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Timber! How to Hunt Big Woods Bucks in Clearcuts and Selective Cuts

Hunting deer around clearcuts

For years I hunted in Randolph County, WV, on land owned by Mead Westvaco which produced a number of brand name paper products. It was some of the toughest land I’ve ever hunted. Not only was it mountain country, but it was also cut country, and hunting big woods bucks in clearcuts and selective cuts is not an easy task.

The landscape was constantly changing. Every year, new, vast sections of timber were clearcut or selective cut, which caused major shifts in deer patterns. I’d have my eye on a good buck all summer, and then a few weeks before the season they’d start timbering that deer’s bedding area. By archery season, huge chunks of forest where the buck lived would be leveled. Sometimes the buck simply relocated nearby. Other times it was never seen again.

Small bucks, does, and fawns seemed relatively unaffected by the landscape changes. Even a few of the mature bucks were very tolerant of the human activity, and occasionally you’d see them up and feeding while a logging crew worked only a couple hundred yards away. But that’s the beauty of summer whitetails. They know their predators well, and that time of year humans rank low on their list of concerns. Come fall, it’s a different story.

There’s not much you can do about deer that relocate. Trail cameras and constant scouting can help you find them again, or they might eventually return on their own. One thing is certain, though. That fresh cut that looks pretty dismal that first fall will soon become a deer magnet, and it can happen quickly, sometimes within days of all logging activity being completed.

Loggers leave behind a lot of scrap in the form of treetops and branches. Abundant bedding cover and browse make these cuts prime hunting locations.

Every cut will have a hot zone of deer activity, though. If you’re not comfortable taking long shots with a rifle, you can zero in on these hot zones and set up a stand accordingly. Where that zone is located will depend on the quality of the habitat surrounding the fresh cut.

Hunting clearcuts and selective cuts for big woods bucks
Clearcuts and selective cuts offer huge potential for big bucks. They provide everything a big buck needs to get old - food, shelter, and security.

A fresh cut bordering an older, thicker cut is an ideal situation. One of my favorite fresh cuts was located on a hillside and had an older cut along its eastern border (a ridge) and mature hardwoods along its southern border. Deer bedded heavily in the thicker cut on the ridge. Even better, one corner of the fresh cut was tucked back in where the thicker cut and mature hardwoods met, so there were basically three edges coming together. Talk about a funnel! I called that spot The Highway because there was always so much deer traffic. The combination of old and new cuts made deer feel safe enough to feed at all times of day.

My times, I approach and hunt cuts the same way I do food plots. They function in many of the same ways, acting as a gathering point for whitetails. When scouting fresh cuts, it helps to view them as fields, albeit fields with lots of timber scraps in them. Typically, the first places I look for sign are the inside corners of the cuts.

The inside corner of any field or cut is a hot spot. Mature bucks, being ever-cautious, prefer to stay in cover as much as possible while moving from one location to another. However, they’ll often cut corners to get there. In areas of high hunting pressure, they may stick to the inside edge of the woods, but in areas of low hunting pressure, they’ll often just cut the corner entirely, especially in cuts where there’s enough scrap left behind to make them feel safe.

Very rarely are the corners of cuts left as hard, perfect edges, which makes them great places to find transitional-type cover such as grassy openings, small saplings, etc. In some instances, depending on terrain and location of the cut, corners are used as staging areas for the logging operation. The constant traffic of heavy equipment can churn up the soil and create a mud pit after a few hard rains. Once loggers have moved on, though, lush greenery and berries can eventually sprout up in these marshy corners.

Hunting clearcuts and selective cuts for big woods bucks
The edges of clearcuts and selective cuts are rarely perfect, which creates ideal habitat for berries and other soft mast. These corners continue to be prime travel corridors even later in the season.

In general, clear cuts and selective cuts are not uniform in shape. The only time you’ll find straight line edges are when those cuts follow distinct terrain features, such as a ridge, or an exact property boundary. Most of the time, the edges of cuts will appear as a wavy line on the map. Any time I find a cut with a chunk of taller timber extending out into the freshly timbered area, I make that a focal point for scouting, too. Deer will often use that chunk of tall timber as a funnel between the cut and mature woods.

Low points within cuts are also great places to look for deer sign, but only if the travel route is unobstructed by brush. Sometimes tree tops and branches prevent deer from traveling the low points themselves, so they’ll skirt around them on the upper and lower ends. The upper and lower ends often correspond with logging roads or trails, creating pinch points for deer movement.

I’ve actually had prime archery stand locations ruined when too many tree tops and brush were left behind. In essence, piling up these remains barricaded the deer from using the trails in and out of the cove where my stand was positioned, and it also prevented me from being able to get quietly in and out without blowing deer out of the area. Occasionally deer used the cove as a bedding area, but I had to move the stand higher to the more open woods on the ridge to hunt it effectively.

The first spring and summer is critical for new cuts. This is, after all, the first growing season that sunlight will actually reach the forest floor and regenerate new growth. This new growth, often in the form of succulent shoots, grasses, and berries, draws whitetails from great distances. I’ve heard it said, and I can personally vouch for this, that the best time to kill a monster buck is during the first year of a fresh cut. This new growth is just too sweet to resist.

As cuts grow and mature, they become more difficult to hunt. Saplings, red brush, and greenbrier can all make shot placement difficult. Even if a shot looks clear at first glance, a closer look will show you a maze of obstructions you must try to sneak an arrow through.

Some cuts will have a longer “shelf life” depending on area of the country and length of the growing season, but typically after a handful of years, early successional cover gets too thick and making long range shots becomes all but impossible and you have to adjust tactics.

There will almost always be a period of years when a cut is unhuntable. In areas where I’m currently hunting, several large clear cuts were done in 2010. The first few years, visibility was good throughout the cuts, and then all of a sudden the brush and saplings hit a growth spurt and took off. The past five years, these cuts have been too thick to hunt effectively except for around the edges, and I doubt I’ll be able to actually hunt in the cuts for another five or six years.

I’ve traversed cuts so thick I could barely see five yards ahead of me, yet I knew deer still lived there. They had numerous trails tunneling in and out of the brush, but what appeared effortless for them was almost impossible for any hunter. In these cases, you’re better off hunting the edges and waiting for the deer to come out into the open.

Early in the season, I prefer to hunt the edges anyway. Here you’ll find a lot of transitional-type cover, and if there are bucks in the area, you should encounter scrapes and rubs along these edges, too. If you can find an edge that also has a food source nearby, now you’ve located the ultimate hot zone. Later, during the rut, bucks cruise these edges and food sources in search of receptive does.

Once the cuts achieve a certain height and thickness, they become sanctuaries for whitetails. I believe this is why we’re seeing some really fine bucks harvested in the mountain regions of states like Pennsylvania, especially on public land. And if you want to improve the quality of your own property, logging small segments – even just a few acres at a time – can be beneficial. The best practice is to timber in stages with sections of forest removed several years apart, to create the most diverse cover and browse.

There’s usually a “sweet spot” of four to six years when a cut will be ideal for hunting – approximately the time the biggest new growth trees attain four to six inches in diameter. During this time, cuts are still thick enough that old bucks feel safe, yet open enough that you can see a reasonable distance, usually 50 to 60 yards maximum. Cuts much more open than that will see diminished daytime movement.

The catch is that, while you can now hunt these cuts, it’s almost impossible to find a tree large enough to support a treestand – in the clear cuts, at least; in selective cuts that’s not usually a problem. If you’re targeting clear cuts, get adept at hunting from the ground.

Much of how deer travel depends on the network of logging roads within the maturing cut. These logging roads often correspond with certain terrain features, such as benches, which is likely why the roads are where they are, and also why deer travel them so heavily. They provide a path of least resistance along a course deer are inclined to travel anyway.

During the rut, these logging roads are great places to look for scrapes and rubs. Bucks travel them heavily as they search for receptive does. Ground blinds placed downwind of well-traveled logging roads can be killer locations.

Also look for openings within the cuts. Sometimes these opening are left by design, other times trees just fail to regenerate there because of a spring seep or some other factor. If a spring seep is the reason, this opening will be a major hub of activity during all growth stages of the cut. Lots of grasses and sweets shoots will draw deer to this little oasis.

Designed openings usually have one or two bigger trees left standing nearby. Ideally, they’ll be mast-producing trees, but that’s not always the case. Either way, they’re great places to hang a treestand.

Just because you can hunt in the cuts, though, doesn’t mean you should. Proceed with caution and make the decision on a case-by-case basis. Cuts that are heavily used as bedding areas should probably be left alone, or perhaps only hunted during the most ideal times. Every time you enter a cut, your scent spreads throughout and you risk spooking deer. Do that often enough and they may never return. On certain occasions, though, the risk can be worth the potential reward and you can ambush a buck that otherwise might not come out of the cut until after shooting hours.

I encountered one of these “nocturnal” bucks while tracking a deer I’d shot that morning with a bow. I’d made what I’d thought was a liver shot and the blood trail was sketchy. Although I eventually found the buck several hours later some 800 yards from where I’d shot it, the recovery process led me into some territory I’d never explored before, particularly one giant, rugged cut on a steep hillside.

Prior to that morning, I’d seen only a few deer on stand and had yet to find much rubbing or scraping activity. Overall, the woods seemed pretty quiet for late October. Following the blood trail into the cut, however, was like entering some magical realm of whitetail activity. The trails were heavy and well-used, there were rubs everywhere, scrapes along the logging road through the upper portion of the cut. To describe it more accurately, it was as if someone had pulled the curtain back on Oz and many of the mysteries that had baffled me up to that point were suddenly answered.

It made sense. Deer had to eat and drink. They had to be moving somewhere. Well, this cut was definitely the place.

I stopped to rest a minute about 10 yards uphill of a logging road. As I contemplated which way the deer I was trailing might have gone, I heard rustling and leaves crunching to my left. I nestled up against a tree as the buck walked the logging road below me. He got slightly passed me, stopped to sniff the air, and for some strange reason decided to do an about-face and head back to wherever he’d come from. He caught my outline on this second pass, and though the wind was in my favor and he never really spooked, he knew something was amiss and bounded off about 30 yards before slowing down and just walking away.

The buck was a beautiful, 3 1/2-year-old, 7-point with a rut-swollen neck. This was on the Mead Westvaco land I’d mentioned earlier, and in West Virginia you’re allowed up to three antlered deer per year. If I hadn’t already been trailing a buck, I’d have definitely taken the shot. As it was, I let it walk. Turned out to be a good decision. A couple weeks later, I killed that buck in an open woods funnel between two cuts only a couple hundred yards from where I’d seen him that day.


Read more about hunting big woods bucks in and around clearcuts and selective cuts in Hunting Mountain Whitetails.

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