Start Your Fall Deer Scouting Now!

Don't waste your mornings and evenings in front of the TV. Get out there and start looking for deer tracks, trails and other sign and get the jump on the 2006 bowhunting season.

Some hunters don't even think about bowhunting until cooler weather signals the start of another hunting season. Others are into bowhunting year-round. They may not actually draw their bows on game, but they know that their success in hunting is not bound by seasons, but by initiative and dedication.

Sure, the time when you can actually loose an arrow toward a buck is still several long weeks away. Those days will pass more quickly if you spend some of them in places where you plan to start the next bowhunting season.

Maybe you have a traditional bowhunting area where you will bowhunt just because it is a place you enjoy. But if you're looking for the best odds for tagging a buck, then you should start doing your homework now.

A PLAN TAKES SHAPE

If your sights are set on the biggest possible buck, a good place to start is your state's trophy record list. Compile a list of the most recent entries in the record book, certainly ones that are no more than 10 years old. Entries any older than that might not mean much this fall. Habitat changes when deer become overpopulated and deplete the quality of their environment. Maturing habitat will change in its ability to support deer. Land use or access to the land can also change.

Include all trophy bucks in your calculations, not just those taken by bowhunters. You care only where the bucks were taken, not how they were taken.

Separate the list into counties where those kills were made. Do you see a pattern? If you're not willing to travel across the state to the area where the top record-book entry was tagged, there may well be a county near you that's more productive than the others.

The next step is to get a topographic map of that county and find the best habitat, pockets of cover and "funnels" that whitetails may use in traveling between their feeding and bedding areas. In all likelihood, the best habitat doesn't blanket the entire county. And just as likely, that habitat will extend into neighboring counties. Political boundaries rarely match habitat boundaries.

FOOD AND COVER

You probably understand that it takes good genetics, good nutrition and age to produce trophy antlers. For all practical purposes, the bowhunter can narrow those factors down to just nutrition and age. Look for cover that offers good food and room to roam, places where bucks can grow old and eat well on their way to becoming trophy-class deer. Learn how to identify places that are most likely to hold the best bucks.

Rutting bucks cover a lot of territory, and prime deer habitat has more and bigger bucks than most hunters realize. Even the best deer hunters are frequently and pleasantly surprised at what they find in "their" woods each fall.

Nutrition is vital in the short term. The quality of browse that's available during the late winter and spring will largely determine antler growth this summer. There's not a lot you can do about this, except look for areas that have the richest, most reliable food sources.

If there is agricultural land in your hunting area, that's almost certainly the place to start looking for the area's biggest bucks. For deer, good nutrition comes from diversity -- a wide variety of foods, which is usually a byproduct of varied habitat. The best trophy-buck habitat can be described as a patchwork. When viewed from the sky, the ground looks somewhat like a patchwork quilt, with numerous small blocks of different habitat types including cultivated lands, overgrown fields, wetlands and mature woodlots.

If your chosen hunting area is big woods, there will be fewer deer because there's much less food available. Find areas within those big woods that have the greatest variety of habitat. Loggers can be a hunter's best friends. In recently timbered areas, more sunlight reaches the ground, encouraging the growth of low vegetation that deer favor.

Most state foresters can supply hunters with a list of areas that have been recently clearcut. Correlate that list to lands inside your target "big buck" county, and begin to narrow your search for public (or private) hunting grounds nearby.

Think in terms of the three stages of forest growth: seedling-sapling, pole timber and mature timber. The seedling-sapling stage makes a great deal of edible vegetation available to deer. Generally, this is the most productive forest type for deer. Within a few years, low brush grows to the pole timber stage. Trees grow tall and thin, and their thick leaves shade out vegetation at ground level, so that there's less food available for deer to eat. This is usually the worst forest habitat for deer.

When trees mature, they produce mast crops (acorns and other nuts), which provide good late-season food for deer, though it's not as abundant or diverse as in a seedling-sapling stage forest.

Woodlands managed with good wildlife habitat in mind will include all three stages of growth and will have a lot of "edge" habitat.

THE TIME FACTOR

Age is the toughest trophy-buck factor to control. Bucks seldom produce record-class antlers until their fourth set of antlers, and it takes at least three years to develop what most bowhunters would consider a trophy rack. In areas open to public hunting with firearms, most bucks are killed before they grow old enough to produce decent racks.

To maximize their chances of finding older bucks, Bowhunters have two options: Gain access to land that is lightly hunted, or find places where few hunters go. This typically means walking farther, climbing steeper hills, hunting thicker cover, getting there earlier (and staying later) than most other hunters.

ASK AND YOU MAY RECEIVE

Now you should have an idea of where you'll want to hunt, but you're still not ready to do any on-the-ground scouting. First you need to gain access to the land. That's no problem if you are targeting public land, but on private land, you should get permission from landowners. Whether or not the law requires it, written permission is always your best route. And off-season is the time to approach landowners for a friendly, general conversation that, hopefully, ends with permission to hunt.

After choosing a property as your hunting area, spend some time riding around it looking for bucks. This requires good optics, either binoculars or a spotting scope. For pre-hunt scouting, you want a lot of magnification. A reasonable minimum is 10x, with a wide field of view.

Spend most of your scouting time early in the mornings or late in the evenings. Where it's legal to do so, extend your scouting to after-dark hours with night-vision optics.

Try to spend most of your glassing time in places where bucks feeding or loafing would not be obvious to anyone driving down the road. Those bucks attract too much attention. Come bow season, there will likely be so many hunters in the area that the bucks will alter their habits. At the very least, other hunters will hinder your ability to make a hunting plan and carry it out.

Start looking for late-summer bucks in remote corners of pastures, obscure meadows and in fallow fields near croplands, wetlands and waterways.

A hunting plan is the objective of pre-hunt scouting. Throughout the process, you should be doing a lot more than looking for deer. Watching them is fun, but don't get so wrapped up in observations that you overlook the purpose of your mission. Discovering that the buck you want is all-important. But to give yourself anything more than a lucky chance at tagging him, you need to learn as much as possible about his habits. Once you know the buck is there, each new piece of information you can glean from your scouting trips will help you formulate a hunting plan.

WATCH AND LEARN

You can determine a buck's travel routes and destinations (feeding areas if you scout in the evening, and bedding areas if you scout in the morning).

Of the two, morning scouting is most important. Feeding areas change along with variations in natural food availability. If you scout during August, deer may be feeding heavily on alfalfa or some other green crop or leafy wild plant. Come bowhunting season, they will have changed to mast, such as acorns or late-maturing farm crops including corn and soybeans.

If any location patterns remain consistent, they will most likely be the bucks' bedding areas. These may not change until the rut gets into full swing, which is typically weeks after bowhunting season opens. They may use the same bedding areas, though perhaps not as often, so it's good to keep them in mind.

TRAIL CAMERAS

Trail cameras can be a great help in early-season scouting. They often provide those pleasant surprises mentioned earlier, revealing bucks no one knew existed. These handy tools give you around-the-clock eyes in your hunting area. But you must do some scouting just to find places to set up trail cameras -- which are often also the best places to set up stands.

One excellent place to set up a trail camera is a funnel, a place where natural obstacles, land formations or waterways constrict deer movements into a very narrow path.

One of the things trail cameras have taught me is that bucks and does sometimes tend to take different routes, especially in open cover. Funnels, however, affect all deer.

Various physical features can create a funnel. They can be steep hillsides, bodies of water, strips of cover in otherwise open areas or manmade intrusions. Usually, a funnel is a combination of two different features. Be alert for trails, crossings or anything that might cause or signal funneling of deer movements.

Distressing as it is to mention this, trail cameras are often stolen. For this reason, do not set one up where other people are likely to see it. Set up trail cameras in thickets or on steep slopes -- which will also improve their effectiveness. These cameras generally have wide-angle lenses, so their targets need to be close.

Learn how to set the timer on your camera(s). Knowing precisely when a buck passes is very useful information, even more so if you can get a series of photos of the same buck.

PRE-SEASON ACTIVITIES

Do as much of your scouting as possible in mid-August and September, or at least a month before your local bowhunting season begins. This is because the older a buck gets, the more likely he is to be alerted and disturbed by human intrusions. Too much scouting just before you actually start hunting can upset deer enough to change their behavior. There are some things you'll need to do just before a hunt, but try to keep your activities to a minimum.

Among the most important things to accomplish well in advance is picking stand locations. Select several options, so that you can quickly adapt to changes in deer behavior, wind direction or forest conditions, and so that you needn't hunt the same stand every time.

Stand locations normally take advantage of deer movements. Glassing and using trail cameras are preliminary steps in determining deer travel routes. Next comes looking on the ground for tracks and other factors nearby that might be influencing deer movements, such as food sources or cover.

Examine any tracks you find very closely. There are clues that can help determine whether they were made by bucks or does. Are larger tracks mixed with smaller ones? Those were probably left by does with fawns. Are the tracks very large? That can be a good indication of a bigger buck. Are the fronts of the tracks pointed or slightly rounded? Rounded points can indicate the tracks of a buck. (The rounding is caused by excessive travel and pawing at scrapes.)

As fall progresses, look for rubs and scrapes, which of course are signs of pre-rutting activity. These might not appear until very close to hunting season. Rubs can provide very good clues to antler size. Normally, larger bucks tend to rub larger trees. Wide, multi-tined antlers often get tangled in brush. Look for limbs ripped from trees or brush that's been twisted and uprooted.

Find stand locations that give you confidence, because confidence will keep you in your stand longer and will get you there more often. Persistence is one of the most important virtues for successful bowhunting.

At each good stand location, pick at least two different places to set up. Your primary place should be made in relation to the most common prevailing wind direction. Scent is the most common reason for deer detecting a hunter, so place your stands downwind of where you anticipate deer will travel.

Deer might overlook a noise, and you might even get away with being seen if you are well camouflaged. But odor is a dead giveaway.

Prevailing wind direction is no guarantee of wind direction. Select at least one alternative location to get you downwind from approaching deer if the wind suddenly shifts and blows from another direction.

Of course, there can be one big hitch to this plan. Just because you've located a perfect area to set up a stand doesn't mean there's a good place for it. Tree-stand hunters know that the perfect trees don't always exist where they're needed most for their favorite stands.

If it fits your budget, purchase different types of stands. A climbing stand, a ladder stand or a strap-on stand, and a ground blind will allow you to set up at most

locations.

Bowhunting is far from a pure science, but there are ways to cut corners if you put your time in.

Spend cooler summer mornings and evenings looking for deer, scouting new territories and making plans for the 2006 hunting season. It will be here before we know it!

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.