High Pressure Whitetails Part 2: Boots on the Ground
By Reuben Dourte
Before you expend a lot of energy traversing new terrain, you should have already done some homework behind the computer, i.e. cyber scouting. So, if you haven't read part one of this series, now is a good time to do it. Trust me, it will save you time in the long run.
Now, assuming that you've put the time into the digital side of your scouting efforts, you're probably dying to ground-truth your hunches, (if you're anything like me at least). There is really no way around the hard work that this proves to be, but your efforts should be more efficient if you zero in on the high percentage areas that you have isolated with your online mapping tools.
The best time to maximize your efforts with the most relevant recon is during the hunting season (after filling your tag) or immediately after. The information you gather will be the most applicable to hunting season conditions and fall deer movement in years to come, and the sign will be most evident and easily read when the vegetation is at a minimum. Snow cover can preserve sign as well, allowing for additional scouting sessions immediately after spring thaw.
If you’re walking swamps or marshes, your starting point should be the transition lines between the dry ground and the wetland. Not only will this area harbor the most diversity of vegetation (food/cover), as such it will also contain the majority of deer movement and activity in the area. In addition to this transition area, you will want to make effort to get onto marsh islands and investigate thin peninsulas sticking out into the wetlands. These points are prime bedding areas.
Because deer in pressured areas will spend the vast majority of their daylight hours within the security of their primary bedding area, keying on the features that will hold bedding should always be your starting point.
In hill country terrain, the 1/3 elevation (military crest) off the top of the hill, which you should have highlighted during your cyber scouting, is where you will focus the majority of your physical scouting efforts. Deer will utilize this terrain elevation because of the visual advantage it provides along with a significant scent advantage. Throw in some escape cover on the ridge top above and a deer can be out of harm’s way in a few bounds.
The security that this elevation provides congregates deer, and it’s typically easier walking than the side hill, which funnels their travel. It is likely that you will locate beds on the points of spurs, but don't ignore a subtle bench along the side hill overlooking a steep ravine with blown down trees and tangled brush. This barrier prevents danger from approaching from below and provides an advantage for deer choosing to bed in these locations.
Many hunters walk right past beds and either don't see the sign, or don't realize its significance. For a while that hunter was me. Sometimes you need to slow down and take in your surroundings. Beds can range from a subtle depression in the leaf cover on the forest floor, some compressed marsh grass on a small knoll of dry ground, to a well worn bare spot of dirt on a hill country point or a marsh island.
When you start to encounter an area that looks like it has an increase of deer activity, slow down and start scouring for beds. If you think you have found a bed, get down close and look for hair or droppings in it. This is a tell tale sign the bed has been used recently. When looking for beds in the general area of a point or peninsula, key in on terrain and vegetation features that provide the deer with extra cover, especially to the back of the bed.
Beds will often be tucked up against a bush, a blown down tree or a log with the open side of the bed looking down over the hillside, providing the deer with visual surveillance. In extremely steep terrain, you may even find beds on the upper side of a tree where the ground is more level with the steep hillside providing back cover.
Buck Bedding vs. Doe Bedding
Depending on the area of the country, and the topography, buck and doe bedding will often be isolated from each other. Most of the year, bucks don’t prefer the social pressure created by having other deer within their core bedding area. However, in areas with a scarcity of cover, deer are left with fewer options and buck and doe bedding differences may be less distinct.
Likewise, in farm country, bedding may be more random, with does typically bedding close to agricultural destination food sources, causing bedding to be less dependent on wind or terrain. As such, bucks may be pushed into an area that looks like less quintessential buck bedding cover in order to avoid human activity and the social pressure of doe family groups.
That being said, in areas with more bedding options, differences between buck and doe bedding can be easily observed. The most obvious way to determine the bedding you are looking at is frequented by doe family groups in the presence of multiple beds of varying sizes, arranged in a random or circular pattern. You can determine the direction each deer is facing by observing the rounded side of the bed created by their back.
Does bedding in groups will utilize the sight advantages of multiple pairs of eyes and watch each others’ backs with less need for wind based bedding. A large lone bed that is worn to the ground is indicative of a mature deer and typically will utilize the prevailing wind coming over the top of the hill and thermal currents rising from below to provide security. This is more indicative of a buck bed.
Bear in mind that not all buck bedding will hold buck sign, especially in highly pressured areas that lack age structure. Rubs may be almost non-existent depending on your hunting area. Bucks are simply not as territorial in areas with a younger age structure. If you question this, try snort wheezing at a three and half year old Pennsylvania buck and keep track of your successful response rates!
At the same time, if you discover a bed with a rub directly adjacent to it, or a rub line leading out of the bed along the 1/3 elevation line, you have likely uncovered a buck bed. Even if the buck that had made those rubs was harvested, don't lose hope. He was bedded there for a reason (his security advantage) and another buck(s) will gladly assume residence after the vacancy. Primary bedding is perennial in nature, so long as cover and pressure remain relatively consistent from year to year. This means your scouting efforts this year can yield fruitful stand locations for many seasons to come.
Get In Bed with the Deer
Once you verify that you are looking at a deer bed, the next step is to get down at the deer's level and see what they can see. Oftentimes their exit routes become very evident from this vantage, giving you a great starting point as to the general area of stand placement. More importantly, you’ll be able to see how close you can get to the bed without the deer seeing you.
If you’re doing your scouting right, you will be in the woods or the marsh at a time of defoliation, so you may actually be able to get a bit closer when there is heavy vegetation in early season. Still, you need to consider how that same vegetation will increase the noise level of your stand entrance.
Getting in the deer's bed will tell you a lot about why he is bedded in that location, and it’ll help you more efficiently spot other similar locations in the future. Next, consider and identify evening food sources that will draw deer during hunting season. Food sources could be anything from woody browse, dogwood, a flat of oaks in hill country, an island of oaks in the marsh, to a standing corn field in farm country, etc. Having a handle on what the deer are eating during October and November will give you further insight as to the exit route the buck is likely to take when departing its bedding location in the evening.
You can use this information to pick a tree along this exit route that is just out of sight of the bed, all the while considering how you need to play the wind and thermals to your advantage. Keep in mind how water surrounding a bed will create significant evening thermal affects, while cool evening air falling down a hillside in steep terrain might force you to set up below the buck’s suspected exit route to avoid detection.
Scouting for the Rut
As October rolls on and the magic of November is on the horizon, bed to feed patterns for bucks become a bit more discombobulated. However, the pre-rut can be a time to catch a late morning buck headed back to bed after working a scrape line or checking a bedding area for does. This late October time frame is one of the best times to hunt because there is still some a significant increase in relatively predictable day time movements right before the frenzy of the rut begins. That said, if you’re planning on a late October morning hunt or an all day November rut set, your tactics and stand locations will likely shift from individual buck beds toward funnels, pinches and other terrain features that bucks use to cruise by the most efficient means possible.
These features, coupled with doe bedding areas you will have likely pinpointed in your post season scouting, can be hugely productive stand locations. For this reason, when I am ground-truthing a piece of property, I will also check these types of areas which I have pinpointed during cyber scouting. A land bridge of dry ground connecting two larger pieces of high ground through a swamp, a subtle side hill bench or a transition trail to a saddle on top of the ridge are areas I will zero in on during late October and Sweet November.
Oftentimes you will hear people advise a hunter to sit along a funnel on the “downwind” side of a doe bedding area during the rut’s "seeking" phase. Personally, I’ve seen this play out in the kind off "textbook" way it is described very minimally.
For example, be aware that in hill country, a late morning cruising buck may be scent checking a doe bedding area further down the hill as he travels the 1/3 elevation above, allowing the rising thermal drafts to bring scent up from the bottom. If you’re hunting below these doe bedding areas - downwind of the prevailing wind currents - in the morning, the thermals have likely already busted you and cleared the bedding area of the resident does. Furthermore, you may well be situated on the wrong side of the bedding to take advantage of the majority of buck travel. In the evening, the converse is true, as falling thermals will be utilized by bucks scent checking the downhill side of the bedding areas.
Take inventory of rubs and scrapes, especially primary perennial scrape areas and sign post rubs, when scouting. These large scrapes and rubs are often located in high traffic, social areas and are utilized by does, bucks and fawns. I have found primary scrape areas to be a draw, and even a good place to take inventory of the local deer herd via my trail cameras. But unlike some hunters, I don't spend a tremendous amount of time hunting them. Many of the primary scrape areas I find are located in low elevations where the winds are too inconsistent to provide a hunting opportunity, and a majority of the activity is done at night.
When evaluating a rub, be sure to place more significance on the height of the rub than the circumference of the tree. Small and big bucks alike will rub all diameters of trees, but a buck with taller antlers and a larger body size will be able to rub higher on the tree. Rubs and scrapes should still be related back to bedding; if they are close or adjacent to a suspected buck bedding area they may provide an added draw to a buck leaving his bed in the evening.
However, hunting field edge scrapes, or rubs located hundreds of yards from the nearest bedding area in a high hunting pressure situation is a fool’s errand. Most mature bucks (and even many immature ones) in these areas are only moving 100-200 yards from their beds in daylight. In the marsh or swamp, depending on their available food, this could be even less. Hunting a scrape 400 yards from bedding is placing you far outside of the strike zone.
Hunt the Hunters
The last, and perhaps most important thing, to look out for is sign of other hunters. While a lot of folks may get upset after finding a treestand left in a rut funnel, or off a ridge spur that seems perfect for a buck bed, it’s actually something to be thankful for. Be more concerned about the stealthy hunter who leaves no sign behind and is hunting with the same tactics as you. The sloppy hunter, who leaves an illegal stand up on public land after season, or a litter bug, is a blessing in disguise. The only thing worse than having a spot get ruined by another hunter who pays little attention to detail is not knowing the spot was ruined by that hunter and wasting your time hunting there.
If there’s evidence that someone has already used the location you are scouting, be thankful for the intel and move on to the next bedding area that is undisturbed. You may even be able to utilize the pressure of this hunter or the probable stand access he/she is using to your advantage. Mature deer in high hunter density states are sensitive to pressure, and the presence of that hunter and their scent in that area has a good possibility of pushing deer to other areas that you can identify as less disturbed.
Take a GPS or a map along with you, and a camera. I mark every bed I find on my GPS unit, and then mark the tree I plan to set up in if I’m doing a mobile set. After that, I take a picture of the bed and usually a short video, panning to show what the deer can see. Not only is this a visual reinforcement of your findings, it allows you to go back later and evaluate the location in detail once you are back at home. I then use this information to help fine tune my access and exit routes. Likewise, I mark any treestands I find left on public land so I know what areas of the parcel are being hunted so I can spend my time on higher percentage hunts.
Your cyber scouting efforts are made better through in-the-woods scouting. Your boots on the ground efforts are made more efficient through cyber scouting. The two go hand-in-hand and both are valuable tools to add to your repertoire.
The more you do both, the better you will become and the more ground you will cover in less time. It is hard to explain the rewarding feeling of putting boots to the ground and discovering your cyber scouting hunches were, indeed, correct. The anticipation for hunting season that follows such a scouting mission is incredible; a hunting season with purpose and preparation, commencing with a strategic game plan that has been digitally theorized and physically ground-truthed.
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Reuben Dourte grew up hunting whitetails in the hills of northern PA and southern NY. He also spent five seasons battling wits with these white-bellied brown goats around the timber blocks and swamp land of southwest Michigan. Some would say he never figured out how to get away from high pressure whitetail states, but the challenge has been real and it's been good, just not always real good. Reuben enjoys breaking down large tracts of land into manageable pieces through detailed scouting. He's a proud father, a lucky husband and unashamedly claims a career in insurance his 9-5. He likes to hunt un-pristine, loosely-managed private parcels and public land... and so refers to himself as a common ground bowhunter. Check out his blog at www.commongroundbowhunter.com