Pre-Season Whitetail: How To Scout and Find Bucks

glassing for buck spot scopeYears ago, an Ohio bowhunter by the name of Chad Moore wrote and told me about the dream buck he had just shot. The tale of the tape was impressive: the 6½-year-old 9-pointer with the drop tine and beams like Red Bull cans at the bases scored 186 non-typical. The story of his hunt was pretty simple and straightforward.

Chad didn’t use a big or flashy technique to kill the giant. He just did a lot of good things right: the scouting, the trail-cams, the tree-stand placement, the scent control… He kept at it day after day, until the monster popped up in his bow sight one afternoon. Then, heart thumping and knees shaking, he held it together and made the shot.

That is usually how it works. Most of the time, substance over style is how you get the brutes. So fit together these tips and tactics into one solid game plan tweaked to your land. Then, hunt hard and smart day after day. When you get your shot, be cool under pressure. The 2019 season, which is just around the corner, might be the season of your life.

Phase 1: Seeing is Believing

Forget the rut for now and focus on the early season, the second best time to shoot a whopper. Bucks have two weaknesses now. Singles, doubles and bachelor’s groups (generally a couple of small guys hanging out with a shooter or two) are still visible in open areas, and they are still locked into tight summer bed-to-feed patterns. Step one, find them; step two, pin down their travels so you can capitalize on those weaknesses.

trail camera bach group dean

It begins with having the right tools. If I had to choose between buying a new bow, gun or binoculars, I’d want them all, but I’d go with the glass. You need a full-size 10×42. Also, you can’t really count tines or gauge beam mass without a spotting scope on a tripod. A 20×50 or 20×60 model is the way to go.

On these sultry late summer evenings, drive out to your land an hour before dusk and glass  a field of alfalfa, clover, wheat or cut corn from a good distance away. No crops on your land? No worries. On one of my Virginia places I glass a lot of does and bucks in fields that haven’t been planted for years. After those fields are hayed for the last time in late summer, deer hit them hard to feed on the new, green forbs that pop up, especially if we get some rain. You might also find your buck mingling in a clear-cut, or in a wide log road, in a power line right-of-way…you get the picture. Spend as many evenings on the job as you can. The more times you spot the same buck(s), the better.

Have you been committing the biggest scouting sin—not glassing in the mornings too?If so, grab a cup of Joe and get out there at sunrise this weekend. Watch deer walking edges and tree lines, cutting across swamps, slinking in ditches and the like as they make for their bedding areas back in the woods. This reveals another link in their routine.

Once you’ve glassed a stout 8- or 10-point a few times, look for the corner, ditch or chute in the tree line where he most often pops out into the feed or leaves it at sunrise. Mark these entry and exit points on an aerial photograph. You’re off to a great start.

Phase 2: Trail-Cam Tactics

One summer Iowa bowhunter Jay Gregory glassed a stud in the soybeans on several evenings. The buck was coming out of deep cover in a river bottom. Gregory sneaked in there and set a few cameras on the best trails he could find. Throughout September he got some awesome pictures. My Lord, that giant will score close to 200, he thought. One October day he got the shot he really wanted. The buck crossed the river near his bedding area in broad daylight at 8:00 am. Gregory moved in with a tree stand and killed him a short time later. He scored 198.

There are three morals to this story:

1)      Late-summer visuals coupled with trail-camera photos take your scouting to the next level, and double your chances of patterning and shooting a monster.

2)      “Once you spot an old buck in a field, sneak in and set cameras on trails in a nearby riverbed or creek bottom,” says Gregory. “As summer deepens, mature bucks spend a lot of time hanging out near water in low areas. If you get lucky and set your cams in the right spot, you can find out exactly where he’s bedding.”

3)      Night pictures of bucks are cool, but once you snap a big boy on the prowl in early or afternoon shooting light, move in and hunt your best stand for the kill. Sometimes a titan will only move in good light for a few days each fall; a cam picture can help you be in the right spot at the right time.

Phase 3: The Ground Work

You still need to get out and do some good old ground pounding. How else can you set a stand or blind and expect that brute you’ve been glassing and photographing to walk within 25 yards of it?

scent killerScout one day around lunchtime, when deer are bedded. Spray down with Scent Killer. Walk across a field or cutover to a tree line where you’ve watched a fat 8-pointer step out. Check the wind; it should blow out of the woods. Sneak 50 to 100 yards back into the wind and timber. Don’t go much deeper than that, or else you’ll bump deer. Some does and bucks loaf super-tight to the feed this time of year.

Back in there, look for this early sign:

Rubs: Big rubs start popping up around September 1. Soon after stripping their velvet, dominant bucks post mega rubs on aromatic pines or cedars, hardwoods or even fence posts to tell does and other males, “This spot is mine!” Find a cluster of arm-size rubs on a ridge or in a river bottom near a crop field and you’ve found some segment of a big deer’s core area—hunt there into October.

Droppings: Lots of fresh pellets or clumps in a thicket or swamp tell you animals are edding there. If they’re dry and light brown, look for the nearest cornfield or oak flat where the deer are feeding and plan an ambush. If the scat is moist and greenish-black, check a nearby clover or wheat plot or maybe an apple orchard. Also look for pellets beneath mast trees where deer feed.

Tracks: Lots of so-so tracks indicate a lot of deer. A deep, splayed, three-inch print tells you a heavy buck is with them (size of his rack, nobody knows). Look for buck tracks along the edge of a field or in a muddy creek or river crossing.

Beds: I sometimes carry a tape measure to check tracks and also beds. My field research says a full-grown buck’s bed in matted grass or leaves is roughly 45 to 50 inches long, while a doe or young buck’s is 40 inches or so. You can never get too much info.

You’ve got about 6 weeks to put this 3-phase plan to work before bow season, good luck!

2019 Summer Scouting: Giant Drop-Tine On Trail Cam!

va 2019 drop

“Some men are obsessed with good guns, fine wine and beautiful women. I am consumed with shooting a drop-tine buck.”

I wrote that on January 1, 2008, the day I launched this Big Deer Blog. To this day I am still enamored with antler tines that grow down rather than up.

Imagine the excitement yesterday, July 21, when I opened the Spartan Camera app on my iPhone and this giant popped up! First time we’d seen him this summer.

Exciting. While we get images every summer of solid bucks on the farms I hunt in Virginia, this one is exceptional.

Even more exciting is that this buck’s rack will grow a bit more over the next 3 weeks. By mid-August most of the antler growth for the year is done.

I got to thinking, a couple of years ago we got one picture of a big drop tine on the same ridge where this buck was photographed. Just one picture all summer and fall. My theory was that the 2017 drop (below) summered part of the time on our farm, but then shifted over 500 yards to the neighbor’s property and spend the fall and winter there. We never saw that buck again.

va drop 2017

Until yesterday! I went back and compared the 2 images—same buck! He never showed up during the summer of 2018, but now he’s back!

Will the buck shift and leave our area again? Unfortunately, there’s a good chance he will, but… Several biologists I work with say that as some bucks get older, they roam less and their core areas shrink, so maybe, just maybe he’ll stay on our side of the fence this year.

Finger crossed, I’ll keep the Go Cams rolling and keep ya posted.



8 Best Spots for Trail Cameras

spartan setOne August day Iowa hunter Jay Gregory glassed a giant buck in one of his soybean fields. He snuck into a thick marsh a half-mile from where he spotted the deer and set up some trail cameras. Over the next 7 weeks he got 5 photos of the buck–not a lot, but enough. The image time-stamped 9:00 a.m. on October 24 was gold–it showed the hard-antlered monster at the waterhole in broad daylight. Jay moved in with a tree stand and arrowed the beast a few days later—it gross-scored 198.

After spotting a big buck in an ag field or food plot, sneak in and set a couple of cameras on well-used trails near the closest river, creek or marsh. As summer deepens, mature deer spend a lot of time hanging out near water in low-lying areas. If you get lucky and set your cams in the right spot, you can find out where a giant is bedding. Then plan your ambush on a trail between the bed and the feed.

va spartan 2Another great spot for cams in the early season: small clearings in the timber 50 to 100 yards off a crop field or clover plot where deer feed on September evenings. Mature bucks often hang up in these staging areas in late afternoon before moving out to a field at or after dark. Find a staging area and set a cam on a fresh trail, or near an oak tree where acorns are falling. If you photograph a good buck, slip into the staging area, hang a stand and try to shoot him if the wind and access in the area let you do it.

In the book Deer Cameras: The Science of Scouting Wisconsin bowhunter and QDMA member Todd Reabe reveals where he gets amazing daytime photos of monster bucks. And day images are what you want, because that shows when and where you might arrow a whopper when he’s on his feet in shooting light. Todd stays away from field edges and instead aims his cameras into pockets and strips of security cover. “Small funnels and bottlenecks of thick cover between feeding and bedding areas are the best spots for my cams,” he says. Look for these secret cam hotspots on aerial photos and then go in and ground scout.

Dr. Mickey Hellickson, one of the top whitetail biologists in America, has taken camera surveys for more than 10 years on his Iowa hunting property with the sole intent of finding terrains and covers where mature bucks routinely travel. “The spot where we’ve gotten the most mature buck photos is where 2 or more drainages or fingers of timber come together,” he says. Mick notes that these funnels may be large or small, but one constant is that “there is thick security cover nearby.” Hang cameras near these bottlenecks and you will find big deer. Then cross-reference the photos with aerial maps, consider fresh sign on the ground and hang tree stands for ambushes.

Hellickson’s surveys have revealed a second great place to set your cameras, especially later in the fall when the leaves blow down and the days get colder. “Our photos show mature bucks regularly use small blocks of timber with evergreen trees because the conifers provide increased security cover late in the year,” he says. Copses or wind rows of pines or cedars also break the wind and provide a warmer climate for deer on cold, north-wind days. Beginning in late November, set a couple of cameras in these habitats and be ready to move in with a stand when a bomber buck shows up.

spartan buck scrapeAnother top deer biologist, Dr. Grant Woods from Missouri, has analyzed hundreds of thousands of cam photos taken in all imaginable types of habitat from September through January. He says the best place to get buck shots bar none is at scrapes during the rut. Look for big, active scrapes deep in the timber and “monitor them throughout the rut, not just for two weeks during the peak,” he says. He explains that different bucks of all age classes show up at different scrapes at different times of the season—some come early in the pre-rut, some at peak, others don’t show until the post-rut phase. “Monitor the best scrapes for four to six weeks and you’ll see almost every buck big and small in the area,” says Woods. “You’ll get images of the local bucks on your land, and many of the transient bucks that work through too.”

Midwestern bowhunter and TV personality Terry Drury loves to hang cameras near “fence jumps.” “It might be a low, drooping spot in a wire fence, a hole in a ditch below a fence, an open gap gate, or a spot where a tree has fallen across a fence and knocked it down,” he says. “Any point where deer funnel to and cross a fence every day.” Second only to scrapes in the rut, fence crossings are where Terry captures some of his best buck images every season. “Whether you have 2, 6 or 20 fences crisscrossing your property, bucks are going to cross them in funnel spots all season long,” he says. “If you watch those spots enough with cameras you’re going to find some big deer.”

Minnesota hunter Ron Bice often hides a camera in cover where he thinks or knows a good buck is bedding. “In dense cover deep in the timber, deer get up and move around a lot in daylight hours to browse or just stretch,” he says. “You never know what kind of buck you’ll catch in there.” It’s risky business because you have to sneak in there at least twice—once to set a camera and again to check the memory card–but it can pay off. “Get a picture of a big deer in his bedroom, and you’ve got a huge advantage,” notes Bice. “You get an idea where that buck is moving out of cover at dusk, and where he’s heading back at first light the next morning.” Then hang a tree stand along a nearby trail or funnel for a high-odds ambush.

3 September Spots for Trail Cameras

va 2018 va buck

If you’ll be setting out or moving trail cameras this week, try:

ONE: A small clearing in the woods 50 to 75 yards off an alfalfa, soybean or clover field. Mature bucks like to hang out in these areas in late afternoon this time of year.

TWO: A little bottleneck of thick cover (image) on a deer trail that leads into a feed field or clover plot.

THREE: If you spot a big shooter buck in a field, sneak in the back door and set a camera on the nearest creek crossing, swampy bottom, etc. you can find in the nearby woods. As summer deepens, mature bucks spend a lot of time hanging out near water in low, thick, shady areas where it is cooler.

Trail-Camera Photos: Summer of “Long Brow” Buck

md dan june 2018 buck

In early June I got this picture from our friend Dan: Gonna keep an eye on this one… 1,300 pics from 2 cams,  15 different bucks so far, this one is the biggest… 3 others have potential, a lot of growing to do in the next 2 months.  Most bucks likely more to show up here to their summer range later…

md dan LB 2a

Later on in June Dan wrote: He might be a younger deer. Straight back and belly.  What are your thoughts on age? I wrote back and said that judging bucks in summer in tough, they look lean and have skinny necks… 

Long Brow’s rack had a major growth spurt!

md dan LB 3

In July: Weekly update of Long Brow. His G2s are finally above his brows. The parade of bucks showed up this week.  I lost count of how many there are.  Mostly 1 and 2 year olds. Had over 1,500 pics at 1 mineral lick.

 Long Brow in mid-July…

md dan LB 4

Here he is later in July, a great 8!

Will keep you posted when Long Brow sheds his velvet. Have a feeling that after that, we’ll see a hero shot of this fine buck with Dan or one of his family.