Shoulders slump, chin rocks to breast bone, chest deflates like a withering, week’s old balloon. This, the reaction from the stealthy, but not stealthy enough, hunter as he cautiously approached his trail’s end where his boots and the access road had met. Slowed as his pace was. Peripheral as his eyes were. Late into the morning he hunted as surely everyone else was home eating their cocoa pebbles or sourdough bread and eggs over-easy.
He does not see me on foot up the trail until he himself hits the gravel. By then it was too late. He was busted. I saw the Tears For Fears thought bubble above his head and it read aloud in cartoon font, “Scout, scout, let it all out. These are the things I can do without. Come on!”
Get down and stay still:
“Get down and stay still.” If I heard my Old Man say that once growing up, then I heard it a hundred times. But, it was only after hearing it the first time that I asked ‘why.’ “Shhh” was the response as two pickup trucks unknowingly drove by our camo-cladden, stump-shaped, and catatonic crouched figures. When only dust clouds from worn-out all terrain treads remained, I would finally have my answer. “We don’t want anyone knowing where we’re hunting, son” he would say. To which I must have wondered out loud, ‘But we decided not to hunt here. The sign isn’t that great.’
In response to which I received conclusively from the Old Man, “...well, we don’t want people knowing where we’re not hunting either.” I find plenty of room to chuckle over that retort to this day as I hope you all do as well.
Growing up and being taught the lay of the land from a young age is something I relish. When you watch A NEW HOPE as a kid and you hear Luke Skywalker reply nonchalantly, “It's not impossible. I used to bullseye womp rats in my T-16 back home, they're not much bigger than 2 meters,” and instantly relate it to woodpile vermin and your pellet gun, well that’s how you know you grew up in the ‘sticks’. And growing up Country can also mean eating a lot of venison along the way too.
Being a successful hunter and dining on ven, like anything else, means putting in the time. Time can mean hours hunting in the woods actively seeking or awaiting game, and time in terms of hunting can also mean many other things:
- Time should mean hours at the range target practicing.
- Time can mean hours spent processing your own meat.
- And time also means studying topo maps and boots on the ground scouting.
Scrapes… no Sign too Small:
I’ve been fortunate enough to tag my fair share of bucks over scrapes over the years. I’ve also had the good fortune to be able to sit plenty of friends and family members in hunting positions over scrapes, and they too have bagged some nice deer as a result. I’ll say this much. Scrapes are reliable until they’re not.
That is to say, I’ve also spent hundreds of hours sitting over scrapes and never so much as seen a deer. Suffice it to say that not all scrapes are created equal and the sooner you learn which ones are, and which are not worth your time, the better off you’ll be as you decide where to spend your time in the woods this season.
You’ll save yourself a lot of time and heartbreak by paying attention to a few key details about scrapes you find while scouting. 1.) Which scrapes are the ‘wrong’ scrapes to hunt over. 2.) Which scrapes are the ‘right’ scrapes to hunt near. 3.) Timing. Timing is another important aspect of scrape hunting. What’s the best time during the season to hunt near the right scrapes?
Let’s first discuss the wrong scrapes. These are important to identify as wrong scrapes make up roughly 90% of what you’re sure to stumble across in the woods. There’s been a ton of ink spilled discussing scrapes near field edges. Too many authors to count have bemoaned the infamous field-edge hoof crater as something to be avoided. I’ll say this much, that’s true 90% of the time.
It’s simple math really. The law of averages says that if it’s true that 9 out of 10 scrapes are either visited at night or created once and never revisited again, then its also true that only 1 out of 10 you find will be worth your time anyway. Think about it before devising your next stand set. Wind direction won’t matter if it’s unlikely the bruiser you’re after won’t be back again. Which begs the question, what are the ‘right scrapes’ to spend your valuable vacation time hunting over.
Three of my personal favorite, ‘right’ kind of scrapes, are; 1.) Scrapes right in the thick or on an edge where different types of habitats meet. More than likely these are also positioned just downwind of large swaths of Doe bedding. Mature whitetails (during pre-rut esp.) will hit these first in the evening while leaving their preferred bedding areas precisely because they provide the security of adequate cover.
2.) Perennial scrapes that are typically found in a hub, in a funnel/pinch point, or in an ‘X’ of movement that are used year round and opened up during early season. Mature bucks wise to the mating game play the odds and behaviorally they know finding a receptive doe is more likely where more does comingle. Perennial scrapes are oftentimes located in high 'hoof-traffic' areas; and speaking of number games, these are great places to make your stand and increase your odds of bagging your next wall-mounter.
3.) The almost folklor-ish ‘cluster scrapes’ where two or more areas of primary buck bedding overlap like a Venn diagram. Although rare to find, these scrapes are sure to have at least one licking branch with a twisted limb if not several and are some of the more obvious signs in the scouting woods. Cluster scrapes are some of my favorite spots to hang a game camera and take inventory as well.
Do the same after finding one and be prepared to be amazed at just how many bucks not only use the area, but can be caught during daylight hours. Now that we’ve discussed how to pick and choose which scrapes to focus on, the question remains, when should I be hunting them.
Personally, if the conditions are right I’ll hunt a fresh scrape, even if it’s no larger than the bottom of a coffee can, and even if the licking branch lacks a twisted limb. In addition to the conditions in the preceding paragraph being met there are periods of the season where you’ll find more success hunting near scrapes.
Specifically, during the pre-rut phase, first while bucks are seeking, then on the same continuum while bucks are chasing. The vast majority of daytime pictures we see near scrapes with mature bucks posing for the camera are during these 10-14 days of the season smack dab during pre-rut when the bruisers you’re targeting are looking for the first estrus Does of the year.
Mature buck activity around scrapes during early season and during and after the rut is sporadic at best. All that isn’t to say that hunting near scrapes at times other than pre-rut is necessarily bad, it’s just that the scrape should be incidental to the stand location and you had better have another (or several) reasons for being there (like hunting a core area during early season, or doe bedding during the rut, or hunting food sources during late season and a scrape just happens to be nearby).
Find ‘THE’ tree:
‘THE’ Ohio State Buckeyes aren’t the only ones to trademark the notion of ‘THE.’ Well, legally maybe they are, but it’s been long passed down from generations of hunting fables that somewhere in the expansive woods lies ‘THE’ tree. And this tree holds the secrets of every deer to pass it by. And this tree every deer in the woods does pass by at some point throughout the season. If you are the lucky one, the talented one, the one able to find it, then you’ll be rewarded handsomely with more trophy bucks than you have wall space to mount them on.
It is of course a fairytale of sorts. To accept the notion that somewhere in the 1,000,000 acre wood there lies a Goldilocks location, not too hot, nor too cold, not too tall, or short, or soft, or hard, but just right. But like all good, tall-tales, there’s an ounce of truth in it. Every year men and women take to the woods and hunt their favorite spots. Some of those spots, an infinitesimally small percentage of them, will produce mature whitetail patriarchs nearly every year.
I met a guy from Williamston, MI a few years back who graciously showed me his trophy room. This particular gentleman hunts the same corner of the same field during the same weekend of rifle season (shot-gun/now straight-walled rounds) every year. He’s done this for the past 20 years and he has 18 trophies on his wall, all of which, unmistakably, share a common genetic make-up (tall, thick, dark racks with abnormally long G-2s). Bill from Williamston is one of those folks who has found himself ‘THE’ tree, and over the years he’s determined when precisely to hunt it.
‘The tree’ isn’t necessarily a tree at all. It could be a briar bush, a stump, a crick or river crossing. It’s a pinch point skinny enough to funnel deer down to one location and a position close enough to several preferred habitats. Edges of habitat with terrain, food, and a water source are great places to look for them.
What ‘The tree’ represents is an apex of deer movement. That small area on a Venn diagram where all the lines meet. A space where bucks are looking to find receptive Does… and those same places where Bucks are looking to increase their own odds… those spots are exactly where you need to be.
Backtrack Visual Movement Queues:
Software, gadgets and devices aren’t the only things that can be reverse engineered. The process of deer movement. How, why, and when deer cover terrain can also be understood via deductive logic. You can backtrack sign, and you can also backtrack deer you saw move through while you were hunting.
Backtracking deer sign (such as beds, rubs, scrapes, and plots of turned up White Oak leaves) is commonplace enough, but backtracking sign can also be misunderstood. Backtracking deer movement (animals you see on hoof with your own eyes) on the other hand may be one of the most under utilized, and yet both straight-forward, and highly effective techniques there is in terms of hunting whitetail.
Backtracking warm bodies of movement. Deer, like Mountain Men & Women, ‘Live for a Living.’ What that means is, unless they’re fleeing from something (an orange-clad Huntsman with a rifle perhaps) they’re traveling in very precise patterns, and for very specific reasons. Not only that, but they’ll take the most energy efficient route. They'll navigate not unlike how Indigenous and First Nations people did. By taking the same well worn paths their ancestors have for a millennia.
- Food to Bedding
- Bedding to Food
- Food to Water
- Water to Food
- Bedding to Water
- Water to Bedding
- To and From Summer Bedding and Food
- To and From Summer Bedding and Water
- To and From Summer Food and Water
- To and From Fall Bedding and Food
- To and From Fall Bedding and Water
- To and From Fall Food and Water
- Fall bedding to Perennial Scrapes
- Water sources to Fall bedding
Buck Rut Movement:
- Rut bedding to Doe Bedding
- Between Doe bedding and More Doe Bedding
Buck Post-Rut Movement:
- Rut bedding to Doe Bedding
- Rut bedding to Large Food Sources
Couple additional notes when paying attention to and backtracking deer in determining where they’re coming from and where they’re heading to (based on the above options):
1.) Patterns change from one season to another season. True in terms of climate and weather patterns, and also true in terms of years. Although you can, and we do, use deer trails to determine movement they are but one clue in figuring out the overall puzzle. Changes in annual food sources will dictate changes in patterns of deer movement.
2.) Tracks in lowland, river bottoms, and mud holes have ‘staying power’ and will last a long, long time. Deer might be using those areas still, but those tracks are just as likely to be ghost prints and nothing more than a Red Herring by the time opener comes.
3.) Buck trails are faint, Doe trails are worn. When you see a buck and don’t get a shot, track that movement in both directions. When you see a buck and put him down… celebrate, and then backtrack his movement in both directions. Another buck eventually will fill in the slot he’s left behind.
Hubs and Half-Pipes:
I’ve seen mature bucks (4.5years +) in high pressure areas, and well before the rut, move several hours before dusk and after dawn in what would appear to the naken eye to be open timber and/or timber edge. One thing we can all agree on is that older age class bucks don’t get to those years by making many mistakes.
So why is it they would feel comfortable enough to move during daylight hours? Answer, cover. And cover can come from terrain just as easily as it comes from thick vegetation. Chili or Tortilla Bowls as we called them while growing up (aka Thermal Hubs), and Half-Pipes (aka travel corridors created by topographical features) might very well be two of the most misunderstood terrain features in the world of hunting public land.
Although there has been gallons upon gallons of ink spilled explaining and discussing more common topo features (such as saddles, draws/valleys, benches, ridge lines, points/spurs, and funnels/pinch points), very little time - relatively speaking - has been dedicated to two more illusive types of topography. These less common topo features are Hubs and Half-Pipes. Let it not be said that it’s not worth all the blood, sweat, tears, and time you’ll spend locating them though.
What these two features have in common, other than being far more difficult to locate than other terrain features mentioned above, is they both provide topography as cover.
What is topography as cover you may wonder? Topography as cover is a way large prey animals access their environment undetected to avoid predation. I’ve seen snow-shoe hares hide in the smallest of brush piles while fleeing from coyotes; groundhogs burrow under dead stumps to avoid a bobcat, partridge drop to the snowy ground and with one fluff of their wings, cover their bodies in fresh powder to evade the keen eye of a hawk in hot pursuit. These achievements are not accessible to large game animals who instead rely primarily on stealthiness, and secondarily on their swiftness on hoof as they flee.
First, the thermal Bowl, hub, or pocket as it’s been called. When it comes to finding whitetail before, after, and during the rut, there may be no better place to look than low-lying tracts of land where two or more ridges end and form a pocket. These pockets aren’t necessarily large, and where the terrain becomes particularly difficult to navigate because it’s encumbered by thick cover, that’s where you’ll want to set up shop (down-wind, or off-wind). If there's a small, discrete watering hole in the same mix, and you have something truly special.
Next, the Half-Pipe. Not to be confused with a draw or a valley, both of which are carved up and into the side of a hill or mountainous terrain, a half pipe is something entirely unique. What we refer to as the Half-Pipe consists of two parallel ridges where a millennia of erosion has formed a horizontal luge across the landscape. Although large parallel ridges may have creeks or small rivers near the bottom, these scenarios will prove more difficult to hunt for two reasons. Number one, swirling winds. Deep ravines with steep sloping sides generate unpredictable wind patterns. Number two, the steeper the sides the more likely the travel pattern of our whitetails will be perpendicular to, instead of parallel with, the terrain.
Instead, focus on shorter parallel ridges with forgiving slopes that make it easy to escape danger at any point along their length. Some may only be 6ft in height and just enough to hide a deer. Others, as tall as 30 or 40 ft. Regardless, the sides will be sloped like a halfpipe, and traveling down them (parallel to them) provides cover for whitetail moving from bedding to bedding, food to bedding, or from bedding to food. Heavy doe traffic in these areas year round prove to be great ambush positions for bucks during the season (especially when the seeking stage of pre-rut begins, and on into when rut is in full swing).
Scout BIG, Hunt small:
Deer have personalities unto themselves. If you’ve seen enough trail cam pics, and watched enough trail cam video, then you already know this is true. You’ve probably seen ultra aggressive bucks shred every scrape they find. And, you’ve more than likely seen some real shy giants walk right past perennial scrapes with little more than a sniff to the air. What bucks in particular have in common - other than hormone level changes in the late summer and on into fall - is a ‘home range’ that shrinks as they age.
The size of a deer’s home range will vary based upon terrain, seasonal landscape, and hunting pressure. But, for argument’s sake let’s assume our scouting yielded mature buck sign. And statistically speaking this mature buck has a home range of 600 acres. Now a 600 acre home range may seem like a daunting task until you realize that only about 60 acres constitutes their ‘core area.’
According to Matt Ross of QDMA, a core area is where a mature whitetail buck spends at least 50% of their time… and those hours are daylight hours! So yeah, scout big to locate the thickest and nastiest 60 acre hole you can find, and then hunt small. If you can shoot more than 20 yards (without trimming some dead branches), then you’re prolly not thick enough ;).
Hint: A great way to locate these areas is to find early rubs that head in two directions. Bi-directional Rubs. Rubs on trees heading into and out of thick cover is one of our favorite sign posts to locate a mature buck during pre-season scouting.
Match bi-directional rubs with rubs both high on the tree, on trees larger in diameter, and with skiff marks above the primary rubbed portion where tall tines and wide racks scar the tree, and you've got something very special indeed.
Here’s the thing: It’s possible that the next thick and nasty plot of land you find will be good all season long. Good during the early season when bucks are held up in their beds, in the thick until the ‘Blue hour.’ Good during pre-rut when bucks are out seeking and then chasing all night, and coming back to bed late in the morning. Good during the rut during intermittent phases of ‘lock down’ while they spend +/-24hr periods of time with each doe. And good during late season as higher stem count equates to more food and the nutrition bucks desperately need to restore winter fat reserves lost during the rut.
Get into Shape:
If Henry Ford’s 40hr work week has you all tuckered out, that’s ok we get it. It may simply mean your lacking mental fortitude, what we refer to here as stamina. Lacking stamina isn’t a slight, it’s a fact for many. And… if you want to really enjoy hobbies that involve anything other than couch cushions and a flat screen; interests other than what lies at the bottom of a bottle; then stamina is what you’re going to need for them.
Here’s the thing. Stamina is a useful commodity for other endeavors that require a shit load of energy too. Pursuits such as marriage, kids, side hustles, camping, canoeing, and yes, hunting and fishing expeditions. With enough stamina, and if you’re really, really fortunate, once in a while you’ll be able to enjoy all or many of your pursuits in conjunction with one other simultaneously;).
Although recognizing when someone has stamina might not be obvious at first. We’ll say this much. When people lack stamina it’s all too obvious. Obvious in their communications, obvious in their behavior, and obvious in what they accomplish.
Stamina, like its closely related cousin, endurance, comes from building on small pieces of work ethic until its results can no longer be ignored. Just as building a home starts with a foundation. Just like running a marathon starts with the first mile. And, very similar to becoming an ‘overnight success,’ which begins first with thousands, yes thousands, of hours of unseen effort.
Bagging a mature whitetail is like that. Harvesting an old buck takes stamina long before, long after, and especially during the season.
Cameras and Inventory:
If anyone is thinking that by purchasing the most expensive game cam on the market that they’ll be guaranteed to see the next Boone and Crockett whitetail - in their County - land at their feet, then they’re prolly in for a bit of disappointment. Don’t get me wrong. We love game cameras. We own several different brands and use them all. The lesson here is how they’re used and what expectations we’re setting for ourselves by using them.
Holding cell-cameras aside, which have their own controversies and in an increasing number of states, legal challenges, traditional cameras are but one of many useful tools a hunter has at their disposal. If one were so inclined, and many hunters are, they could spend an inordinate amount of money on game cams.
Think about it this way, purchasing just ten (10) cameras can range anywhere from $1,000 on the low end to $4,500 on the high end. Now, if any of those cameras are lost, stolen, or fail, they’ll cost just as much - or more - to replace again. Compare that to my bow, that I paid less than $800 for, that I’ve had for more than ten (10) years now, that hasn’t cost anymore than replacing the string twice, and cables once. Still around $1,000 all told.
Anything can be an investment, and like all investments timing is key. We’ve taken to buying a couple cameras in the off-season when they’re on sale. When you span those purchases out over several years, the other consequence is that not all of your cameras will be the same age either. So when one gets old and no longer works, the rest are inevitably newer. Not to mention, technology is always changing so you're constantly up to date with the latest and greatest tech.
Consumer spending habits and buyer strategies aside, we have two primary uses, for cameras. Daylight buck activity and taking inventory. What cameras proved to us is this: Irrespective of moon phases, barometric pressure, or weather, the rut normally will occur annually like clockwork.
Not only that, but bucks (those animals that make it through the season and on into the next age-class) are also consistent. The same bucks will show up in the same areas year after year, and almost to the day as the previous year. Bucks will not only start showing up in daytime pics around the same time, they will cruise the same doe bedding areas year after year on or around the same day as in years prior too. Know this. Catalog this in DropBox or whatever app you use, and use this knowledge to intercept them the following year.
Being successful in the woods takes preparation and timing. And preparation and timing are two sides of the same coin. Preparation and timing can mean the difference between bagging your next trophy whitetail and coming up empty handed.
Being successful in the hunt is no different than being successful in all walks of life. It takes a continuous improvement mindset: Where every new situation and every failure is an opportunity for growth. Fail quickly and learn fast. Scout, Hunt, Rise and Repeat.
What my hunt-friend at the beginning of this article didn’t know, what he couldn’t have known, is that scouting can also be designed to avoid hunters almost as much as it is to find bedding, fresh sign, and old bruiser bucks. Although my fellow bow hunter doesn’t litter the woods with orange or pink survey tape; and although he has no use for reflective pearl tree pins, and instead opts for OnX, Huntstand, or another geolocation App, it mattered not.
Even with packing in light with a few sticks and a hunting saddle, he left plenty of ‘sign’. Weeks prior I had already seen the snapped twig-ends, turned up leaves, and the knee-high, new regenerative growth tunnel his recurring entries and exits to his preferred hunting grounds had made.
Poor fella was busted long before he ever realized it. If you can track a buck, then predicting and tracking human predators is easy business ;).
Good luck and happy scouting,
Mike (The Unseen) Hiller