Not all deer season preparation is created equal.
At precisely 5 a.m. on Oct. 1, 1988, Craig Krisher climbed into his treestand in Pennsylvania farm country.
It had become a familiar spot, one in which the then 25-year-old bowhunter had spent other dawns during previous months. The homemade stand and surrounding acreage had become familiar territory, much of the reason Krisher was filled with confidence that “this would be the day.”
It was no colossal surprise when, shortly after a gray sunrise, a monster buck moved down a trail tramped into a nearly impenetrable thicket. Krisher had seen the same deer at various places and distances for the past four months, accounting for a total of nearly two dozen encounters. On three occasions, remaining frozen so his presence would not be betrayed, Krisher glimpsed the big buck as it moved past the stand. He and his lifelong friend and hunting companion Vince Fugazzotto, also age 25, had captured the velvet-antlered buck on film and videotape six weeks earlier, verifying other sites the 23-pointer had visited.
While Krisher awaited sunrise, Fugazzotto followed suit, hunched in another treestand several hundred yards away, also hoping that some opening-day luck would result in a once-in-a-lifetime bow-range shot.
It wasn’t just seeing the deer that spiked their confidence. Their marathon scouting trips had revealed some important clues the men were using. One was locating the behemoth’s bedding area, which it shared with other bucks. Its morning retreat almost always followed one of several well worn trails, among them the Apple Tree Route. For reasons obvious to any dedicated hunter, little of the friends’ excitement was shared with others known to hunt the area.
Back to the Apple Tree
Krisher had arrived at the apple tree, his stand already in place, well before sunrise via a small brook running past the tree. On many other mornings, he and Fugazzotto had relinquished the comfort of warm beds to get into the woods to seek more clues during what had become a marathon scouting effort. It was part of the price the friends paid to pattern movement of the 23-point whitetail. Krisher was confident that it would be passing by one of the stands between 6:15 and 6:45, as it had on the other mornings they had seen it.
But on this morning — the Pennsylvania archery season opener — the buck was a bit late. At 6:50, Krisher heard something move in the shallow gully. Through a drizzly mist, he readied to draw on the magnificent creature that had dominated his thoughts for months.
The shot was almost anticlimactic. At 12 yards, the buck paused to sniff a curiosity scent pad the hunter had placed in the narrow path. The shot was perfect, and the buck toppled after only a 30-yard sprint.
At that moment, the Pennsylvania non-typical bow record also fell. Following the mandatory 60-day drying period for Pope and Young, it would score 204 5/8, providing Krisher and his companion their reward for more than 100 hours of pre-season scouting.
A Little Beats Nothing
While not every hunter has the drive and wherewithal necessary to preview their hunting grounds to the degree exhibited by Krisher and Fugazzotto, this success story proves that scouting plays a definite role in hunting success. Some hunters are satisfied to learn the locations of bedding areas and favored feeding sites and little more. Time and the distance from their homes to the places they hunt often dictate only cursory pre-season visits. Yet, “a little beats nothing,” says an avid bowhunter from my hometown. Most of us who take scouting seriously focus on deer numbers. Others search for big bucks, and a few, like Krisher and Fugazzotto, pattern specific trophy animals.
Unless you live close to your hunting grounds and can spare mornings before work and then take advantage of daylight remaining after punching the time clock, establishing a dossier on a specific deer might be futile. Truth is, most hunters can afford only a few hours of pre-season scouting time.
So what’s the recipe for making the most of those scouting hours?
Following are 10 items that should be on your scouting menu.
The first scouting essential is simple observation. Krisher and Fugazzotto first caught sight of the record book buck by cruising back roads and observing feeding deer, and then taking inventory of both buck and doe numbers. They began their quest in mid-June, well ahead of the hunting season. In June, deer are relatively undisturbed and base their daily schedules on filling their bellies and moving back and forth to their bedding areas. The camo-clad men noted the 23-pointer also frequented areas as far as 11⁄2 miles apart and was sighted along with other bucks few of us would turn down.
2) Change of Menu
As food sources change and farm crops mature from spring through fall, deer will expand their feeding areas. The bowhunters first noted whitetail activity in alfalfa and clover fields and later in maturing corn and soybean fields. Oak ridges also provide some enticement in mid- to late summer. When acorns drizzle down in late summer and early fall, they attract deer like magnets. Locate oak-rich tracts as a backup plan when the season progresses.
3) Mock Hunts
Spend a few hours afield with a friend, spouse or kid to gain valuable information on deer activity and behavior. Leave the guns and bows at home. It’s a great way to host and teach a young hunter what scouting discipline is all about. On such outings, binoculars and a spotting scope are necessary. Magnified views will allow you to identify individual deer and note travel and exit routes without stepping foot in the area. A few hours on a mock hunt is time well spent.
4) Finders Keepers
Once you locate a few bucks, the next order of business is a closer look at any “keepers” — that means focusing attention on the big guys. Of course, what’s a keeper buck for you might not score as such for your hunting companion. Big bucks can leave distinctive tracks. Krisher and Fugazzotto noted the specific spots where their buck was seen via a close up study revealing a cleft hoof on its right front foot. The distinctive hoof print and impressions in mud or soft soil enabled them to backtrack the buck to its general bedding area over a span of a week or two. Finding such clues is best done following a light rain, which helps reveal fresh tracks and other obvious sign.
5) Tracking the Bachelors
While it’s time consuming, tracking a group of bachelor bucks from feeding areas to bedding sites often reveals more than one notable trophy. On the morning Krisher made his kill, Fugazzotto spotted a big 9-pointer, one of a handful of bucks that traveled together well into September and were still in one another’s general company on the season opener. As the warm days of September yield to October’s chill, many of these bachelor groups break up as dominance is established and the rut gets under way.
6) Buck Barometers
Of course, traditional buck barometers — rising numbers of rubs and scrapes — are among the easiest of deer sign to locate. Depending on the rut period in a particular area, which can occur as early as mid October in South Carolina to late January in Alabama, fresh scrapes are among the most reliable locator, as they indicate recent use. Sparring becomes more common, and small sumacs, pines, cedars and woody scrub vegetation will take much of the brunt of such shadow boxing as the bucks practice on trees. As the season progresses and the prime rut nears, bigger trees and bigger deer will come into play, and tub-sized rut circles will begin to appear.
7) Scrape Lines
The notion that only big bucks rub big trees is generally true, but it isn’t always the case. Finding a sizable rub or two is encouraging, but locating a rub line demands focused attention. Problem is, such lines are not always easy to spot. Give special attention to field edges, stream banks, skid trails, old logging roads and readily recognized deer trails. That’s where most rubs will be found.
Keep track of fresh rubs and scrapes on a topographic map, aerial photo or a homemade map to piece together prime runs and passages between feeding and bedding areas. That’s where predictable activity occurs and where you should hitch your treestands.
8) The Edge Effect
Bowhunters like to position stands on the fringes of feeding areas. Traveling the perimeter of a standing cornfield, a soybean or alfalfa patch with numerous tracks will readily reveal the deer’s approach site to a food source. If undisturbed, they’ll continue to utilize the same routes, at least up until the transition period when serious rutting activity begins.
Without exception, I prefer setting up in mid-afternoon just inside a woodlot or forest edge rather than on its rim. At day’s end, deer — especially bucks — will linger inside the woods while does enter a field and begin feeding well before sunset.
9) Don’t Pollute
Prior to each of their scouting trips, Krisher and Fugazzotto washed their camo clothing in baking soda, then stored it in a plastic bag and applied commercial scent inhibitor before entering the woods. Get dressed when you arrive at the day’s scouting site, not before.
10) The Numbers Don’t Lie
Although this story took place in 1988 and featured two young hunters, it serves as an educational tool for all of us. It also offers encouragement for those willing to take that extra step. Pre-season scouting and the degree to which it’s performed is a personal choice, but give it as much time as you can, even if only for a day or two.
The more knowledge you have about your hunting area, the better your chances of being in the best spot on opening morning, 100 hours of scouting under your belt or not. Read Recent Articles:
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This article was published in the August 2009 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.