How To: Deer Scouting 101
If you wish to be a great whitetail hunter, learn where bucks live and feed in your hunting area, how they move, and where to strategically position yourself. It’s called scouting. Here’s how it’s done.
When and Where to Start
If you’re just getting into deer hunting or have a new property to hunt, the best time to scout is in January or February immediately after the prior deer season closes. Why?
1. Deer are still in their winter patterns, which will reveal the food sources and cover they’ll use next hunting season.
2. The bare winter woods are easier to see through and read. If snow’s on the ground, tracks clearly reveal where deer travel to and from daily.
3. Spooking a big buck doesn’t matter.
If you can’t scout in January/February, then any time you can get in the woods is better than nothing. Just remember: Bucks’ summer patterns are different from their fall and winter routines, so don’t overcommit to a stand location just because you saw several bucks somewhere in August.
Utilize Technology to Supplement Scouting
Google Earth is an amazing tool for giving hunters a bird’s-eye view of their property and the surrounding ones. First, start with a zoomed-out view that shows neighboring property. Look for crop fields, areas of cover like thick woods, and for natural funnels that concentrate deer movement to one small area. Find obvious travel routes, edges, and topographical features such as creeks, draws, ridges, and mountains that dictate deer movement and allow bucks to move from one place to another undetected. Print a map—or download an app like OnX hunt—and make notes of areas worthy of more investigation because what looks to be a neighboring crop field, for example, may no longer be in production. So you must visit these sites first hand after discovering them with technology. If they look promising, place trail cams for continued, low-impact scouting.
Word of Mouth
Some of the best intel comes from people who live on or work near the property. If a farmer tells you a big buck lives “down by that little pond,” or a neighbor tells you she’s seen a big buck crossing the road “every day at 7:30 a.m.,” you’d be foolish to dismiss them. They’ve done the hard part for you—finding a big buck—so now all that’s left to do is scout the specific area for a stand location. So ask. And it never hurts to butter ‘em up a little with an occasional holiday ham or venison jerky from your last harvest.
Boots on the Ground
Now’s the time to actually visit the places you marked on Google Earth in person to see if they look as good on the ground as they did from space. Drive or walk your property boundary, and note if any places are clearly being used as deer crossings. Walk creek beds and trails looking for tracks. Note any differing terrain features such as subtle ditches or knobs that bucks like to use to stay hidden. Look for sheds—food sources such as acorns, fruit, or nut bearing trees; look for rubbed trees that indicate a buck was there; and look for rub lines that suggest it could be a buck’s core area.
If you see a deer in the woods, make note, because it was there for a reason. When you find places with concentrated sign, look for a good tree for a stand. Consider prevailing wind patterns, sun position, and where you expect deer to come from before choosing a stand location. Then consider how you can best access and exit the stand quietly with the least amount of disturbance. Once you find this spot, locate a great tree and drop a pin on your phone. Then, hang a trail camera. Before investing the time of hanging a stand and cutting shooting lanes, it’s handy to know what actually lives or travels there.
Food Plots and Feeders
If you intend to install food plots or feeders, now’s the time to locate those spots. Keep in mind, the more secluded they are, the more likely bucks will come to those spots in the daytime—but also the more difficult they’ll be to plant and to access during the season. Also keep in mind that just because you plant the food plot of a deer’s dreams in a place that looks good to you, don’t expect a buck will leave his safe haven just to nibble your turnips. He’s been living on his own just fine long before you came along, so you must make any food plots or bait locations easy for him to access and safe feeling for him. I’ve seen big bucks that totally avoid corn feeders if they’ve never seen them before in their area. I’ve also seen bucks that prefer white oak acorns to anything farmers can plant. Point is, plant food plots if you can—but also hedge your bet by placing a few stands near traditional food sources. This will give you options if your food plot stands fail to produce.
Don’t Overlook the Obvious
At times in my life I’ve been guilty of identifying the thickest cover on the property and deeming that the place I should hunt because no doubt the biggest and wisest bucks lurk therein. But sometimes it isn’t true. Plenty of times I’ve found big bucks in tiny two-acre woodlots behind a farmer’s house—or bucks that live most of their lives within yards of a busy county road. Let bucks tell you where to hunt them based on your scouting—not based on your idea of where you think they should live.
Find Early Season, Mid-Season, Rut, and Late-Season Stand Locations
Great whitetail hunters understand the woods are dynamic. What was a buck’s favorite food in September and early October—possibly persimmons or wild celery—has dried up by Halloween, so during that time they’ll eat acorns like crazy—so their patterns and movements change. So should your hunting locations. By December maybe the white oak acorns are gone, and the red reds are falling, or perhaps now’s the time that your winter food plot has become palatable. So rather than hunting the hot stand location you found in October yearound, your best bet is to follow the food. During the rut, you should hunt does because that’s where the bucks will be. And the only way to find these seasonal stand locations is by studying terrain and the deer on your property as the season changes. (Often this takes many years to fully understand.) Then set multiple tree stand locations so you can move with the deer and not be a one-trick pony.
Scouting Goals Checklist:
* Identify travel routes, crop fields, or interesting terrain features using technology.
* Visit those locations, and hang trail cams in those with promise.
* Find a big buck or big buck sign.
* Generate a rough idea of where a buck’s bedding, feeding, and his travel routes to these areas.
* Find a stand location to intercept a buck on his daily routine; make sure this area is easy to access; consider the predominant wind during the hunting season.
* Find at least one food source for each season including early (October), mid (November), and late (December).
* Hang stands in multiple back-up locations in case your primary plan fails or the wind is wrong.
* Find where does congregate to develop a rut strategy.