For many white-tailed deer hunters, July and August are the months to get serious about gathering vital hunting intel with trail cameras and quality feed attractants. Here's how it's done and why it works.
With the passage of the Fourth of July on the calendar, a subtle shift occurrs in the gray matter of most whitetail hunters across the country; the countdown to deer season is officially on for another year.
With weeks remaining before the opening bell in the year's whitetail hunting campaign, many hunters are hanging treestands and conducting daily sessions of punching 3D targets to hone bow shooting skills. And as time permits, they are setting up a scouting and recon strategy on hunting properties with trail cameras to see how the local deer population is doing and which bucks will fill our autumnal dreams.
For North Texas bowhunter Jim Lillis, a retired senior regional director with Ducks Unlimited, that last chore is one of the most enjoyable parts of the deer hunting pastime each year, the first cyber-glance at what might be possible in the hunting woods later in the fall.
With a number of sizeable whitetail bucks on his wall — including a typical 10-point Boone and Crockett Club public-land giant sporting a net score of 175 2/8 inches — Lillis admits deer hunting is as much about the anticipation of chasing big bucks as it is the execution of a successful shot.
This is why Lillis starts getting excited about fall deer hunting during the hot dog days of summer.
How does he begin his autumn pursuit now when the heat is on? By getting into the woods, or more accurately, getting his trail cameras and attractants in the woods.
"Start by looking at places where you might expect to see deer on your hunting property," said Lillis. "Take a look at places where you've seen deer in the past and you'll likely see them again."
For Lillis, such spots include any known deer trails and the edges of timberline. They'll also include local food sources, either natural places like native plants and browse, agricultural crop field edges, or even warm-season food plots and feeders. And in building heat of summer, don't forget to check waterholes, which can be hidden little deer magnets.
When you've got several such spots figured out on a familiar piece of hunting ground — or you've taken some educated guesses for a new property — Lillis says it's time to let quality deer attractants and trail cameras go to work.
While he relies on a number of trail cameras each year, during summer scouting, Lillis doesn't put a camera in every corner of his hunting ground since deer movement is scattered and whitetail bucks are in loose bachelor groups. But he does put out enough to help him gather intel and gain an inventory of deer utilizing his hunting spots.
"Take a local property I hunt, one that's maybe 150 acres," he said. "As I start gathering information, I'll put out four cameras on that place, a couple on food sources and a couple on travel routes. And I'll occasionally put one out in a more random place, like a spot where a tree fell on a barbed wire fence in a storm a few years ago. It's not a normal travel route, but I discovered that bucks and does were crossing there (until the fence was repaired)."
When his trail cameras are out, Lillis relies on a good attractant to help lure in local whitetails. Though feeding, baiting and/or attracting whitetails is not legal in all places, Lillis' home state allows for the practice and he's more than willing to take advantage of it.
While the use of yellow nuggets of corn is standard fare for many deer hunters in Texas, Lillis sweetens the proverbial pot by using attractants and mineral products like those available from Grand Island, Nebraska-based, Big & J Long Range Attractants.
Made famous over the years by the likes of Outdoor Channel hunting show personalities Michael Waddell and Travis "T-Bone" Turner among others, Big & J products like Deadly Dust, Liquid Luck, Meltdown, and Legit combine powerful deer attracting aromas that lure whitetails from considerable distances along with highly digestible protein and minerals that aid in meeting their nutritional needs.
Do they work? Waddell is certainly a believer, saying on one Big & J video that he's very impressed.
As one of the company's catchy sayings goes, "The aroma is super strong. The range is super long!"
One such product hunters might consider using is Big & J To-Die-For, which uses real sweet corn and is said to be five times sweeter than standard field corn. In addition to using the power of aroma to lure in bucks and does, the product also gives them a high level of total digestible nutrition (TDN) to assist in body growth and antler development.
Another Big & J product that can assist in pre-season trail-camera survey work is BB2 Granular, a high-level protein product that can lure bucks out into the open for summer intel gathering. It also can help establish regular travel patterns as summer turns into fall and keep bucks on their feet, even during daylight hours.
One final product to keep in mind is Big & J's The Cube, a block product perfect for hard-to-reach places, giving hunters an easy-to-carry compressed form of BB2. With more protein and less salt than other products, The Cube uses "Get Noticed" attracting aroma to lure whitetails and the power of nutrition to keep them coming back for more.
Are such protein- and mineral-rich attractants some sort of magical, aromatic silver bullet? Maybe not. But then again, they certainly don't hurt a deer hunter's reconnaissance work during the hot summer months, especially at a time when daily deer movement is not always consistent.
"When legal where you hunt, feed and attractants certainly increase your odds of seeing what's out there," said Lillis. "Animals go to food sources like we go to a plate of cookies straight out of the oven.
"Later in the year, when natural food resources have become more limited, it's easier to figure out deer movement patterns," he said. "But now in the summer months, when there is so much natural food readily available, it's a little harder to determine their daily patterns. By using feed and attractants, you can draw deer in from a pretty good distance and that can give you an idea of what you've got on your hunting property."
Keep in mind just because it's the lazy days of summer, deer hunters can't afford to become careless when putting out trail cameras and attractants.
"You can get too wrapped up in all of this," warns Lillis. "If you go every few days, you're probably hurting yourself more than you're helping. You can get so wrapped up in getting images of deer that you're leaving scent behind and alerting deer to your presence."
To avoid doing that, Lillis says to take the same precautions in summertime whitetail-survey work that you would during fall hunts. This includes playing the wind properly, choosing entrance and exit routes wisely, showering with scent-elimination products wearing clothes washed in scentless detergent, wearing rubber boots when traveling, using latex gloves when setting out trail cameras, and spraying down yourself, your gear — including cameras — with scent-elimination spray.
To that same end, hunters might also want to consider using gravity style feeders when setting out products like those from Big & J. Such feeders can help lessen a hunter's intrusion time in an area, can help keep varmints at bay when attractants are out, and can also help keep products like Big & J BB2 sheltered from the elements."
"You don't want to wade through a buck's core area," said Lillis. "Because with every encounter that a deer has with you — even now during the summer — you're continually educating him."
The bottom line for this veteran bowhunter from Texas is deer hunting revolves around a few simple principles and practices, including doing work during the summer months to achieve a desired payoff later on in the fall.
"The tools and equipment have changed over the years," said Lillis. "And I guess the tactics have changed somewhat too. We've got better bows, better arrows, better broadheads, better stands, better clothing, better attractants, you name it.
"But as they always have done, deer get smart to what we're doing over time and they adapt and keep us at bay," he continued. "They're still a wild animal that is using all of their senses to elude you. You've got to work hard to outsmart them, just like you do in winning a chess match."
While using your trail cameras wisely with good attractants is nothing more than an opening move on the chessboard, it's still an important one despite the mid-summer date on the calendar.
One that can go a long, long way during fall to you cutting a shot and hanging your bow up quietly, smiling big, and whispering "Checkmate!" to yourself moments after putting a big buck down.