Buckmasters Magazine

Speed Scouting

Speed Scouting

By David Hart

Never pass up a chance to hunt new land, even if you don't have much time to scout.

Never one to pass up an opportunity to hunt new land, David Wilton still hesitated when a couple asked him to help with their deer problem. He was sitting next the man and woman at a church dinner a few years ago when the discussion turned to gardening.

"They told me they couldn't grow anything because of an abundance of deer," recalls Wilton, a software engineer from northern Virginia. "I mentioned that I was a bowhunter, and they immediately asked if I would come shoot some deer. I hesitated because the season opened in less than week and I knew nothing about the property. To me, there's nothing worse than walking around the woods a few days before the season starts. That can throw the deer off their routines."

MAP IT

It turned out the garden was part of a 70-acre farm in the heart of some of Virginia’s best deer country. And it was Wilton’s alone to hunt. He wasn’t about to decline the couple’s offer. That night, he fired up his computer and opened Google Earth. He zeroed in on the property and started examining the habitat. It’s tough to evaluate any land from space, but satellite photos can provide a good thumbnail view of the ground and the general habitat.

“I look for potential food sources like crop fields and pastures, but I also want to see creeks and possible bedding areas. You can’t always see thick cover from a satellite image, but you’d be surprised at how much detail some of those photos show,” he says.

“I also look for travel corridors like tree lines between fields, pinch points and other areas that might concentrate deer. Basically, I want to know as much about the property as I can before I start walking around.”

Equally important, Wilton studied the surrounding farms, noting property boundaries, along with the habitat that bordered the new ground. A dedicated bowhunter, Wilton wanted to make sure he didn’t hunt close to any property boundaries. Some landowners where he hunts are staunchly opposed to hunting, so Wilton wanted to avoid conflicts over wounded deer crossing property lines.

BOOTS ON THE GROUND

There’s only so much you can see from a satellite photo, though. Dense cover that could serve as a bedding area won’t likely show up on Google Earth. Neither will specific crops or food plot plants. Besides, many of the images are years old, so what was a cornfield in the photo could be planted pines, hay or something else entirely. That means you’ll have to spend some time poking around the property to figure out the details.

After he got an idea of the lay of the land via computer, Wilton laced up his boots and headed to the new farm. He went straight to a small creek that cut through the property.

“I like to walk creek beds to look for crossings or places where deer seem to visit the water a lot. Creeks are good places to find tracks and trails, but I try to stay in the creek bed itself or even in the water if I can,” he says. “Mostly, I’m looking for trails that cross the creek.”

Wilton won’t actually walk those trails if the season is just around the corner, though. Instead, he’ll walk parallel to trails, but for only a short distance. He said he isn’t sure how much it matters, but he’d rather not take a chance.

“I like to take a copy of the satellite image when I scout new land,” he said. “For instance, if I find a trail, I can look on a map and see if thicker cover is close by. That would be a likely bedding area and something worth keeping in mind for a treestand.”

Other obvious sign like rubs are also vital to unlocking the secrets of new land, but instead of walking up to them, Wilton stays away. He keeps a pair of binoculars around his neck for examining things like rubs from a distance.

“I don’t need to walk up to a rub to verify it’s a rub if I have binoculars. I’ll scan the woods to try to determine a rub line, but I do everything I can to avoid walking all over the woods.”

Speed ScoutingFIND THE FOOD

Rub lines and trails aren’t always obvious, of course, and sometimes whitetails just seem to wander through woods with no specific mission in mind. That’s when it’s vital to find food. Crop fields are easy to scout and can be deciphered with one quick pass where field meets woods. Simply look for a concentration of tracks along the field edge or an obvious trail entering the clearing. Then look for a prime tree to hang a stand. If crops or open fields aren’t part of the landscape, search for acorns.

“You might not find acorns on the ground yet, but if you can see them in the trees, you’ll know you’ve found a food source,” Wilton adds. “That’s another reason I carry binoculars.”

BE QUICK

He doesn’t worry about scent control when he’s looking around. It’s not unusual for landowners to walk through their woods, and farmers are out day after day as they go about their business. Whitetails are used to human scent.

“I’m certainly going to worry about my scent when I’m hunting, though,” Wilton says. “Deer seem to know the difference between somebody out walking and a guy sitting in a tree with a bow in his hand. I pretend I’m just out for a walk.”

Which he is, because he doesn’t sneak through the woods. He moves with certainty, scoping out the woods as he goes. Wilton doesn’t kneel down at rubs, nor does he plow through thick cover that likely serves as a bedding area. Instead, he walks with a purpose, taking in every clue and making mental notes as he moves.

He spent just an hour or so at the 70-acre farm on his first scouting trip. That’s all the time he could take, but he was fine with that. He went back on opening day and shimmied up an oak tree he marked on his GPS during his brief scouting trip.

JUST HUNT

“I try to hang my stand in the right spot, but if I only had a short time to scout, I might not be exactly where I need to be,” he said. “It happens. That’s one reason I prefer a climbing stand. I’ll adjust and be in the right spot the next time. I use the first few hunts as scouting trips.”

That’s exactly what he did on opening day of bow season a few years ago. He spotted a big 8-pointer slipping through the trees 80 yards away on the first morning. A few days later, he moved his stand. It turned out to be a good move.

The same buck walked just 20 yards from the new setup at first light. Wilton drew his bow and touched the release. Unfortunately, he sent an arrow 2 inches over the buck’s spine. He’s not complaining, though. Wilton still hunts that farm and he’s taken quite a few deer off it, even though he had little time to learn the land.

“Never pass up an opportunity to hunt new land, even if you don’t have time to get to know it,” he said. “If I had declined that couple’s offer to hunt their land because the season was so close, I probably never would have gotten the opportunity again.”

DON’T BOTHER

Sometimes it’s best to stay out of the woods completely. That might sound crazy, but Sailor’s Creek Outfitters owner Chris McClellan says there’s no point in stomping through the woods days or even a few weeks before the season if you’ve been hunting those woods for several years.

Whitetails tend to be creatures of habit, using the same bedding areas, trails and feeding areas year after year. Hunt the same farm or forest for a few years, and those predictable patterns will begin to show.

McClellan has been hunting the same 4,000-acre southern Virginia farm for five years and has learned the ins and outs of his deer herd.

“I move some stands around, but I have spots that produce big deer every year,” he said. “There’s really no point in walking around right before the season. I know there will be another buck in certain spots every year. It’s pretty predictable. I’ll trim limbs and clear shooting lanes in the summer, but I definitely stay out of the woods right before the season.”

It doesn’t matter if you kill the biggest buck on the farm. Another one will take its place, often using the same bedding areas, trails and feeding areas the next year. What attracted that big buck will attract another one that will claim the prime bedding and feeding areas as his own.

The only thing that might change those long-time patterns is a change to the habitat itself. Logging, development or a significant change to a food source — a cornfield converted to hay, for instance — can throw whitetails off their lifelong routines. A poor acorn crop also can shift whitetail activity, but McClellan doesn’t need to walk through the woods to figure that out. He simply checks oak trees around his lodge and home. If they aren’t producing, he hunts other food sources.

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This article was published in the September 2013 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.

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Copyright 2020 by Buckmasters, Ltd