Have a plan when heading to the woods in the off season.
I was frustrated. I’d seen a great buck during the early fall while scouting. Setting up on him, I came close twice, but not close enough. Then, he vanished. With the rut approaching quickly, I was worried.
Knowing I needed to make a change, I began to scour the 60-acre woodlot. If the buck had left my area, I was sure one of the other hunters would have seen him and let me know.
Finally, after two days of scouting, I decided the buck was feeding on acorns. I thought I had found the perfect spot to get him.
Returning several days later, I put up a stand and began to hunt. Twice more, I scouted and moved stands. I never saw the buck again.
It wasn’t until spring that I realized what happened. Looking up the ridge, I spotted a large rub in the now open woods. At the ridge point, an 8-foot wall of rock dropped to a small ledge. Right next to the rub was a large bed that had been worn to the dirt. Looking down through the woods below, it suddenly made sense. From the safety of his bed, the buck had watched me scout. He might have even watched as I put up my stands. I had been my own worst enemy.
That unfortunate tale occurred many years ago, but I’ve yet to forget its lesson: Most forms of scouting are a double-edged sword.
Sure, scouting is key to keeping up with bucks. However, you also risk ruining your hunting spot by educating deer. Striking the proper balance between knowledge gathering and low impact is the key to smart scouting.
The longer I chase mature bucks, the more I’m convinced the days between the end of deer season and spring green-up are the best time to get to know your hunting land and the deer on it. All the rut sign from the previous year is still visible, the woods are void of leafy growth and there’s a general lack of biting insects.
The other significant advantage is you don’t have to worry about spooking the bucks you’ll be hunting. If you use common sense, any deer disturbed by your activity will have long forgotten you by the fall hunting seasons.
This is the time of year to do your all-out, boots-on-the-ground work. As was the case in my story, checking virtually every foot of land can uncover vital pieces to the puzzle.
When scouting after deer season, pay particular attention to the most heavily used scrapes. These scrapes are the whitetail world’s equivalent to billboards, meant to advertise information to the masses. Unless something significant changes or the licking branch is destroyed, the best scrapes occur in the same locations year after year.
The great thing about post-season scouting is it gives you the chance to see how much attention a scrape received. A majority of scrapes are made and forgotten. When finding a fresh fall scrape, it’s hard to predict if it will turn into a table-topper. However, the overall size and bowl-shaped appearance of the most heavily worked scrapes removes any doubt, and you can pick them out easily in the off-season.
Unfortunately, very few mature bucks work field-edge scrapes during daylight. The best scrapes to hunt are almost always back in the cover, near either buck or doe bedding areas.
Using the post-season to find the best scrapes and prepare stand sites to hunt them can radically increase scrape hunting success. It enables you to stay out of the area until the peak scraping phase, when odds of experiencing daylight visits from a big buck are higher.
Of course, the post-season should also be used to find funnels, bedding areas, rubs, food sources and general travel patterns, too.
Unfortunately, no matter how hard you try, there will be times when post-season scouting isn’t an option or doesn’t produce the desired results. Wasting the season over concerns of spooking deer is as bad as driving them nocturnal.
As much as we preach against spooking deer, it isn’t always the kiss of death. I believe spooking a mature buck once while scouting is most often okay. It’s when you do it more than once that things start going south.
A good example was a Wisconsin buck I took some years back. While observing a farm, I kept seeing the same 10-pointer entering the fields in the two valleys flanking a wooded ridge. Since he was entering at or just after last light, I knew getting closer to his bedding area was my best bet.
Strapping two stands to my back, I headed up the ridge to make my sets. Connecting some rubs and faint trails, I found two beds he used. Setting up the stands, I did very little trimming, kept the disturbance to a minimum and got out. Even though I was extra careful, I was sure the fleeing deer I heard was the big 10-pointer. The large, steaming droppings by one of the beds enforced my fear.
Returning a week later, my scouting and observations paid off. I arrowed the buck just as the sun began to set.
Although hunts rarely work out so neatly, one thing that one taught me is bumping a buck from his bed once isn’t a game-ender. However, there is a limit to what a buck will put up with. If you don’t want a buck to know he’s being hunted, get in, get everything done and get out. At most, visit an area twice to scout and prep stands, but one time is better.
Contour maps and aerial photos can help. With a little practice, you can find potential bedding areas, travel routes and funnels before stepping into the woods. Eventually, you will have to visit the area in person, but maps and photos can give you a game plan and keep you from blindly wandering around. You can also use maps and photos to select the lowest impact route into and from these locations to further minimize disturbance.
When possible, use rain to your advantage. While it’s no fun to be in the woods during rain, a good soaking rain does a wonderful job of washing away tell-tale odors. If you can plan your scouting just ahead of a storm, the deer might not know you were ever there.
Finally, no scouting article would be complete without mentioning trail cameras and roadside observation. I covered both in the August issue’s “5 Keys to Early Season Bucks.” Contact Buckmasters Customer Service if you missed that issue. Both cameras and observation can be used throughout the hunting season, but a majority of scouting should be completed by the time you head out with your weapon of choice.
Ultimately, striking a balance between gathering information and minimizing disturbance is the key to smart scouting. Your most powerful weapon isn’t your bow or your gun, it’s your brain. Don’t be afraid to use it.
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