Scouting Pressured Deer: Do You Hunt Pressured Areas With Little to No Success? If So, read on… You’ll Learn Just What it Takes to Scout More Effectively and Achieve Higher Success.
Posted on April 25, 2014
Ever wonder why mature whitetail bucks in areas that receive heavy hunting pressure are commonly sighted throughout the summer and early fall only to seemingly dissipate into thin air prior to bow season? The answer might be as simple as improper pre-season scouting.
In non-hunting areas such as some state parks, scout camps, military bases, and suburban areas deer tend to roam during daylight with minimal fear of humans. Deer are creatures of habit and react to humans or their intrusions within their core area in accordance to previous encounters while growing up.
On a small parcel I hunt the elderly owner rides his bike or walks down the trails through his woods most every day for exercise. He consistently encounters deer and only if they are directly in his path do they casually bound out of his way.
His parcel is in a section that has 23 other property owners and on opening day of bow season, there is always a minimum of 30 bowhunters in that 640-acre section and most will take any legal-antlered buck. The deer’s lack of fear of him is because his intrusions and movements have been consistent throughout their lives and have never invoked danger.
So how do mature bucks differentiate what human intrusions are or are not danger? Neither I nor anyone else can read a deer’s mind, but after nearly 50 years of whitetail hunting in many differing types of hunter density venues, a positive pattern has been concluded.
Pressured Vs. No Pressure
Think about this: other than a brief flurry of turkey hunting activity in the spring, most hunting areas are unmolested from January through mid-August. Then there is a sudden exodus of hunters making multiple pre-season scouting ventures, after all that is what bowhunters have been programmed to do by many so-called experts.
What many hunters fail to understand and what nearly every TV and video personality fail to mention is that the properties they hunt in no way simulate what the vast majority of hunters hunt. Most whitetail personalities exclusively hunt micro-managed for big bucks properties. They either own or lease it or are allowed to hunt a pay to hunt ranch for free in lieu of advertising the ranch.
These areas not only have minimal hunting pressure, there are also age and or antler criteria that must be met before a buck is targeted. Though there is hunting presence, until a buck meets the kill criteria, they have had no life threatening encounters with hunters while growing to maturity so their fear of hunters is minimal and during season they consistently move during daylight hours.
What differentiates the few bucks that survive beyond their first set of antlers in heavy consequential hunting pressure (hchp for short) areas from older-age-class bucks in micro-managed areas is they are conditioned from season one to evade hunters.
Hchp is defined as when most if not all the bow and gun hunters in the area target any legal antlered buck. This type of pressure has a direct influence on how many bucks survive beyond their first set of antlers, the types of remote areas they inhabit, the amount of time they may move during season during daylight, and how severely they react to human intrusions. In hchp areas if you are pursuing a particular buck, the odds are very high that you may never see him during season during daylight hours.
It only makes sense that multiple pre-season scouting ventures in hchp areas cause bucks that have survived through a single antlered season to become nearly totally nocturnal prior to season. Bucks that survive beyond their first antlered season have likely had negative encounters with hunters proven by the fact that I have only taken one 3 ½ year old or older buck in Michigan that did not have at least one wound caused by a previous hunter encounter. On the flip side, none of the thirteen 3 ½ year old and older bucks I have taken in Iowa, Kansas, Illinois, and Missouri had previous wounds.
How to Scout
In hchp areas pre-season scouting should focus on setting up a couple locations for the first few days of season and this should be done with a plan in one full day, not multiple mornings or evenings. Multiple excursions will lower the possibility of taking of a mature buck prior to the rut phases.
The million-dollar question is, how do you set-up without them knowing and reacting to you intrusion?
The best plan is to wait until there is inclement weather such as rain or strong winds, both of which will reduce the odds of being detected. Inclement weather aids in masking noise while moving through the woods, cutting shooting lanes, and preparing trees. Human odors will also dissipate quicker than during calm weather. If your scouting can’t be done during inclement weather, do it during midday between the hours of 10 and 4 p.m. when deer are least likely to be up and moving.
Activated carbon suits, gloves and rubber boots are recommended during pre-season scouting ventures to keep your odor to a minimum. Activated carbon is used by every military in the world in chemical warfare suits as well as by multitudes of industries for filtration purposes. When it comes to adsorption of molecules, there simply is no substitute for activated carbon.
Where & What to Look For
When you combine hchp with the natural survival instincts of whitetails, a natural byproduct occurs. The mature bucks are forced into remote security cover or difficult to access areas where few hunters will make the effort to go. Quite often these areas require waders, hip boots, a canoe or boat to access.
Setting up in open areas as seen on TV and in video’s just doesn’t get it and will rarely yield positive results.
Find the Food
The ideal find would be locating a single or small group of trees that are dropping preferred fruit or mast such as apples and acorns, and have them located within perimeter security cover and be accessible by the deer through transition cover. Look for defined destination areas, not large areas of the same food source where deer do not have to gravitate to your specific location. The smaller the destination area, the more likely you are to receive a shot opportunity.
Look for the white oaks. Deer prefer white oak acorns over all others due to their lower levels of tannins (the substance that gives acorns their bitter taste), so if there are lots of oaks in the area, look for the white oaks. White oaks are identified by the rough bark all the way up the tree and out its branches and by the rounded lobes on their leaves. If you find a white oak loaded with acorns, and it offers security cover, set-up a location.
Location during daylight is often more important than their preferred food, as mature deer will feed on less preferred sources such as browse during daylight hours if the area offers better security cover. They will move into more exposed feeding areas such as open timber or short crop fields under the cover of darkness.
During pre-season the perimeters of short crop fields such as wheat stubble, hay, and soybeans will likely be signposted with rubs and an occasional scrape, but this activity in hchp areas by mature bucks rarely takes place during shooting hours. However, subordinate 1 ½ year old bucks can be targeted along field edges.
If you find heavy sign in the form of runways or a rub-line leading into a short crop field, set-up a minimum of 30 yards off the fields edge. There is a slim chance that a mature buck may pass by and stage close to the field edge prior to entering it after dark.
Signposting along the perimeter of a standing cornfield is quite different. Standing corn offers excellent cover and it is common for deer to bed in it and move in and out of it in areas where it borders transition cover. You would want to set up on the best sign where the corn butts up to the transition cover.
It is extremely rare in hchp areas that a buck can be sighted and patterned from a road without intervention from other hunters. However, if the opportunity presents itself, note the exact location where the buck comes out. Just prior to season, make several evening observations to make sure his entry route into the field location is consistent.
Only clear out one shooting lane to that identifiable runway. Make your set-up as quick and subtle as possible and get out, do not walk in the woods any farther than the set-up requires.
Depending on the type and quantity of other hunters pre-season scouting ventures within a bucks core area (of which you have no control), a mature buck might bed close to their feeding area or near the edge of their bedding area. After the first day or two of season mature bucks will seek security deeper within their bedding areas.
Look for Rubs
If your season opener is October 1st most bucks will have shed their velvet, so rub-lines or clusters of rubs can be fantastic locations. If you wait until late September to make your scouting run you will likely find rubs between known bedding and feeding areas. When setting up near a bedding area set-up far enough away so as not to spook deer with your entrance on evening hunts.
It’s difficult to determine the exact size and shape of buck antlers by a rub, however there are clues that indicate antler characteristics and a buck’s size.
Subordinate buck rubs will usually be 20 to 30 inches off the ground but as bucks age they become taller and their rubs are higher off the ground. When I started hunting in low hunter density states where 3 ½ year old and older bucks are common it was difficult relating to the 36 to 48 inch height of many rubs I found.
Subordinate bucks will rub on small diameter saplings and trees, whereas larger racked bucks generally rub on larger trees and occasionally bushes often thrashing them until they are reduced to bunch of busted stubs.
Bucks with tall tines will leave puncture marks well above the main rub area. Shredded bark in the main rub area indicates a buck with heavily pearling (small points near base of rack).
When setting-up any location, rub activity near it is a guarantee it is receiving buck activity.
Scrapes made prior to season are territorial and dominance signposts made by mature bucks with at least one breeding season behind them, making them rare finds in hchp areas. Pre and early season scrapes will most frequently be found near food sources where there is consistent doe traffic. If you locate a scrape area or scrapes along a defined runway, and the area offers security cover, set-up a hunting location.
If you find a primary scrape area (several scrapes in small area) set-up within shooting distance of the scrape with the most utilized licking branches over it because it is likely getting used the most. Active scrape areas have consistently proven to be my most productive locations over the past twenty years.
After your locations are set-up leave the area alone. Do not even think about setting foot in the area until season. Additional visits will alter patterns and likely any early season opportunity.
Hchp equates too many hunters likely pursuing the same mature buck. Therefore, there is an excellent possibility that the pre-season scouting ventures of other hunters in the area will turn him nocturnal prior to season. You can’t worry about things that are out of your control, perform your pre-season scouting regiment correctly and maybe that buck will offer you an early season opportunity.
Listed below are a few states at opposite ends of the spectrum concerning bowhunter densities per absolute square mile (licensed bowhunters divided into states land mass) and Pope & Young entry ratio’s per licensed hunter (P&Y entries divided into licensed bowhunters) .
State Bowhunter densities per sq. mile P&Y entries per licensed hunter
Nebraska ———- .19 ——————————————– 1 in 335
Kansas ———— .24 ——————————————– 1 in 149
Iowa ————— .71 ——————————————– 1 in 197
Illinois ————– 1.97 ——————————————– 1 in 297
Michigan ———- 7.83 ——————————————— 1 in 5,166
Pennsylvania ——- 6.03 ——————————————– 1 in 3,308
W. Virginia ——– 5.81 ——————————————– 1 in 8,333
Kentucky ———– 4.63 ——————————————– 1 in 1,667
-Bowhunting License Sales taken from: Archery Business Magazine.
-States land mass in square miles taken from: Almanac – U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census
While there are now micro-managed properties and ranches in every state, the above statistics is why so many hunting personalities hunt in the top 4 listed states. Every season since 1997 I have traveled out of state to bowhunt for a week and I can safely state that I see more P&Y bucks in a single week out of state, than I will see in 10 years of full time bowhunting at home. I am quite positive that many reading this article can relate. –J.E.
“If you are pursuing a particular buck, the odds are very high that you may never see him during season during daylight hours.”
“Deer prefer white oak acorns over all others due to their lower levels of tannins…”
Scouting during inclement weather is ideal, since rain, strong wind or both will help you remain undetected. However, if bad weather isn’t available, be sure to scout between 10am and 4pm when deer are less likely on the move.
Text and Photos by John Eberhart