Deer, Elk Hunting: Have A Year-Round Game Plan

In the mid-morning hours, my wife Shannon and I trudged up the bottom of a thick, shallow draw into the breeze. We nearly scattered our turkey decoys and bow and arrows as a bull elk erupted from his shady bed a scant 20 yards away. I instantly noticed the long velvet clad eye guards and super heavy mass atop his head as he leapt logs and ducked into the timber.

In fact, he had two feet of main beam and his antlers were already forking behind his third points. There was little doubt that this bull was destined for stardom as it was only April 28 and he would continue to grow until July. I would definitely remember him and monitor his horn growth throughout the coming months.

Scout Early In Year
The bulk of my field time as a full-time guide and outfitter is spent prior to the turning of the leaves in the fall. It’s long before the bulls start to scream their dominance across the valleys, and long before the bucks begin beating up innocent trees in preparation for breeding. It starts with the springtime bloom of the fauna, long before antlers turn from spongy velvet into polished bone.

Shed hunting goes well with spring turkeys and is a great way to scout for your upcoming seasons.

When springtime rolls around, most outdoorsmen are shaking off winter and thinking about turkey season or fishing trips. Thoughts are not generally on the new growth that is starting to bulge from the bulls and bucks pedicles.

Anyone that knows me knows I am an obsessed monster when it comes to scouting for game. I simply can’t get enough of large-antlered critters and enjoy watching them year-round. From the time they shed old antlers until the conclusion of another hunting season, most days I can be found glassing from some high ridge-top or hiking a canyon trying to find a big buck or bull. It is this aggressive approach that I take with scouting that has led to the success that my clients and I have enjoyed.

Elk: Search For Sheds
In my home state of Arizona, I hit the hills when the bull’s antlers hit the ground. I believe that the biggest, oldest bulls generally shed first and hence begin regrowing earlier than younger bulls. By June 1, I’m starting to hit it hard. I move a camp into the heart of elk country and start cataloging bulls. A bull elks’ lower points develop as his main beams shoot upward and the bottom tines will be fully developed before the top end of the antlers are finished growing. When the front ends of their racks are developed, one can begin to decipher what has potential and what doesn’t.

Trophy bull racks begin with a big front end, and by getting this early start, you gain the advantage of knowing where to focus your later efforts. After locating bulls with potential, I then check-up on these prospect bulls periodically through the course of the growth season. By July, a mature bull’s horn growth is slowing as their antlers reach their max. By mid-July the tips are hardening. They usually will continue to carry the velvet through the month and will begin rubbing it off by early August. By September their headgear is darkened from the trees they have destroyed as they prepare for the upcoming battles, and by this time, I hopefully know exactly where I want to be on the opening morning of bow season.

Find Big Deer In Summer
In regards to horn growth, big deer antlers tend to run a few weeks behind a big bull elk. In the northern reaches of Arizona, where the biggest mule deer bucks reside, they will begin to shed in late February and into March. They will soon begin new growth, however, their antler configuration differs from that of their elk cousins and trophy potential cannot be speculated until mid-June. Boone & Crockett and Pope & Young, both determine a trophy rack according to three different antler characteristics — length of the beam/tines, circumference mass, and inside spread of the main beams.

A mule deer’s tines and main beams finish out together, therefore one cannot tell how long the tines will be until later in the growth cycle. By mid-July, most bucks’ antler frames are 80 percent to 90 percent done growing. Tine tips will be soft and bulbish but will be hardening up by mid-August. The first bucks will begin to rub off the velvet around September 1 with some carrying it till later in the month. The farther south you move, the later this cycle gets set back. In the southern most ranges of the desert, along the Mexican border, this cycle can be as much as six- to eight weeks behind the northern region.

This buck was harvested in November, less than one mile from where I snapped this picture in late July.

By scouting and locating a big buck in the summer, you can greatly increase your odds of crossing his path in a September bow season or during a later rifle hunt.

In the high desert country, where deer do not migrate to a winter range, most mature bucks are somewhat territorial. If you find them in July, they are darn likely to be in the same general area throughout the year. They may wander during the rut, but will likely return to their home range to rest up once the does are bred. I often return to the same haunts annually and relocate the same bucks/bulls from previous years. By keeping tags on several bucks/bulls from year to year as they mature, your catalog of game grows, and you can attempt to harvest the animals when they are at their peak.

Don’t let the summer months pass you idly by waiting for hunting season. Get out and pound the countryside. Hunt sheds, watch the antlers grow, and not only will you be in peak physical condition come hunting season, but you will have a deadly game plan and a huge advantage over the next guy.

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