It was a beautiful thing…the beagles were howling in the background, the deer were long gone and had migrated into the deer yards, and the layers of snowbase that had accumulated through late February were deeper than a 36″ snowshoe when it was stabbed into the blanketed frozen ground below. Another great afternoon with the “pack” as they swam through the white stuff while chasing a hare? Sure, that was always a good time. However, it was also another scouting trip into the remote swamps of MI’s Upper Peninsula. Gone were the deer trails, pellets, and scrapes…but there still wasn’t enough snow to cover up the top of a buck rub, a few tine marks on the back side of a 4″ jackpine, or even an over overhanging licking branch. It became a great game of seek and find to the point the kids were often rewarded with a candy bar for finding the first rub of the day. What better way to teach a 5 or 6 year old how to read deer sign? And if any of you are familiar with most “big woods” wilderness settings, you probably know that although deer sign is scattered and lacks the “clustering” of small cover agricultural regions…each good rub carries a lot of weight and offers potentially great insight into the wanderings of a mature buck’s puzzle of travel.
You might be thinking…”Sure, that’s common knowledge…get to the point”. Well, the point I want to make when you are scouting, whether it be your own land or public land, is that OLD SIGN is better than NEW SIGN, when figuring out your next mature buck travel puzzle. If you read on I’m going to tell you why what was at first a great time in the woods with the likes of Jeeter, Amy, Ida, and Casey…eventually turned into a time to gain an even further understanding of mature buck behaviour through reading mostly…old deer sign. Here are some basic thoughts on using old deer sign to your advantage:
1. What is the big deal with “old sign”?
*Old sign gives you a historical window into the eyes of a mature buck’s world. New sign tells you where a mature buck called home last year…old sign tells you where multiple mature bucks have called home for several years or more.
*Old sign establishes a historical pattern of use. Bedding areas, remote food sources, staging areas, and of course travel corridors are all revealed through finding old sign.
*Old sign tells you where a mature buck will be in the future. Maybe he wont be there next year, but at some point soon he will be.
*Old sign reveals the comfort level and puzzle of mature buck movement. Find old sign, understand why it is there, and use it to predict future mature buck hotspots not only in the same location, but other locations that contain the same set of variables.
2. Old sign can predict future mature buck movements, but how do you use that to your advantage?
*Some of the most basic patterns of movement include mature buck movements from feeding to bedding and back. But that can also be expanded to rutting activity, core daytime security movement during high pressure periods, and staging areas where bucks enter secluded and high quality cover areas adjacent to food sources during the evening hours. Patterns of mature buck movements are virtually the same everywhere a whitetail roams. By recognizing and reading old sign you can develop a framework of a future buck’s entire life of movements. Study old sign, apply it to the locations you hunt, learn to relate it to all of your past hunting experiences…and you will develop a pattern for not only your next mature buck encounter, but a pattern to explain all of your past, current and future encounters as well.
3. Once you develop your own pattern of mature buck movements, learn to reinforce that pattern through every past, present, and future experience.
*At first it will take some faith and a little forced confidence to rely on the pattern that you develop, but through experience that pattern will be reinforced over and over again. Never miss an opportunity to study old sign. When you are traveling down the expressway and see a cluster of rubs in a hillside of sumac…ask yourself both why and when was that sign made, in that spot. Maybe you are at the local 3D shoot and see a couple of old rubs behind a target…or possibly a fishing trip along a remote shoreline with a couple of dandy rubs…or even searching for your golfball somewhere out on the back 9 when you discover a small knoll with a cluster of mature buck sign: Ask yourself both WHY and WHEN every single time, don’t ever miss an opportunity to put all of the puzzle pieces together for mature buck movements.
4. Now that you have learned to identify Mature Buck Patterns, begin to take that pattern and apply it to every parcel you will hunt.
*It doesn’t matter if you are using a topo map, an ariel photo, or are actually scouting in the field…learn through your experiences of old sign to apply your pattern and expect mature buck movements on the land you hunt, within the pattern you expect them to move and live. For example, you will find that when you find a large food source, doe family groups will bed within the first available adequate security cover. You can typically see this from an ariel photo and when using a topo map as well you can refine your approach even more. For example…a bench above and facing a lower food source with decent cover should be full of doe sign…small and large pellets, multiple beds, etc. After finding the doe bedding look for mature buck sign leading behind and away from the food source…mature bucks will always bed BEHIND doe family groups instead of between doe bedding and food. Use old sign to confirm your pattern and regardless of the presence of new sign you can develop a solid plan of attack. The one thing that can confuse you though is that many doe family group bedding areas close to food sources double as as a staging area. You can have a great bedding area, its full of mature buck sign…and its really an area stocked full of doe family groups during the day that is NOT a mature buck bedding area. If you attempt to hunt this area you not only spoil the doe bedding…but the mature buck staging area, his movements to the area, and the bedding area from which he comes because after all…that’s probably where you now pushed the does to. Again use old sign to confirm your patterns…and keep using your experiences to refine your craft.
Unfortunately gone are the days of scouting deer with the beagles! However, I have developed that passion into a new profession throughout the last 8 seasons in that I continue to refine the patterns of my experience while exploring client properties. Every parcel is a scouting trip, every parcel offers an opportunity to learn, and every parcel contributes in some way to continually reinforce the patterns of mature buck movements. Learn to use the old sign of years past to predict the new sign of years to come and you will be well on your way to solving the puzzle of mature buck movements. And when you need to find a golfball on the back 9 because you spend more time on food plots than fairways, like me…don’t forget to turn your little misfortune into a mini scouting trip!
By Jeff Sturgis, www.whitetailhabitatsolutions.com