I was elated. My early-season Kansas whitetail hunt was just days away. My good buddy, a self-proclaimed “whitetail addict,” had been watching a bachelor herd of bucks for months. Or so I thought. When I arrived for my hunt it quickly became apparent that my “whitetail addict” friend hadn’t lived up to what he had been preaching to me over the phone. In fact, he hadn’t laid eyes on the bachelor herd in over a month, and when we walked in to check the trail cameras, which he hadn’t been monitoring, they had been stolen. Frustrated? Yep, you could say that. Not only was my early-season hunt in the Sunflower State a bust, but it really made me question what it means to be a true “whitetail addict.”
To be a true “whitetail addict” you must live to manage and hunt these magnificent creatures. Honestly, it should be a 365-day-a-year endeavor — something that takes work and dedication — where the payoff is typically a hefty rack and meat for the freezer. I know it’s springtime. I know it’s starting to get hot. I know that next season seems light years away. But I also know that now is the perfect time to start hunting this season’s trophy.
Whitetail deer, both bucks and does, have a unique internal matrix. During the fall and winter months deer crave crops that are high in sugars and carbohydrates. During the spring and summer, however, it’s all about protein. And since warming springtime temperatures mean that protein-rich crops like alfalfa and red and white clover will be available for deer consumption, these whitetail grocery stores are a great place to start your search.
I know what you’re probably thinking. It is early spring and I won’t even be able to tell if I’m looking at a good buck or not. It doesn’t matter. Your goal right now isn’t to find some freak of nature that is already sporting a trophy rack, but rather to find a protein-rich food source that lots of deer are using and watch it like a hawk.
This doesn’t mean tromping around in your newly found food source hanging cameras set to time lapse mode so you can spend your early mornings and evenings kicked back in your favorite recliner. In fact, I wouldn’t bother invading the food source and hanging cameras at all during this point in the year. Springtime deer, even those that will grow into monster bucks, aren’t shy. If you show good deer savvy and play the wind right, you can watch your newly found deer haven fill up with deer morning and night through your spotting scope.
Warning! Once you start using hands-on reconnaissance during the spring, you will become addicted. As the days pass you will start to notice velvet antlers beginning to sprout, and many of the bucks will join together to form a few bachelor herds. No, it’s not time to go hang the trail cameras yet. Rather, continue to monitor the deer via your quality optics from a safe distance. Start toting a still and video camera along to start filming the bucks you will soon be hunting. Filming and capturing images of these deer will begin to give you glimpse into their world. The more you film and photograph your deer, the more you will learn about them. You will start to notice certain mannerisms and characteristics.
Aside from filming and photographing, this is also a great time to start journaling. Write down and name all of the bucks in your area, even the small ones. In addition, start penning the direction the bucks enter and exit the food source, the times they enter and exit, as well as the daily prevailing wind direction. Personally, I keep a page in my journal for every different buck. You can also begin to pick out trees that could serve as possible stand sites and then look at those sites via Google Earth when you arrive back home. Google Earth is an amazing tool that offers a view you can’t get while scouting. You might think you have the perfect tree until you look at Google Earth and find that there is a better tree — inside the timber in a transition zone — where you believe the bucks will stage before entering the field.
Now that your bucks are starting to put on some antler and you’ve been spending, as my wife says, “way too much time with them,” it’s time to slip in and hang a trail camera or two. Notice I said slip in. By now spring is starting to turn to summer, and though your bachelor herds appear carefree, they are still wild and savvy. Leave a bunch of human scent, blow them out of the field or bump them from their midday beds and all of your hard work and effort will all be for naught.
By now your hands-on reconnaissance will have told you where the bucks are entering and exiting the field. Keep this knowledge in mind and jump on Google Earth. Your mission: To use an aerial image of your whitetail hunting dirt to pinpoint the area where the bucks are likely bedding. Remember, these bucks are in a lazy summer pattern and won’t be going ultra-far from food to bed. Print out your images and look at where the bucks are entering and exiting the food source. Next, find the nearest and thickest cover that is back in the woods. This is likely where your bucks are bedding. You need to know this before you go so you can play the wind and be sure not to bump the bucks from their bedroom. You don’t want to do anything to disturb their pattern.
You’re not ready to head in yet. First, be sure to shower in scent-eliminating soap, dry with a scent-treated towel and slip into scent-treated clothing. Upon arriving at the field, slip on your rubber boots and spray down from head to toe with a scent-eliminating agent. Now you can walk in.
Do me a favor and don’t hang throngs of cameras along the field edge. Yes, you will get lots of photos of the bucks you’ve been watching, but remember you’ve already videoed them and taken loads of snapshots. Placing trail cameras along a field edge that you can watch with your own eyes is pointless and increases the chances of tipping your hand to the deer in the area. Instead, slip into the timber and check out those entrance and exit routes while keeping the wind direction and the bucks’ estimated bedding location in mind. You won’t mistake the trails. They will be littered with tracks and covered in deer poop. Now, if you have a bunch of does using the field as well, it’s not uncommon for the big bucks to use a totally different trail that goes to a totally different bedding area than the one the little bucks and does are using. This is where the trail cameras come into play. Years ago I heeded my own advice and went in and found the trails but never hung a game camera. Naturally, I choose the trail with the most sign, and for three days watched a parade of young bucks and does walk by. The big bucks were using a totally separate trail. Again, you want to take every precaution possible to be ninja-like and leave no trace. When investigating trails and looking for places to hang your cameras, do your best not to touch any vegetation with your exposed skin and wear latex medical gloves when hanging your cameras. In addition, because you’re not conducting a deer survey and trying to get perfect buck/doe identifying photos, I recommend that you elevate your trail cameras and angle them down. This reduces the chances of your cameras spooking deer. Yes, I know most boast an infrared flash or better yet, a blackout flash, but if you do your homework you will find that recent studies show that some deer, especially savvy bucks, will spook from these cameras from time to time. Eliminate the possibility by angling your cameras.
Now that you have trail cameras covering those entrance/exit routes, get out of the area and don’t come back for at least a week. Why? Scouting is all about keeping a low profile. Yes, you will want to go check those cameras the afternoon following a morning scouting session where every deer in the area comes out into your field, but you must resist. Give the trail cameras time to capture images and give the deer time, just in case you did leave a little trace of human behind, to get over it completely.
It’s been a week and you’re itching to go check those cameras, so go do it. Just be sure to tote a treestand and a laptop computer or trail camera card reader with you. The reason? You’re going to let your trail camera pictures dictate where you put your treestand. Yes, you could switch out cards and take your cameras back to the house and review the photos on your home PC. However, then you have to go back in and hang your set. Not good. Remember, we are going low-impact here. By taking your laptop in a backpack or by taking along a card reader, you can check the cards while you’re in the woods.
Again, be sure to keep the wind direction and the current estimated location of the deer in mind while you’re hanging and checking cameras. Take scent-elimination precautions and go hang that stand and check those cameras during the middle part of the day. That is, unless you feel the bedding area is too close to the field and you will blow the deer out. If this is the case, you’ll have to embark on mission Treestand Black.
When the bedding area is too close to the food source, which isn’t uncommon during the early season, you will need to avoid the field and slip into the woods to hang and check your cameras under the cover of darkness while the deer are out feeding. No, it’s not the most fun thing in the world, and I do recommend you bring a buddy to hold a red light and assist you, but this might be your only option to get a stand up and get out without alerting deer.
Regardless of what time of day you hang your stand or go check your pictures, get in and get out. When checking photos on your laptop or card reader, don’t plop down on the ground in front of your camera or by the trail and look them over. Rather, move off the trail, remain standing as not to spread scent, and sift through your photos. When hanging the stand, be quick but don’t hurry. Try to go too fast and you will forget things and make more noise. Before ever removing a limb or strapping steps to a tree, step back and note which limbs need to be removed and exactly where you want your stand to sit.
You’ve done everything right. Spring and most of the summer are gone. You’ve got as much video footage of the bucks you’re chasing as you do your own family and enough photos — both manual and trail — to fill a photo album. Don’t get lazy now. These last weeks of summer before season you really want to boost your hands-on scouting. Forget the trail cameras now. Don’t do anything that might foil your opening-day dupe. Instead, if possible, watch the field morning and night and continue to keep up with your journal.
That’s it. You’re ready. You’re a true “whitetail addict,” and chances are you will soon be posing with a true early-season trophy.