Productive Scouting — Part V

Unless deer are seen feeding in a farm field or forest clear-cut, a current favorite whitetail feeding area is typically the most difficult of whitetail home range elements for most hunters to identify. This is unfortunate because nowhere else are a skilled stand hunter’s odds for successfully hunting any class of whitetail greater. Finding feeding areas should always be a top priority when scouting preseason.

As mentioned in a previous blog, an unusual number of fresh, off-trail deer tracks and droppings are characteristic of a feeding area. If the hunter has no idea the area ahead is likely a feeding area, however, he or she is likely to cross it without noting it is full of of tracks and droppings. If an area ahead is relatively open, having fewer big trees, allowing the sun to reach the ground and promote the growth of green grasses, clover and leaves and tender stems of various shrubs, I immediately begin wondering if it is a feeding area. My trained eyes then automatically begin searching for other signs such as a lot of red color ahead.

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Where I hunt whitetails, a lot of red means there are many red-bark dogwoods and/or sugar maple saplings growing in the opening, two very favorite browse plants of our whitetails beginning the second week in November. Even well before then, whitetails commonly devour the leaves of these shrubs or saplings. Wherever they grow, there always seems to be plenty of grasses, primary foods of whitetails from snow melt in spring until early November.

If deer-tall vegetation ahead is mostly green, the opening smothered by ferns, raspberries, cattails, hazels or second-growth quaking aspens, it’s unlikely to be a whitetail feeding area, at least not the part directly ahead. The red stuff might be buried in deep grasses, however. Moreover, other yet unseen portions of the opening may be okay, a reason for further scouting in the opening. If the trees ahead are oaks, I always inspect the area for acorns on the ground, plus tracks and droppings. If acorns are present you can bet it will be a prime stand site during September through November. Meanwhile as I draw nearer, I begin searching for deer trails, fresh deer tracks and droppings, velvet rubs that were made in early September, rubs and ground scrapes made very recently (shredded bark of rubs still damp) and deep grasses in which I always check for deer beds.

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Upon finding fresh tracks and/or droppings, absolute evidence of the presence of deer, out comes my steel tape for some quick measuring, providing absolute evidence of the kinds of deer that made the tracks or droppings. I often add notes of such findings on my map (B3 for 3-1/2 year-old buck, for example, or YD for yearling doe). It being okay to enter a feeding area while scouting early enough preseason, I begin searching for off-trail tracks and droppings in the opening. Lots of them, fresh and old, among common deer foods means I have indeed found a current favorite whitetail grazing area.

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Lots of brown or black ragged tips on stems of woody shrubs with red bark (and on others such as mountain maples or ash or oak saplings) mean the opening was a favorite browse area during the previous November and will be a favorite again this year. Keep in mind, previous favorite browse areas may not be full of tracks and droppings until November. It is not necessary to find 100 sets of fresh tracks or droppings in a current favorite feeding area to decide it will be a prime spot for hunting a mature buck or other deer weeks ahead. Discovering some tracks or droppings within every 10 yards or so along a 50–100 yard course is enough, even if mature buck sized tracks and droppings are not readily found. All it takes to be a likely area to take a big buck in November is a feeding doe soon to be in heat or currently in heat.

Thus is my usual procedure for finding and identifying wilderness feeding areas where I figure my odds will be excellent for taking a mature buck.

At this point I spend no more time in a feeding area, it always being my rule to minimize persisting deposits of fearsome human trail scents out in front of where I plan to hunt later. Too much human scent deposited even three weeks before hunting begins can have a negative effect on the number of whitetails that will be seen feeding there opening morning. With my map and compass in hand, it’s now time to begin searching for a suitable downwind or crosswind stand site or two plus proper approach trails 10–20 yards back in the surrounding timber.

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Productive Scouting — Part IV

To take a certain class of whitetail, a big buck, for example, you can randomly wander about (being the easiest of hunters for mature whitetails to identify safe distance away and avoid) until you finally see one or you could sit at a certain spot that seems ideal because from there you can spot whitetails considerable distances away (the kind of area most mature whitetails avoid during daylight hours while hunting seasons are in progress). Wouldn’t it be great if you absolutely knew where that buck is feeding right now, or is likely to feed later today or tomorrow morning or a trail it uses to get to that feeding area? Discovering such things is what productive scouting is all about: scouting thoroughly 2–3 weeks before a hunting seasons begins and scouting along designated trails midday during a hunting season in a manner than does not seriously alarm whitetails.

The ABCs of productive scouting are deer signs. Such scouting began for me in 1970 with the simple realization little deer (fawns) have little hooves, droppings and beds, medium-sized deer (does) have medium-sized hooves, droppings and beds and big deer (mature bucks) have big hooves, droppings and beds. Subsequent years of study revealed five classes of whitetails could be accurately identified by lengths of their hoof prints, droppings and beds and places where specific deer currently feed, water and bed can also be identified by fresh deer signs. Admittedly, my hunting partners and I have taken a few deer with hoof lengths uncommon for their class (about one in ten years including one last year) but throughout the past 46 whitetail hunting seasons we have never allowed rare variances of this kind to cast doubt on the efficacy of fresh deer signs (with or without snow on the ground) for keeping us close to mature bucks during a hunting season. Only once since 1990 have fresh deer signs failed to enable us to take our self-imposed annual quota of four (sometimes five) mature wolf-country bucks.

To simplify what you need to know about deer signs, I have created the following table (applicable to northern whitetails after September first).

Track Lengths Dropping Lengths Bed Lengths
Fawns 2–2-3/8 in. 1/4 in. 30–36 in.
Yearling Does 2-5/8 in. 3/8 in. 38 in.
Mature Does 3–3-1/8 in. 1/2 in. 42 in.
Yearling Bucks 3–3-1/8 in. 1/2 in. 42 in.
Bucks 2-1/2 yrs. old 3–3/8 in. 5/8 in. 45 in.
Bucks 3-1/2–6-1/2 yrs. old 3-5/8–4 in. 3/4–1-1/4 in. 50–56 in.

Tracks, droppings and beds have hunting value only when they have been freshly made. They reveal trails currently used by specific deer. Greater numbers of off-trail tracks and droppings reveal feeding areas and bedding areas used by specific deer. They reveal where specific deer are likely to be seen right now, later today and tomorrow morning. However, because of your hunting (and mine), including stand hunting, don’t count on seeing whitetails 2-1/2 years of age or older on those trails or at these sites after three successive half-days of hunting near them.

Productive Scouting — Part III

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Preseason scouting is pushing through brambles or vicious dewberry thorns, hiking through boot-sucking mud, water of unknown depths, shin-tangling vegetation, dead and live tree branches and many places you wouldn’t go while hunting to search for deer trails, tracks, droppings, beds, antler rubs and evidences of feeding amid swarms of blood-sucking insects and ticks. If it wasn’t worth it, I wouldn’t do it, but it is almost always worth it, so I do it, even at my age. While scouting preseason, you need to wear tough clothing and boots and perhaps raingear, a headnet and insect repellent. In a small backpack you carry an enlarged aerial map of your hunting area (downloaded from the internet), a GPS (optional), compass, fluorescent tacks, lots to drink, food, matches, toilet tissue, flashlight (if it gets late), steel tape, bypass pruner and a hatchet. This is one of your most physically exhausting hunting-related activities of the year, but keep in mind scouting is your actual hunt. Hunting is mostly sitting around waiting for what you learned from scouting to happen.

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The easiest to find and identify of deer signs are well-used deer trails, made obvious by lots of sharp-edged deer tracks. The first thing to know about deer trails is, most are made and used by mature does and their young, fawns and yearlings (yearlings remain in home ranges of their mothers throughout their yearling year). Deer trails are actually tunnels through cover, kept open by repeated use. Bucks 2-1/2 years of age or older, solitary much of the year, make few identifiable trails of their own. They mostly use doe family trails (tunnels) that are tall and wide enough to allow their taller and wider bodies and antlers (and, incidentally, humans) to pass through with relative silence. Many well-used deer trails are not ordinarily used by older bucks, only those or sections of those on which are found larger tracks (3-3/8 to 4 inches long) and droppings (5/8 to 1-1/8 inches long and clumped) made by older bucks and, in fall, those trails along which bucks make antler rubs and ground scrapes (within doe home ranges). During hunting seasons older bucks travel off-trail more than 50% of the time and all whitetails have at least a dozen routes (connecting trails) to use when traveling from one place to another, from a bedding area to a feeding area, for example. During hunting seasons, these routes can change every half-day, choices depending on wind direction, changing quality of cover (falling leaves), availability of current favorite foods and discoveries of locations of hunters. If you are determined to take a big buck, then, it is a mistake to key exclusively on well-used deer trails upon which there are no fresh mature buck sized tracks and droppings or along which there are no freshly made antler rubs and ground scrapes during the 2–3 weeks before breeding begins in early November.

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Productive Scouting – Part II

Before hunting, scout, and before scouting, decide on the kind of deer you’d like to take. Why? Because whitetails easy to hunt, require less scouting and field preparations, those moderately difficult to hunt require more scouting and field preparations and those very difficult to hunt require much more scouting and field preparations than you realize. Over the long run in whitetail hunting, you generally get what you earn.

If you plan to hunt opening weekend only, your best bet would be to settle for a mature doe (2-1/2 years of age or older), a yearling (buck or doe) or a fawn. Though some mature does can be as difficult to hunt as older bucks, yearlings and fawns are the easiest of whitetails to hunt. These three classes of whitetails live together in relatively small home ranges, about 125 acres in size, requiring less scouting and field preparations.

Where there are a lot of deer trails and 2–3 inch long tracks (hoofs only) and ¼ to ½ inch droppings, you are in a doe range. Yearling buck tracks and droppings are the same length as those of mature does: tracks (3–3-1/8”) and droppings (1/2”). Where there are few deer trails, you are between doe ranges. There are usually 4–5 of doe ranges in a square-mile to choose from. You’ll only need two new, well-selected stand sites (located near fresh tracks and or droppings of such deer), one for each day of hunting.

If a moderately difficult to hunt mature buck is your intended quarry, settle for a 2-1/2 year-old, 6–8 pointer. To take such a buck, you should plan to hunt 3–4 successive days or two weekends in 1–2 areas about 250 acres in size — the average size of the home range of such a buck. Within this buck’s home range will be 1–2 ranges of mature does with young and all their deer signs plus signs made by the buck: tracks 3-3/8 “ in length and droppings 5/8” in length, likely clumped. Hunting (keying on) such a buck generally requires more scouting and field preparation and 1–2 different stand sites per day of hunting. The effort needed to find and prepare this number of stand sites can be reduced considerably by selecting stand sites and using a backpacked stool at ground level stand sites with adequate natural cover requiring little or no preparation during the hunting season. Beginning on day three, ground level stand sites are more effective than tree stands.

If you are determined to take a trophy-class, 3-1/2 to 6-1/2 year-old buck (one for the wall), you should plan to hunt one big buck, plus one or two backups, in a one square-mile area — the size of the home range largest buck in your hunting area. Also living within this area will be roughly 14–29 other deer: mature bucks and does, yearling bucks and does and fawns. Being regularly successful at taking bucks of this class requires considerable scouting. My sons and I generally scout two or more times (3–4 days each) 2–3 weeks before each hunting season begins. We select 1–2 different stand sites (which can be elevated stand sites), preferably at spots never used before near fresh tracks and or droppings made by a big buck, to be used during the first 2–3 days of the hunting season. Finding more stand sites while scouting preseason is recommended, but most of the additional stand sites we may need during our remaining days of hunting are selected via a special wolf-inspired, no-alarm method of scouting during the hunting season. These stand sites are generally at ground-level (requiring no noisy installation of a portable tree stand), downwind or crosswind of very fresh signs made by a big unalarmed (walking) buck with tracks measuring 3-5/8 to 4”, droppings measuring ¾ to 1-1/8”, likely clumped, and/or a freshly made or renewed ground scrape more than 2’ in diameter.

If you prefer to depend on luck rather than doing all the scouting and field preparations necessary to more regularly take more difficult to hunt whitetails, you should expect to take no more than 1-2 trophy-class bucks (bucks for the wall) during your lifetime of whitetail hunting.

Next blog: gear and what to look for.

How to Make Still-hunting a Great Way to Hunt Whitetails — Part II

It being nearly impossible for still-hunters to avoid being easily recognized by experienced whitetails 100–200 yards away, the next best thing to do, aside from making your footsteps as silent as possible (never dragging boot heels) is quit sounding as if you are hunting. Rather than stop often to scan ahead, don’t stop at all between spots to sit still for a while.

Having 36 years experience as stand hunter who regularly takes mature bucks, and having amassed a consider number of observations of reactions of mature whitetails being approached by hunters since 1970, the tip I will now share with you is absolutely true. Whitetails of any age that cannot positively identify you as a hunting human via your approaching footsteps will not abandon the area — a feeding area, for example. They may move off a bit and remain hidden for a while, but rather than react with alarm, they’ll generally react with curiosity, anxious to discover what is making those difficult to hear sounds. If you approach from downwind or crosswind via a deer trail relatively clear of dead branches (cleaned preseason) that courses through dense cover or is hidden by intervening terrain, walking softly and not halting along the way — thus making sounds that indicate you are not hunting and therefore likely harmless — those deer will nonetheless wait to make sure of this before resuming feeding. After making it very difficult if not impossible for those deer to identify you via airborne scents, motions or sounds while walking your stand site, if you then become absolutely silent and move your head very little and very slowly, within 30 minutes those curious deer will decide whatever you were you were not dangerous and likely no longer near, after which they will resume feeding, then becoming visible and moving slowly — easy targets.

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To be a regularly successful still-hunter, then, you should walk non-stop as silently as possible from a place where you sat still for a while to the next place to be still for a while. How long should you remain still at each of these places? Normally, as you now realize, your odds for success will only begin to improve after your first thirty minutes of being still has passed. For each hour you remain silent and still, your odds for success will usually peak only during the final thirty minutes. Surely you can sit patiently enough to enjoy thirty minutes of much improved hunting odds during every sixty minutes you sit still.

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The best places to sit still for an hour are 100–200 yards apart, sites where there are fresh deer tracks and droppings nearby, upwind or crosswind, and where you will be well hidden (while wearing a camo headnet) by natural, not recently altered cover with a solid background at ground level — easily, comfortably and silently done by sitting on a back-packed stool. Rather than merely attempting to improve your odds for hunting success by wandering greater distances during a day of hunting, you will actually much improve your odds by becoming very difficult for those 15–30 deer living in the square-mile mile ahead to identify and avoid you. On the average, eight or more of those deer will be within easy shooting distance of some of the places where you sit still per mile you proceed on foot into the wind or crosswind. Imagine that! Before long you will be thanking that unknown guy who long ago invented such a great way to hunt whitetails. Though other hunters, especially stand hunters, in the area may not thank you, they should because unlike other still-hunters you won’t be chasing deer out of the area, giving everyone a better chance for hunting success.

 

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How to Make Still-hunting a Great Way to Hunt Whitetails — Part I

Today there are still a lot of whitetail hunters who can’t stand the thought of sitting in one place for hours at a time. Such hunters prefer to keep moving on foot, calling themselves still-hunters. The trouble is, today’ popular form of still-hunting is not particularly productive for taking mature whitetails. It can be made more productive, but to understand how, it is important to understand why today’s still-hunting is not particularly productive. Having been an avid still-hunter for more than a decade (beginning in 1960), I am qualified to describe it as a restless walk in the woods, in the process frightening an awful lot of deer enough to make them abandon their ranges and/or become nocturnal early during a hunting season. Ironically, little about still-hunting today can be mistaken for anything having to do with the word “still.” Occasionally halting to scan ahead while sneaking or walking like most still-hunters imagine it should be done fools few if any whitetails older than fawns or yearlings. No hunter is easier for mature whitetails to identify via hearing and seeing within 100–200 yards and thereafter avoid. It’s the reason still-hunters today can wander throughout an entire square-mile of whitetail habitat without seeing any of the usual 15 to 30 deer living there. Whoever originally coined the name of this method of hunting obviously had something more in mind. When the word “still” in still-hunting includes being still for a while, still-hunting can actually become a very productive way to hunt whitetails.

As even most stand hunters fail to realize, it is nearly impossible for tall, heavy, big-footed humans to walk through the woods without making sounds and movements easily recognized by mature whitetails considerable distances away. Sounds made by a typical still-hunter not only reveal the hunter is a human, but worse, a dangerous deer hunting human. A human who sneaks or walks softly and often halts to scan ahead, occasionally changing direction, makes sounds very similar to those made a stalking or trailing wolf or bear, though much louder and more frequent. A hunter often stopping in the woods sounds nothing like a feeding deer like most still-hunters imagine. Dead branches frequently snapping loudly means a human is approaching. Bears, wolves and even moose rarely make such sounds — just soft footsteps with very infrequent, very soft twig snaps. Moreover, experienced whitetails know motions made by something taller than a walking bear or wolf can only be made by a human or a moose. The difference in appearance between the two is so great that a positive identification is quickly made by all experienced deer.

To add to a still-hunter’s failings, everywhere the hunter wanders, he or she lays down a yard-wide trail of scents most feared by whitetails, easily smelled and recognized four or more days afterwards.

159eEvery whitetail along the way that raises it tail and bounds away lays down a trail of ammonia-like scent emitted from its tarsal glands which also can be smelled up four or more days by other deer. This odor warns all downwind deer within 200 yards something dangerous is near.

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Meanwhile, wherever the hunter walks, airborne scents characteristic of human hunters only, including human breath and the strong odor emitted by rubber boot soles, sweeps across the landscape within a triangular area up to 200 yards wide 200 yards downwind.

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