The best time to scout is immediately after deer season.
Many of us spend summers scouting for deer and preparing for fall. We hang treestands, use trail cameras and put in food plots. Then, just before deer season, we trim runways, trees and shooting lanes.
Although doing all of these things in summer seems to make sense, there’s a better way. Try scouting after the fact.
Michigan hunter John Eberhart spends a lot of his time chasing bucks in the heavily pressured woods of his home state. Michigan has more deer hunters per square mile than almost every other state in the nation. To be successful in Michigan, you have to hunt smarter.
Eberhart forgoes preseason scouting and focuses his efforts on the post-season. The reason? He doesn’t want to let big bucks know he’s about to occupy his stands.
“A majority of guys do their scouting no sooner than a month before the bow season opens in Michigan,” he said. “While scouting, they leave a lot of odor behind in the woods. When the deer get a whiff, they go on high alert and immediately begin to avoid that area during daylight.
“Just think how much odor and disruption is caused when a hunter trims shooting lanes, hangs a few treestands and puts out a scouting camera,” he continued. “Deer that are always under pressure won’t tolerate this type of activity.”
Eberhart prefers to scout after hunting season closes.
“There are several reasons I scout after the season,” he said. “I don’t really have to worry about spooking big bucks because the season is months away. I don’t have to worry about human odor, disrupting a bedding area or jumping deer. All I have to worry about during the post season is finding what I am looking for, which is fresh sign. I can scout an area 30 days in a row after deer season and not hurt anything.”
Another reason Eberhart focuses his efforts on the post season is because all the deer sign is fresh.
“Finding rut sign like scrapes and rubs from the previous year in the middle of August is extremely difficult,” he said. “It is like trying to find a needle in a haystack because there is so much foliage on the trees. When I scout after the season, scrapes, rubs, licking branches and runways are easy to spot. This is also when I am looking for new bedding areas and travel corridors.”
When scouting new areas, Eberhart looks for secluded food sources.
“I always try to find that lone apple tree among a stand of pines, or a white oak in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “I love hunting over small secluded food sources that other hunters haven’t noticed. When I find such locations, I often hunt in a tree nearby. Mature bucks often put scrapes near or under an apple tree and feed there when the trees bear fruit.”
Eberhart hunts some of the same areas every year, so many of his spots don’t require much work. However, when he scouts somewhere new, it’s time to go to work.
“One reason I scout after the fact is because I can trim branches, clear shooting lanes, look things over and do what I want,” he said. “By the time deer season opens, they have long forgotten what I did. I hunt around bedding areas a lot, so if I disrupt an area, it isn’t a big deal if I am prepping a place in March.”
The post season is also when many of the better hunters secure permission for new locations.
“Getting permission to hunt private land has been one of the keys to my success over the years,” Eberhart said. “I am always on the lookout for new property, and I start knocking on doors shortly after deer season closes. Many guys wait until a week or two before the season opens. By then, most farms have been leased, or other guys have permission to hunt there. By asking in February or March, I get first crack. This also gives me plenty of time to scout and prepare a new property if I get permission.”
Eberhart admits he does a tiny bit of preseason scouting. He calls it speed scouting.
“I check all the fruit trees and hard mast trees and see which ones have fruit,” he said. “This allows me to know which areas to hunt. I usually check all of my locations in one day. I prepare just like I’m hunting, wear my Scent-Lok suit and rubber boots and get in and out as fast as possible. The biggest mistake many hunters make is leaving too much scent in the woods only days before they plan to hunt. Just before the season starts, the last thing I want to do is alert the deer.”
MAKE YOUR MARK
Doug Benefield owns Illinois Connection Outfitters in famous Pike County and offers hunts on more than 16,000 acres of private land.
Scouting that much ground and hanging hundreds of stands is incredibly time consuming.
To make sure he has enough quality setups ready for the next deer season, Benefield does a lot of post-season scouting.
“Everyone should scout after the season to see what bucks survived,” he said. “I sit over food plots and see what comes to dinner. Trail cameras help, but I’ve established many new setups I wouldn’t have discovered if I hadn’t been there in person after deer season.
“I can really see which runways were used between bedding and feeding areas,” he continued. “I use marking tape and hang it in a tree near the best trails. That allows me to know exactly where to hang a stand, even though the spot might not look like much when I come back in the summer.”
Everything said about exploring private land goes double for public tracts, except maybe the use of flagging tape.
“When the leaves are off the trees, I can really see the lay of the land, how the deer use the land and where all the ridges, bedding areas and feeding areas are,” Benefield said. “It is almost like looking at a topo map or an aerial photo, only better.”
Eberhart has taken several big bucks off anyman’s land in Michigan. When post-season scouting on public tracts, he follows one strict rule.
“When hunting public land, I won’t even consider a spot unless I have to crawl to the location, wear hip boots or cross water via boat or canoe,” he said. “A spot that offers easy access is going to have a lot of hunting pressure. Most hunters aren’t willing to work hard to get to a remote location.”
The bottom line is scouting and hunting mature whitetails is like trying to put together the pieces of a very large puzzle. When the foliage is off the trees and all the sign is fresh, fitting those pieces together is a lot easier.
Although you’re probably tired when the season ends, strap on your boots a few more times and get ready for next year’s hunt.
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This article was published in the Winter 2013 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.