Becoming a Student of Whitetail Deer – By Steve Bartylla
Part #1: A Seasonal Guide To Hunting White-Tailed Deer
An Old Timer once told me “the only constant, in patterning deer, is change and the only way to keep up with change is knowledge.”
Although at the tender age of twelve I was not thoroughly convinced he was correct, he was speaking about bowhunting so I was riveted to his every word. In my blissfully ignorant youth, I believed the key to successful bowhunting was as simple as finding a good food source and sitting on it the entire season. After all, sooner or later something was bond to venture within shooting range. Fortunately for my development as a bowhunter, the venturing part tended to come much later rather than sooner. Now, some twenty-odd years later, I look back on his words as one of the few hard and fast rules to cling to. In order to keep up with the deer’s changing patterns, I must spend hours in the field so that I possess the ability to change with them. This has to lead me to develop a seasonal guide to hunting white-tailed deer that has proven successful over the years.
A. Scouting Deer in Winter
The success of this entire strategy hinges on the ability to efficiently adapt to the changes occurring to both the whitetail and it’s the environment.
Knowledge, experience, and anticipation are the hunter’s best weapons. In order to build this arsenal, it is imperative to dedicate a considerable amount of time to scouting. I begin this process the day after the season ends. This time provides the opportunity to gain valuable knowledge about preferred food sources, travel routes, bedding areas, and other useful information.
A deer frequently changes its patterns as a result of environmental and social changes, such as the maturation of a new food source or the urge to perpetuate its species. With that said, the areas that were hot last December will probably be hot again this coming December. This holds true providing changes in habitat or food source availability does not occur (e.g. a new clear cut or the destruction of a food source). Therefore, barring any major changes, the data collected from winter scouting efforts put us in the perfect position to identify where to hunt next December.
During the weeks that follow the last day of the season, scouting efforts should be focused on locating food sources, bedding areas, trails connecting them, active licking branches and shed antlers.
Benefit of Winter Scouting
1. Winter is a great time to scout for deer sign. This is especially true in areas that receive an annual blanket of snow cover. Snow does an outstanding job of illustrating deer sign. This makes it is easy to locate a feeding area and follow the trails as they wind their way to the bedding grounds.
2. Another advantage of this time of year is that the hunter no longer must concern themselves with spooking deer. Often, during hunting season you don’t want to approach bedding grounds for fear of altering the deer’s patterns. After the season, this is no longer a concern. If the deer do become spooked, they will have long forgotten about your little foray into their kingdom by next fall. Because of this, a person can completely disregard the need to keep a low profile and concentrate on gathering as much data as possible. The food sources, bedding areas, and trails found this time of year will be the foundation for late-season stand sites next year.
3. Winter also provides the opportunity to find shed antlers. The adult bucks, native to the northern regions, experience a drop in testosterone level in late December. This drop prompts them to lose their antlers sometime between this point and early march. Finding these sheds provide a glimpse into the number and size of bucks to expect in the area next late season.
4. Finally, active licking branches are also possible to find this time of year. Although in the north, bucks have finished scrapping, they will continue to work strategically placed licking branches year-round as a form of communication. These branches are as close to a guaranteed scraping location, next fall, as there is. Furthermore, this setup is often indicative of a scrape that will be shared by numerous bucks resulting in a very active scraping area. The difficulty here lies in finding these special branches. Because the ground is not being actively pawed you must key your search on the branch itself.
Luckily, the branch is usually pretty mangled and often has a urine spot in the snow occur directly under them. Another clue can be hairs found on the branch and they often have a bit of a shine, due to saliva and glandular excretions deposited on them. These traits, along with the trails leading up to them, make it possible to accurately identify active licking branches.
Once identified, they should be marked with an explanation point for a potential stand site next fall.
B. SPRING SCOUTING
Immediately after spring melt is also a great time to gather data on the previous years whitetail patterns. A layer of snow does a marvelous job of preserving deer sign. Because of this, spring scouting provides the same type of information that can be found in the fall.
Now the challenge is to come up with accurate time frames of when the sign was actually left. This can be difficult but not impossible. If you know that the neighbor’s cornfield was chopped in early October, you can then surmise that the nice trail leading to it was utilized the heaviest before that date.
Conversely, knowing when your mast crops dropped eliminates the possibility of feeding activity before that time. If you remember the time frame you began seeing serious scraping activity last fall, chances are the scrape line you find this spring fits right into that slot.
Through scouting and piecing these puzzles together, you can come up with a general timeline that indicates where the deer were feeding and when it actually occurred. This is an obvious advantage to a hunter that is striving to stay abreast of the changes in whitetail patterns.
Along with food sources, trails, and bedding areas, one should focus on finding the rut sign from the previous fall during these spring trips. Now is an ideal time to find rubs and scrapes because of the lack of vegetation in the woods.
I believe that the biggest problem many hunters face, when hunting scrapes, is that they are either setting up on them too late or are set up on random scrapes are not actively worked. By locating these scrapes in the spring, it is easy to evaluate which areas and individual scrapes were tended the most. Because the most active scrape lines tend to appear in the same place year after year, we can now anticipate where this action will take place next fall.
With this information, we can set up stands well before scraping begins and be in a position to take advantage of these two or three-week window next fall. Once I began to employ this strategy, my success rate for scrape hunting went way up!
C. SUMMER SCOUTING
Summer is a wretched time of the year to scout for deer sign. If the heat isn’t enough to drive you from the woods, the bugs usually are. Along with this, in areas that do not experience hard summer droughts, food sources are plentiful. The result of a surplus of desirable food sources is that deer sign is scattered all over the area. Even when the concentrated sign is found this time of the year, the odds of this food source being available, or just as desirable in the fall, are not very good. Combine this with the fact that the sign from last hunting season is either gone or hidden in the dense undergrowth and I do my best to steer clear of the woods during the summer.
Summer does hold two useful purposes for me, however.
1. First, it provides me the chance to estimate the quality of the coming fall’s acorn crop. By inspecting the oaks with binoculars, one can see if they will be producing acorns and in what quantity they will be produced that year. Remember that not every oak will produce acorns each year. The members of the red oak family take two years to develop acorns. While members of the white oak family only take one year, they still don’t necessarily produce a good crop each year. The acorns of the white oaks are also sweeter and deer prefer them over the bitter acorns produced by red oaks. When inspecting the upper branches for acorns, look for a large quantity of green acorns. This indicates a good crop will be present in the fall. With that knowledge in hand, we can judge if the level of feeding that will occur on “the oak ridge” will warrant our time.
2. Secondly, deer tend to feed more openly during the summer months. Because of this, long-distance surveillance of summer food sources can provide information on the size and quality of the deer herd. Slowly cruising the roads around your areas at dawn and dusk can also alter you to a nice buck that is in the area. Although bachelor groups of buck are usually disbanded by the time bow season comes, if there were a surplus of large bucks in an area during the summer, there will usually be a shooter or two around in the fall.
4. FALL SCOUTING
The efforts put forth in the winter, spring, and summer result in the need for less scouting in the fall. In spite of the effort invested earlier, some tasks still need to be performed.
1. To begin with, a couple of weeks before the season I give my hunting areas a quick once over. If one of the locations I plan to hunt has had any recent logging activity or the crops have been harvested earlier than I anticipated, it is necessary to know about it before opening day.
By making a quick scan of the area, my game plan can be checked for any obvious flaws. It is also a good idea to perform quick scouting trips every couple of weeks during the season.
When making these trips, confine your activities to midday and focus your attention on potential food sources. Checking the food sources allows us to confirm that our timeline is correct and to make any necessary adjustments to our game plan.
2. Fall is also the time I go in search of new areas to hunt. I try not to ever be satisfied with the quality of the hunting spot at my disposal. With this approach, I am always looking to find an upgrade for what I decide is my worst location to hunt. These pilgrimages, in search of the utopia of hunting spots, most often take place during a day that I plan to hunt both morning and evening. This way I can sit in the morning until around ten, then head out to scout a new area and be back to my evening stand about three hours before closing.
3. While scouting these areas, I begin by circling the food sources looking for trails. I then follow each trail back to their origins, checking crossing trails as they appear. In a relatively short amount of time, this procedure allows me to form a pretty solid idea of how many deer are in the area and where the best stand sites are. Now I can judge for myself if this location is an upgrade of one of the others or not. The biggest drawback to this procedure is that it can be tough to judge the quality of the resident bucks in such a short amount of time. In other words, you can find a good stand site, get a feel for the number of deer around, and maybe even find a large rub or two, but its really difficult to know how many nice bucks are around without putting in more time.
4. Finally, I always have more than one or two places to hunt. This allows me to hunt more often without over hunting an area. By taking this approach I can hunt each location all season without it becoming stale. It also provides me flexibility for situations I can’t control. If an area suddenly becomes overrun with small game hunters or another bowhunter sets up shop forty yards away, I want the flexibility to go somewhere else. Once deer catch on to the fact that something is out to get them, it can be almost impossible to experience a quality hunt. Hunting whitetails is challenging enough without them anticipating your every move. If I do choose to abandon a spot, for whatever reason, I always check back the next spring to decide if it has gotten better. I believe a person can never have to many options and this is just one way to ensure my options stay open.
INCREASING YOUR RETURNS
Several aids will go a long way to reduce the amount of time needed to sufficiently scout an area. These are 7.5-minute quad maps, plat books, and aerial photographs. 7.5-minute quad maps are very useful in locating areas that have the potential to be good places to hunt. You can locate large tracts of forest, openings, ridgelines, saddles, hydrology, and funnels, to name just a few of the features they can reveal. The more I study a particular quad, the more potentially useful information I find on it. With these, it is possible to develop a scouting game plan from the comfort of your easy chair. By targeting certain areas to focus your scouting attention on, you can eliminate a lot of downtimes spent aimlessly wandering through the woods. I also use them to document the trails, funnels, bedding areas, rubs, scrapes and food sources I find during my trips. This goes a long way towards seeing the big picture and allows me to formulate sound travel patterns for the resident deer. 7.5-minute quad maps can be purchased from U.S.G.S. for $4.00 per quad plus a $3.50 handling charge per order by calling (573) 308-3500.
Once I decide that I intend to hunt an area, I contact the local forestry department and check on the availability of aerial photographs. Because many quad maps are ten years old or more, these photos do a good job of validating cultural, vegetative, and hydrologic features show on the quads. For example, the quad may show a large marsh that, upon reviewing the photo, you find has apparently dried up years ago. It is also possible to locate features that don’t necessarily stand out on the quad. A brushy fence line connecting two wood lots might not show up on a quad, but will on a photo. Over the years, the combination of aerial photos and quad maps has pointed me to many hot spots I would have had difficulty finding otherwise. Because of this alone they are well worth the money.
Plat books identify property owners and delineate their property lines. This is useful in locating the owner, of a particularly appealing piece of property, when you want to ask permission to hunt their land. It also shows who the land barrens are. With this knowledge, it can be possible to secure permission for a large tract of land with just one phone call. Plat books range in price but are almost always less than fifty dollars and can be found at the county courthouse.
As I reflect back on the words of the Old Timer, I am often struck by the truth his statement held. Every year that passes sees new equipment, strategies, and gadgets that are billed to make hunting easier. I believe all this clouds the fact that the only true gadget, that produces consistent results, is knowledge. The only way I know how to develop bowhunting knowledge is to listen to other hunters, read, watch an occasional video and most importantly, spend time in the woods. Each and every time I go on a scouting trip I either learn something new or enforce a theory I had before. By becoming a student of white-tailed deer, I have been able to develop a seasonal guide to hunting that works well for me, I hope it works equally well for you.