As I admired the mounted head of a huge nontypical whitetail on the wall of an Alabama hunting lodge, the owner came up and struck up a conversation.
"That was the first buck I shot on this property," George began. "And he was the reason I leased the land."
Always eager for a big buck story, I turned and raised my eyebrow as if to say, "Do tell."
As his story unfolded, I could see that George had put much effort into his season-long effort at solving the puzzle of this 181-inch bruiser buck. The most important piece, according to George, came in the form of a phone call from a neighboring landowner, asking if his son could hunt the lease. The neighbor already had leased the land for dove hunting, and his son had previously hunted deer until George leased it. Because George planned to use the lease for his outfitting operation, he had to say no.
When the young man called back and insistently requested permission, George became suspicious. So he started scouting near the property boundary, where he figured the neighbor would most likely want to slip over. His intuition proved correct when he began to find signs that a big buck lived in the area. Subsequent scouting missions helped fill in more pieces to the puzzle.
"I started finding more big buck sign, and I found where the other fella had been hunting," George said.
When you scout any new area, save yourself a lot of time and energy by first eliminating all the negative zones.
That's when it all started coming together. "I plotted all of the hunter's stand sites and his access trails on an aerial photo," George said. "Then I drew in a 200-yard circle around the stand sites and 100-yard swaths on either side of the other hunter's trails and eliminated those areas from consideration. Since he hadn't killed the deer, I figured the deer wasn't using those areas. His biggest mistake was that he wanted to see too much from his stands."
George also figured his former competitor had conditioned the deer out of those areas.
Eliminating all those negative areas, George was able to refine his search to a small locality that eventually proved to be the right one.
Learning a new piece of hunting ground is both exciting and intimidating. The exciting part is the novelty, the anticipation, and the unlimited potential. What's intimidating is the time and labor you know it will take to find the best hunting spots.
Maybe you have acquired a new lease, or recently moved and are looking for public ground. Or maybe you're planning a hunting trip far from home. Whether you're traveling out of state, out of town, or just a few miles down the road, you can do much before and during your scouting trips to find spots that will produce positive results. But the process becomes a lot easier if you first eliminate the negatives.
Before you start burning valuable time and shoe leather, stop and look at the big picture.
Every state wildlife agency has a website containing a wealth of information, including maps of public hunting areas. Such resources can be invaluable in scouting from home.
Every tract of land has places that deer rarely use. It also has other places that just don't lend themselves to hunting. If you can eliminate those locations in advance of, or during, on-site scouting trips, you can reduce your scouting time, sometimes significantly.
Before I make my annual trek out to Illinois to hunt with Doug Doty's Dreamwoods Adventures, we talk on the phone about prospects for the different leases he holds. In particular, I ask about crop rotation. Woodlots adjacent to standing corn usually aren't as productive as those next to cut corn. Deer can simply lie up in the standing corn, but they must move in and out of the cut fields. If the corn is still standing, I cross that spot off the list until a later date.
Along with making phone calls, obtain all possible resource materials, starting with topo maps and aerial photos. Hard copy topographic maps (U.S. Geological Survey quadrangles) are available from the U.S.G.S., map stores, and large sporting goods retailers. You can get aerial photos from your local or regional Natural Resources Conservation Service office, or private vendors. Standard size is 8''x8'', but they come as large as 3'x3'. Some years ago, I mounted one of these big boys on a piece of foam core, and it has served me well.
Computer users have many convenient options. Software programs like DeLorme's Topo USA and MapTech's Terrain Navigator have digitized topo maps, plus lots of handy features. With Topo USA, for example, you can download topo maps, aerial, or satellite photos for anywhere in the country onto your computer, then transfer them onto a DeLorme PN-20 handheld GPS unit. In the field, you can record routes and locations on your GPS and later download them back onto the topo maps on your computer. You can also design and print customized maps with all this information.
Deer quickly learn to avoid areas of high human use, and so should you.
If you don't want to buy expensive software, you can view aerial photos on googleearth.com or terraserver.com, among others. At mytopo.com, you can create custom topo maps and aerial photos. At TopoUSA.com, you can prepare customized maps online, and they will send you laminated copies for a fee.
To hunt public land, contact state or federal agencies that oversee that land for maps or brochures. Further, all state and federal agencies have websites. Most have listings of public lands, and many have maps you can view online. Once you have your resource materials, you can begin the process of elimination.
As all experienced hunters know, deer quickly learn how to avoid people, beginning with areas of heaviest human use. So eliminate areas within 1,00
0 feet of human travel routes, such as paved roads, logging roads, or hiking trails. Most hunters don't stray too far from the safety of roads and trails, which makes these areas what I call negative zones.
Most hunters don't stray far from roads and trails. Hunt as far as possible from heavily traveled routes and you'll likely encounter more deer and bigger bucks.
Obviously, the 1,000-foot buffer is a guideline, not a hard rule, so you must adapt according to the actual level of human use. In regard to parking areas or paved roads, you probably want to maintain an honest 1,000 feet, and even more vague access points deserve a wide berth. Identify any places where someone could pull off onto the shoulder and park, mark them on your photos and maps, and draw a 1,000-foot radius circle around these points.
Of course, as you get deeper into the woods, you probably can reduce the negative limit somewhat. I have a couple of very productive stands within sight and sound of trails used regularly by hikers and mountain bikers.
Here's a common scenario in scouting a new area: As you walk along, the habitat gets better and the sign gets hotter, and eventually you find a buck's core area. Now it's just a matter of selecting the right tree. But when you think you've found it, you notice scars in the bark and neatly trimmed branches, or worse, someone else's stand. If I had a dollar for every time that's happened to me, I could buy a new climber.
You're tempted to hunt there. After all, someone else hung a stand there, so it must be a good spot. Maybe so, but you should avoid it like the plague for several reasons. While no written rule protects the site, ethically it belongs to the other guy. Besides, you have no idea what kind of hunter he was. Maybe he was stealthy and conscientious, maybe not.
If all you see is evidence of past use, give the site a 300-foot buffer; if the tree contains an active stand, give it 1,000 feet or more. You wouldn't want someone moving in on you if it was your stand.
When you find other hunters' stands, especially permanent stands like this, draw a wide circle around them, and don't hunt within that circle. Not only is it unethical to move in on someone else, but any stands like this could represent a negative zone
that deer will avoid like the plague. Why waste your time hunting in such a zone?
Even if you're the only one hunting an area, I recommend that you avoid old stand sites, especially permanent stands. I learned this lesson when I bought my property. Because I owned it, I thought permanent stands were the way to go and built several on major deer travel routes. After three or four years, I began to notice that deer were modifying their travel routes to avoid the permanent stands.
With aerial photos and on-site scouting you can eliminate some areas based solely on habitat. Start with obvious sites like open fields, open water, or clearcuts -- while bearing in mind that the edges of these places can be hotspots.
Of course, your criteria have to match local conditions and specific objectives. In New England, for instance, I can pretty much eliminate open hardwoods (unless some trees are producing lots of desirable mast). This is particularly true for the late season, when deer are seeking shelter from the elements.
You can rule out solid stands of pine just about anywhere. Deer may occasionally pass through them, but they won't spend a lot of time there, and neither should you. If you're hunting only early and late in the day, or during the rut, you could block out areas with no dense bedding cover nearby.
Using topographic maps, you can eliminate a lot of places based strictly on terrain features. Unless pushed, deer most often will follow the path of least resistance. They will avoid steep grades, and so should you. They also will take the shortest route, like a low spot or saddle between two peaks, so avoid the high points and focus on the saddles or gaps.
Quite frequently, "negative thinking" will bring you positive results like this.
I used to travel from New England to the mountains of West Virginia every fall to bowhunt public land. By studying topo maps, I did much of my scouting before ever leaving home. Arriving at my hunting area, I simply went to the saddles marked on my maps and fine-tuned my stand-site selection.
At first blush, you might think the same avoidance rule should apply to structures like houses and office buildings. After all, houses are usually bustling with human activity.
Deer learn to avoid people, but they also become accustomed to their routines. I have learned a valuable lesson from hunting public lands in the northeast, where we have the occasional good fortune to hunt, and more importantly track, in the snow. It's not surprising that once the firearms season opens, deer become scarce. What is surprising is where they go. Sign in the snow shows they often bed close to houses, where gun hunters cannot go -- but bowhunters can. Obviously, you need to check state regulations to see how close to buildings you can legally hunt.
The same logic applies to outbuildings and derelict houses. Your first instinct might be to avoid them. But if there's little or no human activity around them, deer quickly become accustomed to them. I know a bowhunter who shot his best buck out the window of a long-abandoned farmhouse. In my part of the world, old farmsteads usually mean old apple trees, too, which deer love.
Growing up in New England, I used to read enviously about hunters bagging huge bucks in the Midwest. They made it sound easy compared to what I'd experience in the big woods back home.
Then I traveled to the Midwest, and I felt like Superman landing on planet Earth. Open fields and pastures cover 90 percent of the landscape, woods only about 10 percent -- and the woods are mostly confined to narrow riverbottoms. It doesn't take a genius to figure out where the deer will be. Back home it was just the opposite, almost like a negative image.
Finding hotspots anywhere is kind of like that -- comparing a black and white photograph to its negative (for those who remember print photography). Looking at the photo, everyone's eyes go to the highlights, the large, bright features. Look at the negative and
those features are all black. The positives become negatives.
From that perspective, the overlooked places stand out as bright. Suddenly the negatives become positives, and finding them becomes much easier.
The author is an outdoor writer and wildlife biologist from Pownal, Maine.