It seems like an eternity, but it won’t be long until you leave the stress and grind of work behind and head out for some fall rejuvenation … deer season! This year, don’t wait until the last minute to get ready. To shoot a big whitetail, your advance work is just as important as the tactics you’ll use in the woods in a few months. Here’s your plan.
Map Your Buck
Sit in the den and pour over topo and aerial maps, as well as Google Earth. Study the lay of crop fields, field edges and bedding covers. Focus on timber strips, draws, creeks and similar funnels that connect potential feeding and bedding areas.
Think and analyze. By studying aerials, you can eliminate 60 percent or more of marginal deer habitat before you ever leave the house. Then, focus your ground scouting and hunting on the 40 percent where you’re most apt to find and get on bucks. Don’t just look over maps to look over them; do it with a purpose.
On late summer evenings, drive to a hunting spot and sneak toward a field of alfalfa, soybeans or clover. Check the surrounding hay pastures, too. In a big-woods habitat, check clear-cuts, power lines and other openings that break the timber. Find a good vantage point and go to work with 10X binoculars and a spotting scope. Look for velvet bucks that feed lazily alongside does at dusk.
Dispersal studies have shown that once those bucks have stripped the felt from their antlers, some will move a mile or more into fall and winter ranges, but others will hang tight in core areas where they live year-round. You’ll be able to hunt at least one big boy and likely more right in those nearby woods and thickets come September.
Maps and glassing are great, but you still need to do some patterning of animals on the ground, especially if you’ll be hunting a new property this fall. Take a few days during the next few months, tuck your pants into knee-high boots, spray down with bug dope and go power walking.
Most importantly on summer hikes, key in on the food and cover that will be available to deer from September through December. First, start with the easy stuff, noting the lay of corn, soybean, alfalfa, and clover fields and plots in the area. Then, probe deeper into the woods.
Pennsylvania biologist Jeannine Fleegle said that while the list of foods for whitetails is long and varied and includes crops, browse, forbs, grasses, fungi and mast, “it is no secret that acorns are a favorite on the list. If they are available, acorns dominate their diet in fall and winter.” Fleegle points to a feeding experiment that showed whitetails ate about 1.5 pounds of acorns daily per hundred pounds of body weight. “Deer can sustain a maximum of 30 percent weight loss during winter,” she said. “More than that and they die of malnutrition. It’s easy to see why acorns are so important.”
Roam ridges and bottoms, and point your binoculars into the tops of oak trees to see what kind of mast year it will be. Do you see big bunches of green nuts within two feet of the branch tips? Are the limbs sparse? Remember that a big crop of acorns this fall will draw and concentrate deer in the timber, so your hottest stands will likely be on ridges and in oak bottoms. Conversely, a lack of nuts and a poor mast year will scatter the deer as they move around and seek other food choices. You’ll do better to hunt the edges of fields and food plots and to browse thickets where does and bucks feed.
As you hike, note pockets and strips of greenery, saplings, weeds and the like in proximity to crop fields, clover plots and oak trees. Biologists have determined that “security cover” is vegetation thick enough to hide 90 percent of a deer at a distance of 200 yards or less. Stand back and look for saplings, shrubs and thickets that meet those requirements. Biologists have found that deer typically won’t use forage areas more than 200 yards from security cover.
Walk edges, creek bottoms, strips of woods and other funnels that looked good on your maps. Look for main and secondary deer trails, and spots where they converge and cross water. Food and conditions will change as summer turns to fall, but some deer will still use these trails and funnels come September.
It’s probably too early to find fresh rubs on your advance hikes, so look for brown, scarred trees and saplings that bucks blazed on previous autumn days as these are important clues to work into your 2017 strategy. In a Michigan study some years ago, a large herd of whitetails was removed from an enclosure, and no deer inhabited the area for three years. In year four, deer were restocked. Some of the does and bucks were from Michigan, and others were brought in from other states. A fascinating thing happened. The bucks in the replanted herd immediately began using the same rub lines as their predecessors did years ago. So pinpoint and follow as many old rub lines as you can find that wind loosely between food and security covers in your area.
As you hike, flag strategic trees in various corners of the property where you might want to hang stands in a month or so. Or, go ahead and set a stand (or two or three) on an oak ridge, a plot edge or near a creek crossing where you believe bucks will travel in a few months. This will put you ahead of the game when bow season opens.
Summer Trail Camera Strategy
It’s around the end of June when I start my recon in earnest. Velvet antlers are up and growing. When you get an image of a buck with potential, you’ll know it, and can start tracking and patterning his moves.
Here’s a typical strategy for a 600-acre farm I hunt in Virginia. One July day, I’ll set two cameras on a pair of half-acre clover plots back in the woods. I’ll put three or four more cameras on the edges of larger plots and strap them to trees along prominent deer trails that wind out of the woods and thickets.
I’ll finish by placing a couple cameras in creek bottoms and near beaver ponds located back in the woods with good security cover nearby. As summer deepens, lazy bucks spend time hanging out in low-lying areas where it’s cool and shady.
After a month of tweaking the cams and checking the cards, I’ll discover the fields, plots or ridges where a shooter buck or two are feeding, as well as where they are heading back into the woods to bed. Although this intel will indicate their summer habits, they will be on a similar pattern when early bow season opens. And there’s a good chance they will be hanging in the nearby woods all fall.
Feature image: iStock