When You Spot That First Mature Buck In Velvet Your Heart Will Pound…
Ask Michigan’s best deer hunters the secret of their yearly success, you might be surprised to learn it has little to do with the bow they use, bullet caliber, camouflage or even shooting ability. I’ll bet they will tell you their success has everything to do with scouting.
Savvy Michigan buck hunters spend most of their free time in the woods, looking for deer sign and deer. They might not be able to tell you want happened to the Dow Jones today, but they have an impressive collection of trophy racks on the wall. If you are a serious deer hunter, those trophies are what count the most.
If you want to take your hunting to the next level, scouting should be a year-round endeavor, beginning in post-season through the fall. However, many hunters overlook the most important period of the entire year when you can spot more bucks than any other time and zero-in on a wall-hanger. In fact, I’ve developed a scouting strategy that makes child’s play out of finding adult bucks with impressive racks.
Intensive summer scouting is a business plan that can reward you with double-digit dividends come fall. The strategy is simple: you scout open fields in your hunting territory from early July through early September, find big bucks in velvet and if needed, get permission to hunt where big boys hang out. I know it sounds simple, but if you want to pinpoint a trophy for this fall, listen up.
With fond memories I recall a scouting mission with my wife and kids west of Kalamazoo in central Michigan. It was a hot summer day as we cruised along Highway 94 close to Paw Paw looking for deer, windows down, licking ice cream cones, when we spotted a monster deer crossing the road. He looked big as a mule deer and when I stopped the van and focused my 7×50 binoculars I was shocked to see not one but two big bucks grazing in an alfalfa field. Both carried heavy racks but the largest buck had 12-points, wide spread, tall tines and would easily score Boone and Crockett. His impressive rack looked moose-like, far outside his ears and towered above his head. Each tine was at least 11 inches long and his brow tines were as tall as his G2s. The sight of the monster buck sent my heart pounding.
I soon gained hunting permission on the adjoining property and spent countless hours in my treestand seeking the Booner. Come October I spotted the huge deer slipping through the underbrush. I readied my bow but brush prevented a clear shot, that’s when I got a glimpse of a dandy buck following the Booner. He had a large body, impressive tines and I counted 10-points as he walked directly below my stand as I slowly came to full draw and the arrow found the buck’s chest. I saw him kick like a mule and dash through the brush like a bolt of lightning zapped his tail. I allowed the woods to calm, waited until almost dark and climbed down from my stand and followed a heavy blood trail. Soon I stood over the beautiful buck that scored 168 7/8. My point is this: summer scouting helped me to find the big buck, gave me hope and encouragement to sit in the treestand many hours and finally I was rewarded with a dandy buck. If your goal is to score on a high-scoring buck this season, listen up.
The trick to finding big ol’ monster bucks in summer centers around the food sources they prefer. Alfalfa fields rank at the top of the list. Second cut alfalfa that was planted the year before is a powerful draw that brings deer from long distances. Megabucks like to gobble the sweet smelling alfalfa but they also use the field edges to make scrapes and display their dominance. Summer is a time when bucks join in bachelor groups and it is very common for several high scoring deer to use the same field.
In northern Michigan, let’s say north of M-20 where the soil does not support good agricultural crops; look for bucks to concentrate summer activities around openings in the forest, hill country that has few trees and grassy knolls. Northern Michigan has plenty of hay fields that contain tall grasses like broom, timothy and other grasses that are not leafy like alfalfa but still draw deer. If the grass hay fields are harvested the animals are easy to spot. If they are not cut, look for the reddish/brown color of deer backs and blackish/gray antlers moving through the grass.
Michigan is blessed with a good population of adult bucks and great diversity in habitat to support deer. If you are looking to hunt public land in northern Michigan scout open fields in the vast areas of Camp Grayling, AuSable State Forest, Pigeon River and Mackinaw State Forest. In the UP don’t overlook the Hiawatha National. Forest, Lake Superior State Forest, Copper Country State Forest, Escanaba River State Forest and Ottawa National Forest.
In southern Michigan you can find plenty of alfalfa fields but you can also count on seeing bucks in corn and bean fields. By July 4th most corn is knee high and spotting bucks becomes difficult as the corn grows taller. Bean fields can be the number 1 draw in certain areas. No one has ever doubted the palatability and nutritional quality of soybeans and corn. Deer love them and can’t seem to stay away. There are several different strains of beans farmers can plant. Some attract deer because they produce a soft succulent flower and leaves have a unique odor and taste. Find the bean field deer prefer and you can count on big bucks joining the herd.
Best time to scout for summer bucks is late evening; when the bright orange sun touches the horizon and hot air temperature makes a slight drop. This is when low-light and the cool evening air draws megabucks from area woodlots into open fields to frolic and feed.
I’ve scouted many big bucks, located the fields they prefer and more often than not you can count on seeing the high-scoring brutes when the light gets low and they become difficult to see. Big bucks also tend to stay close to cover, fence lines, brush or standing timber where they can make a quick exit in case they are disturbed in the field. Farm country bucks are experts at using the rolling hills, ditches and terrain to disguise their open field activities. Once disturbed they frequently move behind a knoll, hill or slip into a low spot and quickly disappear. The impressive sight of a large buck with colossal velvet rack slowly walking behind a hill until only the huge antlers are visible, illustrates how adult deer use topography to their advantage.
Bugs Bring’em Out
Michigan deer flies are a special breed, unlike other Midwest varieties they are fierce beyond belief, seldom circle their victim and dive bomb directly toward warm blooded animals like kamikaze pilots gone berserk. This year we have had plenty of rain, highlighted by extremely warm weather and you can count on mosquitoes coming from the lowlands, swamps and water sources by the zillions. They swarm the countryside at exactly the same time when deer are on the move. Could it be the mass of buzzing critters sends big bucks seeking open areas to shake the pesky critters?
Deer flies hatch out in July by the droves and you can tell when they are chasing deer because every animal you see is shaking its tail and flipping their ears to keep from getting nasty bites. Deer fly activity tends to slow when the sun sets, darkness falls and that is exactly when bucks come out to play.
One Michigan buck I’ll never forget was running across a cut alfalfa field trying desperately to shake deer flies that were driving him crazy. I was in farm country near the town of Saline, in southeast Michigan, when the big deer raced directly at my telephoto lens. His rack looked soft and velvet covered and he shook the massive rack to prevent deer flies from biting the sensitive tissue. The buck passed by my lens at twenty yards, stopped, as I snapped photos and he had no idea I was sitting in the fence row, fully camouflaged and covered with bug spray.
Trophy Hot Spots
You will discover that summer is when big bucks are more visible than any other time of year. To sweeten the pie bucks get in bachelor groups and you can quickly assess your herd, locate the big dogs and have a good idea where to concentrate hunting effort this fall. This point is best made by the following anecdote.
To get a better handle on local buck populations in the Ann Arbor area of southern Michigan I joined Randy Johnson from Howell. When I explained my scouting strategy to Randy he volunteered to be my guide and show me area alfalfa fields. Randy was also interested in shining with a spot light after sundown, which is legal by Michigan law until 11pm. We started our adventure by driving country roads at sunset and come dark we had spotted almost twenty 10-pointers and a couple bucks would score in the 160 class. After dark we extended our range and Randy took me to some new fields that held good numbers of animals. When quitting time arrived we saw eleven more big bucks. This number does not represent the total number of deer we saw. More importantly, one buck was simply awesome, huge; his velvety crown was adorned with over 12 points counting kickers and a large drop tine the diameter of a base ball bat. I later got permission to photograph the monster and hunted hard in the area, but never connected; even though his huge tracks, large rubs and buck sign was present.
According to Michigan’s Big Game Specialist, Brent Rudolph, “It takes effort and hard work to consistently score on big bucks. First, you need to find them, which require plenty of scouting and summer is the ideal time.”
Scout New Property
Every year I hear hunters complain about how few bucks they have on their hunting grounds and no big boys. My advice is simple: find new hunting spots. Summer scouting is the ideal way to locate a new big buck honey hole.
I recommend using your vehicle to drive country roads at dusk and find deer. This sounds easy but seeing deer requires excellent eyesight, endless peeking into every field, opening nook or cranny in search of deer. Don’t make the common mistake of constantly looking down the road. Use a vehicle that offers a high viewing platform. Leave the family car at home, forget the sports car or road hugging economy vehicle, for this job use a truck, van, SUV, ATV or any automobile that gives you elevated vision.
Bring reliable optics with you. Even a trophy Booner is difficult to identify at long distances when his velvety mass blends with the swaying grass of leaves. I use a pair of 7×50 Nikon binoculars that have enough power to let me see antler detail and the lens is wide enough to draw plenty of light when conditions are less than ideal. Late evening buck scouting, when the light is dim and the big brutes venture into open fields requires quality optics. Forget your spotting score, they work great during bright light but when the sun sets the high magnification is blurred by lack of light. Take a tip from this old buck chasing nut, check out almost every deer you see. Oh sure, if you see three deer and you know it is a doe with twin fawns, forget the glasses. But if you see a large deer do not make the common mistake of assuming it is a doe. The more deer you glass, the more bucks you will see, guaranteed.
Some hunters are married to a piece of ground. By that I mean they hunt the same spot every year. If you want to score on big bucks, chase hell out of them every year, you must be willing to sacrifice the love you have for a particular property. There simply are not enough big bucks to meet every hunters needs. It is your challenge to seek hunting grounds that hold big bucks and that requires locating new hot spots. It is my opinion that a savvy big buck hunter will have access to several hunting locations.
I’ll cut it straight with you. In the average summer I’ll glass at least 200 different bucks. Might sound amazing, but I work roads, scout fields and spend evenings in search of trophies. Come the beginning of September my scouting is over. I’ve got permission on new hunting spots and by bow opener I’m stepping into the woods where a big boy has been spotted. This gives me a huge advantage over rookies who think scouting is done by walking all over their hunting grounds, stinking up the turf with human scent and alerting deer to their presence. My tactic is much more stealthy and I do not enter the woods until I’m hanging stands and I’m carrying my Horton crossbow or gun.
This strategy works best in the farm country of southern Michigan where deer tend to stay in a relatively small area, say a 1 mile section. But don’t let farm or city big bucks fool you, they are very smart, tend to move at night and are experts at identifying when hunters enter their home turf. Once they know you are out to get them, old bucks move to a new location, set up shop and return only under the cover of darkness.
The Booner I chased near Ann Arbor lived in a 3 mile square mile area and when summer ended he disappeared into the vast tamarack swamp. Northern deer tend to spend hunting season in the forest, far from roads and open fields where they can be spotted during broad daylight. Opener of bow season is your best shot at catching a big buck still prancing in open fields. You can expect adult bucks to use open fields until leaf drop, hormone changes and cooling temperatures cause bachelor buck groups to break up and disperse.
The most amazing thing about summer scouting is the unsurpassed reliability that you will see bucks. Guaranteed when you spot that first mature buck in velvet your heart will pound with excitement. The adrenaline rush is a lot like shooting a buck, not exactly but it sure comes close.