Put in the work now, enjoy the payoff later.
For a lot of hunters, deer are just about the last thing on their minds when the temperatures push triple digits and the humidity makes just walking to the mailbox a chore. But if you want to kill big bucks, particularly in those states offering an early fall muzzleloader or archery season, putting in the work now can vastly tilt the odds in your favor.
Summertime scouting can take several forms. From low-impact methods like studying topo maps of your potential hunting areas and long-range glassing to higher-impact methods like scouting for trails and hanging trail cams, the summer months are the time to prepare for the upcoming season.
If your state allows it, late spring and early summer are the times to establish mineral licks to attract bucks to your hunting area. Putting mineral licks out now will draw in bucks from a long distance, especially if you live in an area with poor mineral content in the soil.
“While whitetails get nearly all their mineral needs from their environment, in the spring they start to switch from mineral-heavy, browse-based feeding patterns to a green, mineral-poor diet of newly emerging grasses and other succulent growth,” says Josh Kinser of Big & J Industries, manufacturers of several popular deer mineral mixes. “This happens right as the deer are at their weakest from rut activity and winter. Deer crave salt and minerals as the bucks begin to grow new antlers and the does give birth and begin to lactate.”
How’s the best way to establish a productive mineral lick? It starts with location.
“If you want deer to use your mineral licks, put those licks in an area where deer will naturally travel near them,” Kinser says. “All too often, hunters use what we call the ‘Field of Dreams’ approach, where they put the mineral in a spot where they’d like to hang a stand and just hope the deer will come. While you might eventually pull deer in with that method, it’s going to take a while.”
Putting your minerals in areas that already have high deer traffic is your best bet; those near water sources can also be productive in the hot summer months when water may be scarce. Once you’ve identified those high-traffic areas, find a flat spot nearby where the mineral won’t be washed away by heavy rains. Kinser recommends clearing vegetation, digging a shallow depression, and loosening the top layer of soil to mix with the mineral.
How many mineral licks do you need? It depends on where you hunt. Kinser says in sparse habitat, such as what you might find in south Texas, one lick per 200 acres is probably enough. If you hunt thick cover in the Midwest, on the other hand, you might want at least one lick per 50 acres and possibly more if the habitat is fragmented and your deer don’t have wide travel patterns over the spring and summer.
Not long ago, studying the topography of a hunting area meant going to the trouble of procuring a topo map of the area, then trying to get enough detail to pick out features that might impact deer movement in the area. Today, phone apps like OnX Hunt allow you to instantly pull up detailed maps of your hunting area, then zoom in tight enough to pick out terrain details like clearcuts, saddles between ridges, creek draws and benches along the sides of steep inclines, all features that concentrate deer movement.
Time spent studying these maps will eliminate a lot of footwork over unproductive areas, allowing you to spend less time in the woods where you might bump a big buck and cause him to leave the area.
Trail cameras have revolutionized deer scouting. Hunters can now install trail cameras around their hunting area and keep track of every deer on the property without having to be there. With today’s camera technology that sends real-time photos to your phone or email, you can go a month or more, depending on the number of photos taken and the battery life of your camera, without setting foot on your property.
Gone are the days of bulky flash cameras that would alert deer. Today’s cameras are small and well camouflaged, and most are equipped with inferred technology for no-flash night photos. Hang the cameras off of trails and slightly above a deer’s normal line of sight for maximum concealment.
Where are the best locations for ultimate trail camera coverage of your hunting property? Here are a few tips:
To get the most from trail camera scouting, make sure the cameras have fresh batteries and plenty of storage on their SD cards before installing. Check the cameras for the correct date and time stamps so that you can compare travel times of target bucks over a series of days, making it easier to pattern him once the hunting season rolls around.
Summer living is easy for bucks. They peacefully hang out with other bucks in bachelor groups and think mostly about filling their stomach to store as much energy as possible for the upcoming rut. This means mature bucks are more predictable and patternable in the late summer than at any other time of the year.
Smart hunters put that predictability to work by figuring out where the bucks are feeding and glassing those food sources from a distance. Attractive feeding areas for late-summer deer include green soybean fields, clover or alfalfa hay fields, food plots, and early dropping oak flats. Once the bucks locate a preferred food source, they often enter it about the same time each evening.
To effectively glass these areas, locate a spot downwind of the feeding area that offers a good view and use a good pair of binoculars or spotting scope to watch the bucks as they enter and leave the area. Take note of the trails the bucks use to access the area. If you notice a particular buck using the same trail each evening, that can be a dynamite spot to hang a stand if you hunt in a state that offers early archery or muzzleloader seasons that come in while the bucks are still on their late-summer pattern.
How close should you get? That depends on the topography and cover of your hunting area. In open country, 500 to 1,000 yards might be as close as you can safely get to the deer without pressuring them. In more rolling country or in thick cover, you might be able to safely get within 200 to 300 yards. Always pay attention to wind direction and make sure your scent will blow away from the deer. Spooking a group of bucks is a sure way to cause them to alter their pattern.
When it comes to gear for glassing deer, a good 10X or 12X binocular with an objective lens of 42mm to 50mm or a variable-power spotting scope like a 20-60X85mm are perfect for long-range viewing. While deals can sometimes be found, binoculars and spotting scopes are a prime example of getting what you pay for. Good glass, while expensive, is an investment that will last a lifetime. If possible, try out several brands under real-world conditions (i.e., outside the retail store lighting before purchasing.
Even the best optics are worthless if you can’t hold them steady enough to see a distant deer. For binoculars, getting a good view can be as simple as resting your arms or the binocular itself on something solid like a tree, fencepost or the hood of your truck.
For spotting scopes, you will want either a steady tripod or window mount to hold them still enough for long-distance viewing. There are several quality, lightweight, folding tripods on the market today that won’t take up a lot of room in a pack and enable a rock-solid view.
While it might seem odd to spend time scouting weeks or months before seasons start, information gathered this time of year can be invaluable once you begin hunting. Knowing what bucks are in your hunting area and where their main bedding, travel and feeding areas are will give you a head start on your hunting buddies who spent their summer at the pool.