Hearing the unmistakable gait of an approaching buck, I turned slowly to catch a glimpse. After investing numerous preseason hours patterning this animal, he was coming in on a rope.
With my bow in hand, I was ready. When the opening occurred I delivered the arrow squarely into his vitals. As he did the donkey kick and exploded into flight, I knew his last journey would be brief. Well before the first signs of rut began to show, my Wisconsin buck tag was full. A rough tape job put the mature 10-point at a gross green score of 146 4/8.
Over the years, I have been blessed to realize my share of successful pre- and post-rut hunts. Frankly, during these periods when bucks limit their travels, identifying individual animals and learning their patterns is the most effective way I have found of harvesting mature bucks.
SEEING IS BELIEVING
As many will attest, the first step to taking big deer is finding them. It’s also not news that observing food sources is a common and often effective method of locating trophies. Coursing back roads or slipping in for an afternoon observation of a remote food source is common practice among many serious hunters.
Unfortunately, most bucks that frequent open areas during daylight don’t get old enough to sport impressive headgear. Because of this, options such as shining with spotlights, where legal, and infrared cameras make perfect sense.
A seldom-used option is infrared night vision optics. The advantage these beauties provide is that they allow late afternoon observation techniques to be used during darkness. Night vision technology can provide obvious advantages for scouting. Not only is it far less intrusive than shining, but it also opens the door for nighttime scouting in the areas where using a spotlight isn’t legal. However, as with shining, it should go without question that one never carries a weapon while utilizing this tool.
As is the case with daylight observation, popup blinds, placed in locations that provide low impact entrance and exit routes, as well as a good upwind field of view of the food source can provide nighttime information. Now, just as is the case with afternoon observations, it is possible to both identify the quality of bucks using the food source and peg the trail used for entering and exiting.
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Along with gauging the quality of bucks, observations can result in the ability to fingerprint specific animals. Once a big boy is spotted, it’s often possible to find his track.
For example, while investing a late August afternoon observing a soybean field, a truly magnificent buck is spotted. After noting his entrance trail we wait until dark and quietly slink back to the truck. Armed with this information, it’s possible to return the next day with a good chance of finding his track.
Upon locating the bruiser’s hoof print, we can measure the length, width and, if present, even the distance between dewclaws. By taking it further, noting any identifiable features, such as rounded tips of the hoof, irregular shapes or anything else out of the ordinary, it’s possible to obtain enough detail to identify this buck’s track in other portions of his range.
Now, in late October, when we run across a fresh scrape, it’s a simple matter of comparing notes to see if this was the handy work of the bruiser we watched that late August afternoon. If we are wondering if he is feeding in the cornfield, all we must do is walk the edge and look for tracks. The same applies to whether he is drinking at the pond, crossing the gravel road or traveling through any location that collects tracks. Collecting a buck’s fingerprint can allow us to pattern him far more effectively that we otherwise could.
Still, many areas aren’t very conducive to collecting tracks. Luckily, constructing track catchers is an easy way to solve that problem. Armed with a common garden rake, simply clearing a three-foot section along a deer trail will create a great vehicle for gathering fresh tracks. When combined with a buck’s fingerprint, this basic tool can be used to literally track a buck in any location.
For illustration purposes, lets look at how tracks helped me nail the buck that began this piece. After getting the buck’s fingerprint through observation, all it took was creating track catchers on the trails entering his food source. Returning a week later, the sets of tracks the catcher revealed clearly indicated which trail he was using. In that case, it was then an easy matter of following last year’s rub line to his bedroom and selecting an ambush point a safe distance away.
When needed, this technique can also be further used to nail down a bedding site. When buck sign doesn’t lead us there, follow the trail until it splits. Just up from the split, slapping in track catchers will reveal which trail he is using. Most times, it becomes evident after one or two splits which splinter trail leads to his bed.
A word of caution is in order. Anytime scouting involves forays into the woods near and during season, it’s important to keep disturbances to a minimum. Whether it is checking track catchers or the photos from infrared cameras, each time out we risk educating deer to our activities.
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Several steps can be taken to r
educe risks. To begin with, going the extra mile to eliminate human odor greatly enhances the odds of going undetected. Furthermore, by either wearing clean rubber boots and placing straight non-estrus doe urine on boot pads, or wearing scent-blocking or scent-eliminating clothing, our tracks are viewed harmless by deer. Next, timing our trips into the woods during midday hours, when deer are least active, further reduces the chances of bumping them.
Finally, strive to limit the trips into the woods to no more than three, spaced by at least five days apart. With one trip used for setting up and two for checking, that provides ample opportunity to gather data on the targeted area. Limiting and spacing our trips in this manner typically is enough to keep the deer off balance, even if they pick us up.
RIDING A BIKE
In area where suitable trails slice through deer habitat, using bikes to scout can be another creative way to keep tabs on deer activity. In most settings where poaching and hunting from vehicles are not the norm, deer seem to have developed a tolerance for anything on wheels. As silly as it may sound, riding a bike through the woods is an effective way to take advantage of that.
Another advantage of riding a bike is that it allows covering much more ground faster than on foot. A midday ride down trails or logging roads can quickly reveal any new developments in deer patterns. This is especially true when the surface either collects tracks naturally or when combined with tack catchers. When fresh sign of interest pops up, a quick foot scout can reveal its value.
Finally, assuming care is taken to cut odors on the wheels, the bike’s tires leave few telltale odors behind to educate deer. The combination of speed, ability to keep up with changing patterns and relatively low impact make bike scouting yet another tool that can have a niche in our scouting arsenal.
As valuable as bike scouting can be to stay abreast of fresh sign, throw away hunts can even be more effective. The concept is very simple; finding a location that provides low impact access, keeps odds of being busted low and provides good visibility of a selected area. The primary difference between throw-away hunts and observation is that these low-impact hunts take place in season, a weapon is brought along and this tactic isn’t geared exclusively toward open areas.
Rarely does an archer get more than one close brush with a mature buck. Stand placement is critical to preserving an otherwise great setup. Furthermore, hanging a stand, only to have to make minor adjustments to its placement, results in twice the disturbance in a relatively small area. These factors make it important to get it right the first time.
Throw-away hunts often make that possible. In any situation where it’s possible to observe an area from a relatively safe distance, this technique can be used. Common locations for this type of hunting/scouting include ridge tops for observing valleys, elevations that provide a view of exit routes from swamps, logging regrowth areas or any form of thickets, as well as high spots and wooded fingers adjacent to or jutting into food sources.
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Giving up an afternoon’s hunt is a sacrifice few hunters are willing to make. However, the rewards can be well worth it. Perhaps no individual realizes this better than Pat Reeve, a whitetail hunter who hunts widely and is co-host of North American Whitetail TV.
“It really is hard to spend a hunting day watching deer,” Pat admitted. “Most of my hunts are about five days long. Spending the first day or two watching instead of hunting used to eat at me, but nothing can tell you where to put a stand better than the deer themselves. When I see a mature buck, the guesswork of if there is one in the area is removed. Then, just by watching what the buck is doing, he typically shows me where to put a stand.”
On the surface, it may seem ludicrous to sacrifice 20-percent or more of a trip on throw-away hunts. Sure, there’s a chance that a big boy may either saunter by or be coaxed into range through calling, but the odds are low. When one considers that Pat has harvested 17 trophy-caliber deer in the past two seasons alone, many he credits to making this sacrifice, it becomes easy to see its value.
MAPS OF SIGN
Finally, plugging deer sign into a GPS unit and transferring it to a clear film overlaying a map of the property is another seldom used scouting tool that can pay off. During spring scouting trips, the vast majority of the previous fall’s sign is clearly laid out. Plotting trails, bedding areas, food sources, scrapes and rubs enables the hunter to more accurately tie everything together.
With the ability to more clearly see the big picture, it becomes simpler to piece together sign and understand why it was left. In turn, that leads to more effective strategies for intercepting the daylight movements of mature bucks.
These maps can also be used as a guide for how changing food sources will affect movement patterns. By creating an overlay for each year’s sign, in time, all of the more common combinations of food sources will be documented. Once that occurs, when the north field is planted in corn, the east in beans and south in alfalfa, on a year of poor acorn production, all one must do is flip back to the overlay of previous years that match this combination and see how the deer reacted.
When combined with hunting logs, this becomes even more beneficial. Simply by jotting notes on weather conditions, moon phase and observations from the stand each trip out; we build a database of information to draw from. Using the maps of sign and food sources along with the log, removes much of the guesswork about which stands provides the greatest odds of success in a given season.
With the volume of information available to today’s deer hunters, tools for scouting and strategy have been laid before us like never before. With these tools and techniques comes the tendency to believe that there is one right way of doing things. Some of the topics covered in this piece definitely fall outside the norm. However, in the right situation they just may open the door to filling a tag with a trophy buck. They’ve worked for me more than once.