Pre-Season Scouting is critical for any hunter looking to kill a mature whitetail deer, especially those looking to kill deer on a regular basis. The best months for preseason scouting of deer in fields are July, August, and even into September for the first two methods listed below, the best months for the third method of scouting are January, February, and March following the previous hunting season. There are three primary means of preseason scouting:
- Scouting from the road or field edge using a spotting scope and binoculars. This is one of the most effective means of preseason scouting. Veteran hunters know that bucks of all standing need minerals for their developing racks, as well as nutrition for the upcoming rut. Soybeans, Alfafa, Clover, or any pre-season food plots visible from the road are most effective. Bucks, specifically mature bucks can be seen in the evening feeding in the fields. Just before dark can be the best time to scout, but anytime in the evening can be sufficient. Mornings will also provide a few sightings as well, but evenings are preferred. Hunters that have access to fields not visible to the road will sneak to the fields edge, always being downwind of the deer, and use their spotting gear to see the deer this way. Hunters that scout this way outside of a vehicle should be very wary of spooking dear in the process and should consider serious scent control if using this method of scouting. By far the most effective way to scout deer is from a car with a spotting scope.
- Scouting with trail cameras. Trail cameras can be a very effective way to get an inventory of the bucks in your area prior to the hunting season. The best means of acquiring good inventories of deer is through the use of trail cameras over mineral licks, food sources (beans fields, ect), water holes, deer trails, and scrapes. When possible place cameras high and out of sight at the sources; far less deer will be spooked. Running the cameras in July, August, and September should provide you with a good inventory of the deer in the area. Place cameras in various areas to get a well rounded estimate of all the different deer in the area. Three months prior to the start of deer season should be enough time to get the majority of the deer that dwell in the area. Limiting the amount of times cameras are checked is one key to getting more pictures (once every 1-2 weeks is good, waiting longer is even better). Do everything possible to remain scent free when checking cameras and keeping your cameras scent free. Avoid placing scouting cameras in buck’s core area and buck bedding areas. This is the best way to alert mature bucks of your presence. Unless of course the goal is to pin down the movements a mature buck that is very ghostly it’s wise to stay to the edges of it’s core area with camera placement. It is important to note that deer seen in pre-season scouting may not remain in the same area during the fall. As bucks split up from their bachelor groups some may travel good distances to a new area and take up residence in their fall home ranges.
- Scouting hunting land on foot following the season. When scouting this time of year the deer are already somewhat used to the presence of hunters from the previous season. More importantly this will keep disturbance of deer habitat to a minimal as the upcoming season gets closer if scouting is done just after the season. Deer sign is everywhere following the hunting season. In colder climates snow aids in discovering deer beds and trails, once the snow melts it will be easier to locate scrapes. All the rubs bucks made the previous season can also be seen this time of year. Gathering intel of deer movements, bedding areas, and rutting sign should provide an advantage in the upcoming season. The information discovered will provide new ideas regarding shooting lanes, new stand locations, and places that bucks are using during the rut. Hanging stands this time of year is preferable, or at the very least prepare trees for the upcoming season. Stands hung this early should be weatherproof stands or at least stands the hold up well to the weather. If time or quality of stands prevent from hanging stands this early attempt to hang stands mid-summer, don’t wait until right before season.
There a few primary types of sign to search for during post-season scouting:
- Locating rub lines can lead a hunter directly to bucks bedding area. Start with food sources and scan the entire perimeter, follow trails and seek to find rub lines along trails. The larger tree rubs are typically and indication of mature bucks. Follow the rub lines to buck bedding areas. Once bedding areas are found it is possible to locate other rub lines from the bedding area. This reveals a bucks primary patterns during the stages prior to the rut. Rub lines can be difficult to follow depending how often bucks rub, and the lines are rarely in a straight line.
- While following rub lines, or in the process of scouting the area there a strong likelihood of finding scrapes is high. Finding large scrape areas or areas where multiple scrapes are present is great sign. Preferably locating scrapes in thick cover is best, the more cover around scrape the more likely a mature buck would check this area during daylight hours
- Some hunters prefer to hunt buck bedding areas, others prefer to hunt scrape and rub lines. Hunting buck bedding areas is a risky tactic, but can be very rewarding if done properly. Hunting scrapes in cover is the best option, rub lines or rub clusters in cover is the next best option, and then buck bedding areas can be considered. Hunting state lands or highly pressured areas may however require hunting buck bedding areas. Private property hunters should consider buck bed hunting only if absolutely necessary, while public and heavily hunted private lands are likely to require buck bed hunting for success. Every situation is different and must be assessed at the discretion of the hunter. If hunting buck beds is the appropriate option then scout for single beds on points, hill sides, marshy areas, single beds in thick cover, or other obscure places that a buck may bed. Sometimes bucks will bed in the places you least expect near a house in thick cover that no-one ever enters, fence rows, or ditch edges. Every situation is unique and every buck is different.
- Locating natural funnels, staging areas, and doe bedding areas is also an important part of scouting a property on foot. Make every effort to locate these areas and make good note of them.
- If there are hardly any scrapes, rubs, and deer beds on a property it may be wise to seek other hunting grounds. To confirm this a trail camera during the antler growing season will confirm if the area indeed has many bucks or not.
Scouting with topographical maps. Topographical maps provide information that these other means of scouting do not always provide. This method leaves deer habitat undisturbed while allowing a hunter to narrow down which areas to spend the most time scouting. Topographical maps are best used when hunting a new area or in places where hundreds of acres and above are being hunted. Learning to scout via topographical maps is a bit of an art. Studying up on the terrain features to look for on a topographical map will aid in being a more proficient hunter with the use of topographical maps. This type of scouting should not be overlooked. Aim to constantly be on the lookout for new properties; state land or looking for new private land. The more time spent looking at topographical maps the more effective this technique becomes. Following up with actual scouting of that property after scouting via topo maps is an effective method to determine how effective you’ve become at using topographical maps.