I didn't have time for "goofing off in the woods." I just didn't,
with job commitments, the house I was building, and family obligations.
But I've long known that when I first notice the days are starting to get
longer, and there's a bit of warmth to the sun and a new scent in the air,
there's something that pulls me to the whitetail woods. I can't resist.
So on a beautiful Saturday morning last March I drove to an intriguing area
of big woods and swamps with a few scattered farm fields in between. I felt I
knew it well though in truth I'd never been there. It had caught my eye on some
maps I'd been perusing, and the more I looked at it, the more it looked like a
piece of ground designed for deer hunting.
Once I got my feet on that ground, I really started to get excited. It was
public and huntable, but I saw no sign that it got much pressure. I started to
note travel patterns and bedding and feeding areas.
I laid my plan and prepared a stand site. And when opening day came
September 15, all the work had long been done. I simply sat in the stand and
enjoyed the scenery till the big buck sauntered up the trail and into my arrow.
Why Scout Now?
It's the best time for scouting, springtime is. All of last autumn's deer sign
has accumulated and been stored on ice for you, in a manner of speaking, under
the mantle of snow cover. Soon after it melts, the sign is obvious. On top of
that you have shed antlers to find, sure indicators of what bucks made it
through the orangecoat invasion and will be back -- and bigger -- next fall.
You can get a much better idea of how it will look next November than you
will during the summer and early fall. You don't have to worry about spooking
deer so you can scout thoroughly and not worry about your scent. And, there's a
lot less to do as a sportsman this time of year, so usually a lot more time --
and enthusiasm to get out there.
Have A System
Ideally, you've already started your scouting for next fall. There are fewer
more satisfying pastimes on a cold winter's eve than settling down in front of
the fireplace with a map, studying and dreaming of the deer that live in this
I cover a lot of ground in my whitetail excursions, and so I like to start
with the whitetail recordbook map compiled by the Quality Deer Management
Association. This map ranks each county in the United States for the number of
Boone & Crockett and Pope & Young whitetails registered. Lately, I've
focused on the top counties.
After I've identified the county I want to scout, I get a plat book for that
county. This is a tool vastly underutilized by hunters, I feel. Plat books
precisely map ownership of all land in the county. It helps a hunter contact
landowners, but more so for my purposes, identifies public lands that may not
be known by other hunters to be public. For me, there's nothing that beats
having my own private public land!
I highlight properties on the plat map I want to check further, then compare
those areas to topo maps, usually large scale such as ones found in the atlases
published by DeLorme. I look for characteristics of the land that will give me
some idea of what the area's deer are likely to be doing, and good hunting
sites. Topographical features, such as ridges and ravines, woods, fields,
swamps, and strips of cover, can tell you where deer likely feed, bed, and
(You can get plat maps from Rockford Map Publishers; www.rockfordmap.com and
topo atlases from DeLorme Maps; www.delorme.com )
Feet On The Ground
By now, I've got plenty of marked up maps and places I want to check, and it's
time to hit the woods! I usually start by driving around big blocks containing
the land I hope to hunt. This gives me the "big picture" in terms of
remote feeding and escape areas for deer, surrounding landowners and influences
they might exert, and most importantly, accesses for me and possibly competing
hunters. I also take a close look at cover in the area I want to hunt and
surrounding areas, and determine if it is suitable for bedding, escape, or
Shed Hunting Can Pay Off
I try to time my reconnaissance mission with the middle to end of February,
when about all the bucks should have dropped their antlers, but not too long
after. Shed hunting is fun!
Naturally, the best places to look for sheds is where bucks concentrate
during that time of year -- feeding, bedding, and travel areas.
If I find a large shed antler, and determine it's spot is one the deer is
likely to use in the autumn, too, you'd better believe I found my hunting spot!
To make scouting most efficient, you are looking for several things at once.
You are looking for sheds, sure, but also looking at current travel sign,
trying to determine if it is likely to match travel concentrations in fall. I
find it usually it does, though there are changing factors, especially
regarding food, that can alter that.
You're also looking for last fall's buck sign. Last fall's rubs and scrapes
should still be quite obvious. Use it to help you discern probable patterns for
pre-rut and peak-rut activity. Pay particular attention to rub lines, as they
are often used perennially.
Map Your Way To Success
Pull out those maps again. Start plotting your findings on your maps -- rub
lines, concentrations of scrapes, trails, crossings, and food sources. Plot
some probable stand sites.
Stand Site Preparation
If a good-looking stand site jumps out at you, you can get started right away
preparing it. Trim out some shooting lanes; open a "shootable trail"
and obstruct surrounding trails to funnel deer past you. Clear the way for you
to access the stand.
If you've done your off-season homework well, all you need to do is show up
and hunt next fall. And when that big buck comes sauntering down the trail
opening evening, you'll be glad you did.
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