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Scouting For Whitetails


By Keith Andrews

Late Summer Scouting Tactics for Early Whitetail Success

If you want to be successful this deer season, then you should make summer scouting a big part of your plan. But there are some things to be considered when using the information gleaned and just how to go about scouting itself. Don’t make the same mistake that many hunters make every deer season in thinking that the big buck you saw during your summer scouting trips will be there doing the same things and following the same patterns when the season kicks off. He won’t!

As most experts will agree, the first step in any successful deer season is proper late summer scouting. Observing deer with binoculars in agricultural fields is always a great place to start a successful deer season. The deer herd has relaxed from last year’s onslaught of hunter activity and they are acting normally. Using binoculars, you can observe (from a safe distance) the exit and entry corridors that deer are using to get into and out of these fields, thus giving you a good idea how deer are currently using the property you will be hunting.  This will also help to establish the direction from which they are coming and going. However, don’t let this piece of the seasonal puzzle fool you into a false sense of security. To put a trophy on your wall next season, you will need a lot more information and you will have many things to consider before you can begin to put together a winning strategy.

 Late Season pay off

Deer hunters throughout the country mistakenly think the goal of late summer scouting is to establish a pattern for their dream whitetail, getting a better understanding of its movement patterns and habits, and thus tagging that dream buck when the hunting season arrives. However, many of these hunters will fail to tag that buck not realizing that the deer (in fact, the entire deer herd) have changed their patterns and habits because of several factors. Changes in temperature, availability of food, rut activity, amount of precipitation, human disturbances and other factors, will bring on this change. And if you haven’t considered these elements in your scouting plan, you may very well end your deer season by eating some bitter tasting “tag soup.”

In fact, most of the deer you will see during those late summer (as well as early fall) scouting trips may be long gone by the time November rolls around.  You may very well be hunting a different animal which is acting in a different way without even realizing it. Below, we will look at some of the things that a hunter needs to do and know in order to be successful this coming deer season.

Understanding Seasonal Deer Scouting

The first thing that should be said is this: it is very important that you do not over-scout your hunting area during the late summer/early season. Deer--as we all know--are very keen to increased human presence in their territory. Think about it. If someone was coming into you home while you were gone each day, you would soon notice that something was amiss and you would take action to find out what is going on.  You would also take measures to avoid that activity. Whitetails will react in much the same way when this kind of disturbance occurs in their territory. Overextending your welcome will most assuredly alter the deer herd’s movement patterns prematurely. It is simple; get in, get the information you need, and get out with as little disturbance as possible to the area. If it’s a trophy buck you’re after this becomes paramount as these older bucks are a very skittish lot.  They will burn you quickly if they become even slightly aware of your presence. These bucks have survived by developing a sharply honed instinct brought on by several hunting seasons’ worth of experience. They take nothing lightly and you shouldn’t either.

I recommend that you scout your hunting area on foot, taking note of where you find deer sign.  This will help you get an idea of deer herd travel patterns. Do this during mid-day while whitetails are bedding down and away from their food sources and travel routes. Never, ever approach a bedding area during your mid-day scouting trips, as deer most usually will be there. Scout only those areas where deer are not present if you want to be successful. If the deer know you are there, they will pattern you, and your chances for success will go down drastically.

Deer tracks and droppings are tell-tale signs of whitetail activity and can tell you a lot about your deer herd. I recommend that you measure tracks and droppings for widths and lengths. What are the measurements of the droppings you are finding? Are the droppings clumped or loose? Keeping in mind that, at different times of year, a bucks droppings will be loose instead of clumped, depending on their diet. While you’re at it, study those droppings to gain clues as to what your deer herd is feeding on. This will lead you to feeding areas, and thus add some very important information to your overall hunting plan. 

 

Remember that generally the size of the sign correlates to the size of the deer that made the sign. In other words, the larger the sign, the larger the deer.  All of these measurements should be plotted on your hunting topo map so that you can begin to realize the patterns of the deer you will be hunting. Once you have plotted all of the measured information on that topo map, you will begin to see how an individual deer (such as that big buck) is using the property he is calling home. Scrapes and antler rubs should also be measured when they start appearing in your hunting area, as these also are good indicators of the size of the buck that made the sign. With all of this measured information, you can then build a hunting strategy around one particular buck by plotting that information on your topo map. This allows you to see his particular habits, his movements, times of movement, his patterns and favorite hideouts. 

Moreover, establishing food sources and the trails deer are using while headed into and out of food source areas (such as white oak acorn stands, browse areas, and farm crop areas) is key to locating a very important piece of information…that of deer bedding areas. However, you must take into consideration when locating these bedding areas what the deer herds movement patterns are during the warmer temperatures of summer. Whitetail deer do not like to move around much during the heat of summer, and often times will bed down within 50 to 100 yards of their primary food source. Additionally, the one thing deer will want close at hand during this time of the year is water. Bedding areas with adjacent food and water are what every hunter needs to find.With this information, you can set up a plan of action that could lead you to that buck of a lifetime.

Finding Bedding Areas

Find the doe family unit bedding areas and you will find the bucks in your hunting area close at hand. Why? Because once the pre-rut starts, bucks will be waiting for the first whiff of estrus in the air. And one of the best places for this to happen is close to doe family unit bedding areas. The best way to determining bedding areas is to scout them shortly after the prior deer season has ended. Measure the beds you find because--once again--the measurements of these beds correlate to the size of the deer that made them. Finding multiple beds in an area with these bedding spots facing in several different directions usually means you have found a doe family unit bedding area. Look to the higher elevations for these bedding areas as the deer will be using morning thermals to check for danger. These bedding areas will most likely be found in tall grass fields, especially if they lie between wooded areas. The bed measurements will indicate that all of these deer fall into the doe family group. Once you have taken some measurements, it will become easier to recognize with some certainty what size deer made the sign you are looking at. 

However, if you find single beds and/or two or three beds facing in different directions in areas around the periphery of these doe family unit bedding areas, (especially if these beds are found in deep cover areas) you have most probably found a buck’s bed. These beds will be larger in size and the reason for these beds facing in different directions are that the buck is “playing the wind” to pick up the scent of hot does. This is especially true once bucks have broken out of their bachelor groups as pre-rut conditions develop.

Look for well-defined trails and follow these deer trails from feeding areas back toward bedding areas. Additionally, look for buck trails adjacent to these main trails (usually on the downwind side) as well as primary buck trails leading through thick cover areas and overgrown clear-cuts. Look for tracks and measure them. You will be surprised at the difference in size from that of doe family deer and a big buck! Watch for buck beds in the thicker cover areas along buck trails. A good indicator that you have found a buck bed is it will measure larger than doe family beds.  An even better indicator is finding buck-sized droppings within the bed. When you find sign like this, you need to leave the area immediately. Do not take the chance of contaminating this area!

Getting Skunked Before You Start Your Season

Now I know there are some who will read this article and say, “But I have hunted the same stand for three seasons and I have filled tags.” Yep, I’ve been there. And I have realized that, at some point, my once “hot spot” has dried up! It is fine to have a “go to” spot like that; however, you should always be prepared for the big dry up. If you read my previous article, How to Harvest Your First Whitetail,published here at Deep Countree, you know that I recommend setting up several stand sites, thus being prepared for all scenarios. This is one of those scenarios for which you should be prepared. As with anything else in life, past successes are no guarantee of future success.  This is especially true if it is a buck you are hunting.

 Successful Scouting

Last season, during the rut, your stand area was a scraped up, rub-shredded mess, and ever since that time you have dreamt of that monster that somehow slipped away from you a year ago. Then you show up early the next deer season and see nothing, figuring that the big buck has moved on to another area of the property, out of your hunting area. However, he is probably closer than you think. What could be the matter? Well, if everything else in your hunting area has remained the same since last deer season, then it is probably the time of year that is the problem. Deer (especially mature bucks) are on a different pattern in late summer and the early part of the season than they are during the rut. Keep this fact in mind during your scouting trips and when planning your hunting strategy.

So, in the end, what does this all mean? Simple: you have a few stand sites prepared for the rut in November and you stay out of those stands until the rut hits. In the early part of the season (pre-rut October), you have a few previously prepared stand sites closer to the main food source that you found during your summer scouting trips. Remember: stand sites should be prepared with the prevailing wind direction (for that time of year) considered. This is the way to fill a tag and why it is important to have several different stand locations for different wind directions. If you don’t keep your scent away from the deer when they are traveling to feeding areas, your chances of success falls drastically. If you don’t heed the wind direction, you will never see that mature buck.

The All Important Staging Area

Another important key factor (perhaps the most important) is to determine where deer staging areas are located. These staging areas will be located between bedding and feeding areas, usually lying closer to the feeding area (depending on the terrain features at hand) inside the cover of the woods edge. It is here that a mature buck feels somewhat safe, thus remaining in his staging area until after dark before he enters his feeding area. Here, the mature buck can also keep a safe distance from the doe family deer (using them as sentinels) as they feed, monitoring the wind currents and watching for predators--being they animal or human.

Look for browse areas within the break of the woods, multiple beds, lots of droppings and tracks with no real pattern of direction over a wide area.  Finding staging areas is important because more times than not, it may be your only chance at tagging that trophy buck before the rigors of the rut changes his patterns and behavior. If you are hunting high-pressure public land then locating staging areas becomes even more important.  However, scouting staging areas can be a tricky endeavor at best because usually these key areas are very close to a buck’s bedroom. Any time you are scouting these areas, you should act as though you are sneaking up on the buck himself! Slow and quiet progress is the rule of the day here. Use a top quality scent-killing product and use it often. 

In Conclusion

I hope these scouting tips lead you to some great tasting buck backstraps this coming season. Understanding summer scouting can be the key to success if you interpret the sign correctly and plan accordingly. Finding the key ingredients; doe family unit bedding and feeding areas, well defined trails to and from those feeding areas, playing the wind with several stand site setups, knowing the difference between doe family deer sign and mature buck sign, and finding those all important staging areas will put you on the path to bagging that wall-hanger you’ve always wanted. Remember: hunt ethically and be safe. You represent not only hunting, but also the long history of the hunting tradition. Good luck!