As any seasoned whitetail hunter will tell you, scouting is possibly the most important part of the hunting process. Every hour you put in scouting for whitetail deer has the potential to pay huge dividends when hunting season rolls around. In this article, we'll cover what to look for when scouting for white-tailed deer, when to scout, and how to scout without disturbing the deer.
The more you scout, the more you will learn about the whitetails in your area -- where they sleep, where they eat, when they travel, where the bucks hang out. Armed with this valuable information, you'll be able to more easily determine where to set up the perfect ambush and fill your tag.
Before you set out to scout for white-tailed deer in your hunting area, there are a few things to keep in mind about effective scouting.
First, it's important not to act like a hunter when you're scouting. Don't sneak around, hiding and stalking through the woods, giving off the predator vibe. This kind of behavior can easily scare deer to the point where they decide to move to a different area. Instead, walk normally through the woods, deliberately moving from place to place like you're just out for a stroll.
Next, it's good practice to reduce your human scent as much as possible during your scouting missions. Wear rubber boots, put on scent-blocking clothing, spray scent eliminator products on your clothing -- all the things you would do when you're actually hunting.
Finally, one of the best habits you can adopt as a whitetail hunter is keeping a scouting journal. Keep notes of everything you observe when scouting. When you see deer, record the date, time, weather conditions, moon phase, foliage thickness, sex, possible food sources, and directions of travel. On a map of your hunting area, begin drawing known elements of deer behavior, such as bedding sites, food sources, escape routes, rubs, scrapes, and trails. Recording this information in a journal will help you start to see patterns you might not have seen otherwise.
Deer tracks can be very helpful in locating potential whitetail bucks in your area. If the width (not splayed) of the front hoof is greater than 2 1/4 inches, and you're in the North, it may be a buck. Tracks that look rounded on the front could indicate a buck because bucks wear down the front of their hooves when scraping.
Because does have wider pelvises, their hind hooves will often land to the outside of (and sometimes ahead of) their front hooves. The hind hooves of bucks, however, usually land directly in (and sometimes short of) the tracks of their front hooves. Drag marks between tracks in snow or soft soil probably means it's a buck.
Deer droppings can also help you tell does from bucks. For whitetails in the North, if the droppings are smaller than 1/2 inch, this usually means it's from does or fawns. But if they are larger than 3/4 inch, these are usually left by bucks. Bigger clumps usually mean bigger deer, so this could mean a buck. If the droppings are near a bedding area and they are all about the same size, this could be a buck bedding area.
Buck beds of northern whitetails are usually longer than 45", but can be up to 50" or even longer. Bedding sites in heavy cover usually means it gets used during daytime, while bedding sites out in the open usually indicate nighttime use. A good place to look for whitetail beds is on the downwind side of slopes, about a third of the way down from the top. Thermals often pool scents in this area, so the deer can smell danger from above -- and see danger from below.
Finding scrapes can help you get a better picture of buck activity. Scrapes are made by bucks trying to attract does. A buck will scrape the ground and thrash surrounding vegetation with his antlers. Most scrapes are made during the evening, and they are made more often by the older, dominant bucks in the area. Bucks routinely check their scrapes for does.
Rubs are another important sign to look for when scouting for white-tailed deer. Bucks rub their antlers on small saplings while depositing scent from glands on the top of their heads. Whitetail rubs are visual and scent-based messages sent by bucks to establish relatively small areas of dominance within their larger home ranges.
If you see mangled shrubs or saplings, this could be what is known as a "rage rub", possibly indicating the presence of two or more dominant bucks in the area. If you find a series of rubs along a lightly used trail, this could be a buck rub route from bedding areas to nighttime feeding spots. Sometimes you can even tell the direction of travel because bucks rub trees on the side from which they are traveling.
Finding buck trails and rub routes is the secret to locating the areas frequently used by the bucks, which in turn is the key to knowing when and where to set up your ambush. One thing to keep in mind when trying to locate buck trails is that they often lead to and from water sources. Remember that while doe and fawn trails are often linear (meaning they travel back and forth on the same trail), buck trails are more commonly circular (meaning they travel one section in the evening and then another section to return in the morning). Bucks prefer to take the path of least resistance, so their trails are often the fastest, shortest, and easist route to where they want to go.
Once you've started figuring out some possible buck trails, you might want to consider using a motion-activated trail camera. These devices can eliminate a lot of guesswork by not only confirming that a buck uses that particular trail, but also telling you what time the buck uses it.
When you're scouting, don't forget that most scrapes, rubs, tracks, beds, and trails that you find out in the open are probably used by the deer under cover of darkness. It may be tempting to set up next to these areas, but chances are you won't be able to see a buck at one of these sites during legal shooting hours.
Since deer are typically most active near dawn and dusk, focus your scouting efforts in the middle of the day so you minimize disturbing them. A great time to scout is during or just after a heavy rain as this will dramatically reduce the amount of scent you leave behind. It's impossible to eliminate your scent completely, but the small amount of scent you leave behind will help to familiarize the deer to your scent so they won't be as wary of it during the hunting season.
The spring presents great opportunities for early scouting. You can scout for white-tailed deer while you're out hunting for turkey or during early bird seasons. Shed hunting is an excellent way to get out and scout during the offseason, and it's also a perfect way to assess the trophy potential of the bucks in your area.
Summer is a great time to start observing potential food sources to figure out where the deer will likely be feeding during the hunting season. But make sure you finish your scouting at least two weeks before the hunting season opens. If you spend too much time in your hunting area in the last week or two before the season, you risk scaring the deer off.
If you're really dedicated to becoming a more effective hunter, the end of hunting season just means the beginning of scouting season. During the post-season, tracks become more visible in the mud and snow, and drag marks (indicating a buck) can now be seen clearly. When the snow starts falling, throw on a pair of snowshoes for easy walking. It's also a good idea to be on the lookout for signs of other hunters, including tire and boot tracks, shell casings, tree stands, or orange tape so you can determine the likely amount of hunting pressure next year.