I know I’m reaching way back to my early days of being a trophy whitetail bowhunter here, but it’s something that bears mentioning. Some of the strategies I first learned back in the late ’80s and early ’90s are still very applicable and effective today. And the vast majority of those strategies came about as a result of spring scouting.
I’m not implying that I find something new and different each and every time I take a walk in the spring woods. But it does seem that I find just enough new and interesting things to make it worthwhile to continue to lay down a lot of boot leather this time of year. That’s because, in my opinion, there’s absolutely no better time to thoroughly scour and scout your hunting areas.
Buck sign (rubs and scrapes) from the previous fall have been in a state of relative “suspended animation” through the winter months, which means they will appear nearly as fresh as the day they were made. And it’s my humble opinion that these highly visible pieces of buck sign are priceless evidence regarding how the deer we’re hunting prefer to travel about their home ranges.
Personally, I prefer to wait until the snow cover has pretty much totally disappeared before hitting the woods in spring. Once that happens, it often becomes a war of attrition. I can’t begin to tell you how many hours I’ve spent attempting to gain a better understanding of exactly how the mature bucks in my hunting areas are relating to their surroundings.
For example, one of the most important things I learned during my years of being a big-woods whitetail hunter is that wilderness deer truly are creatures of habit. Provided that a few important factors remain constant, they often will bed in the same areas, travel via the same routes, and also eat and drink at the same spots year after year.
My many conversations with other hunters over the years have made it very apparent that a fair number of people still struggle when it comes to pinpointing the exact location of buck bedding areas on their hunting properties. I believe this is simply because those individuals are not exploring every square inch of their hunting areas. It could also be because some people still believe that it’s taboo to ever trespass into buck bedding areas.
But, as I’ve discovered, bumping mature bucks from their bedding areas during the spring period doesn’t have any long-term negative effects. At least I’ve never seen where it has during the 30-plus years I’ve been employing the strategy. But I have seen a bunch of instances where the procedure paid big dividends during a future archery season.
Two Birds with One Stone
Over the past 10 years or so, I’ve incorporated scouting into my spring turkey hunts. There always seems to be at least a part of each day during turkey season when things slow down to the point where a person needs to do a bit more walking and calling rather than sitting in one place waiting for a gobbler to show up. This is also an excellent time to explore and search for buck sign from the previous fall.
Several years back, I had the opportunity to co-lease a 220-acre tract of whitetail-rich bluff country near my home in Wisconsin. Over the next couple years, I scouted and/or hunted the tract from one end to the other. In my mind, I was convinced that I’d left no stone unturned — especially when it came to scouting. Turns out I was wrong.
It was late-April 2016, and I was slowly walking the edge of a large CRP field in search of a receptive turkey gobbler. Every so often, I’d send a few seductive hen yelps into the steep, wooded hillsides that bordered the field.
As I walked, I also kept an eye out for buck sign along the edge of the field. I’d gone a couple hundred yards, when I spotted a shining antler rub on a six-inch poplar tree 50 yards ahead of me. As I drew close to the tree, I spotted another rub a short distance inside the woods. A well-worn deer trail led me to the second rub, and from there I could see a line of rubs farther ahead.
Long story short, that rubline led to the discovery of an obvious preferred big-buck bedding area on a good-sized “shelf” located near the very top of the steep bluff. Although I’d walked fairly close to the bedding area on previous spring scouting missions, I hadn’t noticed it.
Of course, the discovery of what was an obvious big-buck bedroom temporarily put my turkey hunting efforts on hold. I spent the next two hours re-exploring the rub-line, and also trying to figure out why the bucks were so attracted to the CRP field. And then it hit me. There were a number of large red oak and white oak trees growing along the edge of the field. The acorns from those trees would no doubt drop into the field, which made them easy pickings for the deer.
A quick study of the ground under the oak trees confirmed my suspicions regarding the acorns. After scrutinizing the area a bit more, I selected a certain mature red oak as the best tree from which to ambush a big buck during a future archery season. I returned a few days later to do all the necessary things to get the oak “treestand ready.”
Spring Scouting Pays Off
As luck would have it, the acorn crop the very next season was nothing short of fantastic. Even better, my scouting cameras showed that several good-sized bucks were doing just what I had suspected they’d be doing. I knew exactly where I’d be hunting come opening day of the archery season.
Due to an unfavorable wind direction, I was unable to hunt from my stand in the red oak on opening day. But the wind was absolutely perfect to hunt there on Day Two. I was in my treestand a full three hours before dark, and it’s a good thing I was.
The first deer made an appearance well before sundown. It was a hog-bodied eight-pointer that I’d been getting trail-camera photos of for a couple of years. While he was a very impressive deer, I decided to let him walk. There was a bigger 10-point living on this same farm, and he often traveled with the eight-point. So, with this information in mind, I decided to give him a pass. It turned out to be one of the best hunting decisions I’ve ever made.
After munching on acorns for a while, literally right under the oak in which I was perched, the eight-pointer walked off. I was seriously second-guessing my decision to pass on the buck when I noticed movement in the woods on the far side of the CRP field, some 75 yards away. And then the 10-point strolled into view.
The big deer fed on acorns for a while before abruptly raising his head and walking in my direction. There was no doubt he was headed for the big oak where the eight-point had been feeding earlier, so I slowly grabbed my bow and got into position for the impending shot.
When he was approximately 40 yards out, the 10-point suddenly slammed on the brakes and stared hard at something off to his left. Upon looking in that direction, I spotted the big eight-point tearing up a small poplar sapling with his antlers. By the time I looked back at the 10-point, he had already resumed his march in my direction. Seconds later, he was standing 15 yards in front of me, munching on acorns. It proved to be a fatal mistake for the big Wisconsin whitetail!
The point of relating this story is to reinforce what I was preaching about earlier, that whitetail deer are creatures of habit. However, immediately on the heels of that statement, I have to say that farmland deer aren’t necessarily as easy to pattern as wilderness deer. The reason for this is that there are almost always more places where farmland deer can find the foods they most prefer to eat. And it has been my experience that just about the time I think I’ve got a farmland buck’s feeding pattern figured out, the deer abruptly starts hitting a different food source.
Which brings me right back to why it’s so important to do as much off-season scouting as possible. I learned long ago that if I truly wanted to increase my success rate on mature bucks, I needed to figure out not only why big bucks had suddenly “taken a walk,” but more importantly, where they’d gone.
There’s another important point that needs to be addressed here, and it concerns what I consider to be the most productive approach to spring scouting. Not only does it entail spending a lot of time in the woods, it also means paying very close attention to the job at hand, which is attempting to figure out exactly how the bucks in your hunting areas are using their surroundings at all times during the season.
Quite simply put, if you’re seriously searching for shed antlers, then you’re going to miss a lot of important buck sign from the previous year. Likewise, if you’re seriously scouting for buck sign from the previous season, then you’re going to miss out on finding some shed antlers.
Those of us who have spent any time at all searching for sheds in heavily forested areas know that it’s a slow-go operation. It’s take a few steps, stop, scrutinize the ground around you, take a few more steps, look around, etc. etc. etc. But while you no doubt will also find some buck sign from the previous fall when using this approach, you won’t be covering much ground in a day’s time. And in my opinion, that’s the whole point of spring scouting — covering as much ground each day as possible.
In the event I haven’t already made it apparent, effective spring scouting entails doing a lot of legwork. It also means paying attention to your surroundings. Rubs, scrapes, and heavily used trails all need to be sought out and investigated. Remember, for most of the fall hunting season, rub and scrape lines almost always are established along routes bucks use when traveling between bedding areas and feeding areas. Just make sure to keep in mind that mature bucks typically use a number of different routes when accessing their home ranges. However, in most cases, big deer will have certain travel routes they prefer to use more than all others. These routes almost always host the greatest amount of rub and scrape sign.
I know some of you might be thinking that your trail cameras can provide all the information you need to hunt a particular piece of ground. Well, I’ve been using cameras since the very first day they came onto the scene. And like a lot of modern-day hunters, I’d hate to be without them. That being said, however, I’ve always refused to trust exclusively what my trail cameras show me.
For one thing, trail cameras are able to cover only a very tiny piece of ground. And if you’re thinking this situation is easily rectified by putting out more cameras, remember one very important fact. The more cameras you put out in your hunting area(s), the more disturbance you’ll cause when checking those cameras. I’ve personally never seen a case where more noise, more human odor, and more disruption in more places on a particular piece of property equated to a higher success rate on mature bucks.
I honestly believe that technology has made us more efficient hunters, but I also believe that any information gathered via technological means always should be tempered with some common sense and practical knowledge. A little bit of extra leg work in your hunting areas wouldn’t hurt either. Especially during the spring.