Scouting the illusive white-tailed deer buck has changed rather dramatically over the past couple of decades, from more of an art to a science, thanks to technology and the new strategies that it has created.
What once was simply the skill of stealthy slipping around before season to look for deer sign and deer, is now technologically based. Trail cameras do the heavy lifting, giving us a 24-7 eye in the woods.
The goal is the same, finding deer and especially big bucks.
But the demand is the same, avoid contaminating prime hunting areas before hunting starts.
We have learned so much about deer behavior, wildlife management strategies, supplemental feeding, food plot utilization and technological observational techniques. New knowledge alone about how deer smell, how they react to human habitat invasions, and the lingering impacts of boots on the ground has caused serious buck hunters to realign their pre-season and in-season investigations.
Despite fears that hunters might “stink” up a particular hunting area either before hunting starts, during the prime hunting season dates, especially the rut, or even the post-rut time frames, there are some things that hunters can continue to do to effectively scout deer. Buck hunters have just learned to be a lot more careful as well as smarter than they used to be years ago.
The KISS System
Yep. I know you have heard this one before, but maybe it is just about time to dust off this old way of thinking about scouting and hunting deer.
“I use the KISS method, Keep it Simple Stupid,” said Beau Starkey, an accomplished and avid deer hunter from Madison. “A lot of the time, I simply over-think the whole process and the methods of scouting to kill a nice buck. I often over-exert my own efforts in thinking like a man as opposed to thinking like an animal.
“I ask ‘what would the buck do, and where would he go?’ That way I can be more effective in my scouting strategies. Sure, I might well use a whole series of cameras to collect vital deer information where I hunt, but there is still the scouting issue of getting in there to place the cameras, then getting out without disrupting the whole area or driving deer out of where I want to hunt. Along the way, I am constantly scanning for sign, too. Which way are the deer tracks pointing? Where are they coming from or going to?”
Often, what Starkey finds leads to further scouting and more questions.
“Naturally I look for rubs and scrapes along the trails, edges, and funnels, but noting which side of the tree the rubs are on can tell you from what direction the buck approached,” he said. “As to scrapes, how fresh are they? Do they smell? Are there really fresh hook marks in the scrape? I may carry a small note pad to collect this information for later use and analysis. If I locate a hot spot, based on camera results or active sign I have found, I note it, then I get the heck out of there to hunt it later.”
Patience is a key, since rarely does success come quickly, as is eliminating or at least limiting human scent.
“Most often, I kill my best bucks when hunting the first or second time at a spot I found during stealth scouting sessions,” Starkey said. “I try to minimize scent contamination by spraying down with a scent killer, wearing scentless boots, and always using gloves to handle anything especially a camera, but also brush or limbs or a hunting stand, etc. Scents can be left behind even accidentally and as far as we know, these telltale human aromas could last for days, potentially spooking a good buck out of the area, maybe forever. We don’t really know just how tolerant a particular buck is when out-of-the-ordinary scents suddenly appear in his domain. Why take any unnecessary chances?
“If nothing produces in that spot after a couple of hunts, then I will back out for as long as a week or even a month later. Reason being, that if he is still alive, and there was something in that area to have had him interested to begin with, then I expect him to return at some point. Maybe I’ll be there the next time.”
Starkey said that by simply knowing the deer sign, and seeing evidence of nice bucks in the area, he’s put himself in a good position.
“In other words, I’m just using common sense to help me to accomplish my goal of connecting on a nice buck,” he said. “The trick is to not over-scout an area, then especially not to over-hunt a particular area where a really nice buck is hanging out most of the time. If you do overuse any particular hunting spot, you might as well just be waving a white flag. Common sense is the KISS method. Don’t over think it.”
Overuse is abuse
We all have our favorite places to deer hunt, and I would be the first to admit that I very often over-hunt some of them. Starkey would suggest to do otherwise, and he carries it a few steps further.
“When you do start hunting a hotspot you have identified by camera data, ground sign, and observations, then watch the deer behavior as they come into view where you hunt,” he said. “Does a buck hang back in the edges even though does are in plain view? This is normal, usually, but especially take note where the buck is standing or if there is a trail in that spot. Always continue to watch that spot on subsequent hunts.
“If a buck walks cautiously out into the open, be it a food plot, open trail, or a spot where he is plainly visible yet too far to connect with an arrow or bullet, where is he looking? If he walks out and always looks in the direction of your hunting stand, or especially if he looks upward at it, then you know you have been busted. Chances are that buck has patterned you.”
It means you likely contaminated the area.
“Maybe you have scouted this are too much, left too much scent behind, or made say a metallic noise of some kind, anything to alert the deer,” Starkey said.
“If so, you may need to change up your strategy by moving the stand across the way to better angle the sun or wind, or maybe go to a ground blind back in the shadows. Good scouting and hunting will tell you these things.”
Smart scouting is trying to juggle a lot of factors for independent consideration, yet putting the complex pieces of the puzzle together to collect the buck.