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I used this approach in 2021 to locate this Pennsylvania big woods buck.

You check your trail camera and get a picture of a big buck 3 hours before daylight. What do you do? It happens to all of us at some point or another, right?

Locating where a buck is bedded in the big woods and hill country can be difficult. Let me start by saying that these are not rules (as with anything with deer hunting.) This is just how I like to do it, and have found success finding bucks, but there are plenty of different ways to do it. This is based on my experience.

I use a three-step approach to try and figure out where a buck is bedded once I locate them on camera, see them in person in a travel area, feeding area, etc. This approach works best outside of the rut in your traditional pattern during the early and late seasons.

Step 1: E-Scouting Using Maps

First up, I start with e-scouting using maps. I prefer doing this on a desktop rather than on a phone to see things better. When I've got a picture or video of a buck, the first puzzle piece is time and direction.

“Was it a cold front?”

“Is he checking doe bedding areas to return to during the rut?”

"Could that be why I only got him once?"

These questions guide me. Bucks, being strategic creatures, seek a visual, wind, and security advantage in their beds. They may not always have all three, but they rarely have less than two of them to their advantage. Using the Spartan Forge app, I go into the intel tab and look at the historical wind direction for the month. This helps guide you to where he spends most of his time. I mark obvious spots like ridge points for their 270-degree visibility and downwind sides of thickets. But sometimes, the obvious isn't foolproof. That's when I delve into micro points, smaller benches, and secluded spots away from human pressure, marked on the map.

Step 2: Boots on the Ground

With the map as my guide, it's time for boots on the ground. But there's an art to it – move with the wind in your favor to avoid disturbing potential bedding spots during the season. I work backward from the photo location, following deer trails or navigating through terrain features.

As I start to find scrapes and rub clusters, I'm piecing together the puzzle. Here, the map's limitations become apparent. Even with top-notch imagery, the boots-on-the-ground phase reveals the nuances – laurel patches, cover-rich areas, and logging cuts not fully discernible on a map.

As you walk through the woods, rubs and scrapes show the travel areas of bucks. But there's a nuance – clusters of rubs within a 40 to 50-yard circle unveil a different story. This is the realm where a buck invests more time – rising from its bed, feeding, marking territory, etc.

However, a word of caution – not all bucks leave abundant sign. Some are more discreet, so keep your eyes keen and expectations realistic. Now, when you're hunting a mature buck, observing the characteristics in pictures becomes crucial. Tall tines, prominent brow tines, and gouges higher up in the trees indicate a mature buck's handiwork, indicating its presence.

Real-time Intel opens up new possibilities, whether from a cell cam picture or a personal encounter. This is where I want to try to locate that buck’s tracks. A unique track matching the specific deer lets you know exactly where he’s traveling. In these moments, you don't rely on trail cameras; you rely on woodsmanship skills, intuition, and a keen eye.

Certain terrains, like dry leaves or rocky areas, can pose challenges in tracking. That's where the beauty of winter comes in. A pristine blanket of snow simplifies the tracking game, allowing you to backtrack the deer's movements with ease.

Now, finding a specific bed is a victory, but it's not the only win. I've often discerned where bucks are bedding without pinpointing a single bed. Often, bucks alternate between multiple beds in a particular big woods area. Thus, understanding the broader area, gauging wind patterns, and visualizing potential bedding scenarios become paramount.

Step 3: Using Trail Cameras to Confirm Suspicions

Now, let's explore the final puzzle piece – trail cameras. The key is identifying critical areas – scrapes, minor trails adorned with rubs, or entry and exit trails near potential bedding sites. However, a word of wisdom – don't let the absence of a buck on camera rattle your confidence.

Trail cameras, though invaluable, have their limitations. They capture only a fraction of the vast landscape in front of them. I've witnessed instances where a deer elegantly circumvented a camera, opting for trails adjacent to the lens's view. So, while cameras provide insights, don't tether your understanding solely to them. Let the signs in the woods, your intuition, and that gut feeling guide you. Sometimes, it's the silent language of the forest that speaks louder than a pixelated confirmation on a screen.

Speaking of screens, the advent of cell cameras adds a layer of real-time convenience. If you're in an area with reliable cell service, these cameras offer immediate updates. Yet, in my hunting grounds, where the signal dances between weak and non-existent, I rely on traditional cameras more so. They become silent observers, soaking in the woods' stories throughout the season.

Now, here's the crux – don't let cameras dictate your entire strategy. They are a tool, not a gospel. I hunt based on the art of interpreting sign, relying on my understanding of the land and the deer that inhabit it. Cameras, in this context, are a supplementary bonus, not the backbone of my approach.

Final Thoughts:

To wrap it up, trust your instincts and hone your observational skills. Don't lean too heavily on trail cameras; they provide a limited view. Some deer are easier than others to be able to figure out. Don’t get frustrated. Bucks are going to fool us more times than not, and that’s part of it. This simple, three-step approach has helped me locate mature bucks in the big woods of Pennsylvania. Hopefully, it will help you, too.

This is a synopsis of an East Meets West Hunt podcast - Mountain Buck Q&A edition, based on listener questions. If you're enjoying these Q&A episodes, let me know. Your feedback, ratings, and reviews mean a lot. Share the podcast with your hunting buddies, and stay tuned for more insights in the next episode. You can submit your questions for future episodes by sending me an email to with “Mountain Buck Q&A” in the subject line.

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