Hunting cutovers for big bucks

Hunting the gnarly habitat of cutovers requires hunters to be vigilant because big bucks don’t linger when crossing an opening.

Cutovers hold big bucks all season long

Many types of habitats attract and hold deer during the hunting season. And these habitats often change from the spring and summer. Changes in the innate behavior of deer create changes in behavior and habitat requirements. This behavior shift begins from late-September through November depending on the location within the Carolinas. And they are dictated by the onset of the rut, the prime time for hunters to target trophy bucks.

While multiple types of habitat will attract deer, one type found throughout the Carolinas is a prime target throughout the season. This deer-magnet is the clear-cut (cutover) areas that are in the early stages of regeneration. And this thick, gnarly habitat is ideal for holding deer during the season for multiple reasons.

Cutovers in early stages of regeneration provide outstanding habitat for big bucks throughout the season.

Hunt cutovers all season

Within the Carolinas, the exact timing of the rut varies considerably based on multiple factors within each state. Physical location is a key component. But what’s important to hunters is that deer behavior changes from primarily eating and hiding to propagation of the species. 

Charles Ruth, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources Big Game Program Coordinator, said the biological changes of deer during this time creates a prime opportunity for hunters.

Ruth said multiple types of habitats are likely to harbor deer. But timbered clearcuts in the early stages of regrowth are ideal for multiple reasons. 

“Cutovers in the first few years of regrowth provide a diversity of habitat that’s ideal to attract and hold deer,” he said. “It’s prime for bedding areas. It’s great cover that provides deer a sense of security and typically offers multiple natural food sources. With a properly placed stand, hunters can see large areas of habitat, thus increasing the potential to see bucks on the move.”

Food sources are crucial to successfully hunting cutovers and the food can be within, or adjacent to, the cutover.

Plan for hunting cutovers

Dean Pittinger from Early Branch, S.C. (near Hampton) is celebrating his 50th year of deer hunting in 2022. He said cutovers are a primary habitat he’ll hunt throughout the season. He’s taken multiple bucks that would qualify for the S.C. State Record book, with a 148 4/8 buck his largest. 

“Cutover areas are key to my personal style of hunting,” Pittinger said. “I hunt them throughout the season. But my tactics change as the season progresses.” 

He said the first key to success is recognizing that every cutover is different based on size and location.

“A good example is during early season prior to the rut, and even into pre-rut and the rut, cutover areas will hold plenty of deer. But the deer move in and out heading to food sources,” he said. “While the deer I’m hunting basically bed and live in the cutover, I’ll hunt the edges of the clearcuts in the early season. I target areas where deer are crossing between that area and the route to food sources.”

Pittinger said the food source may be a large agriculture field such as soybeans, peanuts or other crops. But it can be big white oaks or persimmons in a hardwood stand adjacent to the cutover. 

“I spend time finding the food sources and the routes deer take from the cutover to the food,” he said. “No single type of stand works in all situations. I may climb a tree that’s two or three trees deep in the adjacent old growth stand that affords good vision of a productive trail between the two habitats. Getting off the open edge gives me extra concealment that’s crucial when hunting trophy bucks.” 

He said in some situations he will use a ground blind or he’ll literally sit against a tree with the gun propped on his knee or supported in a shooting stick as if he was turkey hunting. Blending with the habitat and having the wind in his favor is far more important than forcing the issue with a stand that doesn’t blend with the habitat.

“And you can catch deer going to or returning from the food source when you determine the right spot to hunt,” he said.

Deer move freely from cutover areas to agriculture fields, and hunters can find travel routes and set up stands to see more deer.

Clearcuts and the rut 

Pittinger said once the rut begins, he can still target bucks seeking does along the edges of the cutover. But generally he’ll begin to hunt more within the confines of the habitat.

“Food sources change and once the rut is on, I’ll also target prime food sources within the cutover,” he said. “Thick cover is a safety factor for bucks and does. And eating isn’t their primary motivation. But bucks are going to check food sources for does. This is a prime opportunity to use feeding stations, such as corn, to attract deer to specific areas in addition to hunting natural food sources.”

Pittinger said numerous options to hunt these areas exist. Ground blinds are excellent and he’ll set up blending with the natural cover using any topographic and habitat factors to his advantage.

“When bucks are moving, searching for does, I’ll often set up with my back literally to a corn pile or food source,” he said. “The buck typically isn’t going to come to the food. He’s going to step out in a road or trail opening and look for a doe. If no doe is visible, he’s quickly gone to check another spot. When hunting like this in heavy cover, once I set up, I get down on the gun and I’m ready to shoot. I stay ready until it’s time to leave or I kill the buck. The window of opportunity to make a shot can be very short. And I’ve killed some huge bucks simply because I was ready to make the shot quickly.”

Another setup Pittinger employs is to climb a large tree adjacent to the clearcut that overlooks an opening and/or food source.

He’ll focus on, or even hand cut, a small opening or lane to watch for bucks checking a natural food source. Or he’ll create a food station that he can hunt from a tree stand or climber from an adjacent pine or hardwood stand. Again, he’ll stay off the exposed trees along the edge separating the different habitats, opting to hunt from a setup off the front tree line to minimize his visibility to a big buck.

“I’ll do what I have to do based on the sign I see within the cutover area to get the crosshairs on a big buck,” he said. “I’ll get creative to take advantage of any opportunity while minimizing the chance of a buck seeing or winding me.”

Dean Pittinger said cutovers are a prime season-long habitat for big bucks, but as the seasons change so does his hunting strategy.

Late-season cutover hunts 

Deer cling to cutovers in late-season, Pittinger said, because of the gnarly habitat and cover which provides protection. As the rut winds down, deer begin to move less, especially during shooting hours. But the need to eat increases. 

“But it’s a different situation now,” he said. “Deer will return to survival mode when the rut ends. And often the best hunting is late in the day.

“Patience is essential at this time but deer will come to good food sources. And corn feeding stations are effective,” he said. “Deer will remain in the heavy cover of a cutover even more and feed primarily in low-light times. A key now is having a quality scope that produces exceptional light-gathering qualities because the big bucks are often going to step out late. A high-quality scope that provides even a couple minutes of extra visibility to identify the target is often the key.”

This season, look for cutovers and use them as one of the various habitats you hunt. If you adapt your strategies as the season and patterns change, they’ll produce big bucks throughout the hunting season.

Dean Pittinger said a lot of strategy is involved in hunting cutovers, but they provide great, big buck habitat.

Considerations for hunting  cutovers

Despite cutovers being prime habitats for deer throughout the season, Pittinger said hunters pursuing big bucks must control what they can.

“One is scouting and keeping up with deer patterns without alerting deer,” he said. “I’ll use trail cameras in pre-season to identify big buck territories so I can target them. But I take the cameras down when I begin hunting. I’ve learned they’re a liability to me killing big bucks. Younger bucks and does are much less affected. But big bucks can be camera shy.”

Also, scent control must be taken to the max, he said. He bathes before hunting and keeps his clothes clean and scent-free. And he hides as best he can when setting up to hunt. 

Pittinger said not all cutovers are created equal in terms of productivity. The habitat of two cutovers in close proximity may both provide prime habitat. But having water and good food sources nearby are advantages that may make one more productive.

He also doesn’t overhunt an area because excessive human intrusion is taboo. He’ll play the wind to his advantage and his ingress and egress plans are crucial to avoid crossing areas where he thinks deer will be moving. 

Pittinger studies deer sign in the area being hunted. And he develops a hunting plan where he’ll see the deer while he is well hidden.

“To be successful, hunters need the mindset that hunting a trophy buck is different than simply killing nice bucks,” he said. “Restraint is essential and scent and wind precaution enhances the opportunity to see big bucks. If you want to kill a trophy, you’ll have to often pass otherwise nice bucks.

“If you have access to cutovers, spend plenty of time learning about that specific area, then hunt with a good plan,” he said.

About Terry Madewell 809 Articles
Award-winning writer and photographer Terry Madewell of Ridgeway, S.C., has been an outdoors writer for more than 30 years. He has a degree in wildlife and fisheries management and has a long career as a professional wildlife biologist/natural resources manager.

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