By Bill Winke
Reading hunting magazines as a boy, I found it irritating when an author said he enjoyed seeing deer as much as shooting them. My hackles rose and I thought, No way! It seemed almost sacrilegious to me at the time. To punish that author for his softness, I often stopped reading his article right there and looked for something a little more bloodthirsty.
I loved everything about hunting, any and all forms of hunting, but I most loved filling tags and shooting limits. The quest to put meat in the freezer is what got me out of bed on those cold mornings. Seeing game was only a necessary part of shooting it — merely a means to an end.
So, for me to now talk about watching deer without any immediate impulse to shoot one is a massive departure from bygone days. I still love shooting them, but the greatest thrill has increasingly become learning about the behavior of specific deer and seeing how much their antlers, bodies and habits change from one year to the next.
It’s amazing to see the annual transformation. Some bucks completely reinvent themselves from one year to the next, while others change very little — simply fascinating. I really believe just having a window into that part of the natural world God created for us to enjoy is now my favorite part of deer hunting. Please don’t punish my softness by stopping the read; maybe by the end of this article I’ll even give you some information about how to also kill them!
The process of learning and patterning specific bucks starts as soon as they develop recognizable antlers. This can be early July in many cases, but the quest really hits a high point in early August, when just about every buck in the area is visible and most are already carrying a nearly full rack of velvet-clad antlers.
The patterning process takes many paths, and you can jump in at any point along the way and still enjoy the off-season journey and the fall success it often brings. As I mentioned, though, the unofficial start is the last week in July. Personally, I usually start Aug. 1 by filming bucks feeding in agricultural fields.
During these hot, often humid, mid-summer evenings, I’ll slip into place to film whatever comes out in the secluded corner of a soybean, clover or alfalfa field. It’s a ton of fun; I see so many docile, relaxed deer that it makes me wonder how I can ever make it through a season without filling every buck tag. Ah, but those same deer don’t stay relaxed and docile for long — more about that later.
If you don't want to mess with filming deer, you can watch them with binoculars or a spotting scope and still rarely be disappointed. You should see lots of bucks, giving you a great idea of what is coming out and where. It’s quite the show — just keep your distance on the downwind side so you don’t alert any deer feeding in these places!
Though visual scouting is a total blast — nothing beats it, short of actually hunting — it can be hard to get to all the possible feeding locations in your hunting area during a busy summer. This is where trail cameras become so valuable in the patterning process. Using them may only be an extension of visual scouting in some cases, but for many of us, putting out cameras is the only summer scouting we may do. So, we need to do it right to learn as much as we can (and have as much fun as possible).
WHERE: If you have been glassing fields, you have a great starting point for your cameras — just put them near the trails the bucks have been using to approach the feeding areas. If it’s legal to put bait in front of your trail cameras, a bag of corn is a great way to concentrate the deer for a photo. If bait isn’t legal, place the camera along the most heavily used trail and point it toward the field so you can get not only the deer entering via that trail but any other deer that happen to be in the background when the shutter triggers.
Some trail cameras offer field-scan or time-lapse mode, in which you can set the camera to take photos at regular intervals for set parts of the day — e.g., every 30 seconds or every minute for the last hour of daylight. This mode is well worth any difference in camera price because it presents a great opportunity to see everything in one part of the field all evening long, not just the deer that come out using the trail.
Again, set the camera near the trail, pointing toward the field. The standard operation of the camera will get the deer on the trail, and the time-lapse should get all of the others. In really good areas, I generally put out two cameras in time-lapse mode facing in opposite directions so I’m sure to get all of the deer in that part of the field every evening.
If you haven’t been out glassing fields, you can assume that the most obvious feeding areas will be productive. Find protein-rich food sources such as clover, alfalfa and soybeans and you can bet the bucks will be there. When trying to figure out exactly where to place your cameras in a given field, look for well-used trails leading to heavily browsed areas. These are dead giveaways of the deer’s preferred hotspots.
HOW: As with any form of trail-camera scouting, you don’t want to educate the deer while you’re trying to pattern them. Stay out of the woods at this time. Focus on the open fields, and check your cameras during the middle of the day using an ATV if possible. If not, wear chest waders to avoid leaving any scent on the ground near the places where the deer are feeding. Deer may not be as sensitive to human presence in the summer as they are in the fall, but they still don’t like it, and when they find it, they’ll be less likely to keep using that area.
Obviously, the more cameras you have, the better. If you only have a few, rotate them among the most attractive food sources from the last week of July through the third week of August. I’ve picked up a few more cameras recently, but for a long time I only had five, so I rotated them every week to 10 days in order to cover all of the best spots on my farm. You can even make this strategy work with a single camera. Anything you learn will help you in the fall and afford you several weeks of fun in the summer.
Some bowhunters place their cameras over mineral sites. I used to do this in a few spots, but the laws on mineral site use started getting tighter in Iowa, so I stopped. Mineral sites are great places for a camera because the mineral lasts a long time and, unlike corn, is not susceptible to theft from raccoons, birds, bears and the like.
What You Learn — and What You Don’t
You can learn which of the bucks made it through to this season and where they’re living in July and August. You can see how much their antlers changed from one year to the next. As much as you would like to think there is more to gain from summer scouting, though, that’s about all you can learn for sure during this timeof the year.
For instance, you can’t learn where they’ll be in October. In fact, you can’t even learn for sure where they’ll be in early September. If you have a season that opens Sept. 1, there’s a decent chance the bachelor groups will still be intact at that time. However, within days after that date, the bucks will start to shed their velvet and break up their merry bands.
Rising testosterone, the effect of shortening days, causes both results, as the bucks stop tolerating each other in favor of dispersing into their fall ranges. With some bucks, this transition takes place over several weeks. With others, it can happen fairly quickly.
Either way, what you learn in late July and August may not translate into fall strategy. In my experience, roughly one-third of the bucks I see in the summer will be reasonably close to the same area once they disperse into their fall ranges. Some I’ve been able to follow moved a quarter-mile; others showed up as much as a mile away. Some I never saw again until the following summer.
In summary, be careful to not put too much stock in where you find bucks in August; with most of them, you’ll have to start all over in September in an effort to find their fall ranges. However, you can take some consolation from the fact that roughly one-third of them will still be found nearby, giving you at least one good place to start your fall scouting.