In order to find mature deer, you have to look for mature deer. Here’s how to do it.
By Rick Sapp
‘We’ve gotten it right … and wrong,’ says nationally recognized white-tailed deer and turkey hunter Tim Hooey. ‘Effective scouting is a year-round deer hunting activity, but the way our generation has been taught to go about it actually causes more harm than it answers practical questions about deer behavior.’
Michigan’s Tim Hooey says that scouting for deer is a year-round activity.
“Well, what’s new about that?” you ask.
For one thing, Hooey contends the so-called experts who tell us we need to get outside and poke around in the deer woods every month of the year could not possibly be more wrong.
You do not have to be a rocket scientist to see a contradiction in his approach to finding deer.
Nevertheless, Hooey maintains he has a scouting program that will not only help you be a better and more effective hunter, but also will dramatically increase your chances of taking home a mature deer.
According to Hooey, there are six phases to effective scouting for mature deer:
1) Forget where you are hunting now.
2) Identify your true hunting zone.
3) Gather information from local sources.
4) Make and use a working map.
5) Do focused pre-season scouting.
6) Do boots-on-the-ground hunting with purpose.
So what’s wrong with how we are scouting now?
Practically every article you read, and most seminar speakers, tell you to get into the deer woods every month or at least a couple of times each season. You are supposed to look for changes in deer patterns, check out food sources, hunt for shed antlers and so on.
Phooey, says Hooey!
Blundering around in the deer woods trying to pick up useful information by osmosis is a waste of time, and it disturbs the deer and causes them to alter their routine. In other words, they become harder to hunt. Hooey says that if you scout his way, you will find plenty of antlers before deer drop them!
According to him, most hunters visiting their deer woods fail to look for anything other than trails, rubs and scrapes. He says that if you go to the woods without specific questions to answer, you won’t notice the miscellaneous deer sign imperative when hunting mature bucks.
Now, before you read a line further, Hooey wants you to accept and believe two fundamental principles of effective scouting: Mature deer live in your hunting neighborhood, and you can hunt them successfully.
Now, let’s go find them.
Forget where you are hunting now. If you want to put mature deer on the wall, first look critically at your current hunting spots. Are you hunting an area because it is convenient? Or are you there because it is the very best possible place you can find within your natural hunting zone to harvest a mature deer? If you are spending time on stand for any reason other than the last, you’re wasting time, money and energy.
Identify your true hunting zone. How far are you willing to travel to arrive at your deer stand no later than half an hour before shooting light? Figure that the alarm goes off at 4 a.m. and that you’re out of the house within half an hour. If you drive an hour and then it takes another half an hour to get set up at your stand, it is 6 a.m.
Unless it is the middle of winter, it is already daylight and that is too late. Either drive a shorter distance or set the alarm for 3:30. Do the math and decide what it is going to be.
Your true hunting zone is a wide circle around your home. It is an outer limit that puts you quietly (and safely) in your stand at least 30 to 45 minutes before legal shooting time.
So, find a good map and, with a compass, draw a circle maybe 40 miles around your house. You will be amazed at how much potential hunting territory this circumscribes. How does 5,024 square miles sound? Unless you live in Hawaii or Death Valley, there will surely be dozens of big, mature whitetails living in an area that big.
Because you can practically cover an area only 40 yards out from your stand, which is about 16/10,000 of your possible hunting area, it is important to get this right.
Gather information from local sources. We have been brainwashed to believe that if we are not tromping around in our hunting territory, we are not scouting. Very little truly effective scouting involves walking through your immediate hunting area. Remember, you are not looking for just any place to hunt; you only want the best place to hunt.
To find the best place, talk to people who have more information than you do. After all, you are a parent and spouse, an accountant or school teacher. You are a part-time predator who hunts alone, even though you may go to the field with a friend. To be successful, enlist the assistance of specialists like taxidermists, sporting goods salesmen and local outdoors writers and editors. Your job is to organize and understand the information they share. In other words, assemble your own hunting pack.
Why not start now on your list of people who can help you? Talk to anyone who has taken a mature deer. Attend seminars. Check the Internet. Drop by the local office of your state department of natural resources. This is all true scouting at its most efficient and effective. Learn what they know and how their knowledge – whether statistical or anecdotal or by sheer circumstance – can help you. Every time you make this effort, you will learn something that will put you closer to mature deer. Guaranteed.
Make and use a working map. Hooey believes that keeping a small, but current notebook is the key to becoming a deer detective. If you write down your observations and the information you hear from your network, you will remember and be able to put this data to good use. Otherwise, you just think you will remember.
Begin with a map of your true hunting zone. A county plat map is available at the courthouse, town hall or property appraiser’s office. As you read local outdoor tabloids and gather information from your contacts, take notes (later) and refer to your map.
During this phase, you will be attracted to particular places. It might be something a taxidermist said about Bill Smith’s Lofton Creek Buck or that he had never mounted a big deer from Smith County. Or perhaps it was when you asked the editor of your state’s outdoors magazine about deer lures, and he said that when he saw all those antlers down in old man Johnson’s slough he was using doe-in-heat lure.
As a couple of areas become increasingly attractive, it is time to rent a low-and-slow airplane to fly over them and take pictures. Expect to pay $100 an hour. If you split the cost with a friend, an hour or two ought to be affordable and all you need. Fly around midday. A little shadow is excellent to help you see the relief below, but morning and evening present long, distorting shadows. Use a haze filter.
Review with your pilot exactly what you want to accomplish and the exact area you need to cover. You have specific objectives; accomplishing them will make your money extremely well spent. (Government agricultural agencies will have photos, but they are often years out of date.)
Do focused pre-season scouting. Now, assemble your information into a coherent plan and drive the roads around your prospective hunting areas. From the maps, aerial photos, observations from the car and discussions with folks in the immediate vicinity, you will learn everything you need to know about what deer are eating, and that is the key. From the configuration of the woods and layout of fields, ditches, fences, woodlots and roads, you will learn a great deal about their travel routes and should be able to make an informed guess about where they are bedding.
Terrain features are exceptionally important clues to deer movement. When Hooey puts together what he sees from the air with what he sees on the ground, and what he has learned from informed contacts, he always arrives at clues to best possible hunting spots.
A spider web nexus suddenly stands out. For example, a deep and overgrown ditch with a fence-line angling across it emerges as an important connector between woods and a sheltered corn field. This nexus was probably barely distinguishable on the ground and impossible to understand completely from the air.
This is not the time to become shy, by the way. Let folks know you are looking for a place to bowhunt. Knock on doors. What are farmers planting and in which field? Is the landowner harvesting timber on his woodlots? Do other people already hunt there? Allow your natural friendliness and your responsible nature to shine.
As you follow these steps, one or two strong candidates for “best all around” hunting area will emerge. However, the final selection may depend on factors that are not in your control. Perhaps a club has leased the land, the landowner has made a commitment to his brother-in-law or you are not drawn in the zone lottery. But the beauty of the year-round interview-map-talk-and-drive scouting system is that you will have several alternate locations. One of them will work for you.
Do boots-on-the-ground hunting with purpose. You can determine your hunting area and may have a good idea for a stand from the above five phases of effective scouting without ever entering the deer woods. Nevertheless, you cannot be certain of the details until you slip into the woods and mark your setup. But you already know where to park to best approach evening and hunting stands. You already know the prevailing wind direction. You already know what the deer are eating.
The final phase is the time to identify the tree (or trees) if you are treestand hunting or the open spot on the forest floor for your ground blind. Now is the time to clearly mark your path and perform the most careful trimming for clear shooting lanes.
Occasionally, you must make more than one scouting trip to determine the lay of the land under the forest canopy. Never try to walk a grid through the woods as some writers suggest; this is impossible, exhausting and worthless. Go to the woods only to answer specific questions. How will deer move on opening day? What will they eat when snow is on the ground? Where can you intercept them between their feeding and bedding zones?
Because deer are wild creatures that do not act according to strict schedules, which can be influenced by forces beyond their control – a storm front, a lost hound, a poacher, a new sub-division – the plan you develop while scouting must be flexible. You might need to react quickly. If you have scouted effectively, you can move 10 yards or 10 miles with the confidence that mature deer will move inside your effective shot range this season.
This article was published in the July 2005 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.