It’s fourth of July and most hunters are not thinking about deer season. I get it. It’s hot, it's buggy, and the season is several months away. But while these guys are fishing or kicking back at the pool, the hardcore deer hunters are already out in the woods identifying bucks and mapping out their strategy for deer season.
When to Start?
My cameras start going up on Memorial Day weekend. Even though I am primarily interested in bucks I have three main objectives for the early May start:
Watching the fawning period gives me a glimpse into my heard health. It allows me to draw a very high level (and unscientific) conclusion about herd health. No fawns = bad. Twins and triplets = good. It also allows me to get a view into predation. I have identified many does through various characteristics and if her fawn(s) suddenly disappear it typically ties to predation. Again, not scientific, rather a general observation.
Another objective is to understand which food plots are more attractive than others. For example, my Ladino clover is rocking in June while my Chicory doesn’t heat up until August. I also notice that certain plots do better with does and fawns while other crops seem to attract the bucks more.
While the other two objectives are imporant, my primary reason is to get to know this years’ upper classmen. As bucks begin to develop antlers I start to hone in on particular bucks. You know them right away, they have wide, thick bases that grow more horizontally from their skulls. Spikes and forks have a distinct, narrow and vertical look to them. Once I key in on areas containing one or more mature bucks (near water or at the edge of particular food plot) I will often identify a the best spot to place a fresh mineral site and an overlooking trail camera.
Food Plots & Minerals
The first thing you must have is a place to capture images of your bucks. A cam sitting over some random trail is not effective. The best way to get to know individual bucks is by placing trail cams over food plots or minerals. Let's talk about both.
Minerals do two things; they attract deer to a particular spot, and they can also provide some trace minerals and sodium which may aid antler development and overall health. The attraction deer have to minerals is almost entirely due to their need for salt during the spring and summer months. Salt lick activity peaks around the 4th of July and steadily declines until late summer. By mid-autumn the lick is all but abandoned. The advantages are simple, you can direct them right in front of the camera for much of the spring and summer months.
Food plots also attract deer, and unlike a mineral lick will also provide nutrition (and attraction) for your property. They are also legal everywhere (unlike minerals). Food plots provide attraction longer into the hunting season while minerals are basically abandoned by early fall.
What I like to do is to mix both plots and minerals. I place my trail cams in front of a mineral lick at the edge of a food plot. This works fantastic - again, where legal.
Boots on the Ground Scouting?
Whenever people talk about scouting most think of sitting on a hill and watching a field with binoculars. I do not. The only considerable movement I do on any property is when I am first trying to learn it, or immediately after the season close.
Let me explain.
I get a treasure trove of information from post season scouting. I look for sheds, run trail cams, and am particularly interested in backtracking the snow-covered late season runs and bedding areas. This info is vital as I look forward to next year. But it provides little intelligence for the early season (or the rut).
These days most of my scouting is done with trail cams in the spring and summer. I try to keep my footprint to a minimum which allows deer to consider my property a safe haven. My goal is to let the deer move undisturved and freely start establishing patterns. If you are constantly bumping deer in pre-season all you are doing is making your neighbor's property more appealing. Your goal should be just the opposite. After my plots are in, I set up your cams and get out!
Process for identifying individual bucks
Let me describe a progression for getting to know individual bucks which generally starts with food plots in the spring.
Starting around Memorial day weekend you would place trail cams on, or near your food plots. Make sure you have good coverage at each location. I check my cams often during this period and look for mature bucks. Even at these very early stages they are easily identified by their thick, early velvet bases.
Once you spot a pattern, place a salt/mineral lick near that site and set up your trail camera to overlook that lick. Then go away for at least a month.
As the summer goes on you will notice (through your trail cam surveys) identifiable patterns. Buck ‘A’ may frequent Plot 2. Buck ‘C’ migrates between Plots 1, and 5. During this time of the year bucks tend to be both consistent and patternable.
Continue to watch these individual bucks throughout the summer. By mid-august you should have identified your resident bucks, created a shooter list, and understand which bucks have staked out specific core areas.
Putting it together for bucks for the early bowhunting season
After you've put all of this together you should be in the best position possible to kill your resident shooter. Seasons that begin in early September are great for this since even the biggest bucks are consistently in their late-summer patterns. Strike fast, however. By the time October rolls around the forest is changing and those patterns get far less consistent with each passing day.
The fact that so many giant bucks are killed early in bow season is no accident. A few years ago a friend of mine killed a buck that grossed 190 typical. He shot it the afternoon of opening day. While other guys were calling him lucky, luck had very little to do with it. He had identified this buck in mid-June and spent the summer scouting, and narrowing down his behaviors using the process I described above. By September 1st he knew when (and where) that deer would enter its favorite bean field just before sunset and he was there, waiting. While the other hunters were only just dusting off their bows to blindly enter their hunting grounds, a giant was already tagged. The early scouting and extra effort can make all the diffence.