Scouting Public-Land Mountain Bucks
Are you up for the Appalachian whitetail challenge?
When it comes to bowhunting reputation, I believe those of us who live “Back East” get a bad rap. Let’s face it: The quality of our bowhunting, at least in the minds of many of our bowhunting brethren, pales in comparison to the trophy whitetails of the Midwest or the giant bull elk and mule deer bucks of the West. Besides, the entire eastern seaboard is nothing but one giant patch of urban sprawl, full of smog and traffic jams, right?
Well, the truth is, much of the eastern U.S. is covered by large tracts of hardwood forests, courtesy of the Appalachian Mountains. Within these millions of acres of unbroken timber, you’ll find endless tracts of public land. These areas can be surprisingly rugged, thick and unforgiving, making bowhunting difficult.
But before I scare you away from even considering the opportunity, let me assure you that tagging a mature mountain buck is indeedpossible. In fact, it could be one of the most rewarding experiences of your bowhunting career. These mountain bucks often reach 7-10 years old, spending their lives in constant survival mode and eating anything from acorns and apples to sticks and moss.
With some scouting via your computer, boots on the ground and a willingness to adapt, you have the potential to arrive back at your truck with a heavier load than when you left it.
If I’m looking to hunt a new state or area, the first thing I do is study online maps and identify all of the major population centers nearby. After locating them, I immediately eliminate most of the areas within an hour’s drive of these places from consideration; instead, I look for more remote locations that aren’t as accessible. Public land tends to get a bad rap for being overcrowded, but I’ve repeatedly found that this isn’t necessarily the case — you just have to know what to look for!
Using onX maps on my computer or the onX Hunt app on my phone, I can instantly find public land and begin diving into the specifics of its terrain. The topographic layer allows me to examine the lay of the land and really helps me identify promising tracts before I ever set foot on the ground.
Areas with steep, well-defined contour lines, for instance, stand out for a couple of reasons. The first is that they can dictate deer movement. Even in the mountains, deer tend to be somewhat “lazy” and don’t like climbing straight up over a hill unless pressured to do so. Keep in mind that although it’s not a necessity, being in good physical shape definitely helps open up opportunities in areas others may not want to hike. I also note terrain features such as saddles, points of ridges and draws and mark them with a pin so I can check them out when scouting in person.
I also turn on the satellite imagery layer and look for differences in vegetation and ground cover. Using this layer, you can normally see features such as stands of evergreens, logging cuts and oak ridges, which can help you narrow down your search when combined with the terrain features noted above.
Boots on the Ground
Pre-scouting is very important for narrowing down where you can potentially hunt. Once you complete that, getting out and walking the land will either confirm your suspicions or help you eliminate areas from consideration. There’s nothing that can replace finding and reading sign. The more time you have to do this, the better.
In the big woods, boots-on-the-ground scouting is most effective during the season, toward the end of fall and in the spring, for a variety of reasons. If you have the ability to do so, setting up cameras on scrapes in these areas and letting them “soak” for an entire season can give you a lot of intel for future hunts. Using a climbing stick, you can set the cameras up higher and angle them down, which keeps them out of eye level of other hunters.
Scouting during the season allows you to see the sign as its being laid down and act accordingly. Scouting immediately after the season and in the spring (before things start to green up) makes scrapes and rubs as visible as they were during the season. In addition, you can see acorn caps on the ground to tell if there was an acorn crop that previous season and which trees produced the most.
Scouting during the summer is tough, with the woods being so thick and green, but it can be done. During late summer, I’ll start running trail cameras on scrapes. From my observation, scrapes aren’t usually being actively used then, but deer will still hit the licking branches almost all year. Applying a preorbital gland scent to the branch and hanging a urine scent in front of a camera can give you a good inventory of the bucks living in the area.
Executing the Plan
It’s time for your seven-day “rutcation,” and you’re planning to hunt the big-woods mountains. How do you best allot your time? Should you just go in and hunt those spots you pre-scouted? You could, but from my experience, being successful in hunting mature mountain bucks requires you to hunt the hot sign.
With that being said, I would spend the first day or two scouting areas you had in mind until you find the hottest sign worth hunting. I don’t mean setting up right on top of fresh sign but using that intel in your strategy. This “speed scouting” tactic may take two hours, or it may take two days, but wouldn’t you rather find out an area is slow by walking it first rather than spending three days in a stand? I don’t believe you’re going to completely blow out an area by slowly walking through it with the wind in your favor.
Are you going to bump deer? Most likely. I don’t love bumping deer, but it does teach you where they are, and if a deer is bumped once or twice, it’s not going to leave the area for good. They’re bedding there for a reason, and if they eluded you, then the bedding location worked. So, they’ll come back.
With such a scattered variety of food sources in the mountains, it’s also important to figure out what the “hot” item is when you’re hunting, since this is where the does will be. It may be that logging cut on the top of the hill, or the acorns dropping from a small patch of white oaks on a spine ridge, which is why you should walk your chosen ground at the time when you’re planning to hunt it.
Using a lightweight hang-on stand/stick combo, climbing stand or tree saddle will allow you to be more mobile and possibly set up on the hot sign right then and there. Personally, I prefer a hang-on stand and climbing sticks, as they give me the ability to climb a wider variety of trees. Regardless of your climbing method, though, practicing getting up and down the tree quickly, quietly and safely is a must, as it takes time to perfect your technique.
Hunting mountain bucks can be difficult, even overwhelming, if you’re used to hunting farm country, but with planning and scouting, it can also be extremely rewarding. All the hard work and time you put into it will pay off when you’re packing out an old, gray-faced, chocolate- antlered mountain buck. I strongly urge anyone with an adventurous spirit to give it a try, but don’t say I didn’t warn you — it’s addicting!