As I wrapped up a long weekend in northern Wisconsin, I decided to take advantage of a late-season rainstorm to look around an 80-acre parcel of public land. The deer activity where I’d been focusing my efforts had been pretty slow, so I figured I was missing something.
After sneaking up a long-disused logging road, it became clear that I had been on the wrong side of the property. Likely due to the easy access and the near-constant four-wheeler traffic on the far side of the parcel, the opposite corner was full of sign. Pounded trails, a few freshly worked scrapes, and all showed that the bucks were concentrated where the people weren’t.
When I get the chance to go back, that’s where I’ll start a new round of hang-and-hunts. And it was all possible because of a couple hours of in-season scouting.
, is a transitional time for bucks. They abandon summer patterns and most risky daylight movement. They stick to cover and places where they feel most secure. This means that your hotspots from a few weeks ago are likely cold. The best way to find bucks is to go looking for the clues they leave behind.
All of the usual suspects are worth checking out, whether you are a rub hunter, like to sit scrapes, or simply need to find one over-sized, fresh track to put you on the right path. All of this can be found by slipping into the places you’re not currently hunting, but that takes a bit of a cavalier attitude.
You’ve got to accept the fact that you’ll be intruding on where the bucks feel safe, and that comes with consequences. You might bump deer, which could put them off for a few days. That’s why I like going in during the middle of the day during a rainstorm, or if possible, when it’s really windy—anything to lessen my impact on the spots I want to scout. This goes for the times when I’m purely scouting and when I’m carrying in to sit for the evening. You want to find that balance between seeing what you need to see without blowing through an entire area and ruining a spot before you even get to hunt it.
Looking for buck sign is a no-brainer, but it pays to keep an eye out for anything and . This, according to public lands bowhunting expert Zach Fleer, is the key to a lot of his success in his home state of Missouri.
Fleer notes that it’s more than just the weather or seasonal timing that can get bucks moving: “In early October, finding the white oaks that are dropping is the key for me. It’s the biggest thing I’m looking for, but I also keep an eye out for persimmon trees that are dropping. When hard and soft mast like those are found in the same area, I know I’ll be around a lot of deer activity.”
These random, pop-up food sources might only be good for a week or two, making them probably the biggest factor that a lot of hunters miss during the mid-season. Most of the time when quality soft or hard mast become available, deer will ditch the old, reliable, destination food sources and gorge on the limited-time calories. This often plays into their general bent toward staying in the cover, which means the situation can conspire to make your early-season stands absolute duds. Pay attention to the food that is available in cover and you’ll find deer. Better yet, you’ll find deer that are moving during shooting hours.
It’s easier to not bowhunt now, and that you’ll do more damage than good. This may be the case for some folks, but the reality is that the bucks are still out there and killable. They are still moving somewhere during legal shooting hours, and your goal for in-season scouting should be to find those spots.
The more factors like buck sign and hot food sources that you can tie together in a small area, the higher your chances are of getting in and tagging out on the first sit. It’s not enough to identify a few scrapes or a well-used trail; you’ve got to piece together the likelihood of deer using that exact area while you can still see your pins.
This usually involves locating high-use areas that are . And that means you’d better bring your A-game if you’re planning to slip in for a hang-and-hunt evening, or plan to be there at first light as the bucks come streaming through on their way to bed.
That’s a scary proposition for many bowhunters. But the risk is often worth the reward if you’re willing to engage in some in-season scouting in order to be able to hunt where the bucks are right now.
Feature image via Matt Hansen.