Deer season is just around the corner and hunters are preparing for opening day by trying to figure out where they’re going to hunt.
They determine that largely by preseason scouting, which takes many forms these days. Five veteran hunters, several of whom are guides or outfitters, are happy to share some tips for hunters who are ready to get in the woods, look around and take notes.
• Find the water. Tom Naumann, who runs a 3,500-acre hunting lodge in South Carolina, said that late in the summer — which includes the first several weeks of deer season — whitetails are in a tight, summer pattern, and finding their primary water source can help make putting the puzzle together much easier.
“If I go out and scout a property, I’m not going to find deer sign as widespread as I will at other times of the year, because they’re in a pretty tight, summer pattern; they don’t deviate from it a lot. You don’t have any mast on the ground to spread them out, and they aren’t in the rut,” Naumann said. “They bed down, they get up and waltz around, they go to food and water, they bed down again. They don’t deviate from that a lot. It will be very consistent, barring any variable like inclement weather.
“I look for that water source. I want to look at creeks and branches and find where they’re crossing that creek. That’s what I’m looking for when I’m scouting in August and September.”
Naumann said that once he locates a few well-worn creek crossings, he’s well on the way to figuring out where deer might be bedding, along with where they may be heading for food.
• Be a shutterbug. Heath Rayfield, who manages a 5,300-acre hunting preserve in North Carolina, said when it comes time to try and figure out where he’s going to put his hunters when the season kicks off, he counts on trail cameras to provide a lot of information.
“I rely on trail cameras more now than at any other time of year,” he said. “They can help me pattern a big buck early, and I can take inventory of every buck on that property if I put out enough cameras.”
Rayfield likes to put trail cameras up over mineral sites he has established and around the corners of food plots he’s planted or existing agricultural fields.
“If you’ve got a food plot or field, there will be one corner the deer are going to hit the most, and it’s usually the most-shaded corner,” he said. “I’m going to start putting trail cams out in July, when they are in bachelor groups and start hitting key food sources and coming to mineral licks.”
Rayfield said that using trail cameras will allow him to scout without spending too much time in the woods and fields, spreading out his scent.
“You don’t need to go into those places because bucks are so sensitive,” he said. “I’ll only go in and check my cameras at mid-day, and I’ll only go in when the wind is right. I don’t want to go in if I think the wind is going to spread my scent anywhere I think the deer are living.”
• Opt for optics. Marshall Collette, a pro-staff member for Mossy Oak and Quaker Boy, said a pair of binoculars and a spotting scope are his favorite preseason scouting tools.
“As hot as it is, I stay out of the woods,” Collette said. “There’s no sign in the woods, no rubbing or scraping — nothing but tracks — and in this weather, when you go out, you stink the woods up.
“I don’t want to get them off their daily patterns.”
Collette said he likes to watch fields and food plots from a safe distance, often as much as 400 yards.
“I watch mostly bean fields, watch where they’re eating and where they leave,” he said. “I’m watching a couple around the house right now; I’ve got a pretty good idea where they’re going.
“You want to get an idea where they’re coming from. If they work their way out into a field, when they get ready to go out, I want to take a picture of them with my camera.
“Most of the fields are beans or hay, and most of the hayfields have little patches of clover. I find them during turkey season, and I don’t forget where they are. I’ll watch them. I’ll set up in a shady spot, a ways away from them and watch through the binoculars. I’ll watch those little spots of clover.”
Collette said that once he gets a real sense of where deer, especially bucks, are heading or coming from when they leave or enter a field, he’ll take one day in August, slip into the woods and set up a stand along one of the travel corridors deer are using to access the groceries.
• Scout on the wind. Veteran hunter Robert Brookman said the practice of keeping your scent away from deer had better begin in late July and early August when you’re scouting.
Not only is Brookman looking to select stand sites that will take advantage of the prevailing fall wind direction, but he wants his preseason trips into the woods to be scent free.
“I wear rubber gloves into the woods, and I check the wind before I go in to scout or hang my stand,” Brookman said. “If the wind isn’t right, I don’t even go in.
“Another thing I do is carry out all the limbs I might have to cut. I’ve touched them, and I don’t want the deer to smell them on the ground. A new limb on the ground is something new to them, and they’re going to investigate it.”
Brookman said that when he finds the kind of travel corridor he’s looking for leading toward a major food source.
“Acorns don’t fall all year, so you’ve got to be hunting around what they’re eating,” he said.
He’ll hang two portable tree stands, one for each prevailing wind direction.
• Understand their menu. Accomplished deer hunter Jason Sturgill figures the need to find a deer’s primary summer food source is the key to getting the season off on the right hoof, so to speak.
He focuses on clover — particularly where it is growing wild — for the early season.
“Before the acorns fall, that’s the best main they’ve got to eat,” Sturgill said. “We didn’t plant any of it, but it’s growing anyway.”
Sturgill does plenty of observing, and he’ll see where the deer are entering those areas, and then he sets up stands accordingly.