Deer Scouting 101

Do your homework before the season starts. Learning what sign to look for and what it has to tell you will help fill your tag this fall.

Most hunters think that the deer season is just a few weeks long. And maybe with a little luck, they'll get a shot at a buck -- if only they can be at the right place at the right time.

If that description fits you, you're going to need all the luck you can get.

To become one of the relatively few hunters who fill their freezers with tasty steaks, sausage and hamburger meat each year, you have to work at it all year long. Hunting mule deer -- and big game in general -- requires a good off-season as well.

What am I talking about? Scouting, of course.

The term "scouting" gets thrown around kind of loosely these days. Many hunters think that before the season, all you need to do is take a walk in the woods, find some tracks here and there, maybe a few deer droppings, and -- presto! -- you know there must be deer in the area.

Well, that used to describe me, too. I knew from the sign that deer were in the area. But year after year, I couldn't understand why success failed to come my way.

Then I began to consider how I prepared myself for upcoming seasons, and soon concluded that I had no idea what I was doing. As with any other sport, hunting has an off-season -- and I was ignoring it. During their off-season, most of the successful hunters I knew spent as much time as possible getting to know every mile of the unit they intended to hunt, even if that meant spending more time scouting than actually hunting during the season.

Think about it. A baseball pitcher doesn't start throwing a ball on opening day. So what made me think I could be successful by starting to hunt on opening day?

I know what you're thinking: You can't be expected to spend all that time in the woods when as it is, you can hardly get away a few days during the hunting season.

And I agree with you! However, if you can learn a few skills such as map-reading and interpreting what deer sign means, you'll be well on the way to being one of those 5 percent of hunters who kill deer every single year.

Let's take a look at some scouting techniques you can employ now for this coming fall.

BASIC SIGN

For most hunters, tracks and droppings are the first signs they look for when scouting for deer. And for the most part, that's as good a place to start as any. Tracks indicate that deer are in the area, and droppings mean there's a food source nearby that they like and are making use of.

Unless a track is smokin' hot -- meaning from that morning or at most, the night before -- the best you can do is make an educated guess as to when the deer made it. After time and experience, most hunters can tell whether a track is days or weeks old.

The best way I can tell a track's age is from its overall appearance. A track less than 24 hours old has a very clean look to it. The edges will be sharp, and the imprint itself will be free of any debris.

Unless the track is obviously very old, I really don't care how old it is. More important is what the deer was doing when it left those tracks and where was it headed. If it left tracks in mud, snow or soft dirt, determining the deer's direction will be easy. Follow them for a while and look for any change in their pattern.

Frequent stops probably mean that the animal was feeding. If that's the case, take a close look around to locate its food source.

Tracks that are moving steadily, then abruptly change direction could indicate a deer heading to or from a bedding area. Often when a hunter bumps a deer from a brushy or timbered area, the deer were bedded down nearby. Anytime you're doing some pre-season legwork and this happens, mark this likely bedding area with a map or with your GPS.

What's the difference between a buck's track and a doe's? A lot of guys claim they can tell the difference, but I doubt it. The fact is, there's no way to be absolutely certain of a deer's gender from its tracks alone. The best way I've found is to look at the size of the track, keeping in mind that the tracks of a mature doe and a young buck look the same. However, if you're studying an area that has lots of sign and you find a track that's bigger than the others, this is likely left by a buck. Once again, mark it on a map or GPS.

If you've found no tracks, the next best thing to find is deer droppings. Why? If the droppings are fresh, you should find tracks also. Unlike in the movies or in some of the books you might read, you don't need to pick up deer poop to tell how old it is. Fresh deer poop looks -- well, fresh.

On scouting trips, I carry a stick with me just for the purpose of poking piles of droppings. Deer droppings look the same regardless of their food source, so spare yourself the effort of dissecting the stuff. Instead, I try to identify food sources in the area that deer might be feeding on.

ADVANCED SIGN

After I have a general idea of where deer are, I start to really look for the type of sign that will help me develop some kind pattern that the deer employ. I look for waterholes, game trails, food sources and buck sign such as scrapes, rubs or sheds.

Game trails are great for scouting. A wise old hunter once told me that game trails are the highways of the woods; they all seem to lead somewhere. Deer are like people: Not wanting to duck under trees and dodge around bushes, they prefer the paths of least resistance. Studying game trails in the pre-season will tell you not only how many deer are in an area, but also where they are going and how often.

One year while scouting in high desert country, I found what seemed to be a well-used deer trail leading to some high sumac and redshank oak. After watching that trail for three straight weekends, I learned that not just one but two bucks were using it to head to their bedding grounds. This helped me pattern both of them, and on opening day, I filled my tag.

After I locate a trail, I keep a notebook with me to chart each new set of tracks that appear. You'd be surprised at how many times a single deer will use these trails.

Water and food sources are two other items you should look for. Unless you're hunting desert mule deer, finding water is not as important as locating a food source. Deer are browsers when it comes to food, so look fo

r leafy buds, sage flats, stands of acorn-bearing oaks and new vegetation on old burn sites.

In most deer country, water is in the form of a seep or spring. Just like marking bedding areas and logging the various game trails, do the same with any seeps or springs you come across.

Most mule deer habitats have one thing in common: They're dry. The arid desert country I like to hunt in seems to be a wasteland at first glance. It took me a few years to find reliable water holes and springs that the deer would use. All of this searching taught me one valuable lesson: Big mature bucks rarely water more than every few days.

When scouting your area, look for bucks to inhabit the drier regions of your unit, most often in south-facing slopes and drainages. Scrapes and rubs are good indicators of bucks in an area. Most of the scrapes I've come across have been on scrub oak that looks like it's been torn up from top to bottom. Mule deer bucks tend to use the same tree to scrape against over and over, so if you find more than one in your area, check it out closely, since there will be multiple bucks nearby.

PATTERNING BUCKS

For pre-season scouting, a map is perhaps the most important tool and yet, it is the most neglected.

To know an area, a good USGS topographical map will save you years in time and effort. With any big-game species I hunt, after I'm armed with all the information I've marked on my field map, logged in my notebook, and marked with GPS, I like to sit down and transfer that information onto a topo map. Also, I note the time and dates on the map. This goes a long way toward helping find any pattern that a buck might be in.

The other useful information a topo map provides is the location of hiding places, hollows and pocket covers that you can't see in the field. A few years ago, I took a nice buck that I wasn't aware was even in an area I had hunted and scouted for years. Yes, my notebook and topo map were full of information on known mulie hangouts. But because writers are sometimes a busy lot, I wasn't able to spare an extra day before driving up the day before the season opened.

One long look at my map, however, revealed some pocket cover in a drainage where I'd never hunted. What was even better, I did have another spot marked nearby, so in a way, I already knew where to go.

On opening morning, I sat glassing the south slopes of the drainage and spotted my buck bedded under a cedar tree a few hundred yards away.

Many times, a buck that you have patterned a few months before the season will change his daily routine when hunting season nears. If this happens, just be persistent because within a couple of days of a disturbance, he will usually go back to his same old pattern.

The next most important tool to carry with you during the pre-season is a set of quality optics. I cannot stress this enough. Quality binoculars will make you a better hunter, but only if you use them.

I sometimes chuckle to myself when I come across another hunter with a $1,500 dollar rifle and a $500 scope and yet hanging around his neck he has a cheap pair of binoculars, or no binoculars at all.

During the last few weeks before the season starts, try to find a good vantage point to glass from. While glassing, look for any escape routes a buck might have, and potential ambush sites to cut him off if hunters from another party are a possibility. If you're on public land, you can bet on having company.

The bonus of glassing during the pre-season is, with all the other data you've gathered, you can begin to piece together a plan for opening day. With the help of your map and notebook, you can sit behind your binoculars and pattern your buck's movements.

By this stage of scouting, you should know where you plan to be on opening day. Mark it in your GPS so you can walk right there on opening day.

HIGH-TECH SCOUTING

Most of what I've covered here has gone from basic to advanced. I know of very few hunters who really put in this kind of time in scouting. But those who do are successful more times than not.

But now, you need to think about beating the competition. It's hard enough that you have to defeat an animal that's already wary of predators, but the competition I'm talking about now are carrying deer tags in their back pockets. If you want to beat out the rest of the field, you need to go way beyond simple mapping and patterning of individual bucks.

Of late, hunters have turned to computers, trail cameras and night-vision equipment to locate deer during scouting time.

Computer software is now available that lets a hunter enter a GPS coordinate, and a 3-D image of that actual area will appear. Now you can scout without leaving your office chair! These programs are easy to use and deliver the most up-to-date information available for your area. Higher-priced programs even provide aerial photos and satellite images. Advanced features include the ability to download GPS waypoints.

Trail cameras are relatively new and seem to be catching on with Western deer hunters. Find an area that shows good deer activity, strap a camera to a nearby tree, and you can set the camera to snap a picture when movement occurs in front of its sensor, day or night.

When these cameras first came out, most of them were very expensive and their photos were grainy at best. But as with all technology, after the product was been out for a while, the price came down and the quality went up. Images from the most recent cameras are good enough to field-score. Advanced options let the operator set an automatic pause on the camera, so that if one deer remains in view for several minutes, it won't use up all of the available images.

The last item for high-tech scouting is night-vision optics. Simply put, these "glasses" let you see things in the dark. This kind of high-tech equipment allows you to spot game at night or early morning, helping put together a pattern for your buck.

Obviously, you should check with your state fish and game department to make sure it's legal to use night-vision equipment on scouting trips.

I've never used this type of equipment, and most likely never will. For one thing, it's expensive. But more importantly, I like to think of myself as an old-fashioned kind of hunter who thinks the harder you hunt, the luckier you get.

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