There’s no sight quite like that of a big velvet rack bobbing through lush early-season undergrowth. As a Kentucky native, I’m blessed with an early season opener (first full weekend in September) that allows for such visuals. Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, Idaho, North Dakota and South Carolina, as well as a few other places, historically have early openers, too. Abundant public land, fairly low hunting pressure and good buck age structure make these states great destinations for anyone looking to harvest a velvet whitetail.
Here in Kentucky, I’ve taken three DIY Pope & Young-class velvet bucks in the last four years. Were it not for one (non-lethal) bad shot in 2016, I’d have made it four in a row. I arrowed a 130-inch 10-pointer in ’15, a 140-inch 9-pointer in ’17 and in ’18 the buck of a lifetime: a 163 6/8 gross 8-pointer. I nicknamed him “Big 8,” and that’s a fitting title. He’s evidently one of the largest free-range true velvet 8-pointers ever taken. And to my knowledge, he’s the largest such whitetail ever taken on video.
While each of these hunts played out differently, each had a common thread: I’d specifically targeted all of them prior to that year’s opener. I scouted, implemented strategies and formulated game plans specifically with the intent of harvesting each deer. Based on what I learned from these early-season successes, especially the hunt for Big 8, I’d like to share my thoughts on targeting velvet bucks.
Step 1: Recognize The Velvet Advantage
Ask most hunters and they’ll tell you their favorite time to hunt is during the rut. Not I. Yes, I’ve killed my fair share of rutting whitetails, but it’s only my third-favorite time to hunt. The pre-rut is my second pick, and the first week of bow season is my favorite. Why? Predictability and low pressure.
Dr. Matt Ross, a Quality Deer Management Association biologist and accomplished deer hunter, explains why.
“Generally speaking, bucks that still have velvet have not realized an increase in testosterone yet,” Dr. Ross explains. “Deer are known as short-day breeders. That means they realize a surge of testosterone as the amount of daylight in a 24-hour period declines. The decreased amount of light entering their pupil triggers a release of hormones from their pineal gland to their pituitary gland and eventually to their reproductive organs. When that happens, their testes swell and make more testosterone. Their antlers stop growing, begin to harden (mineralize), and the velvet sheds off.”
The velvet hunter’s goal, where season dates allow, is to kill the target buck before that happens.
Those who choose to pursue velvet bucks should know it doesn’t come without work. While the willy-nilly attitude of some rutting bucks works like a crutch for the unprepared outdoorsman, there is no such handicap for the velvet deer hunter. If you don’t do your homework, you don’t get the velvet. It takes weeks and months of preparation to bring a hunt full-circle. You have to get inside the mind of the velvet buck you target.
To do that requires understanding their psyche. These aren’t cut-and-dried concepts, either. Every deer is different. However, the variables to keep in mind are constant.
Step 2: Let Scouting Be Your Plan
Scouting is crucial. I scout virtually year-round, all for that one week of velvet opportunity. The process starts long before the hunt does.
Buck patterns aren’t always clear-cut. In fact, most of the time they aren’t. Patterns can be difficult to recognize and even harder to plan around. For example, a group of bucks might enter a food source regularly. But it’s not always in the same spot, or when it is, they enter the open from different directions.
Looking closer, you might notice the bachelor group beds in the same general area during the early season. Yet wind direction might determine exactly where the bucks bed on a given day. Scout enough and you’ll determine where they prefer to bed under certain conditions regarding wind, precipitation, food sources and hunting pressure. Some patterns are truer to form, and the deer really do bed, feed and travel the exact same trails at the same time each day. This is less common, though.
I scouted Big 8 from late September 2017 to early September ’18 and used scouting tools and tactics to help learn his patterns. I used game cameras to observe where he bedded throughout the season, the post-season and the ’18 pre-season. I marked every daylight appearance on an aerial photo with the date, time, wind direction and direction of deer travel. The intel I gathered from scouting certainly helped determine where he preferred to bed under certain conditions.
Step 3: Pinpoint the Necessities
Bachelor groups are well known for repeating their summer bed-to-feed patterns. They likely will stick to a given travel pattern until human intrusion, environmental changes or food shifts alter their behavior. Changing food sources during summer can alter buck travel behavior substantially, and obviously so too can hunting pressure once the season begins.
First we must find where bucks bed. The easiest way to do so is to thoroughly scout the property. When you do, remember these factors:
- Deer bed closer to food when unpressured.
- Deer bed in more secure areas when pressured.
- Deer bed in advantageous terrain.
- Deer bed while watching their backtrail and facing downwind.
- Bedding habits vary from deer to deer.
Certain areas tend to draw mature deer. Marshes, ridge points, low flats, cedar thickets, standing crops, cutover timber, ditches, drainages, oxbows, swamps, leeward benches, islands of cover, Conservative Range Program (CRP) and overlooked areas all can produce quality bedding. But don’t be surprised if patterns change.
“Look for shaded areas that offer a decent breeze,” advises Dr. Ross. “North-facing slopes, closed-canopy forests, cover near or in early successional areas, drainages and similar places are good. When foods begin to change, they’ll likely change bedding areas (perhaps daily) to hit existing and/or new food sources.”
Most deer hunters say food is king, but I believe bedding is even more important. Sure, it’s crucial to know where deer are feeding. But if you can’t hunt close to a buck’s bedding area, there’s a good chance you won’t see him during daylight in early season.
“It’s common knowledge that food sources are difficult to hunt during mornings,” Dr. Ross notes. “Deer spend the night in fields feeding and move back into cover around daylight. However, most believe afternoons are doable, capitalizing when deer arrive for the evening to feed. But GPS research out of North Carolina shows the distance bucks travel to those summer food sources is so great that daylight activity at the food source is limited.”
While hunting Big 8, I learned a lot about how he traveled from bedding to feeding. He was bedding on the property I had permission to hunt, and he staged and fed on smaller food sources nearby. However, his primary food source was a large soybean field on a neighboring property. It was hundreds of yards away from the property line, and it took him quite awhile to get there.
Luckily for me, that meant Big 8 spent a lot of time on the property I had access to. Regardless, it was clear his pattern revolved primarily around his desire to access that soybean field. And that’s no shocker. Like any other living creature, whitetails must eat to survive. In fact, the average white-tailed deer eats approximately 5 to 12 pounds of forage per day from a selection of more than 600 plant species in North America.
Natural foods such as hard mast (acorns and nuts), soft mast (persimmons, berries, apples, pears, etc.), crops (alfalfa, soybeans, corn, milo, etc.) and popular food plot species (cowpeas, clover, chicory, sunflowers, lablab, oats, etc.) and other natural food sources such as honeysuckle and kudzu (although invasive) are great in early season. This time of year, it’s all about protein and mineral prior to the early-fall transition to carbohydrates and fats.
“With minimal amounts of testosterone in their body (during the velvet stage) deer are much more focused on feeding as they prepare for the rut,” Dr. Ross explains. “Deer do this by gaining as much weight as possible, only to lose 25 to 30 percent of their body weight during the breeding season. Just prior to velvet shedding is when they are most focused on food. They also start expanding their home range a little as food sources change.”
Water is also vital. While some water comes from plants deer eat, a 200-pound buck typically consumes 4-6 quarts per day. Some research shows deer go to water before food when they leave their beds in the afternoon. Personally, while I don’t have research to back it, my experience shows mature bucks are more likely to use stagnant water sources during daylight hours. Perhaps running water limits their senses.
Big 8 bedded on a north-facing slope with mature cedars that provided good cover and allowed for steady wind on those hot early-season days. Ultimately, my hunt setup put me between his bed and his preferred feeding destination. Luckily, I’d created a small watering hole near his bedding area. The bachelor group was staging up and feeding in a secluded clover plot along that same line of travel.
My mentality wasn’t to make him go somewhere. Instead, I wanted to get in his way. I knew where he wanted to go, and I gave him even more reasons to use that route. With bedding, food and water in mind, I was ready to hunt.
Step 4: Find the Core Area
Finding and learning a buck’s core area is perhaps the most important pre-hunt task you can focus on.
“Home range and core area is smallest during summer and greatest during peak breeding,” says Dr. Ross. “When bucks are still in velvet, you can expect core areas to be much smaller and more predictable. Core areas (where deer are 50 percent of the time) range from 30 to 50 acres in summer. But these areas change as deer focus on new food sources.”
Definitions aside, scouting from afar is one of the most effective and least intrusive options. Stay downwind, and don’t walk where deer frequent. Pay attention to where they enter crop fields and which trails they travel. See how deer maneuver against and around the terrain.
For me, scouting velvet bucks from afar has proved to be just as valuable as trail cameras. But these are still quintessential scouting tools for patterning mature deer. Hang cameras over trails connecting bedding and food sources. Hang them closer to food sources to begin with. Gradually move them toward bedding areas, or try different travel routes if you aren’t capturing daylight images of your target buck. Just make sure you don’t end up pressuring the deer in the process.
If possible, let your summer scouting cameras “soak,” checking them only once per month during the off-season. It helps to check cameras from a truck, 4-wheeler or bicycle so you don’t leave as much human scent. Conceal cameras with foliage and hang them high, angling them downward.
Numerous long-term scouting runs proved beneficial when I was after Big 8. But a last-minute effort pulled it all together. In short, the buck’s very regular pattern changed just prior to the opener. Typical, right?
I didn’t hunt the first three days of the season because of it. Instead, I used a tactic I call “blitzing a buck,” positioning extra trail cameras around his core area. I ran those for several days.
On Sept. 4 (fourth day of season), I hunted from an observation stand. The big buck was still bedding and feeding in the same locations. He’d merely shifted his travel route enough to skirt my primary cameras by a few yards. This subtle change could’ve kept me believing he’d vanished, had I not continued to scout.
Step 5: Recognize the Good Days
Deer have unique personalities, and the task of predicting deer movement is anything but an exact science. Yet some things make all of them tick. For example, certain conditions encourage daylight movement. Major temperature swings (dropping 20-plus degrees within 24 hours), a barometric pressure of around 30 inches, rain events and overhead/underfoot moon positions (not moon phase) all can spur movement.
Learning a buck’s personality reveals his weaknesses. All mature bucks are smart. But they also all have chinks in their armor. And Big 8 had an obvious one: He moved in daylight.
Why? Two reasons. For starters, the younger bucks in his bachelor group prompted him to move earlier. Also, and much more importantly, Big 8 and company liked to move past my stand in an easterly wind. That was the worst wind position for me to hunt that spot, and the deer evidently knew it.
On the fifth day of bow season (my second day of hunting), I did a hang-and-hunt, moving closer to where the big deer had emerged from cover. Taking quiet, lightweight gear, I crept as close to his bed as I could. When all was said and done, I’d hung a new stand within 100 yards of the bedding spot.
Furthermore, I was hunting a just-off easterly wind. I had one tree line to set up on for a shot. The route the big deer took allowed him to catch wind of any threat along that tree line, so I figured it’d be tough to get a shot at him.
My biggest concern was other deer emerging from the timber and passing by my stand before Big 8. Older deer often use younger bucks as sentries, and Big 8 did exactly that both days I hunted him. My fears came true. A yearling buck and two 2 1/2-year-olds passed through before the big deer did.
Somehow, by the Lord’s grace and a light rain that helped hold my scent down, they didn’t wind me. The giant buck passed through a few minutes later, and I arrowed him mere feet from my scent cone. It was a DIY dream come true for a beautiful velvet trophy. I’ll never forget it.