August 02, 2022
By Steve Sherk
Summer is arguably the most overlooked time to spend in the deer woods. Although most of us spend the summer attacking the honey-do list so we have free time in the fall, there’s still much that needs to be done in preparation for the upcoming deer season.
For a big woods, public land hunter, I find there’s way more to do than just collect inventory from my trail cameras. Even though I always take advantage of new-age technology and the latest hunting strategies, my roots are still deeply attached to old school methods.
Locating Mast Crops
Most hunters wait until the fall to locate falling acorns, but I like to get a jump on knowing what food sources will be available when autumn arrives. Most years, our acorns produce in pockets. One ridge might be loaded with nuts, but the ridge beside it may produce nothing. You certainly can’t bank on any food sources consistently producing year after year in the big woods. Every year is different.
I locate productive oaks mainly by glassing into the treetops, but I also keep an eye out for freshly fallen oak branches. Whenever I come across an oak branch during the summer months, I always check it for acorns. Especially during the early part of summer when acorns are pea-sized or even smaller, they can be very difficult to see with binoculars until mid-July and August.
After scouting different areas, I’m able to judge what kind of oaks produced and just how good the mast crop will be during hunting season. Knowing this ahead of time will help me plan my hunting strategies months in advance. If acorns appear to be producing everywhere, I will plan my setups closer to bedding areas. But if there’s a less productive crop, my setups tend to be closer to the food sources since deer will likely leave their bedding areas earlier in the day when food is less available.
I also like to look for soft mast such as apples and wild cherries. Soft mast seems to be most attractive early in the season. One of my first mature archery bucks was taken in an old, abandoned apple orchard. I scouted the orchard in late June and found that it was polluted with apples. I hung a trail camera immediately, and when the apples started to fall in late July, many different bucks were visiting the orchard on a regular basis. I kept tabs on the area from summer until the beginning of archery season, and I killed the 10-pointer on my first sit.
Over time, a clearcut will change. Many hunters will tell you that just by looking at a cut with their own eyes, they can age it. In my experience, that’s much easier said than done. I’m constantly monitoring clearcuts each summer, and I find that the majority of the growth tends to happen from May to September. I’ve seen cuts grow several feet in just a few months, especially the younger ones.
Every age class of clearcut serves its own purpose to whitetails. Younger cuts (1-2 years old) tend to be more of a natural food plot and serve as feeding grounds. Generally, after 3-5 years from when they’re cut, clearcuts turn into a whitetail sanctuary. These cuts provide both ideal bedding cover and plentiful browse sources, leaving no reason for the deer who use them to ever come out, except for water. However, I’ve learned that deer get a lot of water from browse sources. So, in some cases, they don’t have to leave these prime cuts.
Older cuts mainly serve as bedding ground. Once the browse line grows above reach for whitetails to eat, food becomes very limited. But deer are lovers of cover. Just because a cut lacks food doesn’t mean it won’t hold deer year-round.
It’s extremely important to pay attention to how your clearcuts are growing each summer. In a matter of months, a young cut can turn into a big buck paradise if it grows fast enough. I believe clearcuts are the ultimate mature buck habitat. I’ve found the most dominant buck in each area will make home in a prime clearcut if one is available.
One of the biggest keys to understanding clearcut growth is to know cuts have different growth rates. Certain types of trees grow faster than others, and weather also will have an impact on growth. A cool, cloudy summer might set back a cut from reaching its potential from one year to the next. There’s a lot of variables that effect how clearcuts grow, including deer density. I’ve seen cuts that were so over-browsed it looked like they’d been mowed.
I start monitoring cuts once green foliage starts to appear. Typically in northern Pennsylvania, the woods start to green-up around the first or second week of May. I watch over cuts similar to how a landowner keeps a close eye on their food plots. Since every clearcut age class offers its own benefits to whitetails, you need to inspect them all before hunting season, so you know how the deer will use them.
If spotlighting is legal where you hunt, you should definitely take advantage of it. Through spotlighting, I’ve located bucks that seemed to elude my trail cameras. Even in the big woods where I hunt, I find tremendous bucks every summer driving the roads, shining a spotlight through the forest.
What I love about spotlighting over trail cameras is you can often get better inventory on some of the bachelor groups in your hunting areas. With a spotlight, you’ll be able to see the whole group of bucks that won’t always walk in front of your trail cameras.
Another reason I love spotlighting is it limits my intrusion in those areas. I’m able to scout and locate bucks without ever putting human scent on the ground. Some of these locations will be good places to hunt come the fall, specifically clearcuts. I’m able to shine on a clearcut and see what bucks are living there without ever stepping foot on the ground.
I used to volunteer with an organization called the Kinzua Quality Deer Cooperative (KQDC). We would do evening rides in designated areas trying to get an idea of the spot’s deer density. We learned over time that evenings seemed to be best for summer movement. While helping the KQDC, I was killing two birds with one stone. These were the same areas I was hunting, so I was also scouting and looking for big bucks.
What was most unique about doing these deer counts was how we noticed a small window of peak deer activity from late June to early August. There was just over a 30-day period of great movement and gathering intel, then deer sightings would drop drastically. If you didn’t take advantage of those prime summer evenings, especially cooler evenings with mild precipitation, you missed out on some great intel.
We also noticed that weekdays were far better than weekends. The deer seemed to have humans patterned and learned that there was less human activity during the weekdays. Driving and glassing during daylight hours also helps with leaving human scent. As much as I love putting boots on the ground, in some situations it’s better to do your scouting from your vehicle.
Trimming Lanes & Clearing Trails
Summertime, especially late summer, is the perfect time to check out the deer trails around your hunting locations to make sure they are clear from obstructions and overgrowth. Opening up a deer trail that passes by your stand can be the difference between getting a shot or watching the buck of a lifetime get by you next hunting season. Deer often take the path of least resistance, so try to create accessible lanes and paths that pass by your stands. A small chainsaw or a hedge trimmer are the best tools I’ve found for the job.
Back in 2004, I shot a great 8-pointer that took advantage of an old skidder trail I cleared out on the edge of a nasty clearcut. The edge of the cut was nearly impenetrable until I went in late summer and did some trimming around my stand location. By mid-September, a major rub line appeared just 20 yards in front of my stand along the old skidder trail I cleared. It became such an attractive travel route that several bucks were trying to establish their dominance on that specific route. I hunted that stand the first week of October and killed the 8-pointer on a late morning sit.
I’ve found that this kind of work is often done too early or too late. If you do it in the spring or early summer, you’ll often see it grow back by time hunting season starts. Also, you can wait too long and possibly disturb the deer in your area if you wait until hunting season.
Mature bucks know their homes just as well as we know ours. It takes time for them to adjust to changes they see within their core areas. The worst thing you can do is make deer alter their routes once hunting season begins. That’s why I believe late summer is the perfect time to get a lot of work done in the whitetail woods.
Modern hunting technology is a great benefit for whitetail hunters; however, let us never forget the old school methods that made us the deer hunters we are today!