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Scouting: The Essential First Step in Deer Hunting
written by Keith Sutton

Don't overlook the importance of studying the many clues left by deer.
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Use the map and notebook to mark important sign, as well as deer sightings, observations about their movement patterns and other things that might help you formulate a hunting strategy.

To improve your luck on white-tailed deer, learn the major types of deer sign, what they look like, where to find them, how to interpret them and what they mean in terms of formulating a hunting strategy.

      

"The first step is to buy a compact notebook and pen, and a detailed topographic map of your hunting area," says Gerald Almy, a Virginia outdoor writer and well-known hunting authority. "Use the map and notebook to mark important sign, as well as deer sightings, observations about their movement patterns and other things that might help you formulate a hunting strategy."

     

If you're into technology, this also can be done using a good GPS unit. Those marketed today have many functions useful to the scouting hunter, and it's simple to become proficient at storing location coordinates of deer and deer sign along with notations that will allow you to return to the exact location.

     

Whether you use a simple notebook and map or a sophisticated GPS, the most important notations, according to Almy, are those about sign. The major types for which to watch are droppings, tracks, trails, feed areas, beds, rubs and scrapes.

     

"The amount of droppings you see indicate how many deer are using the area, and the freshness indicates whether deer are currently using that area," says Almy.

     

Droppings also can tell you something about the particular deer that left them. For example, extremely large clumps of deer droppings are a sign that a large deer is in the area. And because mature deer often defecate as soon as they leave their beds, droppings near a thicket might give you an idea where that large deer is living and which direction he is traveling.

     

"A set of deer tracks can also be telling," Almy notes. "If a track is dry and eroded, it was made a few days prior. If it's fresh and well-defined, the track may be only hours old. If you find a very large hoof print, it was probably made by a mature buck. Does often travel in groups, so if you find a single set of tracks, it's likely the marks are from a buck. When walking, a large buck has a longer distance between tracks than average deer."

     

It is not a simple matter to learn how to interpret tracks in this manner. Experience, however, is a good teacher. The more you study deer tracks, the better you'll be able to use them to help you when scouting for the best hunting zone.

     

The best trails often lead to thick bedding cover or dense escape areas. Finding where several trails merge into a heavier, single path increases odds of seeing deer, but first use a trail timer or other device to determine if deer use is during the day or strictly at night.

     

"During some of my early fumblings as a deer hunter," Almy says, "I wasted time watching what, in retrospect, were clearly night-time travel corridors because they were such open areas and easily accessible."

     

Watch, too, for feeding areas with fresh deer sign.

     

If you find a tree that has been ripped to shreds, odds are it was done by a mature buck.

"This could be an abandoned apple orchard with tracks, droppings and partially chewed fruit, or a crop field with fresh tracks," Almy notes. "An area with oak trees that has leaves kicked up and scuffed indicates deer were there recently searching for acorns."

     

Beds are where vegetation has been mashed down by sleeping deer. A large bed is usually made by a mature buck. Don't spend much time here, Almy suggests, but back off and find a place where the buck can be intercepted moving to or from his resting area.

     

Rubs are among the most important types of sign when hunting bucks.

     

"These are where bucks rub their antlers against trees and scrape off the bark," says Almy. "A series of rubs shows the path a buck follows, at least on some days. I've taken many bucks by setting up on fresh rub lines."

     

Rubs provide more subtle clues useful to the observant deer hunter as well. For example, mature bucks are usually much more aggressive than smaller bucks. If you find a tree that has been ripped to shreds, odds are it was done by a mature buck. Rubs also can indicate the direction from which the buck approached because bucks will usually rub the side of the tree they approach from. After finding multiple rubs in a row, it is possible to determine the exact path traveled by the deer.

     

Scrapes are cleared oval areas on the ground where a buck pawed out the leaves and urinated over its tarsal glands to attract does in heat.

     

"The best are fresh and damp with little debris, and with a small tree branch overhead that a buck has bent or broken and left scent on," Almy reports. "If you find one like that, putting a stand downwind is definitely worthwhile."

     

The wise hunter also realizes that a mature buck doesn't make just one scrape. Typically, he will paw out several spot along a corridor, with all the scrapes he actively checks running along a single trail. This trail is rarely a true trail that is immediately evident to human eyes. But if you examine the area closely, you should be able to determine how the buck enters and leaves the area of each scrape, which will, in turn, help you decide the best place to put a stand.

     

Now that you have some information on what to look for while scouting, the next part is for you to get out there and do it.

     

"Don't overlook the importance of studying the many clues left by deer," Almy concludes. "Deer signs will show you the way to more successful hunting."

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