Hunting Mature Bucks in PA Mountains: Reading Cover, Buck Beds, and Thermals

By: Steve Sherk

Finding Mature Bucks in PA 

I remember just like it was yesterday. I was 18 years old and it was the first week of Pennsylvania archery season. It was my first season of focusing on harvesting a mature buck only. It wasn’t about filling a tag anymore, it was about harvesting older, more challenging bucks.
I was in the middle of where two clear-cuts joined together. I knew there was a mature 8-point bedding in there. I killed him my first sit. In fact, I shot him while I was hooking up my safety harness. Literally just a few minutes in the stand!
However, my approach in killing him was probably unlike many others seeking to take an early October buck.
I shot that buck at 11 AM. I figured the buck would be inside the cover well before daylight. So I backed out until late morning thinking I could slip in on him. It was too risky sneaking in there well before daylight without spooking him. 
But that hunt was a game-changer for me. It gave me confidence in hunting thick cover. That one moment of success was proof that big bucks love the thick cover and you can still kill them inside of it! And in the past 15-plus years, I’ve learned that most mature bucks will always choose bedding inside of cover or on the edges of it.

Bucks and Thick Cover

Cover is the most important factor when a buck chooses his bedroom. If it’s not thick, they don’t feel safe. But not every kind of cover has led me to mature buck bedding. Mature bucks want to be able to see from their beds. They use their eyes just as much as their noses.
In all of my experiences, I would rate 20-30-year-old cuts the most preferred bedding cover due to their somewhat open visibility. But some places are different and some areas don’t have a diverse variety of bedding cover. No matter what, you’ll almost always find buck beds in an open area inside of whatever cover is available.
Being a mountain hunter, wind and thermals have always been confusing to me. Rarely do I see consistency in wind direction in the many places I hunt and guide in northern Pennsylvania. But I have found that some bucks do prefer to bed on the leeward side of ridges and clearly some bucks do prefer to bed where thermals are flowing.
But I don’t focus on wind and thermals due to their inconsistency and the fact that I’ve learned some bucks don’t choose bedding based on wind and thermal advantages. 

Reading Thermals in Mountain Terrain For Whitetails 

I try to plan my hunts based on the wind being in my favor but often it swirls or shifts occasionally in the mountains. This is why I don’t hunt less than 100 yards from a bed. That buck will often lay in his bed for hours while you are in the stand. It only takes one time for the wind to shift his way and he will surely be gone. But what I’ve found, is if you back off 200 yards or more, they don’t seem to pick up your scent as often during wind shifts. It’s like your scent disperses or scatters around them. And as long as the wind is at least 60-percent in my favor, I rarely leave a stand during wind shifts. Meaning even if it switches occasionally, I’ll stay on stand as long as it’s blowing in my favor most of the time.
I key in most on the cover and higher elevations when seeking bedding areas in the mountains. Just cause I’ve learned them to be the most consistent source for bedding. And almost all of the beds are right on the edge of elevation drops. Mountain bucks prefer to look down from their bedding sites. Some of the best bedding sites I’ve found have also been on mounds or knolls on the center of a ridge. 

Finding A PA Mountain Bucks Bedroom 

One of the most common questions I get asked is how do you pinpoint a buck’s bedroom? Well, some bucks are harder than others. And some I actually never seem to peg. But many I have been fortunate enough to really get to know their bedding patterns. And the biggest factor has been post-season scouting. 
Late winter and early spring scouting have very little impact as far as pressuring a deer for the next season. In fact, I can’t say I’ve ever noticed myself truly impacting a buck’s bedding pattern from post-season scouting. But trying to nail a buck’s bedroom weeks or days before hunting season can definitely ruin your chances. I’ve made that mistake before!
But post-season scouting can also be misleading. In northern Pennsylvania, we generally see a shift in bedding and feeding patterns during winter. Bucks tend to leave their main core areas to places more conducive to winter needs and survival. So I’m not always looking for fresh sign when I’m post-season scouting. And buck beds you find on south slopes and in evergreen cover are often winter beds. These bedding sites are rarely used outside of the winter months.
However, buck beds are still visible from the fall months even going into spring. These beds are so well used that there usually is nothing but dirt, hair and deer droppings in them. 
All in all, mountain deer are in a league of their own. Especially the ones that are on public land. You’ll never find a more challenging experience in the whitetail woods anywhere in the country but the mountains. And that’s why I love hunting them!
Feel free to connect with the author: Steve Sherk Guide Service