By Bill Winke
The plan is simple on the surface. You find a shooter buck during the summer, relocate him after he breaks up with his bachelor buddies and then narrow down his range until you have a good idea where he is spending most of his time.
That's where you spend the archery season.
Success comes down to hunting smart — monitoring the buck until he is most likely to be active during daylight and then making your move. Unfortunately, it is not always so simple when you put the plan into effect.
Some of the good bucks you find in the summer will be in the same area in the fall, but most won't. Sure, it is fun to watch them in full velvet as they munch alfalfa and soybeans, but if you don't have time to get out and glass fields you can still enjoy a great season by skipping right past this step.
In fact, my education regarding summer scouting was humbling. The real challenge is not finding good bucks in the summer but rather figuring out where they've gone after they disperse.
Summer Scouting Failures
I started producing the Midwest Whitetail online video series in 2008. Before that, I really didn't do any summer scouting. But we needed lots of content for the shows that first year, so I began spending tons of time during the summer filming bucks on alfalfa, clover and soybean fields.
I learned a few things about the local bucks and where they lived. A number of them caught my eye that summer, and the biggest ones became the hope for my upcoming season. I was shocked by how many big deer I saw — especially during the first 10 days of August. Now I had a starting point and a fire under my backside, but my excitement that first year was misplaced and short-lived.
As mentioned, summer patterns are just that — summer patterns. They aren't fall patterns. Many of those bucks fell off the radar around the end of August or first part of September, right about when they were shedding their velvet and breaking up their bachelor groups.
It was my first lesson in the reality of changing home ranges. Many bucks have separate home ranges in the summer and fall. Sometimes they don't overlap.
Before you can hope to hunt one of the summer bucks, you first have to find him back after he sheds his velvet and settles into his fall range. He will start to decrease his daylight movements at this time too, at least in open fields where he is highly visible. They start to disappear due to a number of reasons, such as rising testosterone levels, changing food sources, etc.
If you don't know it is happening, you will assume the bucks are still there, just not moving as much. You might go well into the hunting season until you realize they are gone — and they have been gone since September!
The hunt doesn't truly begin until you find the bucks back in mid-to-late September, and that is no simple chore. In fact, that is the real focus of this article — finding them again and coming up with a plan to kill them.
Using trail cameras is the only way you can hope to keep up as bucks transition from their summer ranges to their fall ranges. And how you run the cameras to get maximum coverage of your hunting area is an art.
The Art of Camera Scouting
Trail-camera scouting and patterning is really a two- or three-phase process. Phase One is finding the bucks you want to hunt after they disperse.
Phase Two is determining the size and shape of their ranges to the extent possible, and Phase Three involves running the cameras in time-lapse or field-scan mode to learn as much as possible without using any bait that could distort natural movement patterns.
Phase One: Where you can legally run a camera over bait, you have some nice options when trying to find the bucks in their fall ranges. Bait permits a quicker, more efficient inventory. This practice is currently legal in my home state of Iowa. I run my cameras over corn in their first locations for about 10 days and then move them until I find the bucks I want to hunt.
After several years, I have boiled my trail-cam scouting down to 15 locations on our farm. If I get a camera into each area in mid-to-late September, I get photos of nearly every buck around. These carefully selected spots keep me on the fringes enough that I don't educate the deer in the process.
That is the art.
By placing the cameras in, or right on the edge of, food plots or farm fields I feel like I am getting a true sense of where the deer are living. I am not pulling them from their normal range just for a bite of corn.
The corn only concentrates the deer for the photos and then it is gone a few days later. If I leave the camera over corn for more than a few days, the deer start to change their patterns to revolve around the bait site, and that is not what I want.
I also occasionally place the camera site near a heavy creek crossing or well-used funnel, but I stay well away from sanctuaries and bedding areas such as wooded ridges or small, isolated fields.
Just to keep scent to an absolute minimum, I always wear fishing waders when I go in to check my cameras. With waders on, you can bottle up all your scent and keep it off the grass, brush and ground.
In simple terms, I keep my camera locations at least 200 yards apart. Surprisingly, I may get a ton of photos of a buck on one camera, but none on the one just 200 yards away. This is particularly true of older bucks that have small home ranges.
You need to cover your hunting area well to be sure you don't miss any of these stay-at-home bucks.
Phase Two: Once I find a buck I want to hunt, I move a few other cameras into the area to determine how far he is roaming and what time of the day he is hitting certain areas. When you get close to the center of his core, you will get the buck on camera much more often and sometimes in daylight.
Knowing where he spends most of his time and where he roams is very important, as it opens up a lot of stand options. You need all the options you can get so you can find the best spots to hunt the buck without taking any risk of bumping him.
It is amazing how small the core area can be for some old bucks. One of the deer I shot in 2012 actually had a range of roughly 30 acres, based on my camera observations. I ran cameras around that perimeter and I don't think he ever left that small area.
It wasn't like shooting a fish in a barrel, but knowing the size and exact location of his core sure made it easier to kill him.
Phase Three: There are two reasons to run a camera without bait in front of it. You do it because you want to eliminate the bait from the equation as you learn the buck's patterns more precisely and you do it if you can't legally put bait in front of your cameras.
As mentioned, many of the newer cameras have a field-scan or time-lapse mode that permits you to take a photo over intervals for a specified period each day.
I set mine to take a photo as often as possible (usually every minute) for the last 90 minutes of daylight and the first 60 minutes of daylight each day. Using this mode, I can get very good information about what is happening on a food plot, in the corner of a field or in a small staging area without having to use bait.
This method doesn't give you the information you need as quickly as using bait, but it does offer a solution where baiting to the camera is illegal.
In areas where you don't have food plots, you can set up cameras on heavy trails and funnels. I often set them on a fence post bordering an open gate or on a tree near a creek or ditch crossing. In this case, you don't have to use the time-lapse mode since the deer will be close enough to trigger the camera as they pass.
Just be forewarned; you aren't likely to find all your summer targets back again once the bucks disperse into their fall ranges. Some may move a long distance and you won't see them again until the next summer — if they survive. That is part of the game; the part I don't like.
Once you find the bucks again, you need to learn as much as possible about their patterns without tipping your hand. Fortunately, this knowledge is cumulative. What you learn one year generally translates to the next year.
Some bucks will relocate without explanation, but in my experience, most have reasonably similar patterns each fall. If they get away one year, what you learned while trying to kill them generally translates forward to predict their future patterns. Sometimes it takes a few years to get a buck figured out. So, don't get bummed if you don't get him; you are one big step closer to getting him next year.
Look for daylight movement in your trail-camera photos. The closer you get to a buck's core area, the more daylight movement you should see. Some deer just don't move much in the day, no matter how close you get to their backyards.
Those aren't the most fun to hunt because you can spend a lot of long hours waiting for them to change their behavior. I usually put bucks like this on the backburner and focus on hunting bucks showing daylight activity.
What to Look For
When studying your trail-cam photos, there are four things you can quickly learn. First, you can find a buck to hunt, of course. Second, look for frequency. How often is he there? If he is there only once per week, you are probably on the fringe of his core area.
If he is only there once in a great while (every few weeks), you are even farther out of the action, likely on the fringe of his range (which is larger than his core). In that case, you aren't really hunting him yet. You need to keep moving and searching.
Third, you can see which direction he is coming from when approaching the camera and which direction he is going when he leaves. In the evenings, his butt is likely pointing roughly toward his bedding area in the first photo of the buck. That is the most reliable method I have found to estimate where a buck is bedding. You can work backwards from there if he is only arriving after dark.
Finally, as mentioned, pay attention to the time of day. You want to focus on daylight activity. If you hunt a buck that is only moving at night, you may still get him (there is always hope as long as you are in a tree) but you also run a high risk you will use up your best chance. Remember, the first time in is often your best chance for taking a mature buck, so I like to save that trump card for when the buck is most killable.
After you gain all this information about a buck, the stand site will suggest itself; just be careful with your impact. You may not get him the first time in. That being the case, you need a bulletproof exit route so you don't bump or alert any deer.
I would rather hunt a stand overlooking minimal sign in an accessible spot on the fringe of a buck's core area than hunt a stand overlooking great sign in the center of it. Time is always a critical ally in this game, and time is on your side as long as a buck doesn't know he is being hunted.
Conversely, if you try to hunt the center of a buck's core area, you might kill him the first time in, but you might also spend the rest of the season wondering where he went after you unknowingly bump him.
I had to make this tough choice during the 2012 season when I ended up killing the biggest buck of my life. He was 7 years old that year, and his range was very small — no more than 30 acres.
In fact, he was very active in the center of that range based on photos I got from a camera on a ditch crossing that we use to access a small field when planting it.
The buck was showing up on the camera nearly every day in full daylight at that crossing. Man, it was tempting to go in after him, but I was afraid the swirling winds in that small bottom would give me and my cameraman away.
I stuck to my guns and eventually shot him from the edge of a feeding area on the fringe of his core. His overall range was small; he didn't seem to be going anywhere. Time was on my side.
It made the most sense to be conservative. If he had been a roamer or his range had overlapped other properties I couldn't hunt, I might have been more aggressive. Again, this is the art of deer hunting — using all your resources to figure out when it makes sense to apply pressure and when it makes sense to stick to the fringes.