The Perfect Whitetail Setup

Everyone has a favorite place to hunt, but the author thinks he's found a way to pick and prepare just the right site for taking deer by bow. (August 2006)

Although he wouldn't be hunting until months later, author Mark Kayser braved August's heat to set up the stand from which he arrowed this Pope & Young buck. Kayser's trophy was following a trail that the hunter had hacked out with a machete.
Photo by Mark Kayser.

Choosing the perfect setup for bowhunting whitetails is frequently like choosing the perfect truck: The glam, glitz and accessories of sportier models often pull you away from the practicality that you really need.

Top-producing whitetail stands, and particularly those intended for the ambush of trophy bucks, aren't necessarily associated with manicured food plots or virgin properties behind locked gates. Instead, the practicality of survival lures mature bucks to areas of dense cover separated by expanses of rugged or remote terrain. Trophy-grade deer may occasionally be tempted by food plots, but they regularly treat themselves only after sneaking in from the perfect hideout under the cover of darkness.

Getting that "perfect whitetail setup" together requires research and on-the-ground scouting -- chores you can't postpone until the day before the season. If you aim for success this fall, leave the fishing gear at home for a few summer weekends and spend the time preparing the area in which you mean to down that monster.

A debate on the merits of summer scouting rages in the whitetail hunting community. By fall, some argue, change has too drastically diminished the value of information gleaned in summer, leaving you hanging when the season opens; others build the entirety of their hunts on summer's observations, keying in on what's learned about bachelor groups, successful summer crops and established whitetail travel routes.

I decided long ago (with advice from seasoned experts) that summer's the time for scouting and for identifying sites for autumn's tree stands and ground blinds. Why sacrifice a weekend at the beach? First of all, by late summer, whitetails have ordinarily chosen a home territory and settled into a routine that often centers on agricultural fields brimming with deer food. Second, foliation in the whitetail woods is never denser than it is in high summer, which enables you to see clearly any alterations needed to improve access to stands or to divert deer traffic towards your stand. And finally, summer is the time of year, hunting season excepted, that brings the most human intrusion into the deer's homes, so your unwelcome surprise, however shocking, will likely be one among many, and will probably be forgotten before the season rolls around.

SCOUTING AT HOME

You can save yourself a few mosquito bites by first scouting at home in air-conditioned comfort.

Through the Internet you can find an array of satellite images of your hunting area that you can purchase for a small fee. And a topographical map can be useful for identifying ridges, coulees and waterways hidden below the leafy canopy obscuring the surface in photos from orbit.

Correlating a satellite image with the data from a topographical map will give you a good start on envisioning the lay of the land and visually picking out the funnels, pinch points and terrain features that whitetails will follow on your hunting property. Be particularly attentive to waterways, field edges, connecting arms of timber ridges and regions removed from human activity.

As you locate terrain features that may be of use to whitetails, make a note to follow up with a firsthand scouting trip. As these features hold the key to your fall ambush locations, you'll also want to expand your research to surrounding properties (without, needless to say, committing trespass). Look for the nearest agricultural activity, and for dense cover, water sources and unusual topography -- anything likely to draw whitetails from your property onto neighboring property and vice versa.

Consider purchasing a laminated aerial photograph of a targeted property, as you can write notes directly onto it with an erasable marker; I've found this a particularly helpful research aid. Do the same with your map. As you begin preparing stand or blind sites, the number of notes on your map and photograph will increase, indicating an emerging pattern that will aid you in preparing your ultimate ambush.

One of the most convenient sources of aerial maps is www.terraserver. com. Prices vary, but for $60 you can get a laminated version with a usable image size. It also pays to order a map that includes neighboring properties, enabling you to see the fences and other boundaries that deer go back and forth across to avail themselves of next-door resources. Also: Aerial photographs are widely available, but if you have a buddy with an airplane and a safe flying record, think about taking your own photo.

As for maps, companies such as Maptech offer programs, downloads and options for printing personalized maps of your hunting area. A simple map may run less than $20, whereas programs and downloadable access may be markedly pricier, depending on the amount of data you want to purchase. You can even obtain programs to download into a handheld GPS unit.

SCOUTING IN THE FIELD

Aerial photo and map in hand, start your summer scouting comfortably: Cruise around the property in your vehicle, again taking advantage of air-conditioned comfort. By this time, whitetails have bonded with any new travel routes and are firmly established in a home environment. The crops they feed on are maturing; they visit water sources regularly; their bedding areas are shrouded in the thickest cover of the season. In short, life is good, and the routine patterns that the deer follow daily at this point in the year reflect that.

By this stage of the season, bucks will have enough antler growth for you to distinguish the big boys from the average males, so it's definitely time to kick off your scouting. At dawn and dusk, conditions are favorable for catching plump, hungry bucks gorging themselves on the edges of fields and croplands. Soybeans, corn, alfalfa, small grains and other crops lure whitetails into an open environment, such that nearly every buck I've glimpsed in the summertime was feeding gluttonously on crops.

As a crop targeted by deer in the summer may well be gone before fall, look for and make note of adjacent crops that might lure whitetails throughout the hunting season. Corn and soybeans are two staples that deer feed on from late summer on well into late fall and winter.

The secret to this initial scouting effort lies in keeping your distance. By sticking to county and farm roads, you can glass field edges and corners looking

for bucks at your hunting location. Even though deer may spy your vehicle, they won't consider you a threat as long as you stay a quarter-mile or so away. Also, note any high-density populations of does. Even if you select the buck you want now, the odds are good that when the rut arrives, he'll head out with the other hormone-crazed males to seek out areas harboring estrous females.

As for glassing, any decent-quality pair of 8X or 10X binoculars will easily provide ample magnification for identifying bucks at a distance. A friend of mine recommends using an 8X model, as the wider field of view gives him more terrain to scrutinize; I tend to rely on 10X binoculars like the Nikon Premier LX, because while the field of view may be reduced, I can through careful scanning evaluate deer, only rarely having to resort to a spotting scope to decide if the buck I'm eyeing is a "keeper."

Once you gather enough evidence to pinpoint the most-used trails, fence crossings and directions of travel, it's time to get out of the truck and sneak to the field edges to confirm your remote observations. Given the moist conditions of summer, the telltale trail created by high-density travel to lush feeding fields can reveal itself rather quickly. Look for muddy tracks, matted grass and broken limbs along field edges; then, follow these signs back into cover for a total view of a whitetail's established pattern. Scent-containment clothing and rubber boots can help hold any traces of your incursion to a minimum.

If you make summer scouting an annual habit, you'll find that deer often use the same trails year after year, varying their use only in response to their perception of the best food and cover options during a particular season. I know of several hunters who establish ambush locations in the same general area year after year because it's favored by whitetails and the deer trails become permanent fixtures.

These timber-shrouded trails can also be the answer to confirming the existence of a mature buck that's unwilling to cooperate in daylight -- and for this detective work, I defer to my digital assistant. The most reliable evidence is photographic, and you obtain get that with a digital trail surveillance camera such as the Bushnell Trail Scout. By slipping into suspected travel routes and setting up a trail camera, you can record the movements that can verify a buck's preference for one trail over another. Trails leading to and from feeding and bedding areas are also top candidates for trail camera placement.

Remember not to invade a buck's bedding refuge; you don't want to chance altering his routine. Plus, stock your camera with the largest memory card and best batteries available to limit the number of times you need to invade a buck's home range.

PREP YOUR STAND SITE

In summer you view the forest arrayed in its most luxuriant wardrobe. Trees in full foliage clearly reveal the amount of trimming that needs to be undertaken for the cleanest shooting lanes and best stand cover.

Before you pick the perfect tree or nook for a stand or blind, figure out the direction of the prevailing winds during a fall hunt -- they may vary widely from what you note in the summertime. That information is available online from the National Climatic Data Center, www.ncdc. noaa.gov. Wind direction will shift throughout the season, and even in the course of a day, but if you set up your ambush site to exploit seasonal prevailing winds, you'll be able to use that position more often than not.

After ascertaining which way the autumn winds (mostly) blow, choose several sites for your ambush and prep them well before the season. Since I live in a lightly populated region and hunt largely on private land, I don't fear tree-stand theft in the summer, and so hang as many as I can then. If, however, you don't want to leave a tree stand up all summer for fear of theft or deterioration, simply prepping the setup will put hours of hunting time in your pocket. You can even put in tree stand steps if you plan on using a hanging model. And for sure get the laborious trimming of shooting lanes out of the way.

Besides cleaning out shooting lanes and adding or subtracting backdrop to a stand site, I practice the fine art of diverting deer traffic towards my stand. Like most animals (humans included), deer like to take the path of least resistance -- so make that available. Using a machete and old-fashioned muscle, I make sure the paths past my stand provide interstate-quality, no-hassle travel routes.

Do they work? You bet. At one of my favorite properties, I've chopped permanent trails through the thick brush over the years, and everything -- including whitetails -- uses them. And in four years I've taken three Pope & Young-class bucks from my machete-made trails. One of the best, a 150-incher, ignored a doe that was struggling through the dense brush to slip onto one of my trails; he went down from an easy 18-yard shot.

Another summer chore: the creation of mock scrapes. When I arrive in the fall, many of these scrapes have already been activated by eager bucks; the others I bring back to life with scents such as Hunter's Specialties Dominant Buck Urine.

Trimming shooting lanes not only makes the most noise but also leaves the most scent on the ground, so it makes sense to do it in the summer, thus allowing wind and rain to purge your traces before fall. Having eliminated the need to prepare the site, you can erect a stand in mere minutes when you arrive in the fall.

Further, summer sees a nonstop flurry of rural work: farmers in the fields, ranchers working cattle, construction workers laying pipeline. Most deer, with the exception of wilderness bucks, see a lot of humans at this time, and your temporarily unsettling presence in the woods will soon vanish from consciousness. Even a disrupted wilderness buck has time to forget about a summer intrusion, and will return to his daily pattern well before the hunting season.

A MATTER OF TIME

Overwhelmingly, time lies behind my preference for prepping tree stand sites in the summer. Who has time to do it in the fall? I'm hunting then! And when I'm not, I'm catching up on family activities and work. Even if the threat of theft prompts me not to hang a stand in a particular area, I can still have most of the preparation finished, thus speeding up the start of the autumn hunt. After all, hanging stands is easy if you don't have to scout or trim shooting lanes.

Matt Morrett, a Hunter's Specialties pro staff member, practices the art of summer stand preparation. His fall hunting schedule is a nonstop whirlwind of trips planned around capturing hunts on video all across North America. When he's not hunting, he's conducting seminars throughout the winter and spring, leaving him only the summer for truly putting in time on stand prep.

"Like everyone, my finding time to get out and prepare stand sites can be difficult," noted Morrett, "and you sure don't want to be wasting valuable hunting time preparing tree stand sites. I do most of my tree stand preparation in June and July, when I'm not on the road. That means trimming trees for stand placement and cutting shooting lanes. Even if I don't actually hang the stand in the summer, the location is

ready to go when I return for a hunt."

My latest backyard trophy fell to a summer setup. After spending most of six weeks on the road, I did an all-nighter to hunt my close-to-home properties. The first stand I chose to sit was visited by several does and fawns, but no bucks. At noon I decided to move to a stand adjacent to a "refuge" on the neighbor's property. I didn't have to wait long for action.

While hanging my daypack on a hook above me, I turned, only to see a buck and a doe running into range, quickly closing the distance from 40 yards to less than 20. Using my True Talker grunt call, I brought the buck broadside for a top-pin shot. The tall-tined 8-pointer stumbled into an opening before dropping.

Toiling a few hours during the lazy days of summer paid off with a Pope & Young trophy. Doing the same right now can be your hot ticket to hot whitetail hunting this fall.

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.