August 15, 2022
By Josh Honeycutt
This article on deer hunting was featured in the Midwest edition of August Game & Fish Magazine. How to subscribe
In America, deer seasons are limited to August through February, location depending. However, it's what you do during the other five months that really sets you up for success in the coming season. And while it might not always seem like it, pre-season projects are often time-sensitive. You need to complete certain things when they need to be done, and in the proper sequence.
Here are the things I do, and the order in which I tend to do them.
1. REFLECT ON SHEDS
You found a bunch of sheds back in the spring, but all you did was pick them up and toss them in the corner of the garage. Finding antlers is great, but using these sheds to better yourself as a hunter is important, too. First, understand all shed finds aren't created equal. Sheds you discovered in or near bedding areas show you where the deer that dropped them spent their daytime hours, especially in winter. That can be valuable information come the late season.
Those you found near food sources and out in the open offer less value in terms of understanding how a deer uses a property. That said, it confirms the deer is still alive, and shows where that deer might feed or travel during the late and post-season. Looking at the pedicle can also reveal how healthy or unhealthy the deer was when it dropped the antler.
A healthy deer will have a smooth pedicle that isn't too bumpy, raised or inconsistent; it's fairly flush across the underside of the burrs. An unhealthy deer's pedicle, meanwhile, often has jagged edges, inconsistent texturing and more material attached to the underside of the shed base.
Another way to get the most from shed antler finds is to confirm your score guesstimates from during the season. Write down what you thought the deer scored based on trail camera photos. Then, score the antler (or antlers if it's a matched set), assign a close guess for inside spread and then tally it up. Check to see how close you were.
2. SCOUT NEW GROUND
One of the most important things a hunter can do is find new ground, even if deer season is only days away. You can never have too many hunting spots. Those who say otherwise have never lost ground, don’t share permission or don’t take other hunters afield with them. Real-life deer hunters need to expand their options.
One of the best ways to do this is to scout new public lands. I try to find a new out-of-state public-land hotspot each year. This opens additional opportunities when going on non-resident excursions. What qualifies an area as a hotspot? These need to be hard-to-reach areas that are landlocked by private land (requiring you to gain permission to cross through private land to access), waterlocked (requiring you to use a boat, canoe or kayak to access) or at least a 1-mile walk in on foot (preferably farther).
I also try to gain access to one new in-state private-land property each season. Sometimes I reach that goal, other times I don't, but I still try. Generally, I'm looking to gain permission, but this can also come in the form of buying or leasing land, budget depending.
3. HANG STANDS
You've scouted both new and old ground, and maybe even found some good stand locations. I conduct treestand maintenance each year during the off-season, too. I pull each treestand, inspect it and make repairs or replacements as necessary. This is very important for maintaining safety measures.
I also like to get treestands hung in high-risk, high-odds hunting spots, such as in or near bedding areas, during the off-season. This way, deer have plenty of time to forget about the human intrusion within these sensitive areas where they tolerate little of it. Then, I don't return until it's time to climb up and ambush my target buck. This time is also great for planning and clearing entry and exit routes. The ability to access your stands without being seen or heard is just as important as not being smelled. You can't kill deer that you spook.
4. PLANT A PLOT
You've spent time scouting ground. Now, think about the best spots for small kill plots. But don't just plant for the sake of planting. Do so with purpose. Food plot design is as important as the food plot itself. This includes the shape, orientation and more.
The first step is location selection. Position these plots between bedding areas and destination food sources, but closer to the beds. This helps ensure that mature bucks use it more often in daylight.
Next, choose a food plot shape that optimizes deer movement. Round or four-sided plots allow deer to see the entire thing from one location. This means deer can move to the edge and see the whole plot without stepping foot inside it. You don't want that.
Instead, choose a shape that encourages deer to flow through the plot from end to end, or at least from one end to the middle. Shapes that accomplish this include L, K, T, U, V, figure 8, turkey foot, etc. If the field isn't already tall with vegetation, allowing you to carve out such shapes with a brush mower, you can still create your desired food plot shape within a circular, ovular, square or rectangular field. Simply plant seed inside the desired food plot shape boundary, and add a tall-growing vegetation—such as Egyptian wheat —outside of the desired shape, effectively filling in the gaps between the food plot edges and the surrounding timber.
To fully take advantage of the food plot shape, deer should not be able to see beyond the plot boundary, and the taller natural vegetation helps with this. The tall visual barriers also make deer feel more comfortable about using the food plot during daylight hours. And, because deer are naturally inquisitive and like to see what else is in the plot, the strategic shapes force them to a point where they can see the rest of the plot. This point, or vertex, where everything meets in these shapes is where you should position your treestands and blinds.
The rest of the plan is business as usual. Hopefully you've already completed your soil tests. Now it’s time to make things happen. Begin by safely, properly spraying plot interiors to kill competing plant species. Select the right herbicide for the weeds you’re trying to kill and the type of plant species you'll put in the plot. You don’t want to unknowingly kill the very plants you hope to grow.
Once the vegetation within the food plot is dead, mow the brushy, weedy plots to help reduce the discing workload later, especially if heavy brush clearing is involved. Reduce vegetation to as short as safely possible with the brush hog. Next, spread fertilizer and lime as directed by the soil sample results. Once that is finished, disc the ground. It’s important to work the fertilizer and lime into the soil, as well as to create a good seed bed.
After that, it's time to get seed in the soil. Plant as directed on the bag. Then, once the seed is down, cover it as directed. Some seeds might do best barely pressed into the soil. Others might need to be planted 1/4 inch deep or more.
5. HANG CAMERAS
After deer season, you probably pulled all your trail cameras from the field, cleaned them up, checked for damage, ensured each one still worked properly and replaced irreparable ones. Afterward, you hopefully stored the cams in a dry, temperature-controlled environment.
Now it's time to get those workhorses back out and deployed. They need to produce actionable information, so place them in areas of interest. I focus on two key spots.
The first consists of locations where I’ll leave cameras posted up all season long; I won't physically touch these again until after the season ends. Some might be cellular cameras with external batteries that last the length of deer season.
Others are non-cellular cameras that I merely let soak and won't check until after deer season. The former provide in-season intel, whereas the latter will only produce historical information used to show how deer maneuver the most sensitive areas of the property. Either way, these will be in high-daytime-use locations such as bedding areas and sanctuaries.
The second group of cameras will be placed in spots I can physically check or where I can move them without doing too much damage. These places include field edges, food plots, travel routes, scrapes, rubs, watering holes, stand locations, etc.
6. STUDY CAMERA DATA
As mentioned, some trail cameras aren’t checked during deer season. The photo data they collected last season can now illustrate how the deer herd used these areas during daylight hours. The data also reveals how specific target bucks use a given property. Both are helpful for the coming season, which leads us to the next task.
7. CREATE SMALL KILL SITES
After scouting properties and studying cameras that soaked, identify high-odds locations to intercept target bucks during daylight hours. These will be on the fringes of bedding and staging areas. Once you’ve selected general points of interest, it’s important to find the X, which is where you should make your stand.
If these spots are already primed and ready to go, merely hang stands and leave them alone until it’s time to hunt. However, if necessary, you can sweeten the deal.
For example, consider planting micro plots close to bedding areas. Within these, add in small watering holes; excavate by hand or with larger equipment—depending on how big you want them to be—then bury a small plastic swimming pool or watering trough before backfilling around the edges.
Also, perhaps jumpstart a mock scrape, scrape post or rubbing post to draw deer in for a shot opportunity. Then, hang a treestand or two and leave the area alone until it’s time to hunt.
8. MAKE GAME PLANS
Think back to the last days of last deer season. Did you see certain target bucks? Maybe you had trail camera pictures late in the season or even after it ended. Knowing which bucks made it through the season can be beneficial. Not every deer will return, but some will.
Now, pull together target-buck gameplans for each of the bucks you believe survived the season. If the deer is a season-long homebody, have a plan for each phase of the season, including early season, pre-rut, rut, post-rut and late season. If the deer tends to spend time on the property during only a portion of the season, create plans for those timeframes.
Regardless, examine prior knowledge of specific deer and have a plan in place for these, including when, where and how you'll target each buck. Of course, not all these plans will work. You just need one of them to for each tag you have. Chances are, if you have a lot of plans in place, one strategy will work.
In addition to treestand and trail camera work, there are other gear-related off-season duties to accomplish. These include cleaning and maintaining guns and archery equipment, improving shooting skills, upgrading accessories and more. Have your gear in tip-top shape and ensure your abilities are rock solid for opening day. Do this, along with the other projects, and you should dramatically improve your odds this season.