It Isn't the Same As Scouting Everywhere Else
I've found that scouting, no matter how much I disliked it in the past, is now not only necessary but crucial to success. That's why I think it is so important to go beyond the basics, into what I affectionately term as, "Scouting 201." This is scouting beyond the realm of the standard and involves a lot more time and effort. It takes almost the entire year and here is how I personally break it down, in the Northeast.
After being cooped up all winter I like to rid myself of cabin fever by heading out around late March and scouting through April. It's a great way to put yourself back in touch with the outdoors and you can learn a lot because any sheds you find are usually dropped in a buck's home or core area. If you have a particular hunting area in mind, it's easy to locate deer trails, as they will be exposed now, and a great time to ascertain the area by following these trails to see where they lead and where they come from, namely old feeding and bedding areas.
Take along a notebook, a compass, and whenever possible, both a topographical map and an aerial photo of the terrain you are walking. In today's high-tech world, a GPS would be an excellent tool as well. Make notes on food source locations that may have been used heavily during the previous season, as well as land-marking bedding sites. By going online and ordering a custom map with a water resistant coating, you can use fine, differently colored markers to draw your own symbols as references from your field notes. Also, be checking for fresh tracks as they will tell you the class of deer using the area.
Another huge plus of scouting at this time is locating rubs and scrapes. Because of winters long, cold deep-freeze, most everything will have been pretty well preserved. After the snow has gone, this sign will look almost as good as when it was made, and will reveal plenty to the seasoned eye.
Late July and August, though extremely hot, are the next two months I like to focus on scouting. Having already determined my general hunting areas, I now switch to actual observations of live deer, or at least, that's the plan. I do this through the use of good camouflage and liberal amounts of scent free products and gear. Step one would be to cruise the open field edges for fresh trails. They will be extremely easy to spot since the vegetation, thick this time of year will be laid down and pushed apart, revealing tunnels.
Once I've found several, it's time to step back and use the prevailing winds and breezes to my advantage to pick an observatory site. This site will be my hiding spot, be it on the ground or in a tree, where I will sit both at dusk and again at predawn. At dusk the deer, unpressured this time of year, will appear from specific trails to feed in the cool of early evening. It's a great time to observe movement and size up the type of deer in your area.
At dawn, any deer left feeding through can be caught leaving these fields on their way to bed up, away from the heat of the day. Again, take that same notebook from April and mark down everything you see and hear and if you can afford to, begin setting up several trail cameras and timers to help pinpoint movement in specific areas. If you are a bowhunter, you have increased your chances for success tenfold, in that you now have a good working knowledge of what's going on in your spots. If you're primarily a gun hunter, (like me), you are on the road to success but still have a lot of scouting left to do.
Early Fall and Pre Season
September. This is a great month to begin scouting out the buck sign. Here in the north-northeast, scrapes appear this month in much of the northern climes and those observatory stands from August can often reveal a lot. Maybe even a good buck that you decide is worth 100 percent of your attention from this point on. What I like to do now is focus on the areas and trails I have already determined are travel routes and if I have done my homework, I now know what some of the general patterns are.
These will begin to change rapidly as the season progresses and food sources start to shift, and it will become paramount by late September to keep track of any buck sign, note it, and follow it, yet try and keep out of the core areas. It's far better to rely more heavily on glassing now than trying to get too close. Too little scouting now and I risk losing track of the fresh sign. Too much and I will spook the deer into changing their habits before its time.
One good point to remember now, (and to mark in your notebook upon discovery), would be the appearances of any and all rubs. The bigger, more substantial bucks will rub sooner than the younger groups and if you are a trophy hunter you will want to take special note of these above all others.
By the time the real pre-rut season hits (October in the Northeast), you should have a pretty good idea of what's going on in your neck of the woods, and a solid plan of attack covering several different geographic locations. Be it a hardwood ridge that fits squarely into the range you scouted or a deep dark cedar swamp that seems to have swallowed up all the deer movement, you now can use your outdoor sense and old fashioned "woodsmanship" to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Some may call it making "an educated guess"! Come Opening Day, though deer hunting is in no way a definitive science, you have now increased the odds highly in your favor, using skill and determination to put you at the very least in the direct vicinity of good deer movement.
Let's not forget that deer season itself becomes yet another crucial time to scout, especially when your "hotspots" have suddenly gone "cold". What causes such spells? There are a number of answers to this, ranging from a shift in food sources, unseasonably warm temperatures limiting daytime movement, etc., or in my case, (and locale), severe hunting pressure.
LaCrosse Aerohead Sport in Realtree Xtra
You have to remember that the rut itself is challenging enough already, and when you throw too many hunters into the mix, well, deer movement, expected or otherwise, becomes a game of almost complete chance. Sometimes, when deer just don't seem to be moving, there may be a reason. The choice is yours as to sit it out or move to another spot. In-season scouting is vastly overlooked by many hunters because it requires taking the "active initiative", and in doing so, you risk spooking area deer you were unaware of.
Deer season is over. What to do? I make it a point to hit the woods within the first couple weekends after the last gun is fired, primarily because everything is extremely fresh and the woods are open. Any and all shooting lanes are clear and all the sign from a month ago remains in full view and ready for scrutiny. If you're like me, you made a few mistakes during deer season, and if so, now is a great time to take a deep breath and start over.
It's at this time of year that I like to not only review my notes from this past season but also head out and examine the surrounding areas for extra sign. More often than not, I will locate sign I never saw before. If I plan on hunting that same area next season, now is the perfect time to refine my notes.
Another very productive approach to this post season scouting is the direct entry into the very cover you sought to avoid in the preseason, that you believed held good deer. Since they'll have a whole year to calm down, now is the time to break right through the thickest patches of brush on your properties. Good bucks often disappear into thin air once the shooting starts and there can be several reasons for this, as we mentioned before. In any event, they pulled a vanishing act and other than being spooked off your property completely, you need to know where they went.
Combining your aerial photos with what you've learned from an entire year of scouting, you should be able to locate those extremely brushy thickets and areas that appear to be almost impenetrable to human entry. Before busting through the front door so to speak, I would first take my compass and walk completely around whatever "perimeter" there is to such a place, trying to locate a trail leading into, (or out of), that spot. By so doing, you have most probably found the one trail that was used as the secret escape route of one or more good deer. Hence, a spot for yet another new stand site.
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