By Milton F. Whitmore
Scouting is an integral part of my yearly deer hunting experience. I get as much pleasure from finding new hunting areas and then plotting the perfect ambush as I do from the actual hunt. Living "up north" in deer country allows me to spend time driving and hiking in areas with the potential to produce whitetails. However, for those who aren’t so fortunate, deer scouting can be coupled with other activities such as trout fishing, mushroom hunting and family vacation or weekend trips. For those of you who live in southern Michigan, an evening ride with the wife and kids can pay dividends.
A few years ago, through judicious preseason scouting I discovered a "honey hole" for whitetails. In reality it took me only a few hours to locate the stand site that I still consider to be the perfect spot.
Let me take you through the process.
I was looking for a new bow hunting area and a large section of state land in northeastern Manistee County was my target. Large stretches of timbered land was broken up by oil/gas wells and the threads of 2-track roads that lace such public property. I had gun hunted a good deal of the land back in the 1970's, but an unsavory experience with another hunter stole a large buck I had shot on one Opening Day, had turned me off to this particular country. The intervening years had soothed the sordid tale, and I was ready to explore it’s potential for bowhunting. Here's some Deer Scouting Tips :
#1: Deer Tracks and Sightings
Driving along the sandy 2-tracks offered opportunities to judge hot spots by the numbers of deer tracks crossing the winding double-rutted forest lanes. It’s one thing to find tracks and see deer, but remember, whitetails focus on wind as a defense mechanism. I vary my driving time to include both morning and evening, not only to get an idea as to what time the tracks are put down, but also to increase the likelihood of seeing the deer that make the tracks. It took less than an hour of slow driving to show me where the deer were concentrated. On this occasion I had begun to scout during the previous deer season and on into December. Further short trips during the next summer and early autumn would confirm the density of the whitetail population was what I was looking for. I had narrowed my scouting area down to less than a mile square.
#2: Sixth Sense
If a deer possesses this innate and ill-defined trait, then, to a certain extent, so do we. Sometimes a spot that shows heavy deer use just doesn’t "feel right". The more scouting and hunting experience the individual has, the more finely tuned will be this "sixth sense". Sometimes this mysterious entity is triggered by the smell, the very odors of an area. Other times it is the "look" and or "feel" of a parcel of landscape. Don’t ask me to explain, but it is real.
#3: Bedding Areas
Contrary to popular belief, bedding areas are not always found in the thickest, densest cover, not even for trophy sized bucks. Notice, I said "not always". A bedding area must meet the discriminating whitetail’s requirements for security. Odor differentiation is the primary weapon of defense. The eyes and ears also play a role, as does that mysterious "sixth sense" that all wild deer, especially those who have seen recurring hunting seasons, seem to possess. Deer will enter and leave their bedding area using the wind to test for danger. Be careful trying to read a deer’s travel direction by focusing on the tracks to and from these bedding sites. Deer will ALWAYS travel with their nose directly or quartering into the wind when coming to or leaving daytime cover. This means they may amble their way in a roundabout travel pattern, entering the cover with their nose pointing in the direction of their main travel lane. They merely took a circuitous route into the bed site in order to use the wind as it was affected by the terrain and trees. The same can be true of their exit route. They will travel into the wind when leaving, but circle around to quarter their way towards their destination as they travel.
#4: Feeding Areas
Food sources are a key and the hunter must be attuned to what titillates a deer’s palate and it’s availability in a given area or year. A mast crop of acorns will draw whitetails for miles, but every year doesn’t produce a crop of these delectable nuts. Find the feeding areas, keeping in mind the "nose to wind" rule of whitetail travel. Once you have located the bedding and feeding area the travel routes between them are fairly easy to find.
#5: Travel Lanes/Runways
A hike of 30 minutes can reveal the presence of runways. Deer tracks will confirm their use. The main herd in an area will use the primary travel lane. Older does, and bucks, particularly those that are over two years old, will use secondary runways that parallel the main route from up to one hundred yards off to the downwind side.
#’s 6 & & 7: Terrain and Vegetative Edges
Deer travel is dictated by a combination of wind (most important), terrain, and vegetative edges, as well as the destination, be it a feeding area, bedding area, or some spot associated with breeding activity. Ridges are favored lanes, especially just over the brow of the ridgetop on the side opposite the wind. The deer uses it’s nose to cover the non-travel side of the ridgetop and its eyes and ears to detect danger on the side on which they’re moving. Edges created by changes in tree species or brush growth are also favored. A line of pine trees bordering lower, more brushy vegetation will usually have a runway that scoots along the edge created by the change from pines to brush. In one area, near the Udell Hills here in Manistee County, a runway of heavy use meanders along the edge created by the change from red pines to white pines. These were trees planted in the 1950's and they are getting quite mature. Yet, over the years, whitetail travel has been governed by this change of tree type.
#’s 8 & 9: Buck Rubs and Scrapes
Buck rubs are made in late August and through the breeding season. They are signposts marking, not only the presence of an antlered whitetails, but also their travel lanes, more or less. I put less importance on buck rubs, except when finding a very large tree that is rubbed higher than is normal. This signals the presence of a dominant buck, which always gets my blood moving just a bit faster.
A scrape or better yet, a scrapeline, if your target is "bucks only", can give invaluable information. However, most scrapes are only revisited irregularly, if at all. It is the true breeding scrapes, found in areas of, what else, heavy doe concentrations, that are prime.
#10: Prevailing Winds
There is no amount of scouting, cover scents, clothes soap, body soap, baking soda, scent lock clothing, tree stand height, etc. that will overcome a deer’s nose. All of these can help diminish human odor, they will not eliminate it with 100% effectiveness. If the prevailing winds are generally from some westerly direction, which is common, you will need to find an area where the movement from bedding to feeding to reproductive areas is from the west to the east or at a minimum quartering upwind of a stand’s location.
In tallying your total points you might arrive at nine after reviewing #’s 1-9. However, if #10, the wind factor, is a negative, then the sum total of all other conditions is negated. There is no way around this basic fact of deer survival.
The Perfect Ten!!
My version of the perfect bowhunting stand offered all of the above. What’s more, it had an old oil well drilling site, which had overgrown with weeds, grass, and scattered small pines. This open area presented the deer with a dilemma. Their travel route brought them to the opening, of about 3 acres, and rather than cross the break in the tree/brushline, they skirted the edge. This took deer approaching from that direction out of my scent cone laid down by the prevailing winds. What is more, scattered about the area were several tall white pine trees. I’ve always favored evergreens for tree stands, because of their consistent covering of green.
From this stand I’ve taken at least one buck every bow season. None of them have been wall hangers. As a matter of fact, I’ve never seen a buster buck from the stand. The largest being a deer sporting 8 pts. On what appeared to be a spread of about 12 inches.
What it offers are consistent opportunities to see deer and to harvest them, be they buck or doe.