Early Season Whitetails
by Scott Haugen, Editor
Whether scouting or hunting, late summer is one of the best months to locate a Western whitetail buck. Here’s what to look for in your pre-season scouting missions, and early season hunts!
A wild flush at my feet, and instinctively the shotgun was shouldered. I have no idea where my first payload of #6 shot went, but my second shot hit the mark. Soon the retriever had a ring-neck pheasant and was headed my way.
As the dog worked around a small pile of brush along the river-bottom, something caught my eye. It was a buck rub, a rub made within the past month. The more I looked around that day, the more rubs and scrapes I saw.
The first part of that late December morning was spent focusing on pheasant hunting, but the focus changed as we kept working the river’s edge. Here, old rubs—not only from the recent rut, but from the past several years—dominated the cottonwood groves. Old trails left no question whitetails lived here, but obviously during a different time of year as we’d yet to see a deer.
I vowed to return to the area in summer, hoping to catch a glimpse of some does that had moved back into the area. The intent was to find does, for if does are there in summer, they’ll be there in the fall and during the rut, as evidenced by all the buck sign.
A late June scouting session found me glassing the river-bottom from above. Braxton, my 14 year old son, and I had already applied for the special-draw whitetail permits in this part of northeast Oregon, but wouldn’t know the results until later in the month. For the time being, we stayed positive and continued scouting.
Not only did we find many does and newborn fawns, but we laid eyes on several whitetail bucks, their antlers covered in velvet with plenty of growth yet to take place. We had confirmed whitetails lived in this river valley during the summer and fall months, now all we needed was to draw a tag.
There are two prime times to be in the field when you can actually lay eyes on whitetail bucks. Many hunters consider the November rut to be the best time to watch big bucks. While this can be true, fact is, many big bucks are on the move during this time, either covering ground in search of does or physically chasing them. Because of this escalated level of movement, you may see a buck one day and he may be gone the next.
While my favorite month to observe buck behavior is in November, during the rut; personally, July and August are my preferred months to locate and learn about big bucks. This is due to the simple reason that during July and August, when the bucks are still in velvet, they are relaxed and carrying out daily routines. They’re not wired, letting hormones dictate how they act.
The best way to learn about a whitetail deer—or any big game animal for that matter—is to observe it, undisturbed. If you can watch a buck without it knowing you are around, it’s amazing how much can be learned.
In July and August, whitetail bucks are usually hanging out in small bachelor groups, or alone. One thing I have observed, at least in the areas where I hunt, is that when a bachelor herd of bucks hangs out together, and there’s a trophy buck among them, he often lets them make the first move, then follows.
On several occasions I’ve watched smaller bucks work their way out of bedding areas and into feeding zones, only to be followed by a bigger, wiser buck. Virtually every time I’ve seen this, the smaller bucks go first. Many times the big bucks won’t even use the same trail. Often times they’ll enter the feeding area uphill from where the smaller bucks are, then eventually work their way down to the rest of the group.
There are two reasons July and August are prime months for locating big bucks. The first has to do with the racks still being in velvet, the second with the bucks’ daily routine.
The fact that antlers are still in velvet is perhaps the biggest advantage to the hunter. Developing velvet racks pump a great deal of blood through their veins, and are very sensitive when touched. For brush-country whitetail hunters, this means the deer can be seen in the open on a regular basis. By staying in these open habitats, deer don’t risk damaging their racks, and they’re usually very near food and water.
During late summer, bucks will devote many hours to feeding during the course of a day in an effort to maximize antler growth and amass body fat for the upcoming rut and potentially harsh winter. Because consuming nutritious food is a key objective of bucks this time of year, spending all day in the field, either scouting or hunting, can be highly beneficial. The hunter’s worst enemy in summer is the intense heat, so be prepared. At the same time, when it comes to locating bucks, excessively high temperatures can be a trophy hunter’s best friend, for it forces bucks to find shade.
When searching for early season bucks in velvet, one thing I’ve learned is how active they are. When I’m scouting in the hot months of mid-July and August, it’s not uncommon to see deer up and feeding until 10:00 a.m. At the same time, they may start feeding again in the late afternoon or early evening, well before shade hits them.
When these bucks bed down, it’s amazing to see how little cover it takes to actually hide them. From what I’ve observed, their number one priority when bedding is staying shaded. This is where the hot temperatures can help hunters. Hot days mean deer will often bed in places where it’s easy for humans to see them, like under trees, at the base of logs or stumps and amid tall grass. It doesn’t take much shade to keep a deer happy, so be sure and look over all the potential bedding places, even the obvious ones.
Small shaded areas are among my favorite to glass, for the simple fact the shade doesn’t last long, meaning the deer have to get up and reposition themselves as the sun shifts. I’ve spotted an incredible number of bucks between the hours of 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. when they get up to reposition themselves in the shifting shade. Sometimes they’ll get up, take a step or two and lay back down in the shade. Sometimes they’ll take their time, stretch, and then lay back down. Other times they may get up, take a few bites of food, then move to another spot of shade.
Due to the moving shade, mid-day is one of my favorite times to glass. I also like blue-sky days over cloudy ones for the simple reason it gives the deer less shade to lay in.
The second reason I like scouting so much in summer is because this is the only time I’ve been able to consistently pattern big buck movements. Patterning Western whitetail bucks comes back to the habitat you hunt them in. How the deer move within one habitat can greatly vary in comparison to another.
Over the years, I’ve patterned early season bucks in many settings, in multiple states. When I go in to an area there are specific things I look for, the two most important factors being food and shade. Find where deer bed in the shade and what they’re feeding on and most of the work is done.
When scouting bucks in velvet, search in open terrain. Sometimes they’re in the middle of meadows or crop fields. Other times they’re hanging on the fringes. Where you find deer depends on the density of food in the area and how far and through what type of terrain they have to travel through to reach it. Then again, river-bottom whitetails may be homebodies this time of year, meaning all they need to thrive is in a very small area, especially if on private land.
In high, open habitats, search for deer up and feeding well in to late morning. From a distance, watch where they feed, and through a high-powered spotting scope, try to determine what they’re feeding on. Observe the deer as they move and try to monitor the wind as they mill around. Also, try and narrow down where they might bed. Some will bed in the open, making it easy, others will move into the open timber to bed in heavy shade.
When scouting, don’t worry about following bucks to find their exact bedding spot, it’s not that important. What you want to look for are places where you can set up along their path of travel come hunting season, and have a good chance of killing a big buck. This is why patterning them is important; to make sure they are using the same trails each day.
If you’re hunting in the early season, that’s a different story. When a buck beds, that’s the best time to put the move on him, especially if you’re a bowhunter. In higher elevations, make sure the thermals have shifted and the warmer, less dense air is rising. This means stalking in from above, or at a side-hill angle.
No matter when or where you hunt Western whitetails, early season scouting can be one of the most valuable times to learn what’s out there. Being able to actually lay eyes on trophy bucks, and see the number and caliber of bucks in an area can give you an optimistic outlook you never thought possible.
Once a buck sheds the velvet from his rack, usually by the first few days in September, his behaviors start to change. Big bucks seem to shed their velvet first, while some younger bucks may keep it a week or two longer. With the antlers done growing, a buck doesn’t have the sensitive growing velvet on his rack to protect it. This means he can return to the thicker bedding places in his core area. It also means he’ll start feeding at night, in the safety of darkness.
There’s also a slight hormonal shift that takes place within bucks at this time. Now begins the period of pre-rut, and the big boys take notice of what bucks and does are in their area. The bucks, especially the younger age class, will also start sparring with one another in an effort to see who might be the best on the block.
If you hold an early season tag, September can be one of the best times to fill it on a big buck as their movements are not yet hindered by human activity. This lack of intrusion is an important factor that separates the early season from the mid-season. In the mid-season, it only takes one day of increased human activity to greatly alter the movement of trophy bucks.
No matter what your objective, to find a buck or kill it, there’s no time like late summer to get it done. Conditions are tough, no doubt, but when it comes to physically seeing bucks, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better time to do so. Even if your hunts don’t open until October or November, making an effort to get out there in the early season, to see what deer are around, can pay huge dividends.
If nothing else, it will give you confidence just knowing bucks are out there, and in the world of whitetail hunting, confidence means everything. I can tell you, Braxton and I have heightened confidence levels for the upcoming season, for not only did our off-season scouting missions unveil lots of deer, but we also drew our whitetail tags for northeastern Oregon. WW