I always start my summer trail-cam season right after July 4. This buck was the first deer to show up on one of my mineral licks. He seems a little behind in antler growth, thanks to a winter that stretched into April. Still, he shows a lot of promise, and it will be fun to see how he progresses.

More important, this first good buck pic of the year can go a long way toward punching a tag in the fall. Like most guys, I use summer trail cams mainly to get a look at what’s in the neighborhood–to see if I can spot any survivors from last year or get a first glimpse at a new buck on the block. And, of course, summer pics make for great entertainment; something to keep me occupied and motivated in the weeks remaining until the opener. But these pics are also my first step in patterning a buck.

My home state of Minnesota has a mid-September archery opener. This means that during the first weeks of season, I’m hunting bucks that are still on a summer bed-to-feed pattern, often within a fairly small core area, and still hitting the immediate area’s top food sources. If my summer cameras (which I typically place on mineral licks near a food source) consistently reveal a buck in an area, I make a point to take a close look at the top food sources nearby. I’ll look for the obvious alfalfa and bean fields, of course, but I’ll also note if an alfalfa field was newly seeded in the spring, for example, which makes it especially attractive. I’ll check the oak and apple trees, too, to see which are apt to yield the most mast. Unforeseen nuances will come into play–a farmer may cut a corn field earlier than usual, let’s say–but my knowledge of the food sources will allow me to make quick adjustments and stay in the game.

Successful deer hunting often boils down to putting a bunch of tiny scraps of information together. This photo is only the first of those scraps, but who knows? In two short months, I might be able to look back and know that it was the critical one.