You have your target buck figured out after capturing photos of him all summer long, but his velvet sheds, and he vanishes. Does that sound familiar? I think we’ve all been there at one point or another. I utilize over 40 trail cameras on public land throughout the big woods of Pennsylvania and encounter this every year. Did the buck leave the area entirely? Where did he go? These are all questions we ask ourselves and can drive us crazy trying to figure out where he relocated. The buck likely didn’t go that far, but we must shift our strategies to keep up with him.
When bucks shed their velvet and bachelor groups break up, they aren’t best friends like they were all summer. Buck bedding areas can spread out, but how far? The specifics on how far is unknown, but we can use logic to help find where the bucks are bedding now.
Food plays a significant role in this shift. In agricultural areas, bean fields turn yellow and acorns are beginning to drop in the timber. In big woods areas, mast crops such as acorns, beech nuts, black cherries, and apples are dropping and becoming more prevalent than the browsing food sources they focused on all summer. This change in food will undoubtedly change the feeding patterns of bucks, which will likely change their bedding locations.
When targeting a mature buck, look for the best available cover near these food sources. You might start to find beds on those beautiful, mature oak ridges, but they are likely night-time feeding beds where the bucks will lay down after feeding for a while under darkness.
They want to feel secure when they lay down for the day, and the cover is a top priority. Mountain laurel, green briar patches, grown-up timber cuts, and other similar areas give them security through visuals, wind advantage, and escape routes.
Most of these bedding areas give bucks a good visual advantage, even more so than wind. They can bed just inside a thicket and see out into the open woods while having their backs covered. Rarely do I see a buck bury himself in the middle of a wall of cover without a decent visual advantage.
In many situations, there is a ton of cover before the leaves drop, making it hard to find the “best available cover.” In northern Pennsylvania, we have thick cover everywhere! This is when it’s essential to locate the areas that have cover along with good browse food sources.
Bucks deemed nocturnal might look that way when focusing on the primary food sources, but they aren’t lying around all day. They like to get up, stretch their legs, and feed on nearby browse. New growth trees, blackberry briars, herbaceous plants, or other woody browse are good secondary food sources to focus on, but this will fluctuate depending on your geographic region.
Most hunters don’t scout year-round. Instead, they get out in the woods during September to hang stands and scout for the season opener. The deer feel this pressure, and it causes them to stay tight to their secure bedding areas or close to it until darkness falls. A good friend of mine and a very successful hunter, Johnny Stewart, refers to it as the deer being on vacation during the summer, and they have to get back to work once they start feeling the pressure.
When considering where to set up in highly pressured public or private lands, look to get closer to bedding areas rather than the primary food source. On the opening day of the 2021 archery season in Pennsylvania, I used this strategy to kill a mature buck coming back to bed in the morning. I located the primary food source, where I thought he was bedding, and set up on a secondary food source close to that bedding. Access and attention to the wind are vital to ensuring you don’t blow deer out of the area when hunting near bedding areas.
Finding where a buck shifted to during September can be frustrating, but it’s simply the process of finding the food and working backward towards the best available cover. You don’t have to find a singular bed to know a buck is there. Sometimes it will take trial and error through hunting or utilizing trail cameras to confirm or deny your suspicions. Food sources will shift year to year, but if you take detailed notes of the conditions, you will start to create a catalog for reference. The more time you spend learning about the shift and documenting your findings, the more success you will have in recognizing it in the future and ultimately relocating bucks year after year.
Feature image via Matt Hansen.