By John Eberhart
The close of the season is no time to get the blues. It's time to get to work.
IT WAS STRAIGHT UP noon as the large buck came into view, nose to the ground, working my direction through the brush. As the deer passed by the last shrub before entering a shooting lane, I came to full draw and emitted a short, vocal doe bleat. The buck slammed to a stop, and I opened my fingers to release what turned out to be a perfect double-lung shot. In a flash of survival instinct, the 14-pointer bolted 50 yards before falling. It was early November, and this was a great end to my first hunt at this particular location.
Was I lucky? I would like to think not. I had scouted the area completely and prepared all my stands the previous January. Now I was just reaping the rewards of my hard work.
In heavily hunted areas, postseason scouting and treestand preparation can make a huge difference in the outcome of your season. In my home state of Michigan, I have found that postseason scouting gives me a huge advantage in the pursuit of mature bucks.
Even if a buck you have scouted does not live until the archery season, postseason scouting efforts are not wasted. Property that attracts one mature buck most likely will attract another. This may not happen immediately, but it will happen when does start coming into estrus the following fall. Most features of land that attract bucks remain the same from year to year, and as long as the land holds does, the mature bucks will find them.
Chances are, if you hunt in a pressured area and do most of your scouting just prior to the season, you don't kill many mature bucks. This is easy to explain. To arrow mature bucks with consistency, you must hunt them where they reside during the season. Any mature buck that has lived through a hunting season reacts severely to human presence and hunting pressure.
Thus, the places where you would scout bucks just before the season are not where you will find them once the pressure hits. To succeed on pressured bucks, you must hunt where they live when the pressure is on. And the best way to find such locations is to scout immediately following the hunting season, which, in most states, would be in January. If, during postseason scouting, you jump deer, it is because they felt safe there before you disturbed them.
And jumping them then won't hurt your hunting next fall. If you scout before and during the season, you're most likely spooking the very deer you want to hunt. But pushing them a little after the season will have no effect on the next fall. It will only bring to light subtle nonpressured areas that you have overlooked in the past.
YOU SHOULD BEGIN SCOUTING as soon as the gun season closes. If you hunt in a pressured area you probably have a similar hunting situation to mine. Most of the properties on which I have permission to hunt cover less than 40 acres. Most range between 5 and 20 acres. In states like Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, Kentucky, and other states that have anywhere from 100,000 to 350,000 bowhunters, this situation is common. High human populations in these states lead to property fragmentation and lots of hunters on many small pieces of land. Hunting small parcels is difficult, but if done properly it can be very productive.
If, as I do, you have several small properties to scout within a 50-mile radius of your home, first get some aerial photographs. You can buy a plane ride at just about any municipal airport for $100 to $150 per hour. A flight in the winter will give you a clear perspective on the properties, especially in terms of vegetation patterns and density after the leaves have fallen. You can also tell if bordering properties have funnels or terrain that will channel deer traffic to or from certain areas on your properties. You can easily survey several pieces of property in an hour, so this very well could be the best money you ever spend on scouting. For a nominal fee you can also download satellite aerial photos off the Internet, although they are not as detailed and may be several years old.
NOW THE FOOTWORK begins. With a notebook in hand, walk the perimeter of each property, mapping all the obvious features on both your hunting parcels and as far as you can see on bordering lands. These perimeter features may be ridges, lone apple trees, crops, swales, swamps, low or downed fences, brush-lined creeks or ditches, weed fields, large oaks, and so forth.
When you have gone all the way around, return to the best perimeter features and follow any trails and sign to the interior of the property to see where they lead. Again, add detail to your map as you go. Continue this process of following all perimeter sign into the property until you've mapped all features and sign.
The major sign elements I look for are primary scrape areas, staging areas, funnels between bedding areas, funnels between bedding and feeding areas, rub lines or rub areas, bedding areas, and food sources. Secondary elements - although never to be taken lightly - are travel corridors close to major highways, small waterholes, single oaks in fields, and fingers of cover protruding into crop or weed fields. Scattered rubs or scrapes may look interesting, but they don't mean much. Remember, you are looking for locations and sign that deer visit habitually.
With all of this mapped, you now you have a reference on paper to start a plan of attack. It can take several trips to map out a single parcel, depending on its size and make-up, which is another good reason for scouting during the postseason. Several scouting trips to a small parcel just prior to season can definitely be detrimental, but during postseason they hurt nothing.
WITH EACH PARCEL MAPPED completely, it is time to work on stand locations. Primary scrape and staging areas are my top priority because, without question, they have been my most productive hunting locations. These areas are perennially good unless major changes take place in crop rotation or property development.
To pinpoint scrapes and staging areas, search funnels between bedding areas, funnels between bedding and feeding areas, the ground around mast trees, fingers of cover protruding out into crop fields, inside corners of crop fields, and bases of ridges that drop off into bedding areas. A primary scrape area consists of several scrapes in a small area with overhanging licking branches, and it will usually contain a number of rub trees, too. A staging area will look similar, but the sign will usually be more spread out and will almost always be adjacent to a feeding area.
Prepare your stand tree about 20 yards from the most heavily used scrape. One or two scrapes clearly will be bigger and deeper than the others and, most important, they w
ill have multiple licking branches over them. I have seen as many as 20 licking branches over a single scrape. Always hang your stand near the most heavily used scrape, but try to position it within shooting distance of secondary scrapes as well.
Come hunting season, during the prerut you will have only a 5 to 10-day window of opportunity to kill the dominant buck here, so once the scrapes become active, hunt them immediately and frequently. Once does come into estrus, you will still see subordinate bucks there, but your odds of seeing the dominant buck in the scrape area diminish greatly.
Conifers, trees with crotches, and big oaks with leaves late into the season, have adequate cover for stands lower than 20 feet. But in most trees I think stands in pressured areas should be at least 20 feet high, and I rarely hunt below 25 feet. The added height keeps me out of the deer's peripheral vision, makes me less likely to get winded, and allows me to get away with more movement at crunch time. That height can make for poor shot angles, so I practice at least the last month before season from a similar height to perfect my accuracy.
During postseason scouting, don't stop with finding good stand trees; clear shooting lanes, too. When hunting pressured bucks, you rarely get a second chance, so clear several good shooting lanes at every stand site. Because I rarely hunt any one tree more than four times during a season, I do not worry about deer patterning me, and the multiple lanes assure a clear shot if a buck passes within range. When clearing lanes I cut all the small stuff close to the ground so it is less obvious to other hunters. To mark my trail to the stand, I often use green - rather than pink - reflective markers, because they are more difficult for other hunters to see in daylight.
Revisit your stand sites a final time in mid-August to hang your stands (you probably won't hang them earlier for fear of theft) and to trim any new growth that may have invaded your shooting lanes. Then, to keep the area clear of human odor and activity until the mature bucks start coming out of their nocturnal patterns, stay away until the prerut. If you hunt a primary scrape area and spook does there before the prerut, the odds of seeing good bucks at that place drop drastically.
WHEN HUNTING PRIMARY scrape and staging areas, you must arrive extremely early for all morning hunts - 1 Ã‚½ to 2 hours before daylight at an absolute minimum. Even during the prerut, pressured bucks will continue in a nocturnal bedding and staging routine, and you must be on stand and sitting quietly before their transition in the morning. (In lightly hunted regions, I have not found this so critical.)
Then, if possible, you should be prepared to stay throughout the day. During the prerut and rut, bucks will get up and scent check core areas for estrous does during midday after all the other deer traffic has moved through and bedded down. A mature buck can investigate core areas much more efficiently by midday scent checking than he can by chasing deer throughout the morning. During the rut phases, midday hunting is an absolute must.
Several years ago in southern Michigan in early November I was in my tree and 2 hours before daylight. My location was in a staging area on the edge of a small marsh bordering a woodlot full of large acorn-laden oaks. Within a half hour a deer passed through the staging area and bedded about 50 yards from me near the edge of the marsh. As the sky lightened I tried to see the bedded deer but could not.
Fifteen minutes later a doe approached through the oaks. As she came close to my stand, the bedded deer rose and moved toward the doe. For this area, he was a very respectable buck. As he passed by my tree at 6 yards, I vocally blatted to stop him and took the shot. After running 40 yards he expired within sight of my tree. That hunt perfectly illustrates why you must arrive well before daylight in pressured areas. If I had arrived at any later I would never have seen that buck.
FUNNELS BETWEEN BEDDING areas are my second choice for mature bucks during all the rut phases. Once the prerut starts these areas will receive a lot of attention from mature bucks, especially during midday, say from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. When a mature buck scent checks for possible estrous does he will check all the bedding areas in his core area, and the funnels between them will be the travel routes he uses. These funnels will require the same hunting time frame as the primary scrape areas - very early morning arrivals and late departures. Funnels between bedding and feeding areas can be hunted from opening day through the entire season.
Keep these funnel stand sites a minimum of 20 yards away from crop field edges so you don't spook feeding deer with your entry and exit. Setting up away from the edge of a field also lessens the chance of your being silhouetted against an open sky. And mature deer become very uneasy as they enter fields, so setting up 20 or more yards away should give you opportunities at more relaxed animals.
If a good runway is a little out of range of your selected tree, use branches and brush to create a tighter funnel that will force deer within range. Deer generally prefer to go around rather than through brush, and after 9 or 10 months, they will be conditioned to following the edge of the barrier you have created. You should also have a shooting lane cleared to the edge of any nearby fields. Mature bucks will occasionally scent check field perimeters for estrous does.
RUB LINES MADE by mature bucks generally will have a pattern to them. During postseason scouting, of course, you are looking at last season's rubs, but you can bet mature bucks will use essentially the same routes next season. So prepare stand trees near any good rub lines.
Then revisit these sites in mid to late September to search for new rubs. If at all possible, do this during nasty weather - heavy rain, high wind - to reduce the chance that your scent or noise will disrupt the area. If you find new rubs when you revisit these locations, hunt there during the first few days of the season. If you hold preseason scouting and general activity to an absolute minimum, bucks should continue following their consistent summer patterns.
If a rub line enters a bedding area, set up far enough away from the edge of the bedding area to prevent alerting bedded deer. Before major hunting pressure hits, bucks often lie very close to the outside edges of bedding areas.
My goal during postseason scouting is to prepare stand trees in every good spot on every parcel of land I hunt. I usually have at least five stand sites per property. Preparing stands during the winter assures that I will be ready to hunt during the season with a maximum of efficiency and a minimum of disturbance. In the end, isn't that the definition of good deer hunting?