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Summer School: It's Prime Time to Scout Big Bucks for Fall Hunting

Whether your fall hunting plans involve whitetails, blacktails or mule deer, summer is the time to locate bucks in the open and start forming strategies to tag them.

Summer School: It's Prime Time to Scout Big Bucks for Fall Hunting

Bucks are most active in the open during the first few hours of morning and in the late afternoon, though they will often move to seek shade and change beds during midday. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

By 3:30 a.m., Dad and I were where we wanted to be. It was Oct. 1, opening day of general rifle season. I had been scouting the area since early August and had seen some good bucks. We assumed the place would be overrun with hunters, but we didn’t see a single truck until 10 minutes before legal shooting light. Over the next few minutes, we watched more trucks making their way down various logging roads in Oregon’s Cascade Range.

Daylight came and the sun eventually crested the mountains behind us. Dad and I had yet to see a deer, but we dared not move. The logged unit we glassed was tall with weeds, willows and briars, making it hard to see deer unless they moved. Finally, more than three hours into the morning, a buck materialized from the brown fireweed. Then another … and then a third. These were the same bucks I’d been seeing all summer when they were in velvet. All the sudden traffic in the woods had put them on edge.

bucks in velvet in field
Finding bucks is only a starting point. Next, figure out what it is about the area that has attracted them and whether those features will be relevant in hunting season. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

We already had the rifle set up in the shooting sticks. At 305 yards, Dad made a perfect shot. It took us a couple hours to get the buck out, but there was no hurry. This morning belonged to my dad, who was soon to turn 82 years old and had just taken a mature Columbia blacktail deer, his favorite big-game animal to hunt.

Driving home, we stopped and talked to a fellow hunter parked alongside a logging road. “Man, sure aren’t the deer there used to be,” he muttered. “I haven’t seen a deer all day!” When I asked if he’d been scouting, he said he hadn’t been able to find time.

I start serious scouting for bucks around the Fourth of July. By this time, I can tell how big their racks will be and get a good sense of populations. On my first day of scouting the place where Dad shot his deer, I saw 23 bucks, mostly mature ones.

Visible in Velvet

Whether you hold an early-season archery tag or you’ll be hunting the general rifle season later, now is the time to get out and scout. When bucks are in velvet, they’re visible. Bucks don’t want to damage their valued headgear, which is used not only as protection against predators, but also for fighting with other bucks during the rut and as a status symbol.

Velvet racks are engorged with blood, sensitive and easily damaged from May through mid-August. This is why bucks hang out in the open during the summer more than any other time of the year. I like glassing the first few hours in the morning, when bucks are most active. I also look for velvet bucks in the late afternoon, as soon as draws and hillsides become shaded. It doesn’t take a big drop in temperature for bucks to start moving and feeding during the hot summer months.

Scouting during the hottest part of the day can also be productive, because as the sun hits a bedded buck, it will get up to re-bed in the shade. Bucks bedding in open habitat will often change beds multiple times a day, be they blacktails, whitetails or mule deer. To do so, they must move in broad daylight.

Once you’ve located a buck, study the land. It’s critical that you intimately know the land so when hunting season comes you can anticipate where a buck might be. The deer Dad took last season lived in big country, and I knew the only thing that would push that buck out was a cougar. There’d been an early archery season in the area, but it was nearly impossible habitat to bowhunt in the extremely dry conditions, so I ruled out hunting pressure as potentially moving that buck.

I quickly learned where Dad’s buck was bedding in the summer; that was easy because it was in the open. But I also knew that as soon as that buck—and the others with it—stripped their velvet, the bedding area would shift into a nearby stand of thick Douglas firs.

In the last week of August, Dad’s buck stripped its velvet. I kept scouting, set trail cameras, and found that the buck had multiple trails connecting its bedding and feeding areas. On opening morning, Dad and I set up where multiple feeding trails converged and headed into the thick bedding area. The plan worked.

big velvet buck in the woods
Glass shaded areas to find bucks during sunny days. Bucks not only prefer to bed in the shade, but also feed in these cooler areas first come late afternoon. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

While hunting bears in early September in Idaho one year, I saw a giant whitetail that had just stripped its velvet. Every evening, four nights in a row, I saw that buck in the same spot. I drew a November deer tag for the unit and hoped to find the buck during the rut. After three days, I finally found it. The buck was giant, unmistakable. But at more than 800 yards away, I couldn’t get a shot. I tried getting closer but ran out of daylight. For two days I looked for the buck, with no luck, but I did shoot another dandy I’d also seen in late summer. Because I knew the area, and where those bucks lived, I filled a tag.


The next summer I scouted for the giant whitetail buck and found it in the same drainage. I drew the tag again, but I was too late. Someone killed it early in the rifle season. The buck carried more than 180 inches of antler. However, that season I killed one of its offspring, another big buck, less than a mile from where the monarch had lived.

Had it not been for summer sightings, I would have never gotten those two bucks. A great deal of learning takes place when scouting in the summer. The more you know the land, the better you’ll be able to predict where bucks will be, and most importantly, understand why.

Where to Start

When hunting new land for the first time, try to scout it in the summer, when bucks are most visible. So many times, in so many states, I found more bucks in a single day of summer scouting than I saw during the entire time I hunted them. On July 10 one summer, I saw 17 bucks. I hunted that area for 28 days and saw just one legal buck the entire season. Hunting pressure was what I blamed for keeping bucks in deep cover, moving only during darkness. Had I not seen them in the summer, I wouldn’t have thought there was a deer within miles, as sign was sparse in the thick habitat.

Summer scouting reveals how many bucks are in an area and how big they are. It provides a confident starting point come hunting season. One July I was scouting out of state. I found some nice bucks, one whopper, and felt confident they’d be there come the Sept. 1 archery opener. I went back into the area three days before the season and spent hours poring over trail-camera footage and scouting. The target buck I was hoping for showed up nearly every day on one camera or another. Then, the day before the season, the buck stripped its velvet. I hunted from a ground blind on opening morning, but the buck failed to walk the trail it had been using every day for the past two weeks.

Figuring the buck would soon be nocturnal, I made a bold move and relocated my pop-up blind very near to where I thought the buck’s core bedding area was. Sure enough, in the closing minutes of legal shooting light, the big buck came down the trail and I arrowed it. Had I stayed hunting where I was, it would have been dark by the time the buck reached me. Locating the buck in summer when it was in velvet, along with reading sign during the time of the hunt and understanding habitat and buck behavior, helped me fill a tag.

buck in velvet lying in field
Velvet-racked bucks­—whitetails, blacktails and mule deer alike­—bed in the open to protect their headgear, making them more visible in summer. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

Another year I held a general-season archery tag in northern California. The buck a buddy and I caught on trail camera traveled virtually the same trail at the same time in the morning for three weeks prior to the hunt. But on the August morning I hunted from a ground blind, it didn’t show up. By 11 o’clock it was more than 100 degrees outside the blind. I was soaked in sweat. The next day was supposed to be even hotter, so we moved the blind a couple hundred yards up the oak-studded hillside.

The move paid off; around 9 o’clock the big buck walked by, and I filled my tag. Our thinking was simple. Hotter days meant deer would be seeking cooler conditions, sooner. Here, where water was lacking, that meant heading to the crests of hills where they could bed in the shade and catch uplifting thermals to cool them.

If hunting migratory deer late in the season, summer scouting might not apply because the deer won’t be where you’ll be hunting. Unless you can break away to walk the land in the summer, you’ll be learning the land while simultaneously hunting. In this situation, try setting trail cameras and checking them in the middle of the day. Spend mornings and evenings hunting, and the middle of the day checking cameras and looking for sign. Never head back to camp for a nap when hunting unfamiliar land. There’s always something to be learned, and the best time to do this is in the middle of the day when deer are hunkered down.

I’ve had good success over the years scouting wintering grounds in the summer then returning to hunt in October and November. This is where summer scouting is all about learning what you can about the land, not necessarily looking for deer. Look for old rubs that reveal buck movement in the area during the rut, worn trails and does. I’ve filled a lot of deer tags over the decades thanks to does I found while scouting in the summer. A lot of homebody does are visited by migratory bucks, so don’t overlook the value of finding does.

A Changing Land

Scouting unfamiliar land helps you learn it, but sometimes you show up to hunt familiar places and are caught by surprise. Recently, I encountered a drastic change in vegetation due to extreme summer heat and drought. Rather than massive stands of blackberries thriving—the soft vines of which deer love feeding on in late summer and early fall—the ground was overrun with tall grass and noxious weeds. Though the new vegetation was good for bedding cover, it choked out the food. With so little food and no water in the small creek at the bottom of the draw, the deer left. Although I killed a buck that season, it was 3 miles from where I normally hunted.

Clear-cut logging has also surprised me more than once when I’ve rolled into familiar hunting grounds and found the stands of timber gone. A change in such landscapes not only forces deer to relocate bedding areas, but it can also impact where they feed, thus what trails they use to travel from the new bedding areas to feeding zones. It can take some time, even years, to learn where deer go during such a disruption. Mind you, it’s not a bad thing. I’m all for logging because it creates the best deer and elk habitat where I hunt, but learning new land and finding deer amid such changes can be difficult.

wooded valley in Cascades
A wildfire can greatly impact deer movement for years after the event. In areas prone to them, tracking fires is an important part of summer scouting. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

A couple winters ago one of my hunting areas was obliterated by an ice storm. So many trees and big branches fell that it impeded deer travel routes. In fact, it shut down deer travel to the point they had to relocate to another drainage. Sometimes natural disasters like snow and ice storms, even high winds or tornados, can influence where deer live and how they move. It’s no secret many old whitetail and blacktail bucks live in a very small area, and if that habitat is devastated by sudden environmental changes, the deer will move, sometimes miles.

Throughout the West where I do most of my deer hunting, wildfires have greatly changed the face of the land in recent years. We’ve never dealt with wildfires to this degree. Today, large-scale wildfires are commonplace, and I’m learning a lot about deer movement based on burns, the intensity of burns and where deer are moving in response to them. But most importantly, I’m understanding why deer are choosing to live where they do in their respective habitats, and it’s helping me find more bucks.

In your summer scouting efforts, be sure to track wildfires if looking to head on a hunt out West. Big fires are easily tracked online, as well as by making calls to regional forestry and wildlife offices. If you’re planning on hunting an area that’s near a wildfire, or in a region where wildfires have occurred in recent past, be prepared with a backup plan. Every fall, areas are closed right before, and even during, a hunting season due to fire. Having another place to hunt is wise.

With so much land shut down by wildfires, more hunters are forced to hunt in closer proximity to one another. Hunting pressure, be it forced by fires or not, is something that will impact buck movement. Most bucks will go nocturnal with the onset of human intrusion, often in a matter of hours, and killing such bucks becomes nearly impossible.

Hunter Scott Haugen with tagged buck
The author tagged two nice whitetails in consecutive years at the same spot due to spotting a giant buck in summer and focusing his efforts on the area. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

Elements of Attraction

The number of bucks I’ve found during summer scouting and then killed is surprisingly low, but I’ve filled a lot of tags in the same areas where I’d seen big bucks in the summer.

I mostly hunt blacktails in thick cover, Western whitetails in big country and mule deer that move. Though I may not find a target buck when I’m hunting, I’m confident the areas I have chosen to hunt hold big bucks. This is because I’m hunting where big bucks want to be, and summer scouting provides me with that critical information.

I’ve learned two key points over the years when targeting big bucks. One, a mature buck is never anywhere by mistake, except during the rut when some deer seem to lose all common sense. And two, when a big buck is taken out of an area, another mature buck will move in. When you see this scenario unfold, take time to closely study the area to see what is attracting mature bucks. It’s likely a combination of prime feed, cover, multiple escape routes from bedding areas, multiple trails connecting bedding and feeding areas, and does.

If you kill a big buck you’ve never before seen, figure out what brought it there. It could be feed, cover, predators, hunting pressure, even a severe storm could have pushed it. At the very least, plan on hunting that same spot at the same time the next season, for if all factors remain constant, another big buck will be there. Maybe you’ll even find it when scouting in the summer.

One July a buddy from Wyoming called, excited about a double-drop-tine mule deer that had just run in front of his truck in the middle of the night. I’d drawn a tag for the area and planned to hunt with him. He set out trail cameras and caught the buck many times, always at night. Then in September it disappeared for more than a month. We eventually found the buck and I shot it on opening day, less than a mile from where it hung out all summer. That buck liked the area, and we were hunting there because of the summer intel we had gathered.

Summer scouting takes effort and sweat, but if you want to elevate your deer hunting to the next level, this is the place to start. Big deer are smart, and they’re most visible in summer. Now is the time to find them.

Browning, Camera, Action

  • Capture valuable video with the Dark Ops Pro DCL.
Browning trail cam
High Definition video captured by the Browning Dark Ops Pro DCL is a key component to the author’s summer scouting strategy. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

In some of my deer hunting areas I run more than two-dozen trail cameras year-round. In distant places I’ll be hunting, I try to make a road trip, scout and set out trail cameras in early to mid-July. When I return for the hunt, I gather cameras and study footage on my laptop.

Eight months ago I started using Browning Dark Ops Pro DCL cameras ($179.99; I run all my cameras on video mode to get the full story. High Definition (1080p) video captures movements, behaviors and sounds that still images can’t. With the ability to increase the length of the video clips captured by the Dark Ops, these cameras have revealed a lot about deer—and predators. Think a 10-second video shows a lot? Let it run for 2 minutes and learn exactly what deer are eating.

I’m impressed by the stunning HD clarity of the Pro DCL and the camera’s ability to capture discrete movements in the night. I love the strap system, tilt bracket and how easy it is to confirm the framing of shots. I’ve had multiple Browning trail cameras set out and have not had to change the batteries. They’ve been covered in snow, experienced weeks of torrential downpours and weathered many days of freezing temperatures. Through all this, the functionality of the cameras held up perfectly and the batteries kept working, capturing thousands of high-quality video clips.

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