Becoming a Student of Whitetail Deer – By Steve Bartylla
Part 3: A Seasonal Guide To Hunting White-Tailed Deer
Whenever I start thinking about bowhunting, my mind eventually drifts to the last few weeks of prerut. There is simply no other time I would rather be sitting in my favorite stand than during this brief phase of the white-tailed deer’s life. By this point, most of the insects are gone, the temperature is crisp, but not frigid, and the forest is putting on its annual art exhibit.
What really makes this time of year special for me is the fact that the bucks are feeling the effects of the coming rut.
The increased testosterone levels that the bucks are experiencing are the hunters best friend.
At this point, the mature bucks are laying serious scrape lines and are working themselves into a frenzy in anticipation of what is to come.
Along with this comes increased daylight movement that is more easily patterned then earlier in the season.
Most active scrape lines tend to appear in the same locations year after year. The deer tending them change, but the lines themselves stay the same. The reason for this is that a scrape serves as a sign post and sign posts are most useful when they are predominately displayed. Therefore, serious scrape lines consistently appear in areas where the makers believe they will achieve the best results.
SETTING UP ON SCRAPES
As I alluded to earlier, I prepare my stands months in advance of this stage of the season. Providing the deer several months to become accustomed to the changes created by erecting a stand gives them ample time to become calm down before I hunt it.
When choosing a specific tree, several criteria must be met:
Choose an area, within the woods, that serves as a hot bed for scraping activity. The edges of some farm fields are scraped pretty hard during this phase, but the majority of this activity occurs after dark.
Scrapes covered should be primary scrapes – scrapes used by more than one buck. These are commonly located in funnels, on logging trails and trail crossings.
The location must have an acceptable travel route to and from my stand. The best stand in the world is of little good if my entrance or exit ruins the location.
The tree must be located twenty or thirty yards on the downwind side of the scrape line. This enables me to cover the scrapes along with putting me in a position to harvest most of the bucks that are scent checking them from a distance.
Once I have located a situation that meets these criteria, I’m ready to do some serious hunting.
One of the most common pitfalls, to be avoided during this phase, is mistakenly setting up on a random scrape.
Just like food sources, not all scrapes are created equally.
Some mature bucks litter the land with random scrapes they never intent to revisit.
Most of the scrapes made by yearling bucks are also not worthy of setting upon.
In both cases, these random scrapes are to be classified as just another way for the bucks to alleviate the testosterone buildup and frustration that they are experiencing.
Once again the spring scouting trips provide the first answers to which areas are to be taken most seriously. However, if you find a new area that is being scraped, it is wise to monitor it and don’t hesitate to consider it an option if it is being consistently reworked. One of the keys to this entire seasonal approach to hunting is to develop as comprehensive of a game plan as possible but always remain open to adjustments.
Another trap many bowhunters fall into is hunting over scrapes that are no longer being tended by mature bucks.
Research conducted on this topic, and my own experiences, have taught me that mature bucks religiously tend their scrapes for a relatively short two or three week period In the northern regions of their habitat.
Once the breeding phase begins, they are preoccupied with chasing does and may end up many miles away from the scrape line they previously tended so diligently.
Even when they remain in the area, their movements are now dictated by the does and their lines take a back seat to this.
Of the original group of bucks that were tending the scrape line, only the sexually immature ones continue to tend the line consistently. Mature bucks will also continue to scrape during the rut, but they tend to create random scrapes that are generally not worthy of setting upon.
Because of this, I believe hunting over scrapes is a hit and miss proposition during the rut. By carefully monitoring the size of the tracks in the scrapes I am hunting, I can decide when its time to change my tactics in order to avoid hunting stale scrapes.
The last pitfall that seems to occur revolves around putting up stands this time of year.
Although I prefer to have my stands in place well before I hunt them, there are occasions when last-minute stand placement is necessary.
When done correctly, placing a stand can have a minimal effect on the resident deer. When done incorrectly, many times the resident deer will change their patterns to completely avoid this area.
The keys are to erect the stand at midday, limit your odor, stay away from bedding grounds, and create as minimal of a disturbance to the environment as possible.
When placing stands that are intended for immediate use, clearing big shooting lanes is out of the question.
Removing as few branches as possible should be the goal. Because of this, the coverage area is usually limited, but this is much better than the alternative.
When I was young I heard a good comparison that made me take this seriously.
How many times do you think someone could come into your home while you were away before you would know something was going on?
What if they rearranged some of your furniture?
How many times could someone sneak into your house while you were asleep without you realizing it?
How long could someone hide in your house before you noticed?
This is what we are trying to do every time we put up a stand, scout during season or hunt.
That series of questions really forced me to analyze how I thought I could get away with rearrange the woods for my stands and then hunting them over and over again while still expecting to see deer. I used to believe that if I sat in the same stand every night for two weeks without seeing deer that my odds of getting one the next night was good. After all, the deer that made that nice runway had to come through sooner or later. Thank heavens those foolish days are over.
PULLING TRICKS OUT OF YOUR HAT
The other exciting aspect of this stage is pulling tricks out of your hat. Now the bucks will start to respond to the gimmicks. Tempting them with mock scrapes, scent trails, grunts, and rattling antlers are all nice diversions during this period. Not only do I achieve personal satisfaction from having deer respond to these stimuli, if done properly, they can also be very effective methods of harvesting deer.
While hunting during this phase I almost always tinker around with scrapes.
The two ways I doctor scrapes are to either create a mock scrape from scratch or juice up one that is already present. Regardless of which I choose to do, the purpose behind this is to draw the deer’s attention long enough for me to get a quality shot. Because of this, I choose to doctor existing scrapes when one is already in a position that provides a good shot. When this is the case, I simply apply a douse of dominate buck urine to the scrape itself.
If I can not find a suitable stand within shooting distance of an existing scrape, I will then create a scrape of my own.
I do this by creating a circular patch of dirt, three feet in diameter, with a licking branch hanging slightly to the inside. The licking branch should be around five and a half feet off the ground and drooping slightly downward. If this branch does not exist, I create one by attaching a branch to the tree.
Once the branch and scrape are in place, I once again apply to dominate buck urine. Hopefully, a buck that is passing through the area will either be attracted to the appearance of a new scrape or the odor of another buck.
Bucks are not pleased with their territory being invaded by another buck during this time of the year. Often, they approach the scrape to take a closer whiff of the competition. I have found both these tactics very useful in holding the attention of a deer that otherwise would have breezed through without offering me a good shot opportunity.
Laying scent trails with the intent of drawing deer is not my favorite thing to do.
My approach to bowhunting is to try not to draw attention to myself.
I carefully choose the routes to my stands in an effort to avoid crossing paths with the deer I intend to hunt.
When presented with a stand that’s “too good to pass up” but does not provide a low key approach, I always lay a scent trail.
Researchers can’t seem to agree on the exact magnitude of how much more powerful a whitetail’s sense of smell is than humans. What they do agree on is that their sense of smell is almost incomprehensibly stronger than ours. Sensory input from odors travels directly to a portion of their brain that drives their reflexes. Because of this, a whitetail’s first reaction to odors is a reflex reaction. This fills them with the irresistible urge to bolt when they encounter odors that they associate with emanate danger. They depend heavily on this sense to provide many daily functions in their life.
These functions include identifying offspring from the odor in their tracks, sniffing out food through the snow, and locating hot does, to name just a few.
With such a reliance on this sense, I believe when a deer encounters the path of a human they are immediately put on alert.
Even when if no human scent is left on your trail, unnatural odors are still present. Freshly broken grass, twigs, leaves, and upturned dirt indicate something has passed through. It is not natural for these odors to occur without another odor explaining what caused them.
For this reason, I always apply animal urine to scent pads on my boots. The technique provides an answer to what caused the other odors. When laying a scent trail with the idea of drawing deer, I apply an estrous doe lure to my boot pads and do a half-circle around my stand at a distance of twenty yards.
When making the final approach and half circular it is important to choose a route that provides good angles and opportunities for the shot. This technique serves the dual purpose of supplying answers to what went through, along with drawing the attention of passing bucks.
The approaches I take to grunting and rattling are one and the same. I try to position my stands so these endeavors are not needed during this stage of pre rut.
Pure grunting and rattling are performed in moderation, done in combination and save for midday hours.
A typical scenario would be a stand setup in the woods at some time between ten AM and four PM.
I begin with a series of four intense grunts followed by thirty seconds of light rattling and ended with a couple more grunts.
This act is not repeated more twice an hour and helps to stir a little life back into the woods.
I also utilize grunting and rattling in an attempt to bring bucks in that I can see but are not venturing my way. For example, If I locate a buck that is patrolling a ridgeline sixty yards away, once it is apparent he is not going to come within shooting distance, I will get his attention with several tending grunts. If he is still resistant to my call I will change to a doe mew.
My last resort is to rattle.
When performing these acts, I am always careful to do this when the buck is looking away and showing no sign of approaching me. These little tricks help to break up the monotony of long days and, when done correctly, can really bring results.
The final stage of pre rut is like no other during the season. It provides the last opportunity to harvest that mature buck you have been patterning before the fury of the rut sends him into the next county. Buck sign suddenly litters the woods in areas that were previously void of such sign. This is an outstanding time of the year to be in the woods and to harvest white-tailed deer.
This is also the period that the hunters, that have done their homework, excel. Unlike the rut phase where hunters tend to get “lucky,” being consistently successful during the final stage of pre rut requires the luck received through hard work and knowledge.