It’s April, and if you’re a whitetail fanatic, finding the first bucks about to premier in your neighborhood is exciting. While finding bucks outside of the rut isn’t a cakewalk, it’s not impossible. For more on finding early season bucks, check out the podcast in the player above.
Understanding the seasonal habits of deer is vital. Hundreds of opinions are written every year about what deer do at specific times. But easier said than done. You probably already know that locating bucks at this time of the year isn’t an exact science.
Take, for example, white oak acorns. They are the most predictable of early-season food sources and strongly influence deer behavior patterns. On their own, white oaks might not help you see more bucks. But add on appealing cover, water, or varied terrain features to those white oaks. Now you have likely found a site worth revisiting come hunting season.
What is the appeal in your area? Do bucks in your woods gravitate to a certain type of cover, like laurel thickets or patches of red briar? Get a head start and get creative with your questions and theories.
Below you’ll find a few tips to get you started.
Tender Food: Think about how you would want to eat in warm weather. You probably aren’t going to choose piping hot chili or soup. You’ll likely choose something lighter that won’t make you feel so sluggish in the heat.
Deer are the same way. They are chronic snackers, constantly browsing, especially in hot weather. Berries, briar buds, and tender maple shoots are on their favorites list, but don’t focus all of your attention on those food sources. Lots of different plants are starting to bud, which means browse is becoming more plentiful. Start checking the new growth in your area as spring begins to green up. Observing what is being eaten, and where, throughout the summer will predict the location of bucks on opening day.
It’s not that bucks won’t eat corn. But, they will much prefer random grasses that grow in waterways between those corn fields. Think light and green when it comes to food outside of the rut.
Backtrack to white oaks – never overlook them as a food source. However, consider treating sizable white oak flats like you would a big ag field. Of course, bucks will go there to feed. But bucks will feel more comfortable in daylight feeding outside these flats. The info is still helpful if the oaks aren’t in an isolated pocket. However, the staging area leading to that white oak flat is more likely to be a kill zone.
Camera Intel: Hanging cameras in early summer to mid-summer is becoming a more common practice, and understandably so. Everyone enjoys getting crisp pictures of big velvet bucks. But often, summertime trail cameras get checked far too frequently.
If you need frequent camera checks to keep you going through the summer months:
- Hang a camera on a field edge where routine checks won’t matter as much.
- Better yet, use a cell camera.
- Do what you have to do to stay out of prime hunting grounds until it’s actually time to hunt them.
Check your cameras once and at max twice. After the check, build your opening day plan of attack.
Weigh your options when hanging cameras in areas that could put deer on high alert. Consider settingcameras around the border of risky places. If you gain a good plan from those border cameras, check the sensitive camera when hunting that site. Fill in the gaps with the information you obtain and hunt according to the conditions that favor your hunt.
Earliest In-season Sign: The last thought leads me to the next and most vital part of finding bucks outside the rut—in-season scouting. In-season intel ties the last two elements together. Your intel needs to be able to predict the future. The freshest finds in the field will strongly influence that prediction.
Think of deer sign the way you think about early season food. A buck’s testosterone levels are comparatively low, which affects their communication and sign making. Small scrapes and the first rub lines on small saplings are more significant early in the fall than they would be if they were fresh during the end of October.
When you’re sneaking to that sensitive camera, note all the sign you pass along the way. Sometimes if you’re finding in-season sign at a regular rate, you probably want to consider putting the camera check on hold and checking it after the hunt.
The Evidence: This past season, I went to check a camera my hunting partner and I hadn’t checked all summer. I planned to hunt where the camera was hanging that evening. On my way to the camera, I passed a brand-new scrape near a white oak flat, right on the edge of the cover. After a quick review of the camera’s photos, I had a fleeting thought to backtrack and sit on that new small scrape. I chose not to and would soon live to regret it.
Thirty minutes before dark, one of my target bucks, a Pope and Young stud, came out of the cover next to that small scrape. Unfortunately, the buck never got closer to me than 80 yards. Some does came into view shortly after I spotted him, and the buck chased them up the mountain and out of sight.
Outlier Summary: Collecting intel is critically important. Ultimately, it’s be best if you have a good handle on the ebb and flow of the area you’re hunting. But, of course, you can’t know everything. No matter how much you scout, there still will be an element of uncertainty. For this reason, it’s safe to say that hunting bucks outside the rut is one part work and two parts trusting your gut.