With sheds dropping nationwide as I type these words, the rut of last November seems like a distant memory. Only months ago, on November 7, 2012 countless hours of hard work in the off season came to fruition for me as I knelt behind a Pope & Young caliber twelve point to put my hands on his rack for the first time. Some may call it luck, some may call it skill, but the fact of the matter is that an old saying here plays out true: “chance favors the prepared mind.” This same rule applies to bowhunting. A mature whitetail buck may only give you one chance, and when he does you must be ready to capitalize.
So, how does one put himself in a position to get within bow range of one of the most elusive game animals in the country? You can use what I am writing as a guide, but you have to understand one thing – there is no golden ticket, magic potion, or easy way to get a shot opportunity on the deer of your dreams. Let it be known that a combination of scouting, hard work, and perseverance are three important keys to make the puzzle fit together. Being that it’s well in to February, now is the time to get in the woods and start scouting for the season to come.
Whether you hunt public ground or private ground, deer sign is the same. I like to classify my deer sign into four main categories; rubs, scrapes, bedding, and main trails.
Rubs: A rub is made when a buck rubs his antlers and forehead against a tree shredding up the bark. This leaves behind the bucks scent for others to know this is his territory. It is not uncommon for different bucks to use the same tree where deer densities are higher. I like to focus on rubs in areas where deer often stage or travel prior to heading to a food source. The side of the tree that displays the rub is indicative of which direction the buck was headed when he made it. For example, if you have bedding cover to the south, a food source to the north, and a rub line between the two with trees that have been rubbed on the south side, this tells you that the buck is likely traveling from his bedding to the food source. Deer bed in the day time and come out to eat near dusk. I would position myself between that bedding and food in the afternoon with anticipation of a shot in the evening.
Scrapes: In my opinion, they are harder to find than rubs, but once located, scrapes make a great place to hang a trail camera and see which bucks are frequenting the area. Scrapes usually tend to be found on edges. This can be the edge of a bedding area or food source. In my experience they are rarely found on the edge of a main trail, but it doesn’t mean a buck won’t leave his mark there if he chooses. Scrapes are an area, typically under a licking branch, where a buck will paw at the ground until it is bare dirt and then urinate in that spot. This is a visual and scent marker to other deer that a buck has been there. When trying to find scrapes, look for branches at about eye level that appear as if they have been nibbled on, or in some cases, are snapped off at the end. If underneath the “licking” branch you find a bare spot on the ground, there’s your scrape.
Bedding: Deer bed down for the day in an area that gives them the advantage over predators. They choose their beds wisely and when a bedding area is located in your scouting get happy happy happy! You just located a very key piece to targeting your buck for next season. Deer are likely to use these same locations day in and day out year after year. They choose spots that provide them with shelter from the elements, cover to hide from predators, and they are typically in an area close to a food or water source. I like to focus my efforts in thick CRP fields, sheltered ridge lines above a creek bottom, and on south facing hillsides with adequate cover. These are typical hotspots for deer bedding and great places to find shed antlers this time of year. You will know a bedding area when you find it by various deer sized flat spots found in amongst otherwise tall or thick grassy cover.
Main Trails: Its obvious to tell where a deer has been by its hoof print. The direction of the print tells you where its headed and the condition of the trail will tell you how often its being used. I like to scout for main trails after some type of moisture, be it snow or rain. This makes the tracks much more identifiable than in dry conditions. In areas with high deer densities, these main trails may look like cow paths with various off shoots. Main trails indicate where a deer is headed once on its feet. It is important to consider a few things once a main trail is located; where did it come from, where is it going, and can you get a treestand near it. Its likely that once a trail is located you can follow it and be led to either food, bedding, or water as these are a deer’s three essential needs. Once you find what lies at the end of one trail, take it back to where it ends again. This technique can really help you uncover the mystery of how and why deer travel like they do in your hunting woods.
It is important to be methodical in your scouting and keep mental or actual notes of what you’re finding in the deer woods. Some keep them filed on memory, some write in a journal, and others use a word document to keep their findings handy for review. No matter how you do it, just make sure you do it! The information you acquire right now, can put you on track for your best season ever.
-By Jeff Carpenter