On the morning of November 11, I was nestled into a large cherry tree well before daybreak. The woods were drenched from the previous day’s rain making the woods dead quiet. After such an intense rain during the peak of the rut I knew this morning was going to be good. With the wind in my favor I felt confident that I would see some buck activity this morning. With just an hour of hunting light behind me I glanced over my shoulder and saw a nice 10 point looking at an unusual bump on the tree, me. I couldn’t believe it; he was only 18 yards away. After a long stare down he accepted me as an annoying squirrel and continued down his path.
I did everything I could to regain my composure, this one rattled me. I quickly swung into action and prepared for the opportunity. The buck already moved through my shooting lane and was starting to move down the hillside. Coming to full draw I needed to quickly pick a small hole among the tangle of brush. Everything was happening so fast and he was nearly gone, quartering away at 30 yards. I focused on his shoulder and settled my pin.
The moment I squeezed the trigger I knew my shot was off. The adrenaline rush of buck fever got the better of me and I clean missed. This was my first morning of a three-day archery hunt on a new hunting property. What a moment! Although that shot didn’t turn out with a dead buck, the encounter came together because of the many hours of scouting done almost 10 months earlier. It’s always this time of the year that I’m assessing my hunting ground and thinking about the next year, along with my annual hunting travels which take me to new hunting property in faraway locations both on public and private chunks of ground.
Traveling to new states and properties to hunt every year has taught me how to quickly and effectively scout. Most hunts on the road only last three to five days and usually only allow for one to two days of scouting during the off season. There is no time to fine tune my stands after a couple hunts. The exact right tree needs to be selected right away or I come home empty handed. Because of this constraint I approach scouting very differently. I take an extremely targeted approach to scouting. I need to understand the whole property and quickly fine tune that to the most important locations that will hold a concentration of whitetails.
When hunting property close to home, I have the luxury to go back and scout it over and over again. This is extremely effective but not always feasible. Let’s get into the most effective ways to scout so you can be in the exact right tree on the first hunt.
Scouting during the off season is more than just a walk in the woods. It’s very targeted and defined around high quality locations. The off season is a time to sort out the best travel routes, exactly where bucks are bedded, doe bedding areas, and deer sign that indicates a cluster of deer activity.
When looking over property on your couch through a mapping tool, time is on your side. You can look over the terrain features again and again regardless of how far away the property is from your home. Most often I have a hunting partner review the same maps and provide his perspective. Combining several different perspectives allows us to combine our knowledge and pick the best locations before even stepping foot on the property.
Combining the use of topographical maps and aerial photography has allowed me to get terrain changes, thickness of the area, and cover type. It’s easy to identify swamps, cover change, and terrain changes. Often aerial photography has various different years of photographs during both summer and winter months. Looking at those different pictures allows hunters to see inside the tree canopy and how much the forest changes between the different photographs. Combine these views with the maps you have on your smartphone to pinpoint areas that show significant deer sign when walking the property.
Maybe I am a bit old school, but I have decades of notes, manually written printed maps with tons of details. After compiling notes, those details help you understand the bigger picture on how deer use the property. Looking at bedding areas, rub lines, terrain, and other features quickly allows travel routes to begin to form.
Using maps helps me look over property remotely time and time again. Many mapping tools allow me to zoom in to get a fine level of detail. I can even review neighboring property to see how the terrain on their ground impacts deer movement on my side of the fence.
Boots on the Ground
One of the most exciting parts about whitetail hunting is all the hard work done before the hunt. It’s not just shooting a buck; it’s everything leading up to the hunt. A big part of this journey includes hours of putting boots on the ground, deciphering deer sign and terrain. It comes down to narrowing down thousands of trees in the forest to that exact one right tree to set up a treestand.
The first moment I walk onto a new property I visually look at the terrain and cover. I want to understand if this matches what I expected after scouring the maps. The undercover can look different and land could have been changed since the aerial photographs were taken. Then I jump right into walking the outer boundary. I start with the outer boundary to give me context of what I will encounter inside the property. This also provides information on the surrounding property, most importantly neighboring hunting pressure. While walking the boundaries I’m marking anything significant on my GPS and physical map.
After walking the boundaries, I head for locations that I already identified. These are locations that I have already marked as areas of interest from my homework. Funnels, points, swamps, changing terrain, and any significant terrain features are high on my list. Walking to these locations and then scouting the connecting locations often proves if what I saw on the map and deer sign align. At times what looks good on the map is not a good hunting location. In these situations the terrain, forest cover, or hunting pressure is often the culprit causing a location to be less than ideal. Boots on the ground is the only way to confirm or bust a location.
Once I validate a location has good deer traffic and rut activity I follow all the sign and travel routes in every direction. I want to know where the deer are going and where they are coming from. It’s important to do this on all the trails that are passing through these locations.
I’m specifically looking for clusters of sign where everything funnels down to within bow range. After three decades of preparing stands, I start to get a feeling when I’m scouting. That feeling comes when I see some significant fresh sign, a thick cover, multiple terrain features funneling down activity, and rut sign. It’s not always all of those things combined but the more combinations along with a higher concentration of deer activity is ideal. That is when I start to get extremely excited about the potential.
After getting a good understanding of that location I move onto the next locations that I have pre-marked on my maps. I bounce from place to place repeating my targeted scouting until I have visited every location.
Ranking Stand Locations
After scouting each location I rank them from highest to lowest potential. It is imperative to scout the entire property before setting any treestands. It is easy to get excited when you find a couple big, gnarly rubs. The kind that have lots of broken brush and deep groove marks made from a truly mature whitetail. However, what you think is a hot stand location might lead into a much better spot that intersects several additional deer trails.
Rank the stands from highest to lowest. With limited hunting time scheduled, I only want to hunt treestands that provide me daylight big buck activity. I never want to hunt a place that is just okay or a secondary treestand. So many hunters settle for inferior locations; I just cannot settle. If I don’t have a high quality treestand and have the confidence in that exact location then I will never put in the hours on stand.
Deer hunting is both physically and mentally tough. Sitting all day in the cold, windy conditions is not worth it unless you have the confidence of seeing a buck that will make your heart skip.
Picking the Exact Tree
After all that work now comes the hardest part of scouting. It’s time to narrow a general hunting location down to the exact right tree. When scouting I’m always looking for a tree that is within thirty yards of every runway. I never want to be on the trail, which is too close. Stay on the downwind side of the majority of the sign. I often hunt with a tree saddle making my setup highly portable and flexible. This type of a setup allows me to hunt the best location which is very different than hunting the best tree.
It’s so important to find a tree that can be accessed without crossing your deer trails and be placed on the downwind side. If I have to cross deer trails I make it as few as possible. And never do I cross the primary deer trail that has lots of doe activity. Whitetails have outstanding noses and crossing trails is a recipe for disaster.
I want a tree that has some type of cover or backdrop. It’s important to avoid being silhouetted. Oak trees hold their cover much longer and are outstanding trees for hunting. If leaf cover is not possible then larger branches, clusters of trees or larger tree trunks are ideal. Without any of those options, then going extra high is your next best choice. Make sure deer are walking past you; deer walking directly at you will cause them to quickly spot you in the tree; another headache that you’ll want to avoid.
Even after spending all of this time picking the right tree I am always open to a quick move. If deer are out of range after my initial hunt then I’m moving. Even moving a couple trees over can make a huge difference. I often find after a season of hunting that fine-tuning a stand is necessary. It might be a great stand but I’m not willing to settle until it’s in the perfect location.
Postseason scouting is a significant part of the deer hunting journey. This is the time of the year when I have the luxury to spend as much time as needed figuring out how to become a more successful whitetail hunter. The most exciting part is when I’m scouting new property. On new ground you never know what you’ll find; the next awesome treestand location or a buck of a lifetime. Scouting by using maps, then putting boots on the ground, ranking each location, then finally selecting the exact right tree will make you an extremely effective whitetail hunter.
You’re no longer walking through the woods hoping to find something interesting. Instead the time spent is a calculated approach and extremely accurate. You’re pinpointing what should be the hottest locations beforehand giving you extra time to fine-tune the exact tree you want to spend hours hunting during the November whitetail rut.