Most of us have that one friend, or maybe a friend that has a friend, who always seems to drop big bucks year after year. Get them to talk and the conversation often goes something like, “Well, I’d been deer scouting all summer and found this buck…”
That should tell you most of what you need to know. The hunt doesn’t start when the season opens — it starts much earlier in the year. Now, is when we all should be in hunting mode, checking out this year’s crop of whitetails, figuring out their habits and quirks, identifying the bucks that we want to pursue, and developing a strategy so that we’re ready when the season opens in just a few short months.
Getting your hunting game on in midsummer is work, but it’s also a lot of fun and a great way to “feed the need” when there’s little else to do in the woods this time of year. Understand, though, that summer scouting is more than the occasional trek through the woods and fields, looking for fresh sign and hoping to spot this year’s new trophy. Strategy is involved, and to do it right, you’ll need to call upon all of the same hunting skills that you employ during the early archery season.
Probing the Perimeters
Most of us get our first real adrenaline rush of the year when we observe a mature buck in full velvet feeding along a field edge during a sweltering summer evening. In fact, at this time of year, field-watching is usually the first, best step for inventorying potential contenders. Whether it is hay or soybean fields, whitetails key in on the open country to feed from late evening until morning.
Start your summer scouting by observing ag fields late in the evening. Do this from a distance using binoculars or a spotting scope. Since most deer are accustomed to some measure of human activity in these areas during the summer months, scouting can often be done from a vehicle if you’re careful not to disturb the deer. Consider 400 yards the minimum distance you’ll want to be from the deer, and even then, play it cool. Don’t get out of the truck or otherwise bring attention to yourself.
This is where the binoculars and a good spotting scope come into play. As with any other time of the year, big bucks rarely venture out into the open. While the does and yearlings are out munching, mature bucks will usually hold back inside the edge cover until viewing light is almost gone. Good optics will let you peer into those murky shadows to better locate those cautious bucks.
Aside from checking resident deer numbers and hopefully identifying some good-size bucks, the goal is also to figure out where the deer are entering the fields. Deer are like us in many ways—they get hot and sluggish during warm weather and seek to minimize exertion. As such, they tend to hole up during the day in an area that is close to their evening feeding grounds and that satisfies a few key needs, such as protective cover, sufficient browse for midday feeding and a source of water.
Hit the Computer
Thanks to online satellite photography and mapping data, it’s easier than ever to digitally scout for deer. After you’ve put eyeballs on some feeding bucks, it’s time figure out where those bedrooms and lounging areas are that they hole up in during the day.
One of our favorite satellite imaging services is Google Earth because it’s free and it transposes virtual terrain elevation onto satellite imagery, so you can get a granular, 360-degree view of the terrain. For hunters, this makes it easy to locate draws, saddles, small tributaries and, if the image was taken in the winter when the foliage was down, thickets and heavy cover near fields that are likely daytime hiding spots for bucks—all without wandering through the woods and causing a disturbance.
Once you’ve identified some of these potential retreats, it’s time to plan your trail-camera strategy. The idea is to locate the trails and travel routes between the entry point into the open feeding areas and the secluded daytime bedding thickets. The trick here is to approach and locate these trails without pressuring the deer. Knowing the prevailing wind direction is key. If the winds generally blow from the west, for example, use satellite imagery to plan the best approach from the east.
Into the Woods
Observing deer during their evening feeding ritual requires some discretion, of course, to keep them from becoming wary, but this is even more important when it’s time to enter the timber and set up trail cams. Too many hunters discard caution during the summer and trek through the woods with little concern that they might be giving resident deer an “education.” A mature buck, however, didn’t get that way by ignoring these lessons. If you are serious about getting to know that big buck you’ve seen browsing the fields at dusk, you should minimize your impact in his territory, especially when it’s time to set up and monitor trail cams.
As mentioned earlier, it is important to play the wind when seeking the travel routes between the bedding and feeding areas where you want to set up your cameras. The precautions, though, do not end there. The same scent-management strategies that you use during hunting season are applicable in the summer months.
Always wear clothes that have been washed in a scent-free, odor-killing detergent, such as Scent Killer Laundry Detergent, and give yourself similar treatment by washing with scent-elimination products like Scent Killer Gold body wash, and topping off with Scent Killer Gold deodorant. Since it’s almost impossible not to sweat between the shower and the field at this time of year, Scent Killer Gold Field Wipes are perfect pocket or daypack stuffers that can help keep a lid on body odor. Simply wiping your hands, arms and face whenever you get a bit sweaty in the field will go a long way toward reducing your impact. And, of course, be sure to spray down your boots and clothing with Scent Killer Gold spray before leaving your vehicle and heading into the woods.
Really, we can’t stress enough the importance of stealth when entering a big buck’s lair during the summer. Think about it from the deer’s perspective. You’re hiding out in your safe zone, moving between your bedding and feeding areas, and you haven’t heard, seen or smelled a human in months. Suddenly, you get a strong whiff, perhaps notice some disturbances, and every week or two the smell of danger pops up fresh. If you’re a smart old buck, you’re going to get mighty nervous and probably set up housekeeping somewhere else.
So much for your season-opening success.
Needless to say, be sure to stay scent-free when you are scouting trails to place your cameras on and whenever you go back to swap cards. Also, wear camo and make like you’re still-hunting at all times. Bump that buck once too often and he’ll be gone for good.
It’s that important.
Prepare Your Stands Now
If there is one, unshakeable whitetail truth it’s that deer always have their stomachs foremost in mind. They go where the best food is, and that means where you find deer in the summer may not be where they are when archery season rolls around. This is why successful hunters continually monitor deer activity throughout the summer and beyond the season opener.
That being the case, it’s not too early to start setting up some stands. In many cases—particularly where deer are limited to feeding in hay fields as opposed to seasonal or rotational crop fields—their patterns often remain uninterrupted from summer through fall. The exception is when hard and soft mast comes on, in which case the deer will be pursuing those delectable morsels and you need to be ready to set up wherever the dinner bell is ringing the loudest.
If you are confident in the long-term viability of the bedding-to-feeding area trails that your target buck is using, it’s better to set up your treestands and ground blinds earlier than later. This will give plenty of time for your disturbance to be forgotten once it’s time to hunt, and is a better alternative to setting up the week or two before the season starts. If you do this, again, take every precaution to control your scent and the overall disturbance of the area.
Summer doesn’t have to be a dead zone in our hunting schedule. Actually, it can be a rather exciting time of the year, and one of the best times to zero in on a mature buck. With a little boot leather- and trail cam-scouting, plus a heavy dose of caution, camo and scent management, you may become that friend who starts to say, “Well, I’d been watching him all summer…”
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