Whitetails 365: Pre-Season Deer Scouting

By Noel Gandy

My good friend Jeff Danker coined a phrase over these past few years that I have found myself using quite a bit: “Big Buck Work”. He even a hashtag for the slogan (#bigbuckwork). His logic is taking a trophy deer doesn’t happen on accident and the work that you do beforehand (Big Buck Work) is what puts you in a premium position to get yourself in front of the buck of your dreams. Big buck work can look like a whole lot of things to a whole lot of different people depending on the access you have to hunt. The overarching principal, however, no matter your access or no matter your means, is to prepare. If you are archery hunting on public land only this year, then your big buck work might vary a bit from the guy who is going to be strictly on private ground. The end game, however, is to achieve the result of getting a deer into range for a quick and ethical kill. Big Buck Work happens all during the year. Deer season really is 365 days a year for those who allow the whitetail to consume them. For the context of this article let’s focus on some things that we can be doing during this time of year: late summer. One question that I often ask myself during the summer is, “What can I do today that is deer related?” This can be something very simple or something that is fairly elaborate. Here are a few of my “go to” activities that are deer related during the summer.

Smile! You’re on Camera…
I wrote an article exclusively about trail camera use recently for this same segment so I won’t take a deep dive into the science of capturing dynamite trail camera pictures. I will, though, tell you that if you would like to start taking an inventory of deer that could potentially be using your neighborhood come Fall then now is a good time to get out and get those photos.

Here in Iowa, supplemental feeding is legal during the summer. Supplemental water is also encouraged. Find yourself placing cameras in places where deer naturally want to congregate during this time of year and see if you can’t find a shooter or two that you’re interested in chasing this fall. Some caveats need to be noted while taking inventory of your deer herd during August and the very first part of September: velvet and home ranges.

Velvet antlers make a buck look big, and I mean really big. Many a 160” bucks have turned into 140” bucks overnight after velvet has been shed. Try not to get yourself whipped into too big of a frenzy over a buck that you see in velvet because these guys will often change quite a bit while becoming hard horned. Speaking of velvet, home ranges can potentially change quite a bit when velvet begins coming off of antlers. Antler growth and retention has an awful lot to do with the amount of testosterone that is coursing through the body of a buck. When the testosterone level begins to rise you will begin noticing that once friendly pals tend to become a touch more aggressive towards one another. Territory is somewhat established and some bucks will decide to meander on towards a new

Fall home range
Don’t panic if the buck you’ve been scouting all summer suddenly disappears. There’s a good chance that he’ll come back. Also, guess what! That buck that a neighbor a mile away has been watching all summer could trickle into your farm. The ebb and flow of deer traffic has to be considered when scouting and planning your time in the woods this Fall. After all, this is Iowa, the greatest trophy buck state in the country. The next great buck could be just one hill over!

Stands Set and Checked for Safety
Another thing that I like to do during the late summer that is deer related is to pop into the timber and check out some of my stand sets. Each stand that I hang from year to year very rarely needs a lot of maintenance. One thing that ALWAYS happens is that I’ll secure fresh ratchet straps or other bindings to steps and stands. Come to find out, tree stand straps are a favorite snack of rodents. It’s always wise to freshen up those straps before deer season. I don’t like to do this too early in the year because it is an unlimited buffet potential for squirrels.

However, I don’t want to do it right before season either due to unnecessary traffic around my stand locations. Late August is perfect!

As a treestand fall victim, I would like to use a line or two of this space to encourage the use of safety harnesses and straps. My life has been altered massively due to a tree stand fall when I was 17 years old and it could have been easily prevented with a lineman’s rope and a safety harness. Any time you go to do any maintenance or hanging of tree stands I encourage you to have a buddy and a harness. Harnesses have life expectancy as well, so be sure you’re using a model that can catch your weight and is fresh enough to do the job.

Beans, beans, good for your heart!
There’s nothing that I love quite as much in the late summer as a green soybean field. Local deer herds will find themselves making their way to eat the tender shoots off of the beans. This is a time when you can plop down at a distance and really get good eyeballs on the deer in your area. Often, a loop around a country road or two within a few miles of your hunting location can give you some intel on the local population. You may never see those deer on your farm or they could become home bodies come October. Iowa is pretty unique in that it gets dark fairly late during the summer months. I’ll find myself getting off of work and heading home to get family chores done (this is another aspect of Big Buck Work: honey dos. Get that stuff done now so you won’t have it hanging over your head come deer season). A favorite pastime is to check bean fields during the last hour or so of daylight. Generally, that is thirty minutes before sunset until thirty minutes or so after sunset. Keep a couple of things in mind while out scouting: wind direction and bug spray.

The wind direction still needs some attention when you are scouting. There is nothing more counterproductive to a successful Fall hunt than spooking deer during the summer months. You can get away with it a time or two but do not consistently spook deer or you won’t have deer left to spook. Mosquitoes and other biting bugs (we call them LBB’s “little black bugs”) will swarm during this time of year. Be sure you use precaution so as not to get carried away! While waiting for that last hour of daylight, after the chores are done, I love to do daily Big Buck Work by practicing for the occasion.

Aim Small, Miss Small
When dealing with trophy class whitetails, there are so many things that can go wrong. Winds can shift, other animals can spook, stands can creak, humans can intrude, etc. It is wise to control the things that you can control and allow God to take care of the things you cannot control. One of the things that you can control is your preparation to take an ethical shot.

If you haven’t been shooting your archery gear up until this point in the year then I encourage you to begin today! You’re doing an awful disservice to yourself and to the animal whose life you are trying to take by not doing the very best that you can to be prepared for that shot. As we get older our bodies change. Sometimes we become a little weaker, our eyesight may not be quite what it used to be, or our heart is not as strong as it once was. All of these things factor into taking an ethical archery shot. You need to know how your body will respond to your equipment this season, so go and take some time to train with your equipment.

Gun hunters have a little bit of an edge in this department. I still insist that you take time to fire some shots down range to be sure you and your weapon are prepared to take the shot that will take a life.

Map it Out
One of the often overlooked points of Big Buck Work for late summer is using a mapping system for the property you intend to hunt. I only hunt private land and look at it almost daily.

It’s not that I don’t know the ground but I would sure like to know it better. Mapping systems are invaluable tools on public land as well. I like to use a map like OnX that will allow me to study terrain, set entry and exit strategies, and check preferred wind locations. If the wind is blowing from the South, look on a map to the north and identify if your scent will likely travel into bedding areas, open fields, or into travel corridors. Will the wind cause deer to bust you before you even see them?

Start Big Buck Work Today
Deer season truly is a 365-day season in my opinion. There is very little in this life that I love more than growing, scouting, and chasing these giant whitetails of Iowa. We are blessed with such a cool resource! I hope you find yourself being able to do some Big Buck Work this summer and that it leads to your season of a lifetime!