Guides' Guide to Pre-Season White-Tailed Deer Scouting
August 06, 2018
A trio of whitetail guides and outfitters divulge some of their secrets to successful pre-season deer scouting.
Everyone knows the Boy Scout Motto â€” "Be Prepared."
These two simple words make sense, not only for the Scouts, but for everyone everywhere. It never hurts to be prepared.
Whitetail hunters aren't too terribly different from those who proudly wear the uniform of the Boy Scouts of America. They're prepared; or at least they should be. Food plots, landowner permission, clothing, archery equipment, firearms, ammunition, optics. Even down to their very own personal health and well-being.
But for the whitetail enthusiast, nothing says preparation as much as scouting. And no one is more concerned about this detailed collection of information than are the guides and outfitters â€” the men and women who stake their careers and their livelihoods on what they do or don't see prior to opening day.
But, and as simple as it sounds, scouting whitetails is a bit more involved. Today, there's strategy. Technology. Planning and precision. And scent elimination down to an almost molecular level. No, sir â€” 21st century pre-season scouting is more, much more than merely wandering around looking for tracks and rubs and such. Or is it?
Here, a trio of whitetail guides and outfitters divulge some of their secrets to successful pre-season scouting. It's advice worth minding because opening day is just around the corner, and the question is: "Are you ready?"
HEARTLAND PRIDE OUTFITTERS
Thirty-year-old Cody Kuck is a native Nebraskan now living in Colorado. He, along with his business partner, Jorden Schwarz, operates Heartland Pride Outfitters on over 100,000 acres in northwest and southeast Kansas and the western part of Nebraska. Mule deer, antelope, coyotes, upland birds and, most recently, waterfowl are all on the menu; however, it's big honkin' whitetails that Kuck and his guides focus on primarily.
"You're definitely behind if it's September and you haven't done a lot of scouting," said Kuck without hesitation. "I know a lot of people say this, but all of our scouting begins as soon as the season ends. This year (2018), we spent the month of March in Kansas picking up sheds, setting up water tanks and getting mineral sites ready. We get moving," he continued, "just as soon as the weather gets nice. Right before we start turkey hunting. If we waited until September, we'd be way behind."
Across the board known as life, mistakes are easy to make. And there's no harm in an honest mistake. Mature whitetails, however, not only make very few, if any mistakes, but they don't tolerate them very well, particularly those made by the human predator. But hunters make them, nonetheless, with many of these erroneous decisions coming as the scouting process unfolds.
"If you're going to kill mature whitetails in that 5- to 7-year-old range," said Kuck, "you can't be knocking on his door. Or even letting him know you're in the county. You've got to tiptoe around those big bucks. If you think he's in Spot A, you don't want to be in there when he is. If," he continued, "you start educating him in September, and you're still hunting him in December, he's going to have picked up on all your games. You find that big buck; you draw a big red heart on your map. That's where you want to stay out of."
So how is it a hunter gets the information he or she needs without making any of these so-called mistakes?
"You need to find that balance," said Kuck, "and find out when and how scouting is going to work for you. We do all our scouting (in Kansas) when it's hot and windy. Rather, we're not checking cameras or filling feeders at 5:30 pm when these deer are getting up for the evening. We're going in between 10:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. when it's hot and windy. Hopefully, that buck has his head down in the grass and he's sleeping. He has no idea we're there. We're checking cameras, and we're playing the wind. It's simple; if the wind's wrong, we don't check that camera that day. We ease in, and we ease out."
Long before Kansas' early muzzleloader season opens in September, Kuck has his scouting complete. His guides are online. They've studied hours of video and hundreds of digital images. They've posted stand locations, property boundaries and water and food sources to the huntstand.com app on their smartphones and tablets. Everything's done, save for putting the hunter in the stand.
"We do all our heavy lifting during turkey season," said Kuck, referring to the actual hanging of stands and stand preparation â€” e.g., trimming shooting lanes. "Then come August and two or three cool mornings, we'll do all the detail work. We'll double check (stand) straps and install lifelines (safety harnesses). If there's anything else to do," he added, "it's minor, and we take care of that when we put the hunter in the stand."
SUPERIOR GUIDES & OUTFITTERS
Eight hundred miles to the north and east of Kuck's outfit and along the shores of Lake Superior near Ashland, Wisconsin, 49-year-old Mike Noskoviak operates Superior Guides & Outfitters, where, for the past 26 years, he's specialized in pursuing big woods whitetails and black bears.
When he's not guiding, Noskoviak is a land specialist working with the Illinois-based Whitetail Properties (whitetailproperties.com), a unique real estate agency that helps unite prospective landowners with the property of their dreams.
Like Kuck, Noskoviak spends a goodly portion of the hours he's not working with clients, guided or otherwise, searching out that next big buck prior to the season. And again, like Kuck, the Badger State outfitter believes improper scouting techniques are in part to blame for making whitetails wise long before opening day.
"Intrusion," Noskoviak said, "is what screws a lot of people up. They're walking all over creation and disturbing everything. Hanging cameras haphazardly. All this does is create unnecessary pressure, and it makes these big bucks even more nocturnal. The best thing (a hunter) can do is to stay out as much as possible. Use a light approach. Low impact. Leave the bedding areas alone and try to get your information from the edges. A lot of people," he continued, "are just too aggressive."
A long-time trapper and dedicated bear hunter, Noskoviak understands well the importance of minimizing human scent when dealing with furbearers and big game animals. Too often, many outfitters will say, hunters who ordinarily practice a very rigid scent elimination regime prior to sitting a stand will neglect the same process during the days and weeks spent scouting. "I would definitely be careful about laying down scent while you're scouting," said Koskoviak. "Wear rubber boots. Gloves. The less scent you lay down, the better. With these mature bucks, it all makes a difference."
Almost surprising in this 21st century age of electronic this and mechanical that, Noskoviak has adopted an old school approach to both the way he hunts and the manner in which he scouts pre-season. "I'm a big fan of topographical maps," he said. "Aerial photography, too, but in a secondary sort of way. I'm partial to topographical maps. I can look at a piece of ground on a topo map, study it and have a few really good spots (to look at) the next morning. I like to do my research," he continued, "and then I'll go look at an area just once. If I find something that I like, I'll set it up. And I won't keep going back again and again. You're just hurting yourself by doing that."
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BRUSHY FORK OUTFITTERS
Bryan Dawes, a 37-year-old father of four, owns and operates Brushy Fork Outfitters, a full-service guiding business headquartered in Central Ohio's Licking County, an area known for its exceptional whitetail herd as well as for producing plenty of heavy-horned bruisers. With over 12,000 private acres under this thumb, Dawes, now in his eighth season, works countless hours to ensure everything's in order come Ohio's archery opener in October, with scouting being priority one.
Dawes cuts to the chase when it comes to balancing the art of procuring the necessary information with a low-impact approach to scouting. "The key," he said, "is to limit access. Put out mineral sites (an attractant) that have some longevity to them. Run 32-gig memory cards in the cameras. If you're putting out 50 pounds of corn every three days, like a lot of hunters do, that buck is patterning you more than you're patterning him. You're promoting nocturnal activity as opposed to diurnal."
Dawes continued, "We do a lot of glassing from the roads. All we need to know is these deer are on the property. I don't need to know every little detail about their feeding times. We know he's on the property, and then we do things to keep him on the property. In short, it's limiting access."
For Dawes, scouting does begin at home. "We use technology," he said, "in the form of aerial photographs and topographic software. We mark the most likely areas, and then we go in and we find that perfect tree. A lot of interpreting this information is a no-brainer. All that immature growth and scrub you find on the aerials? It's easy to see, and we stay out of there. It's designated a sanctuary. Then, we hunt the edges."
Homework, then, parlays into more in-depth field study. "Cameras definitely have changed the way I scout," said Dawes. "And it goes back to this idea of limiting access. Cameras, too, help limit the pressure we put on our individual properties. We focus on target animals. And if a particular property doesn't have a target animal, we limit or shut down access, effectively creating a block of sanctuary (ground) that may attract a target animal in the future."
The use of scent elimination strategies, as well as good, old-fashioned illusion, is also written into Dawes' pre-season playbook. "It's mandatory we spray down and wear rubber boots while accessing properties to retrieve trail cameras," said Dawes. "Another rule we have is to leave our ATVs running while we access camera and stand locations. I don't feel as if the sound of those vehicles is a threat; rather, it's almost soothing. Like someone just doing work on the property. Farm equipment, perhaps."
The mantra "Don't let him know you're there" seems to be a common denominator among whitetail professionals when the topic turns to pre-season scouting. A low-impact approach works best, they say. This is walking a fine line between creating a disturbance and getting enough information so as to hang and hunt a stand in the most efficient and effective manner possible. It's a fine line, to be sure, but one capable of being trod by those who are, per the Boy Scouts, prepared, thanks to successful scouting strategies.