“Scouting is the name of the game,” said experienced whitetail bowhunter Jesse Coots. “It’s kind of like training as a wrestler. If you skip your whole training season and go right to your first match, you’re going to get pummeled. Bowhunting is no different.”
Coots is not alone in this belief. Of the hundreds of expert deer hunters I’ve interviewed on the Wired to Hunt Podcast, their focus on scouting stands out above all else. Here’s a selection of insights from the nation’s top whitetail hunters on all things scouting.
Scout More Than You Hunt
One of the simplest ways to level up your scouting game is to simply do more of it. There is a clear difference between the amount of time spent scouting by highly effective hunters and their less successful peers. “I scout probably 80% of my time and hunt 20%,” Coots said.
Joe Elsinger, another renowned public land deer hunter, views scouting as a never-ending endeavor. “Scouting season is 365 days a year—in season and out of season you can scout,” Elsinger said.
This year-round scouting allows Elsinger and similar hunters to be overprepared for the season. “It’s my rule of thumb to have scouted at least twice as many spots as I could hunt in a season. I’m focused on playing the long game and stacking the odds in my favor, so I’m constantly sorting what the best areas are,” he explained. “I’m only hunting the top half or third of those in any given year, but I’m still watching those other areas. I’ll get boots on the ground a couple times and run a trail cam or two to see what’s around. But that’s how I try to stack the odds in my favor.”
Consider Time of Year
“Right when the season ends is a great time to start scouting,” said Andy May, First Lite pro team member. “I’ll get right out there when there is still snow and walk all my hunting areas. I’m looking for winter bedding, food sources, trying to find bucks that survived, and all that’s related to future late-season hunting.”
Andy’s scouting doesn’t stop there. It continues throughout other parts of the year too, but with very different methods and goals.
“When the snow melts, that’s when all the sign is still visible. Every scrape, every rub, the beds are very visible. That’s when I’m looking for individual buck beds, I’m looking for doe bedding, intersecting trails, all that stuff. I’m trying to put all those puzzle pieces together for more effective rut sits for the next fall,” he said. “Then in August and September, that’s when I’m trying to find early season patterns, so I’m running some trail cams, doing a lot of glassing, checking fields for large tracks, that sort of thing.”
Quality over Quantity
It’s tempting to get excited by sheer quantity of deer sign when scouting a new area, but if you’re targeting bigger or older deer, that’s not necessarily the best focus.
“I personally think deer are like men. When they’re young, they’re all over the place, they’re goofing around, they’re with the herd,” said Jesse Coots. “But when they’re getting older, which is what we’re hunting, it’s different. When I’m in my 40s, I’m not going to the bar anymore, I’m not out with the masses. Big bucks are the same way. So when I’m covering ground right now I’m not looking for tons of tracks. I’m looking for a giant. I’m looking for a big track.”
Dan Infalt, founder of The Hunting Beast, puts a lot of stock in the bigger is better theory as well. “You know if I find a track that’s bigger than four fingers laying down next to it, as a walking track, that’s a big animal and something I’m interested in,” Infalt said. “If you’re not finding any big rubs or any big tracks, go find a different property, because there are no big bucks there.”
Prioritize Bedding Areas
Talk to any exceptionally good deer hunter about scouting, and almost without exception they’ll mention the importance of locating bedding areas. These zones are the hub of a buck’s wheel, the center of his daily travel, and the location he’ll spend more hours a day than almost any other. If you can locate the metaphorical sun that a buck’s life revolves around, all the other pieces of the puzzle will make more sense.
Whether looking at maps or scouting in person, bedding is where Dan Infalt always begins. “I’m looking for areas that I think look like deer bedding and I go straight to those areas and skip most the rest of the woods. My main interest in scouting at this time of year is where big bucks bed,” Infalt said. “I’m on mostly public land and hunting pressured whitetails, so I want to get close to those deer where they’re bedded because they don’t move far in daylight, at least not the mature ones.”
Always Ask “Why?”
Getting into the woods to scout more often is obviously a good start, but actually translating the observations you make into actionable intelligence is another step altogether. The key to this is trying to understand exactly why deer sign is where you find it and what that indicates for future deer movement.
“Always ask ‘why,’” said whitetail writer and land consultant Steve Bartylla. “Don’t be content with just finding deer sign, ask why they made it there. What’s the motivation? What are the odds of it happening again? Where is he coming from? Where is he going to? The more of that stuff you generate over the year, you almost build up a database of experiences that can then start to apply to other locations.”
Take for example how Steve tries to learn from the buck beds he finds. “During the off season when I find that buck’s bed I go ahead and I hunker down in it,” he explained. “I look around and ask why is that buck bedding in this one location here? What makes this spot one of the spots where he feels safe enough to lay down? You do that enough and you start getting the feel.”
Look for Annual Patterns
The inherent disadvantage to scouting for sign like tracks, rubs, and scrapes is that the evidence you’re observing was made in the past, and in many cases, might not be replicated again that year. That’s why many hunters use sign and observations from previous years to predict behavior in the future. This is due to the fact that many bucks often develop rough “annual patterns.”
“If I see a mature buck, or even a buck that I may want to go after in the future during the hunting season, I remember exactly the time and the place, because he is going to be back at that same time, same place next year,” said outdoor writer and Illinois bowhunter Don Higgins. “If you want to kill him, you be there first. Be waiting on him, have your stand set and be ready. He’s going to be there.”
Other hunters, such as Mark and Terry Drury, also point to this idea of annual patterns, with mature bucks returning to certain areas at generally the same time year after year. If you can find fresh big buck sign, capture trail cam images, or actually observe a deer in any given location, be sure to take note of those details. Use that to piece together a prediction for how and when he might replicate that behavior the next season. These duplicated behaviors obviously don’t always match to the day, but the general timeframe surrounding that date should be circled on your calendar.
A habit is “a settled tendency or usual manner of behavior.” As important as all the above are, your first step should be much more simple. Make scouting a routine practice and the rest will come.
Feature image via Captured Creative.