For those who are new to hunting or even wanting to hunt a new spot it can seem daunting especially in areas that are vast, like public land. Where are the deer? How do you know that you aren’t going to waste your time sitting in a stand or a blind at a new spot? I’ve compiled a list of things we do pre-scout, during the scout, and post scout that hopefully you can use to make the odds of your deer hunt more successful as well as encourage you to go out and find new places to hunt!
Before you go scouting be prepared…
Figuring out where you want to scout as well as making sure you’re prepared to be out in the woods. This includes supplies; do you have food, water, knife/hand saw, bear spray, basic first aid kit? Another big thing to consider, especially if you’re going out alone, is does someone know where you’re going or have an ETA on when you’ll be back? Even the most experienced outdoorsmen should practice letting someone know roughly where they’re going as well as when they should be back. Having that ETA and a plan in place if that person has not heard from you is key. Tyler and I practice this and try to check in with each other if we’re out alone and periodically have cell service.
Being familiar with the location is also key. Have you been there before? Do you have a map or a GPS to bring along with you? What are some key landmarks that you can find quickly should you get lost? We travel with at least a GPS and sometimes a physical map as well as having a general idea of what the topography is going to look like when we arrive, ie. are we looking for a specifically marked trail or are we looking for a ridge to follow?
There are lots of great tools you can use online to pre-scout before you go scouting that you can also use while scouting. Getting a basic idea of an area you want to explore using Google maps is a great way to start and find a location but using a service like On X Maps can help you be aware of trails that may not be clearly marked, private land vs. public land, and can even be used when you have no cell service when saved maps to mobile device.
When looking a general area to scout there are a few key things to look for on a map. When I first started scouting using online maps I looked for public land and then tried to find openings or fields. Fields can have small green growth that deer like to munch on but, deer like cover and don’t always like being out in the open. Just off of fields I’ve found rubs, scrapes and game trails.
Catching deer coming to or from food, bedding, or a doe in heat during the rut can be key for a successful hunt. But how do you know where a deer is traveling? Elevator Ridges are another distinct piece of topography to look at when map scouting. These ridges are generally smaller ridges that lead up to one main ridge, or highest area of elevation in an area. Elevator ridges can be popular with game especially if there’s something on the main ridge that is appealing to them like food, or bedding. Elevator ridges can be a popular means of travel to a main ridge because they are generally less steep than trying to climb up the main ridge.
What to look for:
For deer there are a few things to look for when scouting…
Tracks. Deer tracks are distinct because of their two hooves that form an upside down heart shape with the rounded bottom indicating the direction of travel. It may be
possible to actually determine if the deer track came from a doe, fawn or buck, as well as deer age but I won’t get into all of that in this post.
Trails. Like I mentioned above, tracks can indicate the direction that a deer is traveling. By noting which way a deer may be moving it is possible to find a trail that deer are traveling on. Once a trail is found it’s possible to see routes that deer, and other game are traveling. Trails usually cross hiking trails, roads, etc. and usually have sign along them. When looking for trails look for tracks first, turned over leaves, and scat or poop. Other things that can be found on or just off of trails include bedding, rubs, and scrapes (more info on each below!).
Scat or poop. That’s right, I said poop. Deer scat is generally in pellets or a cluster but it’s generally piled up. Deer scat can tell you a lot about an area. If the scat is still shiny it means that it’s been dropped recently, especially when it’s hot out. If there’s lots of scat around in an area it could mean that an area is being used for bedding or that there is a lot of traffic in that area.
Bedding I found with hair in it in an area I call Buck Beds.
Bedding. This can be more difficult to find to the naked eye but, looking for areas of leaves or grass in a field that has been matted down in a kidney bean type shape. Sometimes there’s hair in the bed especially if they are between shedding their winter coats. Often times there is also scat nearby the bed.
Rubs. Deer have several scent glands on their bodies but one is right between the eyes. Deer, mainly bucks, will rub the top of heads/antlers against live trees and brush to mark that they’ve been at that location. Sometimes rubs are also created out of frustration or to rub the velvet off of their antlers.Other deer can smell a rub to see what other deer have been through that particular area. Fresh rubs are usually easy to see as the deer have exposed the inner part of the bark or the tree from rubbing.
Rubs can be directional and let you know what direction the deer was traveling in. If you walk in the direction of the rub it’s likely that you will find more rubs. I’ve also found good hunting spots by looking for areas with fresh rubs that have sign of “historic rubs” or trees that were once rub trees that are all grouped in the same general location. To me this indicates that this area is consistently traveled and is a good area to check out or even hunt. See other rubs below.
Scrapes. Similar to rubs, scrapes also allow deer to communicate via scent. Scrapes are when bucks paw at the ground, leaving bear ground, that they can urinate on and leave their scent. Scrapes usually have a licking branch as well that overhangs the scrape on the ground. The buck urinating, licking or rubbing it’s forehead on the licking branch tell other deer that he’s been there. Rubs are most active before and during mating or the rut. At this point bucks testosterone is starting to kick in and they are becoming more territorial. Biologist have found that scrapes are actually incredibly complex in terms of deer communication. If you choose to do your own research there’s lots of information out there about scrapes, why they exist, how to create a scrape, and even why and how to hunt them.
Now that you know the basics of what to look for…
Once you’ve figured out an area that you want to explore it’s time to hit the road or the trail! Even though you may know exactly where you want to go explore it’s important that you don’t get tunnel vision on your scouting trip. Look around and pay attention when you’re walking in to any tracks that may be in the mud, if there are any game trail signs off of the main road or trail, if you see scat, or even if you see scrapes or rubs on or just off of the trail.
For example, on a scouting trip Tyler got so distracted looking for game trails, tracks, and scat that he missed a tree stand hanging in a tree. Look ALL around you, not just at the ground! Often when I scout and find I rub I stay in that spot and look for other rubs. Like I mentioned above in “Rubs,” they can be directional and if a buck is traveling and making rubs. If a buck is moving and making rubs then there is most likely another rub within a stones throw of the rub I’m standing in front of.
Following sign and going off the original path of what you planned on scouting can be the best way to find sign. Some of the most interesting spots we’ve found we actually stumbled upon on a scouting trip like the below rub I saw as we were hiking to check out a field and I saw the below massive rub just off the trail.
Use more senses than just your sight. For example, listening out for sounds that you haven’t heard before. Maybe, there’s a deer nearby and you hear it blow at you. We’ve come across turkeys and heard them scratching through leaves before we even saw them. If you’re new or a novice to scouting try focusing on one sense and see where that leads you. As you get more experience with scouting listening and looking for sign becomes more apparent.
Once you’ve found a good spot, or several, it’s a great idea to hang a game camera to see what is coming through that area. Cameras vary in price and features but you don’t have to have the most expensive camera with all the bells and whistles to be successful and get started. We started with a few basic brands like Wildgame Innovations, Stealth Cam, and Moultrie with prices all under $60. These cameras have done relatively well for us, a few have had some issues but for the price we can’t complain.
When we set our cameras we usually let them sit for at least two weeks, especially if we are scouting a new area. We sometimes let them sit longer in areas we are familiar with to see if we can track deer movement and pattern them. We did this with a spot we call “Boomerang Crossing” through the summer of 2017. At “Boomerang Crossing” we had a lot of summertime daytime movement as well as some nighttime movement of a few larger bucks. By the end of summer though, the movement had slowed down considerably. Because of this we know it’s not necessarily a good spot to hunt early season. Below are a few things we’ve caught on a variety of our cameras.
When to scout and keeping logs of scouting ventures:
It’s never too early or too late to start scouting! Deer movement is ever changing. By scouting and keeping a log either with an app, blog, or old fashioned pen and paper (notebook) deer movement becomes a puzzle that you can start to piece together. If you use cameras you can even start to track specific deer.
Hopefully these basic tips, tricks & things to look for will help you on your next scouting venture. Of course these are the basics and there’s a lot of behavior and biological information if you choose to research further. So, go forth and scout deer! More “Scout Log” posts to come about our scouting adventures!