How to Scout Terrain Features for Whitetails

How to Scout Terrain Features for Whitetails

Pinch points, bottlenecks, and funnels are all the rage for rut hunters.

Simply locate a terrain feature that forces deer movement, put in plenty of stand time in November, and get ready for your grip-and-grin photos. Of course, if it were that easy, bowhunters in most states would have a much higher success rate.

They don’t because it isn’t easy. But that doesn’t mean training yourself to scout effectively for the right terrain features isn’t a good idea. It is. Learning to find the places deer like to walk and then figuring out how to hunt those spots is an age-old strategy that just works.

This strategy is best accomplished through a targeted, long-game approach. It’s often composed of three parts, the first of which involves e-scouting to establish a “maybe” pile of potentially beneficial terrain features.

From Digital Scouting to the Real World One reason why some whitetail hunters seem to master public land deer no matter where they travel is because they deeply understand e-scouting. They can look at satellite imagery overlaid with topo lines on onX and make an educated guess about how the terrain exists in that exact spot. This comes from loads of experience scouting and hunting in different types of habitat.

These folks recognize the importance of looking at the woods and fields from a birds-eye-view, and then going in to see what their findings look like firsthand. This allows them to fine-tune their e-scouting eye because the in-person follow-up shows them what they got right and wrong.

If you do this enough, you start to see patterns emerge in the areas you typically hunt. This goes for everything from steep hillside washouts to slightly higher spines of ground that bisect lowland swamps. But that’s just the beginning. If you don’t scout for an understanding of how to hunt a given spot, you’re missing out.

Conditional Stand Sites Let’s say you call your shot, hike in, and then see that the trails are pounded and the buck sign is thick. It’s obvious you nailed it, but what do you do then?

You figure out how to hunt it.

An unbelievable funnel does you no good if you don’t consider conditions like wind direction and seasonal timing in order to figure out when and where you should set up. Is there a perfect stand tree located 20 yards from the main trail? Is it only huntable with a north wind? Are all the trees too small? Could you build a natural ground blind or bring in a pop-up to counter these problems?

How does your approach look? If the access is iffy, is there a better way to get in? Ask yourself what could go wrong with the way you’re thinking about hunting your newfound hotspot. Will it be approachable when the corn is standing but leave you wide open after the harvest? What is the likelihood that the wind will swirl in your bottom-of-the-valley crossing, or maybe that you’ll get spotted when the deer approach from above, when their line-of-sight is dead-on to your setup?

The more questions you ask yourself about a spot while you’re standing there, the more likely it is you’ll anticipate potential problems with the setup. This is a crucial step because it takes you from thinking like a deer scouter to thinking like a deer hunter, which brings us to the final stage of understanding terrain features.

What the Deer Show You While setting up for our One Week in November shoot last year, I found a series of pinch points along a ravine in southwestern Wisconsin that left me convinced my work was finished. Except that when I hunted there in the heart of the rut, I only saw a few scrappers use the crossings. It didn’t make sense until I went back in January and walked the whole ravine.

Then I found a much better crossing, one I’d missed completely in my initial scouting efforts. That trail is more subtle, but also makes a direct route for the bucks to get from one side to the other. It’s more challenging access-wise, but that’s also probably why the deer use it. I’ll have stands on both sides of it by next September. Even then, I still might get it wrong.

If so, I’ll keep tweaking the setup. Eventually, through enough e-scouting and actual hunting, things will click—just like they will for anyone who takes the long-game approach to learning how to scout and hunt the terrain features that force deer movement.

Feature image via Matt Hansen.

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