Your Guide to Pre-Season Scouting for Iowa Deer

Your Guide to Pre-Season Scouting for Iowa Deer

Take a page from this expert's book and close the gap between you and a really successful deer season. Hawkeye State hunters need to scout if they're going to do well in 2003.

By Randy Templeton

Three nice Iowa bucks eased out of the creek bottom below and parted company when they reached the junction of two connecting ridges. The two youngest bucks, obviously 2 1/2-year-old deer, were twin 10-pointers with very symmetrical antlers. They moseyed across the opposite hillside, but kept an eye on the big boy lingering back - an 11-pointer with heavy main beams that was heading my way.

Going over an aerial photograph that summer, I had located what appeared to be a great location for hanging a stand on one of two converging ridges. In late September, I decided to slip in and hang a stand at midday. While approaching the area, a large buck suddenly leaped from his bed in a ditch and headed for higher ground. Scouting a bit before staking a claim, I discovered both ridges were littered with buck sign. My final stand position was a tough choice to make, considering there was probably a 50-50 chance of shooting the buck on either ridge.

As bad luck would have it, the big buck veered off course on a trail just 30 yards shy of comfortable shooting range. Continuing toward the other two bucks, he stopped momentarily to work over a rather large cedar tree that had already been rubbed down to the pulp. My heart sank as the bruiser slowly walked out of sight.

I've always been one to learn from my mistakes, and that was a valuable lesson learned. Later in the season, when the bucks began showing an active interest in the company of does, I slipped back in, again at midday, and moved the stand up the ridge near a saddle along a rubline comprised of forearm-sized rubs. At around 9:30 the following morning, I shot the buck at 15 paces.

The truly successful Iowa deer hunters whom I know normally point out a couple of key factors that have a significant impact on their success. First and foremost, they have a fairly clear understanding of whitetail behavior. Second, they do the majority of their scouting before the season starts. In short, they improve their odds by getting ready in the preseason, and then they make good use of that first-strike advantage.

That said, let's take a look at several strategies that will help put you in the right place at the right time before the season gets rolling.

Serious scrape activity should start in the last week in October. That's when you should move in with your stand. Photo by Randy Templeton

Have you ever planned on going out to dinner with a group of people, but one of them really slows things down? By the time you get to the restaurant, it's jam-packed, and there's an hour or more wait just to get in the door. I just hate it when that happens, because we end up going to another restaurant that's not nearly as good as the first one.

If you're wondering what any of this has to do with deer hunting, I promise to tie it in for you. All too often I hear hunters complain that they have nowhere to hunt because someone beat them to the landowner's door. In many such cases, the hunter procrastinated too long and ended up losing a place he once took for granted.

Maintaining established relationships with a landowner and gaining access to new ground is a major part of pre-season scouting. The earlier you get out, the more prepared you'll be on opening day. Procrastinate too long, and you could find yourself all dressed up with noplace to go!

If you've ever trained a young bird dog, you know how frustrating it can be the first time you cross a fence and expect the dog to follow. At best the dog learns to find the path of least resistance, such as a low spot to cross over or possibly a hole in the fence or gateway to slip through.

Similar to a dog in training, a whitetail will also learn to seek the routes offering the easiest passage. From the time of birth, adult does begin the programming process by leading their offspring around obstacles or difficult terrain features in their path.

Take deep drainages or ravines, for example. Rather than cross at the deepest point, a doe will normally lead her young along the edge of the drainage to the head, where a saddle makes passage easier. A stand located near the saddle might be your best bet for tagging a deer.

In yet another case it might be a deep stream they avoid until they find a shallow spot to cross. Multiple trails typically converge toward these shallow crossings, and setting up near the trail junction will put you in one of the most productive stand sites you'll ever find.

If you can understand how topography influences deer movement and find the terrain features that tend to funnel deer to specific points, then you've most likely found the best stand sites on that piece of dirt.

At one time, I relied totally on ground scouting, but having a better understanding of the impact terrain has on the whitetail's everyday behavior has actually reduced the amount of pre-season scouting I do now.

The old saying about a picture being worth a thousand words couldn't be truer. It was probably over 20 years ago that I discovered aerial photographs and, several years later, topographical maps. After a few years I put together and understood the correlation between terrain and the effects it has on deer movement.

The biggest advantage of using an aerial photograph or topographical map comes from having a bird's eye view of my hunting areas and being able to locate the many natural and manmade funnels without tromping over hill and dale beforehand.

While scouting I might suggest making mental or written notes of trails from bed to feed, new and old rublines, bedding areas, staging areas, food sources and terrain features that funnel deer to specific points. When returning home, transfer that information to your aerial photograph or topo map for reference when you begin planning strategy and hanging stands.

There are several means of low profile scouting, but one of the best takes place from a safe distance. In the late summer months, I sometimes hang observation stands some 200 or 300 yards from suspected feeding or bedding areas and glass during the first and last hour of daylight. The primary objective is to get a visual sighting of a buck, but it also serves to help reveal his entrance and exit routes to where he beds or feeds. With any luck at all you

'll discover a prime spot to hang your stand.

Foods come in season at specific times, and knowing where or when to be there can make the difference between success and failure! While scouting, be sure to look for early, mid- and late-season foods. Deer typically gravitate toward sweets such as wild grapes, persimmons, honeysuckle, apples, pears and the like early on. Soft mast foods have a relatively short shelf life, and the deer know it. As these foods are depleted, deer simply move on to other favorites - like acorns.

Whether they're from white oaks, red oaks, bur oaks, shingle oaks, swamp oaks, pin oaks or any other oak species, acorns will draw deer in by numbers. In Iowa, I believe white oak and red oak trees produce the most desired acorns, but that won't stop deer from seeking other species if there are none in the area.

When scouting for deer foods, don't get hung up on the aforementioned edibles. Crop fields such as soybeans, field corn, alfalfa and wheat are the main staple foods of deer in the Hawkeye State.

If you've ever sat over a rubline and never seen the maker, my guess is the buck had either been spooked off or simply changed travel patterns. Hunting rublines during the first month of the season is one of my favorite locations for shooting an uneducated buck.

Past experience has taught me that the key to shooting a buck off his rubline is doing it early in the season. When I find a fresh rubline (like last year's) with forearm-sized rubs, I'll hang a stand nearby and hunt it the same day or day after providing the wind cooperates. If the buck doesn't show within the first few days, I'll abandon the rubline - just like the buck.

Rublines identify a trail of a buck; individual rubs tell the story about the direction of travel. For example, trees rubbed on the side facing a food source are likely the morning route the buck uses after feeding and heading toward his daytime bed. Trees rubbed on the side facing away from food or toward a buck's daytime bedding area are very likely afternoon/evening trails.

After 30-plus years of hunting experience, I've come to the conclusion that, short of a visual sighting, the best way to learn about a buck's size comes from his tracks. After years of scrutinizing thousands of tracks and hundreds of dead deer, I've come to yet another conclusion worthy of mention.

Out of all those deer, only a handful of mature bucks (3 1/2 years old and older) had small feet, and even fewer young deer (2 1/2 years or less) had huge feet. Therefore, I would conclude that big mature bucks leave big tracks behind. As you scout, I might suggest keeping an eye open for tracks ranging from 3 1/2 to 4 inches (not including dewclaws) in length. These are the tracks of a mature buck.

To narrow down whether the tracks you're looking at are actually those of a buck or doe is fairly easy. Because a mature doe is narrower in the chest when compared to the hind end, her rear tracks are slightly outside of her front tracks. Bucks' tracks are just the opposite, which means he's typically wider in the chest than at the rear end, where his rear tracks are slightly inside the front tracks.

The scrapes found in early September around field edges and along fencerows have very little meaning. These edge scrapes are often referred to as boundary scrapes, which are made by bucks in their attempt to lay out territorial boundaries during the same time frame they begin establishing the pecking order among each other.

As the intensity of the upcoming rut increases, bucks begin reopening established scrapes from years past and creating new ones as well. When preseason scouting, look for bare spots under trees with low-hanging branches (licking branch) that have been nibbled the season before. Keep an eye open during the last week of October for serious scrape activity to begin and move in with a stand.

Whether you're scouting from the ground or hovering over an aerial photo, try to locate the staging areas where deer loiter before and after feeding. The amount of time deer spend in these loafing areas results in a high browse line and a lack of vegetation on the forest floor and thus makes them easy to identify.

Staging zones are typically found where security cover is within a leap and bound away. A couple of examples include points of cover or timber that extend into fields and cutbacks where a crop field recedes back into the timber.

If you find rubs and boundary scrapes inside the timber or near the entrance and exit trails to a field, then it's very likely used by at least one buck. A word of caution regarding doe staging areas: It's always best to keep a safe distance until bucks begin showing an active interest in does. Otherwise, you'll risk burning out the area too early.

A good stand is only good if you can get to and from it without getting picked off in the process. Morning stands around the fringes of feeding areas are the most difficult, mainly because the deer are still feeding and it's nearly impossible to avoid bumping a few.

While scouting, be sure to locate alternate routes that take you around primary food sources. It could be a longer walk, but well worth the extra effort. In a case where there are no alternate routes, I suggest arriving at the crack of dawn to avoid deer feeding in the fields.

Rather than hunt the edges of food in the morning, I'll choose a site that's 100 yards or more from the food source along a transition route. In doing so, there's a good chance of intercepting deer as they leave nighttime feeding areas and browse back toward daytime beds.

When scouting for stand sites, try to visualize whether you're setting up for mornings, evenings or both. Plan your strategy to hunt the area first and then hang stands. Without a doubt, most hunters will choose an afternoon hunt over mornings. There are basically two reasons. First, they can slip into their stands undetected because the deer are normally bedded further from the edge. Second, if they're hunting along transition routes, they can count on deer leaving daytime beds and browse toward the field edges an hour or so before sunset.

I would venture to say that maintaining the element of surprise is a hunter's greatest challenge, and it's generally lost in the process of putting up stands.

Perhaps the three hardest things to overcome when setting up stands are (1.) getting stands up without being spotted, (2.) getting to and from the stand without alerting deer and (3.) playing the wind game effectively. The following are a few suggestions for overcoming these obstacles.

Since the majority of deer movement occurs during th

e first and last hours of the day, consider hanging stands during the midday lull. In addition, consider taking another person along to keep an eye out while you do business. If you're spotted, leave the area and come back another time. If you hang stands early, trim shooting lanes and clear brush head-high while you're there to avoid making a second trip and leaving a snootful of scent behind.

To reduce the chance of being spotted going to and from stands, I'll use alternate routes such as low spots in the terrain, logging roads, ditches, brushy fencerows, or anything else that could help conceal my approach or departure.

Although this depends on an area's size, I normally hang a minimum of four stands in strategic locations to hunt under various wind conditions. In doing so, I'll have a safe stand to hunt regardless of which way the wind blows.

Before or after the season's under way, over-scouting is probably the biggest mistake I see hunters make each year. Each time we enter the whitetail's sanctuary we run the risk of educating deer to our every move. Therefore, I suggest you answer one simple but important question before setting foot in the woods: Are the benefits worth the associated risks, or am I just being nosy? The correct answer will speak volumes to you about your scouting habits.

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