SCOUTING FOR TROPHY WHITETAIL DEER
Scouting is mandatory for the serious whitetail hunter, who seeks to harvest mature bucks on a consistent basis. This investigative process provides the hunter with the “clues” whitetails leave behind. These “clues” reveal the animals whereabouts and pattern of movement. Successful scouting must be broken down into a number of diverse parts in order to unravel the mystery of deer movement. The parts include, but are not limited to, seasonal scouting, ongoing investigation throughout the hunting season, and reading deersign. Without prior preparation and scouting, a hunt is nothing more than an outing based on guesswork. Whitetail hunters who are consistently successful in the woods, do their homework prior to setting up stand locations.
First of all, scout the different seasonal periods of the whitetail’s annual lifecycle. Whitetail movement is altered by the seasonal changes associated with temperature, changes in food sources, breeding, precipitation, fawn rearing, and other factors. Although the lifecycle begins with spring, this is normally not the time hunters begin to scout. Most scouting begins in summer.
During the summer months, whitetail enthusiasts take to the field with dreams of locating, and patterning a mature buck. Summer scouting can be both beneficial and detrimental. Dependent upon the frequency with which you scout, as well as to the degree you penetrate the timber thus disturbing the herd or specific animal you are in pursuit of. Outdoor writer Darrin Bradley states, “Early in my archery career, I was dedicated to preseason scouting almost as much as I was to the actual hunting season itself and I hunt 75-100 times a season. I had become accustomed to scouting during the summer months 25-30 times each year. During the summer months I found myself becoming anxious for bowseason. I had a strong desire to get into the timber, or watch the perimeter of a food source, on the ground I was going to be hunting. I gained alot of knowledge about deer behavior as I scouted. I was able discover what deer were in my area, and what the late summer, early fall patterns of movement were. I would also attempt to pattern the movement of specific bucks. I took extensive notes on the animals I viewed in a game diary. I would simply grab a few tree steps, a portable stand, and head out to the ground I was to hunt the upcoming fall. There I would set up a stand where I could view animals with optics as they entered, and exited, food sources. It was a fun time. Sometimes I would camcord or photograph animals. It was a sure fire way to feed my hunger for being in the timber. I stopped to look at the 11 bucks Pope and Young bucks I had hung on the wall. The realization hit me. I became aware none of the eleven were harvested as a direct result of the summer month preseason scouting. Absolutely none. I realized in 1998 that my preseason scouting had become so intense I was alerting deer to my presence and spooking animals out of my area. Prior to the 1999 Illinois archery season, I purposely stayed away from my hunting area. Hell I knew where I was gonna hang stands anyway, afterall I had hunted this same tract of ground for years. I scouted only one time prior to the 1999 season. As a result, I walked into my stand locations with them being free of human scent and void of human activity. They were in a word......fresh. For the first time I harvested two Pope and Young bucks, in one season. The first buck measured 148 5/8 while the second buck measured 136 1/8. I can’t say this occurred as a direct result of me staying out of my area prior to season. I can say I saw record numbers of deer over the course of the 1999 season. My deer had been undisturbed. I retained the element of surprise. As a result I don’t preseason scout too much anymore unless I am unfamiliar with the ground I am hunting.” The first tip for successful scouting.....don’t overscout an area.
Scouting becomes a necessity when the hunter is on unfamiliar ground or when he doesn’t have enough knowledge of the ground he hunts. For those who find themselves in such a situation, begin scouting in the early summer months. Upon acquiring an unfamiliar a piece of ground for whitetail hunting, scouting must begin before stepping onto the ground to hunt. A trip to the county farm service bureau to purchase a plat book is recommended. A plat book contains top view property boundaries of each tract of ground, accompanied with the landowners name. This gives you information about property ownership in and around the piece of land you have selected. While at the farm service bureau, obtain directions to the local supplier of aerial photographs in that county. Study the literature carefully, paying attention to property lines and topographical advantages.
Further recommended investigation, without entering the area, is what I refer to as the “interview scout stage.” Contact those individuals who are routinely in contact with the ground. I like to contact the adjoining landowners, and speak to them in regard to the area’s hunting activity. Ask specifics about the local deer herd, big buck sightings, and past big buck harvests near and around the ground. Not only is it useful information to gain for the oncoming season, once in a while one of those surrounding landowners will give permission to hunt during the course of the conversation, thus increasing my available hunting acreage. In the event a whitetail is shot which crosses onto the adjoining landowner, it is alot easier to gain permission to retrieve the animal if there has been prior contact with that particular landowner. It only makes sense. Question the rural mail carrier, and school bus driver in the area. These are two people who have been in contact with the area on a regular basis. Either one of these individuals may hold the key to a monster buck harvest.
Upon reviewing aerial photographs, attempt to identify the topographical advantages offered by that particular piece of ground. Pay special attention to bottlenecks, funnels, intersecting ditches, and the darkest shades of ink on the map. The darkest shades of ink on the wooded portions of the aerial photograph are usually “dead give aways”, which point to the densest cover on the ground you are viewing, These areas are normally used for bedding areas and fawn rearing grounds.
Pre-season scouting, in summer months, should be done over food sources, from long distances, with quality optics. I prefer Nikon. During the summer months, whitetails congregate over primary food sources, where they establish social hierarchies for herd dominance and breeding rights. These food source arenas are an excellent place to get a view of the area’s herd. By doing so, one is able to pinpoint specific animals to harvest. It is important to purposefully set up as far away as possible from deer during the pre-season scout. The goal is to view the herd without disturbing them. The seasoned hunter will have stand locations positioned prior to opening day. These stands are not for scouting purposes. Many hunters have said, “I think I’ll go sit on my stand tonight, and see if any deer are using the area.” This is a grave mistake. The last thing you want to do is be detected in a hunting stand prior to the start of the season. Set up a stand location to scout from, and have various hunting stands positioned for utilization during the hunt season.
The “ground work” is the scouting done on foot. “Ground work”encompasses the discovery of deersign. It is recommended to engage in this type of scouting during mid-day, while whitetails are bedding away from food sources and travel routes. Never intrude upon a bed area during mid-day when deer are possibly there, instead scout out areas on the ground where deer are not present. Avoid detection. You are there to pattern the deer. Don’t let the deer pattern you. Avoid detection by wearing rubber boots. Rubber boots leave little or no scent trail to give me away. Be careful to avoid touching anything. Anything touched with bare hands will hold human scent for several days. Do yourself a favor, wear gloves during this portion of scouting. Also wear a Scent-Loc suit to minimize the whitetail’s ability of detecting human presence in the woods. Don’t underestimate the abilities of carbon lined clothing, I never enter the woods without it.
Begin the ground work by paying attention to the food and water supply. Walk the perimeters of the agricultural fields, and food sources looking for trails which lead into them. After discovering these trails, slowly and quietly walk them in reverse direction to their origin. Early season trophy harvest opportunities occur on trails which lead from bed areas to food sources. The quickest way through a bucks heart is through his stomach, during early season. Seek out trails leading to bed areas that hold last years buck sign. As the scouting proceeds look for current buck sign. One of the early season advantages is the discovery of big rubs. They indicate the presence of trophy bucks.
Successfully patterning mature bucks during the summer months may not provide the advantage you need for a Pope and Young harvest. Many times, especially in Midwestern states, deer movement changes just prior to bowseason. Generally travel changes occur due to a change of food sources or a crop rotation by local farmers. During summer months, whitetails may religiously graze among agricultural crops, and then abruptly disappear into the confines of the timber to feed on the mast production. Prior to this change in deer movement, locate the oaks, especially white oaks, in the area in order to adapt successfully to the change. If, and when, the disappearance occurs, immediately retreat to the white oaks. Look for a colony of oaks bearing acorns. Finding active oak trees is done by seeking fallen mast or listening to mast falling through the treetops. Search the area of ground in and around the colony. Look for excrement. An active food source will contain deer excrement. Sometimes these active white oak colonies will also hold big rubs. Big rubs are an indication that a mature buck is feeding there. Don’t abandon a particular oak colony that is bearing mast simply because it doesn’t hold big rubs. If acorns are falling the whitetails will come. It is guaranteed.
Infrared cameras are an excellent resources to use for scouting purposes. This is a way to scout without actually being there, however infrared cameras don’t always tell the story. Think of this, hunting with infrared cameras is more difficult than bowhunting. With an infrared camera you have to be within 10 yards of the animal to see it. By “glassing” with optics over open foodplots or agricultural fields you will find yourself to be much more effective. When using a infrared camera, choose a specific trail to monitor, and set up the camera. Each time an animals event occurs the camera will automatically take a snapshot. You may be amazed with what you capture on film. One minimizes the chances of spooking deer while scouting, by using these state of the art tools. Literally, infrared cameras let you scout deer without even being there. Infrared cameras reveal specific animals for harvest, and the whereabouts of them without tipping game off to your presence.
Scouting must continue throughout the hunting season. Hunters need to move with the changing deer movement in the area. There is alot more to hunting big bucks than sitting over the densest clusters of bucksign. Trophy hunting is not that easy. If it were, we would all be taking trophy bucks. Take a look at the big picture of the ground you hunt. Don’t get too hung up on any one occurrence of sign. The key to harvesting big bucks is finding highly used travel routes. Any location which connects two large pieces of timber is bound to be a hotspot, even if deer sign is not obvious. Since the monster bucks that use these corridors don’t stop to make alot of sign in these areas it is easy to make the mistake of not hunting them.
Scouting for the rut will include the discovery of rut related deersign. This includes scrapes, scrapelines, breeding zones, rubs, and topographical advantages. The most difficult time of the whitetail season to scout is during the cold winter months which follow the conclusion of firearms season. Post firearm season hunting robs the hunter of advantages. Some of these advantages which become absent include rut activity, lack of a dependable food source, and a decrease in whitetail population numbers due to the firearms harvest. Post firearms season bowhunts are the greatest challenge to today’s archer. Throughout the majority of my whitetail hunting career this challenge continued to baffle me. I began to unravel this mystery a few years ago. The answer to post firearms archery hunting lies in the discovery of post firearms deersign, food sources, and topographical advantages.
After firearms season, locating the herd can be a difficult task. Not only are the whitetails disturbed, there are less of them to pursue. In many states, the firearms season can last up to two consecutive weeks with longrifles which reach distances of over 500 yards. This can put a “dent” in deer movement for the remainder of the hunting season. Locate “second half” season whitetails in two separate ways, which have proven to be effective. Begin from scratch, and locate the foodsource once again. The greatest second half foodsources are usually crops which easily endure the weathering of winter. Clover and winter-wheat tend to be “second half” food favorites. On a recent hunt to the Midwestern states, we located the whitetail herd after firearms season when we setup on a cloverfield nearby. We viewed 67 animals that evening. Second half food sources are often “dynamite” because whitetails have no other option but to feed there or die of malnutrition. The more severe the environmental conditions of winter become, the more the deer will utilize these foodsources.
Scouts of topographical advantages are also of great assistance to the post firearms deer hunter. Locate stand locations which possess more than one topographical advantage at a time. This increases the odds that mature bucks will travel past your location because of interception of several topographical advantages at once.
Post-season scouting is still practiced on a limited basis among the most dedicated of deerhunters. This process begins with formulating a “game plan” by utilizing topographical maps and photographs of the area you hunt. Look for spots on the maps which call for a closer look. These include lowspots, funnels, bottlenecks, corners, or any other topographical advantage you choose to investigate. Locate the foodsource, and become educated by talking to farmers about what crops are to be planted for the oncoming year. Pinpoint the best acorn producing oaks in the hunting area. Search for logging activity of the past or present. Logged areas often grow into the densest cover, which are hotspots for bedding. Intruding upon bedding grounds for intense investigation will be less disturbing during the post season scouts. The area will have months to calm down from your intrusion. It is here one may elect to seek out the sheds of whitetail buck antlers. Any sheds recovered will indicate that a specific animal survived the hunting season. Discovering sheds in bed areas, indicates a preferred bed area of bucks. This information will prove to be very valuable for future hunting setups.
Successful scouting occurs when the hunter effectively uncovers deersign throughout the annual lifecycle of the whitetail deer. Deer movement changes throughout the season. Search for the same basic sign all year, however that sign is found in different locations as deer movement changes. Don’t leave your trophy harvest up to guessing. Learn to successfully scout. The dividends of this investment will be great.