If someone wants to use a hang-on stand for early season use, I'd suggest to get it up early and then leave it alone for a while prior to the time to hunt that area.

"Familiarity with an area can be a huge advantage if a hunter pays attention," Cline said. "If the habitat doesn't change much - such as no clear cuts - odds are good the bucks will use the same basic patterns and food sources from the previous year. By keeping a log of when certain areas become productive one year, I have an advantage the following season."

Cline looks for thickets that pass through creek bottoms; deer will use them as travel funnels.

"Deer like the sense of security thickets provide during early season," he said. "If you position your stand properly and cut a few limbs for a clear shot, you can take deer from their safety refuges. Don't overdo the limb-clearing aspect; remove just enough limbs to get a clear shot."

Both McElveen and Cline are hard at work before the season to do well during the early season, but they continue to scout as the early season progresses. It's their goal to continue to find and refine hotspots after the season opens.

"I never quit scouting during the early season," McElveen said. "It's an ongoing process to stay on top of deer movements. Some hunters are out the first few days, then quit for a while after things get tougher. But I keep working, scouting and moving and will continue to see deer throughout the early season.

"Plus, I'll know when they begin to transition into the next phase of the season, and I can immediately alter my tactics to stay with them."