May 05, 2023
Serious pursuit of target bucks is a 365-day annual endeavor, here's your monthly whitetail work list!
My two annual Illinois buck tags are sacred to me. I don’t know why, but I take them on as a personal challenge every season like they burn a hole in my pocket. My goal is to harvest at least one target buck with either bow or shotgun per season. That’s it. Just one. These target bucks are more than just a few trail camera photos or velvet sightings from the truck cab on a summer’s drive. I like to be familiar with the buck that wears my tag. It takes a bit of stubbornness to hunt this way and requires two things above all else: work ethic and time. And as cliché as it sounds, the whitetail work for a DIY hunter is a 365-day commitment. There is no true off season.
If you’re like me, a random day off in the middle of the week during the off season seems like a blend of chaos and mild productivity in the deer woods. There is always something to be doing! Somewhere along the way, I started writing out “to do lists” for the off season and they seemed to help manage what limited time I have for work in the woods. This may sound tedious, but time management in the off season is so critical for me during the whitetail calendar year. I would consider it one of the great keys to consistently taking trophy class deer DIY style. Let’s take a deeper dive into this concept and break down the types of whitetail work that should be done throughout the calendar year.
MAY & JUNE
Just Getting Warmed Up
Does are fawning and lactating in their most nutritionally demanding time during May and June. Bucks are separated off into their bachelor groups and growing their velvet racks at as rapid a rate as they will at any point during the year. Crops here in the Midwest are in the ground, and by mid-June, it’s time to get back to work.
An annual goal date for me here is Father’s Day weekend. I like to be in the swing of trail camera placement by then and will work on areas I want to know more about, harkening back to some of our winter work and bucks we may have held onto another year.
During these trail camera workdays, it pays to note where high visibility crops like soybeans or alfalfa may be in relation to potential bachelor groups. I’ll usually work on trail camera placement in areas I want to scout that I can’t observe from long distance. I like to hang a handful of low impact scouting observation stands or trim out some natural cover to use as ground cover that can help me spy on deer feeding grounds in July.
JULY & AUGUST
Sweating & Setting the Stage
July is my second favorite month of the whitetail calendar year, because I love spying on big bucks in velvet! An annual goal date here is July 4th. By Independence Day, I want to have all my trail cameras up and running with fresh batteries and big SD cards.
I like to run summer cameras on several locations such as shaded feeding fields, inside corners where timber meets corn, water sources, clover or alfalfa fields. Days are long during the summer, and it’s relatively easy to slip into those preplaced observation areas for the velvet parade of bucks at sunset after work most nights. These forays need to be as low pressure and off-the-grid as possible, and if I find myself bumping deer from these trips, I will relocate quickly.
After a few summers doing this, I have found several trees I can climb into and fence rows I can hide in to glass the feeding activity of velvet bucks from a safe distance. What’s key here is having a bulletproof exit plan. Find a way to leave your observation post undetected.
Deer this time of year like succulent protein sources and are often observed feeding in soybean and hay fields at sundown, making for easy study.
On days away from the office, I usually check trail cameras and scout the timber in the warmest, driest part of the day from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. This work is often hotter than the face of the sun, but there are advantages to the hunter willing to sweat for it. I find deer are borderline inactive during midday heat. They usually aren’t going to be up and running about, and I find they hold super tight to their beds in the shade, so much so you almost step on them before they spring.
Use this hot, dry time to help dissipate your scent and “burn it off” when it is dry. I have found one of the best tools a hunter can own in the summer for all this work is certainly an offroad e-bike. The amount of time the bike can save me is tremendous during those dog days of summer, and the bikes offer excellent scent control and stealth when accessing evening observation points.
The main goal of July and August is to have identified as many mature bucks as possible to hunt for the upcoming season and to have spent time studying them.
Narrowing It Down
My home state of Illinois doesn’t open archery season for another month, so September is a time to prepare for the coming season. Labor Day weekend is a special target date for me every year, and I’ll take the long weekend to prepare for the shift of mature bucks as they begin to peel their velvet and set up their fall home ranges.
If I can’t travel to states to hunt where season is opened, the first long weekend of the month finds me moving cameras to more fall specific locations. I make it a goal to have cameras replaced into new locations deeper in cover while taking note of any early sign.
Through mid to late month, I will shoot my bow with increasing intensity as often as possible until the crops come out. When crop harvest starts, I’ll revisit the long game by observing freshly harvested fields for a few evenings in hopes of spotting one of my target bucks in hard antler. By the end of the month, another goal I like to physically write down is a simple target buck list. This is the list of deer that my family and I will home in on during the season. A good metric to have here is no less than 10 bucks in the 4.5-year-old age class and above that we can pursue once the green light on the season hits.
In the final week of the month, it’s time to ready mobile hunting gear and double check equipment. In general, as September progresses, I find myself trying to stay out of the timber for most of the month, as to reduce pressure prior to go-time. To occupy my time, I fling arrows and finalize my list of target bucks of choice.
Our archery season opens here in Illinois on October 1, and I never miss the first evening hunt of the year. My early October hunts are generally confined to evenings where access to stand locations is simple and efficient. On days of inclement weather or unusually warm temperatures, I’ll revert to poking about the timber checking trail cameras, locating interior scrapes and staying busy where I can during midday hours.
By October 25, the time for scouting and trail camera checking is over! The last 7 days of the month is a great time to catch a known target buck on his feet near suspected bedding cover, and this is the week I start ratcheting up the pressure with serious effort. If I can get a cold front near or on Halloween, you can bet I’m taking time away from any and all adult responsibilities and zeroing in on a buck for my first concentrated, target-specific hunting efforts of the fall season.
Hunt 'Til You Drop
Oh, sweet November! It’s time to plan my annual “rut-cation” away from work. I usually find myself hitting the woods full time from November 3 through Thanksgiving Day, but I change up my strategy often during this three-week yearly exodus. During the first week of the month, I aggressively hunt suspected buck bedding areas and try to get into these locations early and often.
Week one is without a doubt my favorite to hunt with reckless abandon, pushing the envelope and putting the squeeze on a mature buck I’m trying to harvest. My absolute can’t-miss date for the month, and perhaps the entire year, is November 7. Last fall, I was fortunate to arrow one of my largest bow bucks to date on my favorite day of the year!
The second week of November, I will usually switch tactics and shy away from suspected buck bedding. Now, I will set up shop in travel corridors that lead to doe bedding areas on the farms that hold mature target bucks. I find it ultra-important to position my tree stands on the downwind side of doe bedding and prefer to have a large interior scrape nearby when possible. If these locations have narrow terrain features like creek bottoms or pinch point funnels, one can really make out like a bandit when big bucks start checking doe bedding areas for receptive does. If you’re an all-day hunter, now is the time to try it! My second favorite day of the season is undoubtedly Veterans Day, when I’ve historically had some raucous, “barn burner” rut hunts.
For the third week of November, I participate in hunting during our state’s first firearm season and focus on having fun with friends and family. The rut has usually peaked by now, and availability of receptive does wanes. This is a good thing, as bucks begin reverting to that same seeking behavior as noted earlier in the month. Hunts now can be hit or miss, often haphazard at times.
My final date of note in the month is Thanksgiving Day. I start pulling trail cameras out of the woods now to analyze SD cards, replace batteries and get ready for late season tactics.
A Time To Reset
The first two weeks of December are my two least favorite weeks during the entire Illinois whitetail season for several reasons. Hunting pressure has been heavy last month, and the rut has ebbed to a thimble full of activity. Bucks now are tired, sore and depleted.
I find trying to kill a specific target buck during this phase of the season is a tough task. I maintain two goals for early December, and one is to have fresh trail cameras back into a bed-to-feed positioning for the long winter ahead.
My second goal is to simply locate survivor bucks. By mid-month, our gun seasons have passed, and I try to locate any target bucks I can confirm alive. This time is for rebuilding the inventory list I had made throughout the summer.
Once our daytime temperatures get cold enough to drive predictable feeding behavior, I’ll revisit some of those same long-range observation tactics used to locate animals in the summer. I’m almost solely stationed over concentrated grain sources like untilled, standing cornstalks where big bucks can start filling their bellies and begin recovering from the negative energy balances found during November. If I’ve got a tag left, I’m making my target buck plans on this very concept as winter approaches.
Last Chance To Score
By the time the ball drops on New Year’s Eve, I can usually reconvene with two or three target bucks that have made it through the season and are confirmed alive via sighting or trail camera evidence. Once this happens, it’s time to make a winter play. I like to go fully mobile this time of year with tag in hand. If a certain buck is hitting the same food source night-in and night-out during cold conditions, it’s time to strike swiftly. Taking a saddle harness or a hang-and-hunt set up in and hanging it at high noon is my favorite tactic to intercept deer on their way to evening feeding sessions.
A word of caution here: always have an exit plan! Tromping through a field full of feeding game after dark is a good way to pressure a buck off his routine and will do success no favors. For late winter hunts, try to be on stand early in the day while deer are bedded. And find a stealthy exit route for each hunt.
I used to start shed hunting the minute our season closed when I was younger, but I think that was a waste of time. This past February, I found exactly zero shed antlers. I used the month for removing tree stands, recovering trail cameras, and, above all else, winter scouting in the timber. I will spend most of my free time walking the woods with eyes for sign over sheds.
Now is the time I love to get extremely invasive and tromp through areas where target bucks called home all year. I take my time in studying areas where I know a good buck to have lived through the season. This usually yields reliable data points on the animal’s living quarters that one can use against him in the future.
The importance of winter scouting cannot be overstated. By the month’s end, my objective is to have all trail cameras pulled and decommissioned, as many tree stand projects completed as possible, and a few known survivor target bucks going into March Madness.
Relax & Rally
Chasing mature bucks through the yearly calendar is a fair bit of work, so I love taking a lighter approach to the month of March. However, it’s not for loafing. It’s for walking. A lot. I enjoy taking time for shed hunting with friends and family all month long. I find if I focus my mind on just having fun and looking for antlers instead of scouting sign or terrain, I can unwind and let loose a little bit.
After months of hardscrabble effort chasing big bucks, it’s nice to take the pressure off and look for sheds. When we find matched sets from target bucks we know or have wished to see again, we celebrate! By the end of the month, I’ve walked a ton of miles and usually come up with a modest pile of decent antlers that can serve as motivation for the months of work ahead.
Aside from shed hunting, March is a time for tree stand maintenance, servicing weapons, and habitat improvements like frost seeding clover, doing prescribed burns, cutting back invasive species or hinge cutting. There is no shortage of deer chores to be done in March, but I will admit, I’d rather play in looking for set of Booner head gear.
Get It In Writing
At the risk of getting booed off stage here by purist whitetailers, turkey season begins in April, and I spend most of my free time chasing gobblers. But I can usually find some whitetail tasks that I can undertake at the same time. Believe it or not, deer beds are super easy to identify while turkey hunting, as deer are molting.
During this time, deer shed their winter hair coats in favor of their roan summer fur. Deer beds found now are unmistakable. Some look like the floor of a barber shop! One of my go-to April tasks is trimming out access trails to areas of strategic whitetail significance. With some ratchet pruners or a hand saw from a turkey vest, I can have the multifloral rose and bush honeysuckle trimmed away to allow a stealthy approach to a buck’s suspected core area next fall.
Doing so in April also gets the grunt work over before the mercury on the thermometer climbs high enough to make the task miserable. By end of the month, I hope to have several access routes cut back enough to use to my advantage in the coming year ahead.
Lastly, if there is one thing that helps me maintain consistency in harvesting DIY target bucks, it’s making a “Task List” or “Goal Sheet” for the coming whitetail calendar year. Putting words down on paper and sticking to it like an itinerary for the next season ahead helps tremendously in organizing my time and effort in pragmatic fashion.
Do I always follow the list to the letter? No. But does it help in holding my nose to the grindstone in pursuit of the next mature buck to tag? Without fail! By doing these lists, I’ve certainly become a better target buck hunter, as they help guide me throughout the next 365-day trip around the sun.