Are You Scouting Smart or Just Scouting?
Ever wonder why mature bucks in heavily hunted areas are commonly sighted throughout the summer and early fall only to seemingly dissipate into thin air prior to bow season? The answer is simple, improper pre-season scouting.
In state parks, scout camps, military base’s, and non-hunting suburban areas deer roam with little fear of humans and even in heavily hunted areas it is common for farmers on tractors to have deer feeding in the same fields they are working. When there are no consequences for actions while growing to maturity there is no reason to alter those actions.
On a small parcel I hunt the elderly owner rides his bike or walks his property most every day for exercise. He consistently encounters deer and only if they are in his path do they casually bound out of his way. Their lack of fear is because his intrusions are consistent and never invoke danger. That parcel is in a square mile section that has 23 other property owners, and on opening day of season there is always a minimum of 40 bowhunters in that section. Those hunter densities are common in rural Michigan and a few other heavily hunted states such as W. Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York to name a few.
So how do mature bucks differentiate what is and is not danger? Through influxes of human activity in areas where they have had previous life threatening encounters with hunters while growing to maturity.
Think about this; other than a flurry of turkey hunting activity in the spring, most hunting areas are unmolested from January through early-fall. Then all of a sudden there is an exodus of hunters making multiple pre-season scouting ventures, after all that is what bowhunters have been programmed to do by many so-called experts.
What many hunters fail to understand is that the properties most TV and video personalities hunt are micro-managed for big bucks and receive little hunting pressure, making them gross misrepresentations of normal deer hunting conditions. Some managed areas border a grey area that I refer to as deer farming, similar to raising cattle until they are ready for market.
On such properties bucks are not targeted until they reach 3 ½ years old or older so even if the property receives some hunting pressure, that pressure has not been life threatening to the majority of bucks that reside there. So obviously multiple pre-season scouting ventures have far less affect on turning bucks nocturnal prior to season.
In heavily hunted areas bucks sporting their first set of antlers are targeted and in many areas they are targeted by hunters with doe permits while they are sporting buttons. Bucks fortunate enough to survive beyond their first antlered season have likely had negative encounters with hunters. I have never taken a 3 ½ year old or older buck in Michigan that did not have one or several previous arrow, bullet, slug, buckshot, or birdshot wounds somewhere on their body. On the flip side, of the ten 3 ½ year old and older bucks I have taken in Iowa, Kansas, Illinois, and Missouri, none of them had previous wounds.
In pressured areas hunting parcels are extremely small (5 to 40 acre parcels are most common) due to high property costs. In such areas pre-season scouting should focus on setting up a couple locations for the first few days of season and this should be done in one full day, not multiple mornings or evenings. Multiple excursions will lower the possibility of taking of a mature deer.
The million-dollar question is, how do you set-up on pressured whitetails without them knowing and reacting to it?
The best plan is to wait until there is inclement weather such as heavy rain or strong winds, both of which will reduce your odds of being detected. Deer movements during inclement weather such as heavy rains and high winds are minimal, and the noises you make while moving through the woods, cutting shooting lanes and preparing trees will be masked. Human odors will also dissipate quicker than during calm weather.
If your scouting can’t be done during inclement weather, do it during midday between the hours of 10 and 4pm when deer are least likely to be up and moving.
Pre-season scouting gear
- Climbing safety belt (trees are very slippery when wet). I exclusively use my Ambush saddle for both preparing trees and hunting from.
- Long bladed (about 14 inch) sierra tooth hand saw with belt sheath (cost $10 to $20).
- 30 feet of ¼ inch nylon rope for pulling up extension saw or fixed stands.
- A single extension (up to 16 feet) tree trimming saw with pull-rope side-cutter (cost $30 to $50).
- Reflective tacks ($4 for 50) for marking your entries and exits in the dark.
- Aerial photo’s off the internet of yours and all surrounding properties. These will give you an overview of where deer may be entering, exiting, or passing through your property from the neighboring properties
An activated carbon suit, carbon gloves, and rubber boots are recommended whenever pre-season scouting to keep odors to an absolute minimum.
What to look for
In heavily hunted areas bucks that survive beyond their first set of antlers are rarities and make up a very small percentage of the buck population. In some areas in my home state bucks reaching the ripe old age of 3 ½ years or older make up less than 1% of the areas antlered buck population. To target these bucks you must scout for areas that offer security cover during their transition between bedding and feeding areas. Setting up in open areas as seen on TV and in video’s just doesn’t get it and will rarely have positive results.
When scouting state land in high hunter density states I have one standing rule. If you can access your eventual hunting location without having to use waders, hip boots, a canoe, a boat, or having to crawl through dense brush for some distance, you will have company and your odds of taking a mature buck will be near zero.
The ideal find would be locating a single or small group of trees that are dropping preferred fruit or mast such as apples and acorns, and have them located within perimeter security cover and accessible by the deer through transition cover. Look for a defined destination area, not a large area of the same food source where deer do not have to gravitate to your specific location. The smaller the destination area, the more likely you are to receive a shot opportunity.
If there is a large area of oaks on the property, look for the white oaks. Deer prefer their acorns over all others due to their lower levels of tannins, which is the substance that gives acorns their bitter taste. White oaks are identified by the rough bark all the way up the tree and the rounded lobes on their leaves. If you find a white oak loaded with acorns, and it offers security cover, set-up a location.
Location though, is often more important than the type of oak, as mature deer will feed on less preferred acorns during daylight hours if they offer better cover.
Most deer will stop at preferred fruit and mast trees before moving on to more exposed food sources after dark, and conversely they will be the last stop in the morning before bedding. When the apple or acorn crop is small there will be additional competition for what falls each day.
During pre-season the perimeters of short crop fields such as wheat stubble, hay, and soybeans will likely be signposted with rubs and an occasional scrape, but this activity in pressured areas by mature bucks rarely takes place during shooting hours. However, subordinate 1 ½ year old bucks can be targeted along field edges.
If you find heavy sign in the form of runways or a rub-line leading into a short crop field, set-up a minimum of 30 yards off the fields edge. There is a chance that a mature buck may pass by and stage close to the field edge prior to entering it after dark.
Signposting along the perimeter of a standing cornfield is quite different. Standing corn offers immediate cover and it is common for deer to bed in corn and feel comfortable moving in and out of it in areas where it borders transition cover.
It is extremely rare in pressured areas that a buck can be sighted and patterned from a road without intervention from other hunters. However, if the opportunity presents itself, note the exact location where the buck comes out. Several evening observations will be required to make sure his entry location is consistent.
Just prior to season go in and set-up a location on his entry route. Only clear out one shooting lane to that identifiable runway. Make your set-up as quick and subtle as possible and get out, do not walk in the woods any farther than the set-up requires. It is common prior to season for deer to bed close to their feeding area and not in the dense bedding areas they are forced into during season.
In states where the season opener is in October most bucks will have shed their velvet, so rub-lines or clusters of rubs can be fantastic locations. If you wait until late September to make your scouting run you will likely find rubs between known bedding and feeding areas. When setting up near a bedding area set-up far enough away so as not to spook deer with your entrance on evening hunts. Unmolested deer prior to season will often bed near the edge of their bedding area.
It’s difficult to determine the exact size and shape of buck antlers by a rub, however there are clues that indicate antler characteristics and a bucks size.
Subordinate buck rubs will usually be 20 to 30 inches off the ground. As bucks age they become taller and their rubs are higher off the ground. When I started hunting in low hunter density states where 3 ½ year old and older bucks are common I had a difficult time relating to the 36 to 48 inch height of some of the rubs I found.
Subordinate bucks will rub on small diameter saplings and trees, whereas larger racked bucks will generally rub on larger trees and occasionally bushes often thrashing them until they are reduced to bunch of busted stubs.
Bucks with tall tines will leave puncture marks well above the main rub area. Tine marks on trees or branches within eight inches on either side indicate a wide racked or tall tined buck. Shredded bark in the main rub area indicates a buck with heavily pearling (small points near base of rack).
When setting-up any location after bucks are rubbed out, active rub activity near your hunting site is a guarantee it is receiving known buck activity.
Scrapes made prior to season are territorial and dominance signposts made by mature bucks with at least one breeding season behind them, making them rare finds in pressured areas. Pre and early season scrapes will most frequently be found near food sources where there is consistent doe traffic. If you locate a scrape area or scrapes along a defined runway, and the area offers security cover, set-up a hunting location.
If there are several scrapes in a large area, set-up within shooting distance of the one with the most utilized licking branches over it because it is getting revisited the most. Active scrape areas have consistently proven to be my most productive locations over the past twenty years.
After your locations are set-up leave the area alone. Do not even think about setting foot in the property until you are ready to hunt. Additional visits will alter patterns and likely any early season opportunities.
Heavy hunting pressure and small parcels equate to many hunters pursuing the same mature buck within his core living area. Therefore, there is an excellent possibility that the pre-season scouting ventures of other hunters in the area will turn him nocturnal prior to season. You can not worry about things that are out of your control, perform your pre-season scouting regiment correctly and maybe that buck will feel more comfortable living on or moving through your hunting property.
Editors note: To enrich your bowhunting skills John Eberhart produced a 3 volume instructional DVD series titled “Bowhunting Pressured Whitetails” and an instructional archery DVD titled “Archery Mechanics” and co-authored with his son Chris the books “Precision Bowhunting” and “Bowhunting Pressured Whitetails” They are available at: deer-john.net