Most whitetail hunters would agree — there is no better feeling than standing next to a trophy animal with your buddies or family and having a "Hannibal Smith Moment" together. Remember hit 80s TV show, The A-team? Hannibal would be enjoying a victory cigar at the end of the episode and proclaim, "I love it when a plan comes together"!
Deer season really isn't much different. Now we're not chasing bad guys in a homemade tank with Mr. T, but our success is usually tied to a logical plan of some form or another. Much of our plotting for this fall's big-buck strategy occurs during the dog days of summer. Hunters across the country begin shooting their bows or practicing at the gun range. We plant food plots and glass evening ag fields. We scout on foot, deep on a piece of public ground. We hang tree stands by day and obsess over aerial photos in the wee hours of the night. We'll usually have solid gameplan that even B.A. Baracus would be proud of come opening day.
My number one deer priority during the doldrums of summer is using trail cameras to help build an inventory list of mature bucks that I'd like to chase when those fall vacation days are nearing. I've often heard several successful hunters make the statement that summer photos of those shooter bucks in velvet are next to irrelevant for use in the coming fall — simple eye candy and nothing more. I don’t subscribe to that theory and. I'm quite the opposite, and in fact I find summer trail camera use to be one of my greatest allies. Eight out of 10 of my personal bests were first encountered through velvet images. Now, images from July and August may not always lead to useful data for a November hunting set up, but they do help address one simple concept: proof of life. One cannot consistently shoot mature bucks season after season while hunting locations that are void of them. Fact.
In short, summer trail cameras are usually how I make first contact with a new shooter buck or rekindle an old relationship with a survivor from the year before. This lays the foundation for months of planning that lie ahead. The idea is to build more intel as the calendar creeps closer to season. My goal for every summer is to locate a list of at least 10 mature bucks my family and I can chase come opening day.
Whether you have one trail camera or a whole fleet, summertime is all hands on deck. Yes, the woods are thick, crops are planted, and it's hot and humid — but we've all got deer work to do. In states where permitted, mineral supplementation or feeder locations are sure-fire ways to inventory summer whitetails with a camera. In states prohibiting that practice, getting photos of would-be wall hangers proves a bit trickier. That said, l've got several go-to camera traps that provide me reliable data every summer. Cue the top-10 list!
1. Summer Chow
Here in broken farm country of the midwest, maturing soybeans are certainly the single most reliable food source to place your trail cameras.
If you can find a secluded bean field surrounded by timber or standing corn, you're in business. Alfalfa is another reliable ag crop velvet bucks living in hay country flock to. No ag crops in your area? Try natural browse species plants in big timber country.
2. Water Sources
As reliable as summer food sources, water is another easy trail-camera option for summer if you know how to use it. Sounds obvious, I know, but it's not. I find the reliability of using water as a summer camera trap is indirectly proportional to the total volume of water in the surrounding area. If you’re scouting a marsh or a river bottom, water is everywhere and deer consumption is scattered and haphazard. In drier areas of the country, old ponds, springs, cattle water troughs, or that one creek you know of that never goes dry are all hot spots come August. No water source at all in your area? Create one yourself and hang your camera near the only pub in town.
3. Thermal Cover
Usually thought about in the context of winter weather, thermal cover applies in the summer, too, and I tend to use it to my advantage when choosing some of my camera placements. The east-facing edge of a block of timber will give off evening shade that deer love to feed in at dusk and a lot of my summer cameras have that as a feature. Long fencerows with tall cottonwood trees allowing good air flow, old cattle pastures with pockets of open cover, or edges of cover where the breeze flows freely all make sound areas for reliable camera placement when the mercury is up.
4. Licking Branches
Community licking branches aren't just fall trail-camera hot spots — deer use them year-round. If I can find one on a field edge or a trail in a transition area or field edge, these licking branches can provide excellent summer intel, especially when running a camera on video mode. Videos captured of velvet bucks over a social licking branch can give clues to an individual animals behavioral quirks. Is he confident and comfortable? Is he aggressive or a bully toward other deer? Is he a nighttime loner or does he travel in the daylight with a younger, subordinate buck? Summer licking branches can make for some dynamic trail camera captures that can prove very useful.
5. Inside Corners
Break out an aerial map of your hunting area and locate some inside corners for summer trail-camera placement. A 90-degree corner where timber meets CRP or a field of ag crops makes for some of the most reliable camera locations. If I'm limited to one or two cameras on a farm, I'm setting up a camera there for several weeks or even months. A shaded inside corner with beans or standing corn near the timber edge is image paydirt.
6. Hoop Trails
Ever notice a tree leaning over a deer trail? Or maybe a big grape vine or some overhanging branches off hedge trees in an old fencerow? Seems like deer travel just naturally gravitates to these little "hoop" structures.
I'm not sure why this occurs, but some of the most impressive, repeatable summertime trail-camera locations velvet bucks hit with regularity are there. If you can find a "hoop trail" fit for a camera that allows for light to moderate intrusions, try it out.
My brother and I have a name for deer trails that cross roadways: pipelines. In the midwest farm country where I live, the map is dotted with hundreds of them. Be on the lookout where tiny slivers of timber or thick brush cover from the neck down perpendicular to a roadway, often following a creek basin. If you look close in some of these areas, you often find a major deer travel trail on both sides of the road. Try these — you'll be surprised how many bucks use these with regularity.
Locations where food sources or cover abruptly change are great for summer deer travel.
Sharp transition between corn and beans, timber and corn, or CRP and tree-program planting are all proper checkpoints for velvet-seeking camera traps. These transition lines seem to create hallway-like corridors that deer travel with regularity.
Fence jumps, machine passes, gates and logging-trail outflows all create something that appeals to a whitetail: ease of travel. The 'ol path of least resistance. Deer certainly use these areas year-round, but I rely on them in the summer as most of these areas allow for easy, pressure-free access and SD card retrieval.
Last but not least, waterways are high-value targets for a couple of reasons. Velvet bucks will often use a waterway of grass to get between sections of cover or food sources when the crops are high. I've also seen huge bucks use waterway grass as cover in the evening and nighttime bedding areas. You may need a camera stake or tripod mount here, but an old steel fencepost works just as well. The extra effort has yielded some of my very best summer images.
Some take-home points with these summer deployments should be noted. This list certainly isn't complete, but if I had to choose some of my best summer camera locations, they usually have multiple of the aforementioned elements. Use summer trail-camera data to set the stage for your fall season. Make an inventory list of a few bucks you'd like to pursue — be it full of specific individual bucks or just a certain age-class of deer. Proof of life is the first step in setting up the coming season. Dive in and make a plan. When you're taking field photos with your next trophy buck, remember to enjoy your Hannibal Smith moment — it's certainly a thing of beauty when a big-buck plan comes together!