The dreams start in late July, and leave you staring at the ceiling, unable to sleep. The full moon is waning, your spouse is sawing logs, the kids are sleeping, but your brain is humming like an outboard. You try to count sheep, but all you see are graceful whitetail does jumping over logs in that long fluid motion, one after another. An hour passes, but sleep does not come. Then you realize what’s eating you. There is no buck in the continuous loop video playing in your head.
Suddenly it’s mid-August, and most of us don’t know where our buck is, yet. This is the time scouting should be over with as we let the woods settle, let the big boy relax back into habitual patterns, until we surprise him in that first week of bow season.
Whether you wish to fill your tag with any whitetail, or seek that other class of animal, the mature whitetail buck, it is not too late to get a leg up.
A lack of heavy sign can happen suddenly anywhere, if there is enough habitat for deer to shift. Sneak around the areas that have produced in the past, but do not get stuck in them. As I write this, a friend in Western Montana is scratching his head, befuddled about where to start hunting this year. A field surrounded by great bedding cover, near his home, is abandoned this year - nary a whitetail in sight. At this time last year, it did not appear as though you could swat a golf ball into the field in the evening without smacking a whitetail, and 125 to 140 class bucks were numerous. Two non-typicals, with over 20-inch spreads and drop-tines like icicles, have completely disappeared. This evaporation of expectations has hurt his feelings. He failed to kill either of them last year and could not wait to see what they looked like this fall.
Last year, he had to be careful when driving by the area on the main road, the danger of hitting an animal was so high. The crop in the field is the same, alfalfa, and water sources are unchanged. Perhaps a cougar with kittens has set up shop, or some neighborhood dogs are running the deer at night.
Either way, it’s a good thing he is doing his preseason scouting or he would have gone back to the same stands only to be disappointed. Still, it might be a perfect area if he chooses to focus on a trophy buck. Such seemingly vacated areas--as long as they have produced in the past--should not be abandoned completely except during the rut. The rest of the year, big whitetail bucks in the 145-plus range are fairly anti-social. An area with few does and small bucks should be scoured for tracks that are roughly the length of a .30-’06 shell. Bigger bucks love to inhabit areas with lower deer densities. It’s as if they know areas with higher deer numbers attract trouble.
If lots of action on the stand, meat in the freezer and good numbers of modest bucks are what my friend desires, it is time for him to move on. Set your goals and hunt accordingly. A lucky hunter will see a big whitetail buck while chasing deer without specifically hunting the older recluse animals. But must of us won’t.
Hunting a Place to Hunt
Not sure where you are hunting? Grab the binoculars; you’re in for some fun. Pre-season scouting is like exhibition football. There’s no money riding on it...yet. But it sure is fun.
The first objective is finding deer -actual animals. As my friend learned, it’s not enough to settle for an area of past promise or great reputation, or even for an area that seems to hold a lot of sign. Tracks, rubs, droppings, trails and shed antlers hold up for a long time. Are the deer still there?
Also avoid choosing an area merely because it is the type of area you enjoy hunting. We all have a tendency to gravitate to areas that are the kind we like to hunt. My father is a swamp rat; I have a tendency to stick to ridges in whitetail country.
When we argue, at least, I have the high ground. Ridges are natural highways during the rut, and I understand the way winds work for and against you on them. They offer better visibility and hold more deer early in the season when there are mast crops. And smelly, buggy swamps are difficult to get in and out early and late in the day without making too much noise. But the fact is, brushy, wet, low-lying areas with poor visibility and swirling scents are best when the pressure is on -which is most of the season.
Make sure you are seeing animals while scouting. You should expect to see five to ten times as many animals pre-season as you do during the season, so if you’re not seeing deer while scouting, what does the area say about your chances when guns are booming?
Gossip can help you find an area to scout. Choose an area that people are talking about, whether it is farmers complaining about fruit crop raids or residents unhappy with shrub eating whitetails.
I once found a great area in Northeast Washington after overhearing auto body repairmen talking about the unbelievable number of deer struck by cars along a specific road. I drove there, late one evening, and saw a tall-racked five point slipping under a fence. Investigating further, I found a dream setup. Shed antlers on the forest floor in a narrow strip of brushy public land sandwiched between private farmlands. A big natural funnel.
If you are not seeing deer, go somewhere else.
While scouting, act like you are hunting with binoculars. This means leaving the family dog at home, dressing in drab clothing, circling downwind of promising areas and keying in on low-light periods. Pink golf shirts and yappy cocker spaniels don’t cut it; neither does staying in your vehicle.
Stand Placement -Bedding Areas Vs. Feeding Areas
Once an area to hunt has been decided on, it’s time to ask yourself some questions and make some decisions. The single biggest is this: how much pressure does this area receive?
Hunting pressure determines everything about stand selection. This point was fired home during a week-long hunt in Alabama two years ago. I drove to the south end of the state with a friend, Jerry Demay, who was hunting a vast private reserve.
I was hunting a smattering of small private and public holdings mixed in with heavily hunted leases and areas where poaching occurred along the roads. I diligently took stands over food plots where a man, who was running the hunt, told my father, my son and I to watch. In 21 hunting days, the three of us saw two bucks, spooked and running. My dad, of course, saw his while deep in a swamp bottom, having long given up on his stand. The deer were going nowhere near those food plots during daylight in late rifle season. There had been far too much hunting pressure.
Jerry, meanwhile, killed several nice bucks, passed on smaller ones and saw at least a dozen deer every morning and evening over on the big private reserve.
The same hunting tactics were a disaster for us. We should have taken more early, midday and evening stands over dense bedding areas, not food plots, and perhaps organized a drive or two. Drives are not very effective on large whitetail in the east (they are deadly out west where whitetails are less dispersed), but we would have at least seen deer and my young son would have likely had an opportunity. Stand sites should not be viewed as sidewalks or roadways, but rather as funnels and bottlenecks.
Rubs, Scrapes, and Simplifying Deer hunters have come farther than medical science in terms of advances. Take a look at old books and magazine articles on deer hunting some time. One old book has several "hot tips" that now sound quaint, and archaic: "if you take a stand, try and pick one near a trail with lots of tracks. Deer are habitual"; better still is the next little gem--"when still hunting in dry leaves, try shuffling your feet in a ’tish-tish, tish-tish’ motion to deceive that way buck into thinking you are a squirrel." Right. That doesn’t even work on squirrels anymore. These days, hunters have Scent-Lok suits, rangefinders, decoys, more scents than a perfume counter and calls specific to every deer age and sex. There is no disputing the effectiveness of some of this technology, such as Scent-Lok clothing, which hides everything but bad breath. They can all give a hunter an edge when used properly.
It is easy to get so caught up in new gadgetry and rut-science that important old basics are forgotten. True, the "new whitetails" can be unkillably nocturnal, and there is a reason that the top two non-typicals in the books were not killed by hunters. But deer still have to eat, sleep, and yes, drink. When choosing an area to hunt, make sure you start with those basics. I have seen a big whitetail buck, in a heavily hunted area, sip from a creek while a father and son were banging away at squirrels 150 yards away.
When a food source such as acorns or a soy or peanut field is tough to isolate and water is too prevalent (as it is in most good whitetail country), try viewing the fields or the water as an obstruction and incorporate it into your funnel-bottleneck theories.
Whitetail can cross a river or swamp wherever they want to, when pressured, but almost always prefer to cross in the same shallow spot. Drinking holes are most useful during archery season, while crossings and escape routes are best during rifle season.
Scrapes are the great calling card of rifle hunting; rubs are of similar (but not equal) significance to bowhunters. Experts feud about the immediate usefulness and biological role of scrapes, but the fact is lots of big bucks are killed over them every season. And mature bucks are rarely far from them during the rut.
It is also well established that pressured deer use them mostly at night. In areas with light hunting pressure, setting up a stand downwind from scrape lines is the smartest thing you can do, during the rut.
Some experts claim that bucks don’t use scrapes a lot during the actual rut, but more pre-rut. Perhaps. But it is an established fact that does continue to move through scrape lines, and where are the bucks going to be? Chasing those does.
This is when doe in heat urine cannot be overlooked. Full Rut doe in heat products can pay off if they so much as distract a big buck that is moving in the area.
For those of us without access to private land, scrapes these days need to be treated much like feeding areas. It would be nice if a big buck could be expected to trot out to them in daylight, and it happens occasionally when a buck gets enough hot doe smell in his nose that he can’t stand it, much like a fired up bull elk’s inability to resist bugling back.
It is not realistic, however, to expect it often. It is smarter to find where a buck is coming into and out of his scrape line. Unless you are an expert tracker, this means finding the thickest bedding/daytime cover adjacent to the scrape line, and getting as far into it as you can without alerting the animals bedded in that cover.
Typically, this means getting just far enough into the cover that deer feel safe moving because the brush is thick enough to reduce sight. If the buck will not run his scrape line during the day, he must be intercepted coming to it right before dark.
Some big bucks will run their scrape lines during the day when the rut is heaviest, but they won’t trot down that nice ridge top trail leading from scrape to scrape. They stay in the thickest brush they can find, near the scrape line, out of sight, 20 to 50 yards or more away on the downwind side, checking them with their nose.
If you are hunting the prime peripheral bedding cover adjacent to that scrape line, you have an excellent chance at not only getting a shot but being in the right spot if someone else spooks deer. Top daytime bedding areas are also primary escape routes.
For bowhunters, rubs are money trees. Scrapes are not happening yet during most archery seasons, but rubs can be even more useful. Deer are less spooky this time of year and rubs are habitual use areas year after year for different deer. It is so much less tricky than hunting pressured deer; simply find the approach routes to the area where new rubs are evident and climb a tree. Rubs are almost always located near feeding and bedding areas, and I believe bucks like to rub soon after bedding down, almost like stretching after a nap, as testosterone levels start to rise and the urge to build their neck and fighting muscles comes on.
Like a good tracker, visualize the area first from the animal’s standpoint to find the smartest approach routes. Where will the deer be funneled by brush and feel safe without being encumbered by it? Next, see it from your own perspective in terms of where you can view these zones and get a shot.
This warmer, body-odor emitting time of year, masking scents such as the Scent Killer series developed by Wildlife Research Center and sold are more important than urine attractants.
Portable tree climbers are the absolute way to go in rub areas, and make sure practice shots are fired with the bow before ascending on opening day. Shooting arrows from a tree stand is tricky at best, dangerous at worst. A portable target such as the BLOCK is ideal for shooting from a tree stand. Ladder type stands and permanent stands, in my opinion, are better left to rifle hunters.
Remember to limit your shots to under 20 yards when sitting a stand.
Sure, a good archer can plunk a pie plate all day to 40 yards with modern super-quick arrows and bows, but whitetails in most places can jump the string consistently with any shots past 30 yards. Aiming low to compensate for the animal’s possible coiled stance should it flinch is advanced tactics. Most of us are already struggling to compensate for shooting at a severe downward angle without having to intentionally aim away from the deer. Limb silencers such as Sims’ Limb Savers in solid and split limb models, increase an archer’s effective range when shooting at flinching deer. Portable, lightweight tree stands such as the Gator Archer are ideal, and it’s nice to have a quiet tree limb remover such as the Sierra Saw to smooth the ascent.
Post Season Consider the post-season as a backstage pass. You hunted the regular season, you saw the entire show. But when the curtains close, hunters shuffle off to ice-fish when they should be reading tracks in the snow to figure out just what they could have done better. In a few weeks, the deer will relax or move to true winter range. But the first week or two post-season can teach much about deer behavior, and it’s nice to be in the woods once the pressure is off.
Whitetails thrive because they are so adaptable; you should be too. Set high expectations for yourself; patience is best rewarded in catfishing, not deer hunting. Be patient as possible on the stand, of course, where stoic diligence is key. But do not be too patient in terms of where you hunt. You should be seeing deer, or failing to kill them because of missed shot opportunities and so forth.
If they are simply not showing, even though pre-season looked rosy, grab that portable tree climber, assess where the deer have gone due to hunting pressure, figure out where they might still feel secure enough to move in daylight hours, and find a bottleneck in that vicinity. Even if it’s down in that smelly old swamp.
Skip Knowles grew up in North Florida bass fishing, trotlining for catfish, and hunting deer, turkey and hogs before becoming a steelhead and salmon fanatic during high school years in the Pacific Northwest.
He has been a fulltime salaried outdoor writer or editor his entire career since graduating with a journalism degree from Washington State University in 1991, a miracle in itself with the pheasant hunting in that region. While there, he harvested trophy black bear, blacktail, whitetail and mule deer and has bowhunted elk in five western states.