How to Scout Deer from The Road

How to Scout Deer from The Road

I heard a loud “SNAP” reverberate from my knee like a gunshot long before I felt any pain. It was during a rugby game in my sophomore year of college, and I had just twisted awkwardly while bouncing out of a tackle when my left knee decided to explode like a firecracker, dropping me to the ground. I felt the pain then, writhing in the mud with my teammates gathered around me. It was the first week of the playoffs, and I knew I would be out for the rest of the season. But that wasn’t what started my heart racing and my mouth to go dry in panic as I was carried from the pitch—it was only a couple weeks before deer season, and I didn’t know if I was going to be able to walk, let alone climb way back into the mountains to still hunt and track whitetails like I normally would. The injury meant that I was only going to have one option if I wanted to kill a buck that year—scouting and hunting close to the road.

Why Would You Want to Hunt Close to a Road?

As much as we all like to focus our hunting efforts on getting far into the backcountry, sometimes this simply isn’t an option. Many hunters are handicapped by injury, are getting on in years, have limited hunting time, or just aren’t physically able to push themselves back into the mountains as they want. Additionally, when mentoring children on the ways of the hunt, you simply may not be up for an early morning death march in the dark just to get to a hunting spot. When you’re faced with these sorts of limitations, scouting and hunting close to a road may be the best choice for you.

Let me be clear, I am not encouraging any sort of road hunting where you drive around looking for a deer you can shoot right off the road. That isn’t hunting but simply being lazy, and in many states, this sort of behavior is actually illegal. However, using a car, truck, or ATV to get into a good hunting location where you can then exit the vehicle and walk 30, 50, or 100 yards into some good-looking territory is something that almost every hunter has done at one time or another. In fact, for many hunters living in urban or otherwise highly populated areas, this is often their only option. Furthermore, for hunters new to the sport and not used to the discomforts of a true backcountry hunt, scouting and hunting close to the road and to civilization is a great way to find early hunting success and hope to encourage future growth in the sport.

Urban deer overpopulations are another great reason to look for hunting spots close to roadways. In metropolis-riddled states where the woods meet the concrete like West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C, and even in states where a lot of the wild places trickle into town like Colorado and Montana, exploding deer populations are causing roadway accidents, having negative encounters with pets, and causing other random destruction. Targeting these deer during the hunting season is a great way to control their populations and can also be a great way to fill the freezer if you don’t have a ton of time to head into the backcountry.

However, while many hunters know all of this, they still prefer to hike back into sections of National Forest and other public lands because they are understandably apprehensive about the legality of hunting close to roadways. Many simply don’t understand how or where to look for deer close to the road. Yet scouting out hunting spots from the road is a fairly simple process and like almost every other hunting adventure, it all starts with a map.

Working the Road Map

Mapping apps like OnX are a great resource for finding good, legal-to-hunt locations close to the road. These apps can show you large chunks of land that are close to main roads and that have accessible roads running through or around them that might put you on top of the deer. However, you’ll want to pair these apps with other resources that can give you more intricate detail such as Google Earth, or even some old-school topographical maps. This will allow you to zoom in on and pick apart different terrain features that have potential for holding deer. Search the map for both potential bedding areas and feeding areas near the roadways, taking note of nearby agricultural fields, private gardens, open meadows, stands of hardwoods, or fruit orchards, all of which will attract deer at one point or another.

Once you’ve found a few potential areas, you’ll want to start paying special attention to the roads themselves. In these small chunks of forests, roads almost act like border fences, especially in high-traffic areas. Deer are naturally resistant to crossing them, at least during the day. Instead, they’ll hunker down, bedding, feeding, and breeding in small plots of 30- to 100-acre chunks of land. Pay special attention to these plots of potential hunting territory that have several different roadways surrounding them and not necessarily running through them. Spots like this will give you several options for entry points into the property without disturbing or pushing the deer into other areas by driving through the middle of them.

You’ll want to find several different chunks of potential land to scout and not put all your eggs in one basket. Don’t be afraid to mix and match different chunks of territory with blends of terrain as opposed to only concentrating on roadways near fields or around blocks of hardwoods. Give yourself plenty of options to account for seasonal deer movement because you never know when the spot that looks great on a map ends up being a complete deer desert.

Preparing Your Vehicle

Before heading out to scout along the road, you’ll want to make sure you’re prepared for the trip. If you’re hunting in urban areas where roads are paved or along well-traveled dirt or gravel roads, you’ll probably be fine just bringing your usual scouting equipment like binoculars, spotting scopes, trail cams, etc. Unless a monster ten-pointer runs across the road right in front of you causing you to drive into a ditch or plow into a tree, roads like this won’t require any extra gear to get you home.

However, if you’re heading out to scout on old logging roads or some other type of Class D Road that aren’t very well maintained, you’ll want to bring some extra equipment along for the ride. This is especially true if you’re running these roads in bad weather or drive a less-than-dependable backcountry vehicle like a Toyota Prius. Before heading out, you’ll want to fill up your truck bed or trunks with things like tire chains, come-along, tire jacks, electric winches, bags of sand, shovels, a chainsaw, and even a medical kit, just in case the worst happens. If anything, these things might prevent you from having to call a buddy to come pull your car out and give away your hunting spot.

Driving and Scouting the Roads

Once you’ve found your hunting spots and noted the different roadways, your next step is to take a drive. You’ll want to run these roads well before or even after the season, taking note of how long it takes to get there and getting a rough idea of what you’ll be dealing with once hunting time rolls around. You’ll want to familiarize yourself with the different roads or streets you’ll be hunting near and how to get in and out of the area because there’s nothing more irritating than getting lost on some backroad during the middle of the hunting season. Find good parking spots and easy access entry points into the blocks of woods you’ll be hunting and of course, take note of any deer activity you spot from the vehicle.

Once you get a general idea of the roadways, it’s then time to put boots on the ground and really scout them out. While it may seem easier and less invasive to simply sit in your car and scan the areas with a good pair of binoculars, this isn’t always the best way to find the deer you’re looking for. As mentioned in Wired to Hunt’s “How to Whitetail” video, deer in open fields that are easy to spot from the road are going to receive a lot of attention from other hunters.

These areas, often lined with hunters blaring Hank Williams’ “A Country Boy Can Survive,” talking about what they’re going to do to the buck they’ve been staring at with binoculars every night, should be avoided. Deer in these high-traffic places are going to be dead or driven out within the first ten minutes of opening day. Unless you want to join the pre-dawn rat race, it’s best to simply ignore them.

Instead pay attention to areas that give you access to the stuff you can’t spot from the road, like small doglegs of open meadow, natural dips in the land, or long lines of cover that lead into thicker stands of trees or prime feeding areas. Areas like this are fantastic holding spots for bucks as they’re places the deer can move into to check on their does and to feed without being spotted by Bubba and his spotting scope.

During the preseason, you’ll want to check these areas out on foot by parking your car and going for a little hike. Look for well-traveled deer trails between sections of cover and feeding areas that show you a good direction of travel for morning and evening hunts. Put up trail cams, hunt out old scrapes and rubs, and basically scout out the area just like you would any other backcountry spot only on a smaller scale.

In almost every chunk of roadside woods that hold deer, there are going to be true “hot spots” with more deer activity. These can be a five-acre plot of oak trees where the deer are piling in to feed or a small pinch point of brush between fields that the deer are using as cover when moving to and from meadows. Any spot with a lot of extra heavy signs that can’t necessarily be seen from the road is worth noting and paying special attention to once deer season rolls around.

As Easy as You Make It

That year, I put in more miles onto my battered Camry than I ever had before, riding the dirt roads around campus and marking every single deer trail I spotted from the car on a map. I’d jump out of the car and follow these trails down into the woods as far as my crutches would allow, setting up cheap $5 camp chairs in any spots I felt had potential. I think I worked harder than I ever had before that season, exploring close-to-the-road territories and finding some surprisingly good hunting spots in places I would have simply driven by and ignored in the past. Once deer season rolled around, I was out in the woods almost every day between classes and physical therapy sessions, rolling down the old dirt roads and crow-hopping on one leg down trails to sit in my chairs until dark.

Despite my limitations that year, I just knew if I put the work in I would eventually be rewarded, if only with a sighting or two. I knew I was doing all the right things and that it would just be a matter of time. So, I wasn’t even surprised when one day about halfway through the season, I found myself looking through the scope at a basket-racked six-point buck working his way up the trail toward me. I simply smiled to myself, settled the cross hairs onto the deer’s shoulder, and thanked God that for once it wouldn't be a long drag back to the road.

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