Hunt with me just once, and you’ll know at least one thing about me: I focus a lot of my whitetail attention on scrapes. Even in September, which goes against conventional whitetail wisdom.
I think I make a sound argument that September and early October is the best time to target a mature whitetail on scrapes. The reason is simple: Right now, that scrape pattern is more like an actual pattern and less of a semi-random rotation. Let’s dive in.
Understanding Scrape Behavior If you’ve hunted deer for very long or spent any amount of time trying to understand whitetails, you probably know what scrapes are and why bucks make them. Research has shown that they serve multiple purposes in the deer world, but their primary goal is communication.
Some bucks will lay down scrapes simply because they’re bored, and rising testosterone levels make them want to tear some stuff up. But for the most part, scrapes aren’t created willy-nilly. They’re intentional and purposeful. The buck’s intent is to place scent around its territory and communicate to other deer (bucks and does) that he’s around. A scrape’s location is placed strategically in areas where the buck travels often and where it knows other deer travel as well.
Hang a trail camera over an active scrape as soon as they start showing up and you’ll understand this better. You’ll capture photos of multiple bucks of varying ages and see that few, if any deer, will pass by the scrape without at least a perfunctory sniff.
Scrapes are social, communicative hub, and as the rut draws closer, their purpose takes on a slightly different angle. Bucks are still working scrapes as a means of communication, but they’re also checking them in hopes of picking up the trail of a doe that’s closing in on its breeding cycle.
In September, there aren’t any hot does to mess with—not that some bucks won’t try—so the scrape is just a place bucks visit as a matter of routine. However, when the rut is very close, the presence of a hot doe can quickly alter that routine. Hunting pressure can also take a significant toll on the timing of scrape visits. As bow season rolls on, bucks wise up to our game and will likely hit scrapes after dark. The daily pattern on an active scrape will be downright predictable before the hunting pressure ramps up and the rut enters full swing.
Taking Advantage of the Pattern You’ve likely read plenty about the perils of hunting field-edge scrapes. Some of what you read I may have written before I knew better. Now, I have zero hesitation in hunting a field-edge scrape, as long as I have some measure of confidence that I can access my stand site without alerting deer on my way in or out. Additionally, I want to be sure that a mature buck is willing to visit a field edge in daylight.
This is, of course, a situational thing. In my home state of Michigan, the odds that a mature buck visits a field-edge scrape in early October daylight aren’t good because of preseason scouting pressure. We’ve got a lot of bowhunters here and September brings plenty of human activity into the woods even though the season doesn’t open until October 1.
But in areas with September openers and a bit less hunting pressure, a field-edge scrape can be one of September’s hottest tickets.
The key to this is proximity. I don’t know of any bowhunters who don’t get excited at the sight of a lush field of green soybeans or alfalfa in September. We know deer are going to hit that prime buffet every evening. What we don’t know as easily is where exactly a big buck might step out, particularly in very large fields. Observational outings can provide a few potential spots. But, typically, I see bucks use three or four general entry areas when showing up in sizeable agricultural food sources. This makes each sit a bit of a gamble, and whether or not you will choose the right location for that evening’s hunt is a toss-up.
Enter the active field-edge scrape: When a good buck is working a set of scrapes along a field edge, the guesswork is eliminated. It doesn’t matter where the buck enters the field. I have a high level of confidence that it will end up on those scrapes in short order. That’s the order of operations nearly every time: A buck steps into the field. It does a little surveying, and then it drops its head and goes for the scrapes. After working them over a bit, it’s time to feed.
An active scrape scenario simplifies my food source setups. I just need to make sure I’m set up with the wind in my favor in relation to the scrapes.
Scrapes Make September Mornings Magic There was a time when I simply would not hunt mornings early in the season. There was too much at risk—or so I thought. I knew deer would be in the crop fields before daylight. I knew they’d be heading back to bed pretty early. My odds of bumping into one on the way to a stand were too high to risk. So I sat mornings out until the rut drew closer and focused only on evening hunts in September. What a mistake.
Now, I still don’t hunt primary food sources in the mornings during the early stages of bow season. That’s just asking for trouble. And I take great care to make sure I don’t run deer out of those fields or bump into them on my way to a stand. But I hunt mornings. And I hunt near active scrapes only in doing so.
The key here is to find active scrapes near—but not too close to—bedding cover. I usually stumble across this situation when acorns are dropping in September. When those first acorns start hitting the ground, I believe they trump all other food sources. They also fall from the most mature oaks, which is ideal because those trees have large, dense canopies that tend to choke out other foliage below. This means deer aren’t as likely to bed directly in those oaks and will have to travel a bit further to bed.
This formula means I have a top food source that’s drawing deer, an ideal setup for bucks to make scrapes because these are heavily traveled areas, and I’m far enough away from a bedding area to as not to disturb it.
Plan a careful entry into that area before dark, and you can have outstanding mid-morning movement and find success with any buck that’s visiting those active scrapes. Scrapes narrow down the area of focus. There could be a dozen oaks dropping acorns along a ridge and choosing which tree a buck will feed under isn’t an exact science. But with active scrapes in the mix, I have a very good idea of where every buck will eventually end up before heading off to bed.
Feature image via Matt Hansen.