July 02, 2021
As a hunting guide in Northern Pennsylvania, one of my favorite times of the year to be in the whitetail woods is during the summer. I love setting up trail cameras to watch velvet bucks grow. By the end of summer, it gets even more exciting once bucks are fully developed. Then you can choose which ones you plan to pursue in the fall.
But getting summer bucks in front of your trail cams in the timber, especially on public land in the big woods where I hunt, is not easy. In large timber environments it’s typical not to have agricultural fields nearby to draw deer in. You also can’t rely on bucks making rubs this time of year to show you their hangouts.
Getting to know the biological needs and habits of big woods summer bucks is the key to finding them in the hot months. In this article, I’ll highlight some of the locations and strategies I employ to capture trail camera photos of reclusive mature bucks in their warm-season hideouts.
Clear Cuts for Summer Browse
Over the years, I’ve definitely learned that the biggest and most mature bucks always seem to be where the best food sources are. Deer do have more of a luxury during the summertime when it comes to browse sources. At this time of year, browse sources have peaked in an abundance. But the most attractive browse is generally located around young clear-cuts, particularly cuts that are 1-3 years old.
Bucks don’t want to have to move much during the heat of summer. The massive abundance of browse in a young clear-cut creates an ideal environment for mature, summer bucks. It also provides them great bedding cover.
These younger cuts can easily be found on satellite maps like Google Earth or hunting apps like BaseMap, onX Hunt or HuntStand (more on hunting apps). This is generally where I start my search when I’m trying to get on velvet bucks. Some of my best success has been around what is known as a “select clear-cut.” This is an area where loggers only cut a select variety of trees. In many northern states, we are seeing a lot of select cutting in recent years.
Almost 100 percent of ash trees have been affected by the emerald ash borer. So there is a huge rush to take out the ash trees before they die and lose their value. In this case, you’ll see a lot of cuts where just the ash trees were taken out, leaving many trees of other varieties standing. These types of cuts make great whitetail habitat. By leaving some standing trees, deer will have cover as well as shade trees to bed under. Shade is very important for summer bedding. So select cuts are extremely attractive and beneficial during the summer months.
However, a full clear cut, where loggers cut 100 percent of trees is still very attractive to summer bucks. I tend to find the best activity on the edge/transition area of the cut. Once again, this is where you’ll have more shade available. And often, the edges tend to funnel deer activity, since they generally provide easier travel routes. Remember, whitetails use paths of least resistance.
Whether it’s a select cut or a full cut, I tend to always place my cameras on the edges of the cut. It’s very difficult to get quality pictures in the center of a clear-cut, due to the abundance of thick cover.
Water Works for Cameras
In mountain country where I hunt, water tends to be very abundant even throughout most of the summer. But I often see a shift in buck activity during mid to late July. This is typically the tail end of the driest period of summer. Often this mini shift is due to lack of water.
In most mountain ranges, you’ll have many, if not hundreds of trickle streams draining off the hillsides down into the valley bottoms. These trickle streams generally provide most of the drinking water for whitetails in the summer months. But when these streams go dry, bucks will shift closer to water immediately.
In different types of terrain and habitat, water can more greatly affect where whitetails will be living. Whenever water gets harder to find, it always becomes the most reliable source to find summer bucks and whitetails in general.
I usually place cameras on the trails going to and from water sources. I like to find where several trails come together. This is a great spot to hang a licking branch and make a mock scrape. Getting bucks to stop in front of your cameras is important to get good photos. That licking branch hanging over the trail to a water source will often get them to pause and hangout for several minutes.
Don’t Forget Mock Scrapes
I touched a little on mock scrapes in the last paragraph, and it’s important to know how effective they can be even during the summer. You will rarely find bucks pawing the ground at this time, but they work the licking branches just as much during the summer as they do in the fall. Some of these mock scrapes will also continue to get used right through hunting season.
Most of my summer mock scrapes are around food and water sources. I don’t use any scent to attract bucks to them. I rely more on making them visible and attractive from long distances. I like bucks to use their own scent, which makes the mock scrape more natural. Another key to letting scrapes go to work naturally is that you never have to stand in them like you do when you put scent in them. Some bucks will shy away from a scrape if they smell your scent in them.
Bucks are always on the lookout for licking branches. The warm season is one of the busiest social periods for whitetail bucks. Licking branches are amazing places for bucks to interact with each other and get to know which other males are sharing ground with them.
Mature bucks know fall and breeding season is right around the corner. I believe the summertime is when mature bucks get awarded their dominance from other deer, especially from bucks. The licking branch of the scrape is likely the place where bucks learn who is going to be crowned king when October and November arrive.
In my opinion, the beech tree offers the best and most durable licking branch in this part of the country. Beech is a very durable wood source. It can take a beating and will still hold up for months and sometimes as long as a year.
Another great quality of the beech tree is that it will carry its leaves for a long time after it has been cut. Having leaves on your licking branch provides much better attraction to bucks. Leaves can act like a sponge and hold the different scents that bucks will disperse after they work the branch. The leaves will also make the branch more noticeable from long distances.
I’ve found it is better to hang a branch vs. bending one over or snapping it so it hangs vertically. They hold up much longer and tend to be more attractive. I hang my beech branches with either wire or strong paracord. And once the leaves fall off, I attach a new branch and remove the old one. If you don’t have beech available in your area, consider using oak. Oak leaves also tend to cling to the branch well after it’s been cut.
Mineral Sites Are Hot Spots
Most of us know how effective mineral sites can be during the summer months. They are likely the most commonly used way of getting bucks in front of trail cameras. I wouldn’t call myself a pro at making a mineral site, but I’ve learned you don’t have to be.
What’s most important is getting those sites established as soon as you can. The majority of my mineral sites are made in March and April. Some mature bucks are very skittish around mineral sites. It takes time for bucks to get used to them. The further in advance you get that site going, the more comfortable bucks will be around it. Early summer is still a good time to put minerals out, so don’t feel like you are too late.
I make my mineral sites near food and water sources, since those are the two most important needs of bucks during the summer. I rarely build them in soggy or sandy soils. I’ve had my best success with mildly clay-like soil. If soil conditions aren’t prime, I’ll pour minerals on an old stump or log.
I prefer granular minerals vs. blocks or liquids. I’ve found mature bucks to be spooky around mineral blocks. Not all are, but some are. The more natural your site looks, the more at ease a mature buck is going to feel when he pays it a visit.
There’s a huge market when it comes to minerals. But I don’t donate into it most years. All I use is plain salt. I’m not using mineral sites for supplemental feeding or to increase antler size. I’m just trying to get big bucks in front of my cameras. The more cameras I can get in the woods, the more bucks I’m going to find. So I’ve found cheap salt, like rock salt, to work well. If you buy it in bulk, you can often fill a 5-gallon bucket for just a few dollars.
When I’m building a new mineral site, I’ll generally use around five pounds of salt for the first application. Then I’ll likely apply about 2-3 pounds of salt per month just to keep the site fresh throughout the summer. I’ll stop adding new salt around the middle of August, when bucks have reached full antler growth. By the end of August, minerals become less attractive to bucks.
The Summer Shift
Probably the most challenging time of year to get big woods bucks in front of your trail cameras is the latter part of summer. When velvet starts to shed and testosterone begins to flow through a buck’s body, he becomes a much different animal than who he was during the spring and most of the summer.
This is a time when bucks begin to separate from bachelor groups and shift into new home ranges, or at least change their patterns and travel routes. Some bucks may shift several miles away. I’ve seen many bucks go up to five miles at this time of year. Usually, the further a buck travels from his summer home, the harder it is to find him again.
Not only do bucks shift at this time of year, but they also start to become very nocturnal. They move much less during the daytime, and their overall movement starts to shrink once they’ve shifted.
Most mature bucks are now establishing bedding areas. They are seeking out areas of thick cover. You have to focus a lot of your scouting around thick cover during, and even after the summer shift. Since the movement is still very minimal, you need to run a lot of cameras around thickets. I call this tactic “clustering cameras.”
I set cameras on trails and travel routes entering and exiting the thick cover. I also look for trails that parallel the edge of thickets. Buck sign should also be popping up in late August and early September. These are clues for where your summer bucks have headed.
This past summer I was scouting a huge, 170-class 13-pointer. I was able to get photos of him from spring right through the end of summer and even after the shift. The monster buck used the same bedding area from June until mid-October.
But what was most interesting is that the cameras on the south side of the thicket were most active all summer, and I rarely got photos of him from my cameras on the north side. But when late summer arrived, he disappeared, or so I thought. The south side cameras started to show no sign of him. But when I checked the north side cameras, he started to appear on them almost daily. That’s when I knew his pattern had shifted. Note, these cameras were just 300-400 yards from the south side cameras.
So some bucks seem like they’ve shifted many miles away, when really all that happened was a small change in their patterns and travel routes. That’s why clustering cameras is so important during the late summer shift. Often we think a buck has vanished, but it’s likely he just changed his travel routes and feeding patterns.
It takes a lot of cameras to stay on a big woods buck. I was running over 20 cameras just for this one particular buck, and at times I felt I could have used more.
Food is also a big reason for the late summer shift. Some bucks do indeed travel many miles in search of late summer and early fall food sources, as a lot of their browse supply starts to diminish. Soft mast, like apples and wild cherries are commonly what bucks seek out here in this part of the country. I swear some mature bucks know just when these food sources start to hit the ground, even when they are miles away.
However, I don’t tend to see a lot of mature buck daylight activity around food sources. The closer it gets to fall, the less daylight photos I’m seeing around food, unless the food source is close to thick cover or bedding areas. But food is still a great way to find where bucks have shifted during late summer. Keep in mind, their daytime hideouts are likely not very far away.
Keeping bucks in front of your cameras during the summer shift is vital for staying on them when hunting season rolls around. Getting some kind of consistent intel about a mature buck, even if it’s just photos of his night activity, keeps your foot in the door.
Running trail cameras all summer is sort of like running a marathon. It’s a long, but very fun journey. The further you get into summer, the harder it gets. But when you can keep going, and stay on bucks from the beginning of summer right into early fall, you’ll be a very confident hunter when the season arrives!