Scouting actually is an ongoing process for the avid deer hunter. It is how you begin to learn the patterns of the deer on the property you hunt and how they change with the seasons. After years of scouting the same property, you will find that deer often follow the same trails and patterns year after year. However, changes can occur which will affect their normal patterns, so it’s not like opening a book that you have already read and expecting it to remain unchanged. For this reason scouting is essential to yearly success.
The tips I will provide you with in this article come from my experience as a hunter (from the School of Hard Knocks) and from my experience as a Hunter Education instructor for several years. These principals are covered in the fee based classes I now teach to the public through “Whitetail Deer Hunting” seminars which I hold in the Midwest. I hope you find them helpful to your success.
When scouting you need to study several things. For this reason it helps to take an aerial map of the area and make note of the following things:
1 Travel Routes – Determine if the trails you find are routes used to go to a food or water source, to and from bedding areas and so on.
2 Water Source – Map any creeks, ponds and rivers. Deer will not stay where there is not water.
3 Food Source – Learn what food is available to them in the area. Things such as orchards which may have apples; oak trees which produce mast and acorns in the fall; fields of corn, wheat or soybean and areas containing lush clover and other legumes which deer love. There are other foods in nature which they also eat, such as sumac, mushrooms, mulberries, strawberries and wild grapes.
4 Fence Lines – Note where the deer are crossing fence lines or going in through open gates. Deer often will choose the path of least resistance.
5 Elevation Changes – During different times of the season this will make a big difference in where the deer may be found. Bucks for example prefer to bed in higher elevations, where does prefer lower elevations closer to food. Bucks also tend to travel at higher elevations in the mornings and lower elevations in the evenings during pre-rut and full-rut, due to the flow of the air thermals during those times.
6 Scrapes – While scouting out the trails on the property you hunt make note of where the scrapes are located, along with the size of them. Larger scrapes are considered primary ones of about 3 feet in diameter. Both does and bucks will use these and they are good locations to hunt during pre-rut in the mornings.
7 Rubs – Both dominant and immature bucks will make rubs. More mature bucks will primarily make large rubs within a densely wooded area (considered the core area) while the immature bucks will often make rub lines along fence lines and edges of trees. Rubs within the core area are good areas to hunt during pre-rut in the morning and during rut in the middle of the day.
8 Bedding areas – Does will often bed together in a band or herd. The size of their impressions in the grass will be more uniform. Mature bucks will break out of bachelor groups once pre-rut comes on and at that time will begin to bed alone and closer to does. It is important to understand if the bedding area is used in the morning or afternoon. This can be determined based on the weather. For example, when it’s still warm in early season, the deer prefer to bed in the shade more to stay cooler. In the winter, deer will prefer to bed where they can soak up the sun for warmth, which will be on eastern slopes in the morning and on western slopes in the afternoons.
9 Staging Areas – Deer are social creatures and staging areas act as a neighborhood arena. These areas are often a semi-secluded yet open location where the deer can easily see each other but be hidden away from roads, houses and direct visibility of humans and predators. This type of area allows them to see predators well in advance for easy escape. This is a likely location where bucks will come together to challenge each other in a fight or fight over a doe. This is where does will make themselves visible and accept advances by a mature buck. It also tends to be an area where curious, immature does and bucks will skirt the edges to watch the action.
Not only mapping what you see but making a log or diary is helpful. I recommend making note of the following clues as well:
1 Droppings – The freshness of droppings will indicate if the area still has active deer in it. If the droppings you are finding are old or non-existent, the deer may have moved out of the area due to lack of food or water. If an area that held a lot of buck activity the previous year is now abandoned, there may be a lower buck to doe ratio in the current herd, due to over harvesting, illness, and lower survival rate of bucks and so on. A change in hunting pressure also affects their home range.
2 Scent – An area that is heavily used by deer will have a very distinct musk like smell. It is a scent that is unique and once you identify it you will remember it. This is the smell that comes from the oils that deer emit from their glands as well as when they urinate. Areas that have a very strong scent are considered “hot spots” and are prime hunting locations. I normally try to set up within 30 yards of the boundary of this type of location.
3 Deer Activity- As you hunt, make a mental or written note of what you see, how the deer behave, when they come out, if you see any predators such as coyotes. Even if you do not come home with a harvested deer you can learn a lot from the deer by studying their behaviors. This helps you grow as a hunter to develop your instincts about how the herd you hunt reacts.
4 Sheds – Shed hunting in the spring can help determine the maturity of the bucks remaining on the land you hunt. If you find a bedding area or travel route with a nice shed that means this buck uses this area for his home range and survived the previous hunting season.
5 Game Cameras - Game cameras can be your eyes in daylight or darkness when you can not be in the field as often as you. This is an excellent way of determining the animals using the area along heavy travel routes. It will help you get a random idea of the buck to doe ratio and the maturity of the deer on the property. They are costly, so using one camera and rotating its location is the best way to use one.