Just like the rut, scouting has phases that come together to complete the process.
“Patience is bitter, but its fruits are sweet.” — Jean-Jacques Rousseau
I view seasonal scouting as an event leading up to a promising hunt — something to be savored, much like a bowl of homemade soup. Unfortunately, most hunters view scouting a lot differently. They seem to head for the woods with little forethought and no game plan. But all of the successful hunters I know scout with a purpose. They generally know where they’re going and what they’re looking for.
The Lay of the Land
Now’s the best time to get your ducks — make that bucks — in a row. Assuming you’ve already used maps to find potential security cover and feeding areas — and travel corridors connecting the two — it’s time to visit them firsthand. I suggest naming each potential stand location and making a “milk run” from one to the next and so on. This is not the time to begin any site or access preparation. Get a feel for the overall lay of the land. Then, and only then, can you understand how deer form their daily routes. Telemetry studies have repeatedly shown that deer prefer linear travel patterns.
This milk-run concept is a nifty trick I learned from fishing walleye tournaments. The key is as much about getting around efficiently and choosing each spot effectively as it is learning the spots and eliminating the less-promising ones. Visualize yourself in the middle of the hunting season with the weather forecast calling for a wind shift. Suddenly you’re forced to consider alternative hunting areas, and that means different access routes and, quite possibly, a change in scenery if the weather becomes temperamental. Point being, this is a good time of year to pre-plan to help eliminate the pressure of last-minute guessing. It all goes back to the theme of this article series — scouting with a purpose.
The first thing I look for when ranking a list of hotspots is how the wind responds to terrain features in the immediate vicinity. You can’t assume, for instance, that a steady northwest wind will always blow true from that direction. Slight elevation changes can cause the airwaves and thermals to bend and reshape. Be sure to bring a along good wind detector and use it often. Besides wind direction, note time of day and cloud cover, because some local currents are a function of differentials in warming and cooling (sunlit areas vs. shady areas). Take along a shirt-pocket notebook and record your findings for each site. Don’t leave out a single detail.
A GPS can help. Name each spot in such a way that you won’t get mixed up come hunting season. I used to get confused about which stand was which when I numbered them; then I learned to name them. “Crooked Oak” and “Split Maple” are a lot easier to visualize than “No. 11” or “No. 13.”
While handheld GPS units are handy for pinpointing and returning to key spots, don’t forget about their plotter function. Once you’ve determined a “definite maybe,” take it a step further and use your GPS to define and record the best route in and out of the area. Then, when you return to hunt, all you have to do is turn on the plotter and follow your electronic trail.
The final step in learning the lay of the land is getting a feel for what noted bowhunter Myles Keller calls the Big Picture. “It doesn’t sound very [intelligent], but you really need to start thinking like a deer,” he said. What Keller is talking about are the classic subtle details that whitetails take for granted. These include: Where’s the handiest cover? The safest cover? The closest nutritional food source? The most nutritional food source? The best food source for daylight hours? For after dark? Answer these questions and you’ll begin to get a sixth sense for where deer travel and when they do it. Only then can you arrange effective stand locations sandwiched between bedding and feeding areas.
The transition zone provides my favorite ambush sites. Two years ago, I arrowed a tall 8-pointer that, without such a strategy, likely would have eluded me. I still recall the day the light bulb flipped on. There was a steep slope with a creek cascading down the hillside that somewhat limited deer movement to several crossings. I knew the deer were bedding about 2/3 of the way up the slope toward the west and feeding after dark in a field to the east. I’d tried to hunt below the bedding area and just off the field, but to no avail. Then I switched to a finger that overlooked a pair of distant creek crossings — I prefer to stay high whenever possible to keep my scent out of bottomlands. It worked to a T. On the second morning, the buck tried to sneak past me, but a Montec three-blade in the boiler room ended a frustrating hunt on a high note.
Connecting the Dots
The next step is to back off and adopt another Keller concept: the “observation stand.” His modus operandi is refraining from diving into the most promising areas until he’s sure they will produce sightings of daytime bucks. He inches closer as the season progresses, gathering valuable clues along the way. “It’s almost always a big mistake to sit on top of fresh rubs and hot scrapes right away,” he says. “You need to know how and when a buck approaches these areas before you hunt them. Otherwise, you could easily end up blowing the spot and putting that buck on the defensive.”
In other words, by hunting secondary stand sites ringing the edges of prime deer habitat — such as fence lines, tree lines, brushy creeks and draws — you can further refine how best to hunt each potential area. Plus, it’s an excellent early-season “scout-hunting” tactic that produces results more than you’d expect. It’s no wonder Keller has numerous “observation bucks” hanging gracefully in his trophy room. So be sure to map out as many observation sites as possible as you complete your scouting regimen.
I can’t leave this subject without relating the story of my first record-book buck, a Nebraska 150-inch 8-pointer with perfectly matching stickers. By the all buck sign, partner Gale Verbeck knew there were some very nice bucks in the area, but we had a difficult time determining where they were bedding. I started my morning hunts by setting up in some cover near one of the food plots that the DNR had established in a waterfowl refuge. I didn’t see anything. Just as important, I didn’t learn anything, either.
Meanwhile, Verbeck somehow managed to get a glimpse of “my” 8-pointer heading for a distant willow thicket that rimmed the outlet of a nearby reservoir. At least we knew where the deer were heading, even though we couldn’t predict exactly how they’d get there. Taking Keller’s advice, I set up a portable treestand where, if nothing else, I could watch a huge opening between the willows and the woods. On my third sitting, I ended up arrowing a great buck at a spot that didn’t seem to make any sense — out in the open, overlooking “weeds.”
Sharpening the Focus: Candid Camera
No discussion on scouting can be complete without including what many consider the ultimate hunting accessory ever invented — the trail camera. We’re now ready for this stage. If you haven’t invested in one, consider doing so sooner rather than later. The good news is that, like all electronic gadgetry, prices are dropping and performance is improving. Even entry-level units will do a nice job and yield instant dividends.
Scouting with a trail camera is a two-step process. The first step is determining deer density and herd quality. This knowledge opens many doors. For example, knowing approximate deer numbers tells you how aggressive you can get during the rut (lots of deer means less competition for does, for example.) Also, there’s no sense passing on a 140-class buck when no 150- or better bucks show up on camera.
For me, first-step camera scouting begins at popular crossings and visitation sites: creek crossings, secluded ponds and natural mineral deposits. Or you might get lucky and find a community scrape that deer of all ages and both sexes visit frequently.
The next phase of scouting with trail cameras is often overlooked, even by savvy deer hunters. My friend Kyle Freeman has this down pat. Instead of hopscotching cameras throughout the deer woods, he uses them to monitor specific trails. “Last year, my brother and I arrowed some monster deer simply by finding out when the bucks started using key trails during the daytime,” he told me. “Prior to that, they would show up after dark, so I hunted elsewhere [so as not to] burn the spot out. But the second time I caught my buck on camera at 3:00 [in the afternoon] I was in my stand on the very next day. That third day was the charm.” Narrow down the trails so you can pick specific trees. You might have to do this during the hunting season, but if that’s what it takes to score, so be it.
Scouting is fun. Scouting can be easy. But there’s no sense scouting without a purpose. Keep these specific objectives in mind, stick to them religiously, and you’ll take a lot of the luck factor out of your hunting.
This article was published in the August 2007 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.