There’s no need to feel lost when stepping onto a property for the first time.
The first week of gun season was winding down with little to show for my efforts. After 41⁄2 days of hunting private ground with a friend, we’d both come up empty. The next day would be Saturday, and the weekend warriors would be out in force, so I decided to try something radical.
First, I pulled out a topo map of a large piece of nearby public ground. By looking at road access and topographical features, I located what appeared to be the most remote, inaccessible spot in the area. I went there that afternoon and scouted until I found the thickest, nastiest cover. Then I looked for heaviest trail leading into it.
It was a solid 30-minute hike, but I managed to make it in before daylight the next morning. As expected, the first few hours passed uneventfully. About the time I figured the other hunters would be getting cold and restless, I heard a few shots down on the flat, followed moments later by the sound of rapid footfalls on frozen oak leaves. I wheeled around just as a big-racked buck topped the rise, headed toward the safety of the swampy tangle. He never made it. It was a long drag back to the truck, but one I was happy to make.
That was an exceptional experience, an accelerated version of the norm. The journey beginning with your first steps onto new ground and ending with a successful hunt typically takes a bit longer, but it follows a similar path. Starting out on a brand new piece of property can be an exciting but intimidating experience. Knowing how and where to proceed can reduce the anxiety, increase the excitement and hopefully speed the process of bringing your hunt to a successful conclusion.
Your scouting should start before you set foot on the property. If you have a computer, it’s as simple as logging on to Google Maps and typing in the location. With a couple of clicks, you can view color satellite photos of your area. You can even change the scale to zoom in and out. If you don’t own a computer or have internet access, you can still get aerial prints from your county extension service or Natural Resources Conservation Service agent.
Conditions vary enough over the whitetail’s geographic range that it’s difficult to get too specific about what to look for. Still, we can use some generalities. Deer need food, water and cover. Where you find those things in greatest abundance and closest proximity is usually where you’ll find the most deer.
Whitetails tend to use the path of least resistance and shy away from open areas except during twilight hours. Knowing this, you can look for habitat or topographic features that funnel deer movement.
In some cases, it’s fairly obvious. A narrow windrow or brushy swale between blocks of timber, or between a wooded area and a crop field, scream out “travel corridor!” In some cases, it can be more subtle. Deer tend to follow watercourses because cover is thicker and often contains more edible plants.
A topo map can be just as useful and a good supplement to your photos. Topos show features like steep terrain and waterways that can funnel deer movement.
SEE THE SIGNS
All that information is a good starting point, but like the song says, “ain’t nothin’ like the real thing.” Sooner or later you’ll have to get out and look around. Those who live in open country, whether the farmlands of Iowa or the rolling plains of Oklahoma, have the luxury of direct observation. Simply by driving around at dawn and dusk and glassing, you can get a pretty good idea of the local deer herd and its movements. The rest of us must walk the ground and look for sign — something even open-country hunters will eventually have to do as they narrow their search.
So what should you look for?
Deer trails are the most abundant sign in the woods, but that limits their value. They tell you deer are in the area, but you already knew that. Deer use trails for all sorts of reasons, but they do so at different times of the day and year.
Hunting success often boils down to being in the right place at the right time. Trails can tell you the right place, but you need something more, like a trail camera, to tell you the right time. Cameras not only can tell you when deer are using a particular area, but which deer are using it. This can help you concentrate your efforts.
Few of us can afford enough cameras to cover all the major trails in a particular area, but you don’t really need to. It’s often best to narrow your search before putting them out. Still, you should think about where you might put a camera as soon as you think a spot looks promising.
It also helps if you can identify which trails might be important. Obviously, more tracks means more traffic. Try to determine why deer might be using a particular trail. Refer to your topos and aerial photos to see how the puzzle fits together. Is the trail the most direct route between bedding cover and a food source? Is it the easiest path around an obstacle like a steep slope or deep waterway?
Sometimes just following a trail can be revealing. Deer walked it for a reason. As you proceed, you might discover more trails converging, or you might find bedding cover or a small grove of mature oaks.
Whitetails are on their feet only small proportion of the day, and most of that time is spent feeding. It stands to reason that if you find the food, you’ll find the deer. In farm country, that’s not much of a problem, and your scouting should focus on which deer are using which fields and when. On forested or open ground, it’s a matter of finding concentrations of preferred natural foods.
Preferred foods vary from region to region, so you need to know what the favorites are in the areas you hunt. Food sources can change throughout the season and from year to year. A classic example is areas with both white and red oaks. The sweeter, preferred white oak acorns often fall first and rather quickly. The more bitter large variety red oak acorns drop later and over a longer time, and are available later into the winter.
Where and when they can find them, deer savor soft mast like apples and persimmons. Weather conditions during the spring bloom can have a considerable effect on abundance. In a good year, apples might drop for several weeks, making a good long-term food source and hunting site. Persimmons, on the other hand, ripen and fall over a short period. When they do, there are few better deer attractants.
I hunt bucks. Sure, I enjoy shooting does and sometimes I seek them out, particularly if it’s part of a management plan. Like most hunters, my primary objective is a buck, and the bigger the better. This is why most of my scouting is directed toward bucks and the sign they leave behind.
Like trails, I think scrapes are overrated. They are one of the more obvious signs of buck activity but are of limited value for the hunter. I’ve killed a couple of bucks over scrapes, but they were the exception rather than the rule. Research backs up my experience that most scrape visits occur at night, which makes hunting over them a low-percentage opportunity.
However, scrapes are a good indication there are bucks in the area, and setting a camera on one can tell you how big they are.
Scrapes also help track rutting activity. The first open scrapes signify the onset of the rut. Regular visits mean increased rutting activity, and a brief window when it might be worth hunting on or near one, or producing a mock scrape. And while bucks might not visit scrapes during daylight, they could be cruising the vicinity, particularly downwind, during the rut.
I place more emphasis and value on rubs. Like scrapes, not all rubs are the same. Some, particularly isolated ones, are where a buck was ridding himself of velvet or showing off for another buck. In both cases, they won’t likely be revisited.
I look for two particular types of rubs. The first are what I call traditional rubs, older trees that have been rubbed year after year. The second are those spaced out along a trail or rub line. The two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, traditional rubs usually occur along traditional travel routes. In both cases, the rubs show places bucks regularly use throughout the hunting season and in successive years.
Start plotting these rubs with other information you’ve gathered (trails, bedding cover and feeding areas), and the picture suddenly becomes much clearer. You’ll begin to get a more comprehensive understanding of deer movement on your property.
Intensive on-the-ground scouting is important, but you also need to step back and look at the big picture. One of the biggest mistakes hunters make is concentrating so much on their own ground that they fail to consider how activities on neighboring properties might affect their deer and hunting. Something as simple as a fence or a stone wall could act as a funnel for deer moving from one parcel to another.
If your neighbors hunt only on weekends, you might be able to use that pressure to your advantage. You might have great bedding cover, but if your neighbor has better food, he’ll probably see and tag more deer.
You should also consider what occurred on the property in prior hunting seasons. My friend George Mayfield once picked up a lease in Alabama that he knew contained a giant buck. The previous lessee tried for several years to kill it.
George’s scouting began with looking for buck sign, particularly rubs on larger trees. He also plotted all of the other hunter’s stand sites and his access trails on an aerial photo.
On the photo, he drew a 200-yard circle around the stand sites, and 100-yard swaths on either side of the other hunter’s trails, eliminating those areas from consideration.
“I knew where he was hunting, and since he hadn’t killed the deer, it obviously wasn’t using those areas,” said Mayfield. That process of elimination left only one area, and that was where Mayfield ultimately shot the 180-inch non-typical.
Research from several studies shows that deer, particularly older bucks, learn to avoid permanent stands. Traditional stands might be great for killing a deer, but if it’s a mature buck you’re after, you might consider looking for new locations. Also bear in mind there is a law of diminishing returns. The more you scout, the more familiar you become with the property. But after a certain point, your presence can start to influence deer movement.
There is an inverse correlation between scouting and hunting. The more time you spend scouting, the less time you’ll need to spend hunting. In fact, the object of the former is to reduce the latter. And in the end, it’s all part of the process and the fun. Read Recent Articles:
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• When Good Stands Go Bad: Even the most careful hunters can pollute a stand if they use it too much.
• The Deadliest Disease: Despite the fear about CWD, far more whitetails succumb to EHD. This article was published in the August 2011 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.