By Dana R. Rogers
You can’t adjust to changing deer patterns if you don’t have the right information.
It’s uncanny how you can scout whitetails for weeks, have every detail of their routines logged and memorized, and then one day they’re just ... gone. It’s like the whitetail rapture happened.
While it sometimes seems otherwise, deer are not four-legged Einsteins, however.
Everything they do is driven by instinct and a will to survive. Even the most subtle change in their environment or their life cycles can mean dramatic changes to their behavior.
Your challenge as a hunter is to be aware of those changes, anticipate them and to know how deer will react.
I’ve spent countless hours glassing open prairie ridges and in the woods before deer season. Those scouting sessions have allowed me to set up for, and take, many bucks.
Then, as the season went on and the deer suddenly vanished, I found the best way to get back in the action was to get back to scouting.
If you’re like me, however, you’d rather spend deer season hunting instead of scouting.
Nowadays, I’ve come to realize gathering information is an important part of every trip to the woods, including the hunts.
Glassing and scouting before the season is still an important part of my fall, but I learn a lot more about the deer I’m after while I’m hunting them.
TAKE THE GLASS
I wrote another article in this issue advocating the use of observation stands to gather information without pressuring deer.
You can’t see what deer are doing, nor identify individual bucks from such long-range setups without good optics. Don’t leave those optics at home when you head into the woods.
When things are slow in the stand or you’re just killing time until dusk, you’d be surprised how much deer sign you can find with a good set of binoculars.
I’ve picked out scrapes and rub lines that I didn’t notice from the ground, prompting me to adjust my location a few critical yards.
Even last year’s rubs can give you clues about trails bucks might use later in the season.
You can’t have too much information, and binoculars are a great tool for gathering more.
I confess to being a trail camera junkie and consider them my most important scouting tool.
One camera tells me what’s happening on a given deer trail or field edge. Multiple cameras that include locations I anticipate deer to be in the future tell a story about what is happing throughout your hunting area.
As the season progresses and food preferences change, trail cameras keep me ahead of the game.
If you know of an oak ridge where acorns have yet to fall, a trail camera can tell you when deer start to feed there.
The window to hunt food sources like dropping mast can be brief, and you don’t want to miss it. Hunting such locations when deer aren’t actively feeding there is a waste of time, however. Plan for it, and be ready to move in when the time is right.
The difficulty of having multiple cameras is the amount of pressure deer feel and scent you leave when checking them.
Place cameras where you don’t have to penetrate security cover to gather your photos. Outside edges of cover, logging roads and field edges are good choices.
Finally, don’t rely too much on your cameras. You want enough information to establish patterns and trends, but you don’t have to collect that data every day. With batteries on most cameras lasting months at a time, it’s okay to leave a camera alone to do its job.
FOLLOW THE FOOD
I can’t think of anywhere whitetails are hunted that they’re eating the same diet in the middle of hunting season that they were before the shooting started.
While it’s important to know the food sources on your property, it’s equally important to know what’s going on at your neighbor’s.
If the soybean field on your property was planted a few weeks earlier than your neighbor’s, your bean plants will lose appeal as they turn brown and lose their moisture before you neighbor’s do. Some of the deer on your property will likely move closer to the younger beans, while others will find another food source.
As a general rule, I’ve had the most early season success hunting green food sources like soybeans, winter wheat, alfalfa and clover. Deer key on mast and corn toward the middle of hunting season, while anything left in bean fields or cornfields pulls like a magnet during late season hunting.
Hard mast (acorns) and soft mast such as persimmons are like crack to whitetails, but you need to find them before they fall or ripen, and be ready to move in and hunt over them when the time is right.
If it’s October and deer suddenly quit coming into the field or food plot you’re hunting, look for a nearby mast crop.
The woods look a lot different in November than they do when most hunting seasons open in September. The habitat transforms throughout the fall, and so do deer travel routes.
In order to remain hidden, whitetails go from taking the easiest route when cover is thick to using less-exposed, often circuitous trails after the leaves have fallen.
The same is true for standing crops.
A cornfield makes a safe hiding place for months until it’s suddenly wiped out by a combine in a single afternoon. I’ve seen many cases where deer had bedding areas in standing corn. Imagine how the daily habits of the deer using those cornfield beds change when the corn disappears.
If you’re hunting in ag country, find pockets of security cover around standing crops. Even if deer aren’t using them early in the season, you can bet they’ll head to that cover when the combines start rolling.
Another factor affecting deer movement is pressure – and not just from hunters. Deer respond to outside influences from hunters, farmers, recreationists and predators.
Pay attention to the various types of pressure that affect deer in your area. If a given source of pressure is seasonal, it could affect your hunting.
We’ve already covered pressure from farm activity, and then there’s the obvious increase of hunters in the woods as gun seasons open. Much as with farm pressure, look to pockets of security cover when more hunters head afield.
We share the woods with plenty of folks who don’t hunt, too, and their activities, which often increase as temperatures cool in the fall, can affect deer habits.
An occasional person walking through with a dog, or someone trespassing on an ATV can ruin an individual hunt, but such activities are not likely to change deer patterns in the long term.
If, however, that walker and his dog begin to make a habit of their evening strolls, you’ll need to adjust to the situation, since the deer surely will.
The final key to staying in the action throughout a long deer season is a willingness to move.
I’ve seen a lot of really good hunters stick with one stand way longer than they should, even when everything they’re seeing is telling them it’s time to make a move.
Sometimes we stay with a particular stand because leaving feels like a waste of a lot of hard work.
If you’ve had a property for several years and have multiple permanent stands, that’s great. I sometimes hunt from permanent stands, but I haven’t seen many that could produce results throughout the long haul of an entire deer season.
There’s no point in continuing to scout and gather information about the deer on your property if you’re not going to use it – and using it means following the action.
Climbing treestands and ground blinds are great options for the mobile hunter, and you can move a lock-on and a set of tree steps in less than an hour.
You can hunt in the morning, eat and move your stand in the middle of the day and be back in business well before evening.
When moving stands or scouting in the middle of the day, pay strict attention to scent control. You’re going to generate sweat and stink, so be prepared to deal with it.
Take care to leave as little scent as possible while moving, and then wipe down and exchange duds before hunting that evening. You’ll need lots of scent-eliminating spray, a towel and fresh clothes.
Nothing affects buck movement more dramatically or throws deer out of their regular patterns more than the rut.
This article is not about how to hunt during the rut, but it is about knowing it’s coming and having a plan for when it begins.
Post-season scouting can tell you where a bulk of the rut activity takes place in your woods. In-season scouting tells you when rut activity picks up and where to hone in on the locations you discovered previously.
Anticipate and prepare for rut behavior so you can spend more time hunting and less time reacting.
If you find your hot spot turning cold this fall, don’t just sit there. Never stop scouting, and be ready for the next big change.
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This article was published in the October 2014 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.