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Pre-season Scouting ~ John L. Sloan

I wiped the sweat from my eyes, swatted at a swarm of gnats and smiled at my hunting partner, Mickey Pope." I'll kill a deer here on opening day." I said. " In fact, you can make book on it. Just before dark 33 days from today, I'm going to shoot a fat doe." Is that confidence or what?

One hour before dark, 33 days after I made that statement, I drew, settled my one sight pin and released. The fat doe went less than 50 yards. My stand was hung in the many branched, walnut tree on a small island in a shallow stream.

The next morning, 90 minutes after daylight. I arrowed my second deer of the 1993 season. Number two was another fat doe and she passed within 15 yards of my tree stand on her way to a breakfast of red oak acorns. I had predicted this shot also. Is that confidence or what?

Two days later, sitting in a poplar tree, overlooking a sloping point that led to a bean field, I counted the six deer as they passed within 20 yards of me. Two does with small ones and two bucks, a six point and a spike. Just before dark a lone doe passed by on the same trail. She went less than 60 yards.

During the early days of my bow season, 1993, I spent less than 400 minutes sitting in my stands. I counted 41 deer from the stands and I shot three times, killing three deer. I am not bragging. I am using this to make a point. My pre season scouting, based on solid post-season information and some hard work, made my actual hunting time more effective.

In 1992, the first five days I hunted, I killed five deer including a nice 11 point buck. My success is almost totally a result of effective and smart scouting. I'm not smart, I just scout smart. I know what to look for and how to use what I see.

Scouting to me is actually a three-part process. It is a combination of post season, pre-season and continuing scouting, leading to smart stand site selection and smart hunting of those stands. I learned this craft from nearly 40 years of hunting, studying and living with whitetail deer. It is not complicated but each year, as I travel, speaking at hunting shows around the country, I am amazed at what I hear some hunters say.

"I've been scouting my hunting area all summer." said the hunter at the big, mid-western, bowhunting show. "This morning I went and sat in my stand for three hours. I really know what those deer are doing." I had to bite my tongue to keep from laughing out loud. Let me start this by explaining the premise I use when I am pre-scouting. And let me also say, during the pre season, I am looking for entirely different things than I do during post-season scouting.

For me, pre season scouting is in late August or early September-just about 30 days before my season opens. I have two distinct types of habitat to scout-large tracts of hardwood timber and mixed agricultural/woodlot habitat. Much of my mixed habitat is in close proximity to human habitation. In short, I hunt in some back yards.

My goal in pre season scouting is to confirm my observations during post season. I am attempting to nail down the exact location for a stand site and base that location on one or more of three factors-food source, travel, avoidance of pressure. During my pre season scouting, I am not looking for deer, tracks or droppings. In fact, if I know where the deer are, I will try very hard to avoid them. I want to know where those deer are going to be opening day, not where they are now.

I have been fortunate enough to bowhunt for whitetail deer in 18 different states and three countries. In every instance, the natural movement of deer was governed by only four factors-food, cover terrain and structure. Of those four, food is by far the most important. If there is no food, no matter how good the other three factors are the hunting will be poor. For the past few years, due to my association with the Champion Bow Company, my early season hunting has all been in Manitoba. Manitoba is all food source and the bucks are huge. Bachelor groups of five bucks, all over 130 inches are not uncommon. But it is not easy hunting when all of the area is one food source.

During the pre season scouting period and throughout the remainder of the season, I am attuned to the existence of or the emergence of a food source. As a food source changes, so changes the travel pattern of the resident deer. I am no longer content to hunt a stand just because I killed a deer there last year. I now optimize my hunting time by hunting stands that I know are going to produce.

I spend a great deal of time, looking up. I get a crick in my neck from gazing at the tops of trees. Using good binoculars, I constantly scan trees to check on the mast crop. In almost every area I hunt, oak trees are common. Of the oak varieties, white oak and red oak are the main species and of the most importance to deer. How important is a white oak mast crop? When the white oak acorns are falling, the deer are prone to completely abandon the most lush of agricultural crops, including corn, beans or alfalfa.

No matter where you hunt. You must know and be able to recognize the preferred food sources. Deer can and will eat almost anything if they are starving. But what do they prefer? A preferred food source is one that will cause a deer to travel to get to it. Travel is the key. If deer don't move, we'll never kill one. Food is the catalyst. It is what makes them move and they move in a natural pattern. In some areas, apples may be the key. In others, it may be a food plot or crop field. Perhaps persimmons are hot this year or maybe this year, the white oaks are poor but the red or chestnut oaks are dropping. Maybe there is no mast at all and green browse is the magnet-honeysuckle or greenbriar are often preferred.

I pick my stand sites in relation to a food source, not at the food source. Deer are hard to shoot where they feed. I have had deer feed within 10 yards of me for 20 minutes and never get a clear shot. I hunt the travel pattern to the food source and the stand site is based on post and pre season findings. Take a look.

My stand on the island was based on deer coming to a clover field. During my post season scouting, I found a massive trail leaving a series of steep ridges and crossing the shallow creek. On the other side, was a clover patch. Trails going to something are always larger than trails leaving something. So my notes indicated I should confirm this food source in pre season. In August, I did just that. The clover was beautiful and the trail was even bigger. The mast had not begun to drop and the deer would still be using this clover during bowseason. Since this was an agricultural food source and topographically located low down, this would be an afternoon stand. The deer would leave the ridges late in the afternoon and work their way to the field, timing it to arrive just at dark. By placing my stand on the island-a natural staging area 200 yards from the field-I planned to ambush the deer while there was till good shooting light. It worked. As the mast crop developed and began to fall, this stand became considerably less effective.

My stand the next morning was an example of deer moving to a woodland food source. I found the grove of red oak in February. There were seven trees scattered across a small flat atop a ridge. Since this was a woodland food source and topographically located higher up, this indicated a morning stand. There was no way to hunt the oak trees themselves. The deer could feed under any of them. But the trail that snaked around the ridge bowl was seeing heavy use. In August, it showed no use but the trees were laden with mast. I was certain, when the mast began to fall, the deer would return. I hung a stand overlooking the trail as it left the bowl and climbed onto the ridge top. My stand was 25 yards from the crest of the ridge. Red oaks drop their acorns early in Tennessee. I guessed they would be starting to drop just about opening day. I guessed right.

Twenty-five miles from that ridge top stand, there was a mast failure. There were no acorns of any kind. The deer were on green browse and agricultural crops. That indicated to me, afternoon would be optimum. In post season, I found a big trail leading off a ridge and to a bean field. In August, the beans were doing just fine and the trail was seeing heavy use. I hung my stand just where the trail left the ridge and funneled down to follow the terrain. At one point, it passed through an old wire fence, down between two posts. My stand overlooked the fence crossing.

Between the fallow, grownup weed field and the fertilized pasture was a small woodlot. The composition of the woodlot was predominantly white oak, mixed with red oak and small cedar. A dry creek bed meandered through the timber and it was crisscrossed twice by old fence lines. On the edges, honeysuckle, blackberry and greenbriar grew in profusion. From this woodlot, in 1990, 1991 and 1992, I arrowed a total of eight deer including an 11 point and two eight points and five does. In 1994, I saw only one deer in this woodlot. They had moved 350 yards. Here's what happened and why. Here is why scouting is important no matter how long you have hunted a piece of property.

During my three bountiful years, the oak trees in the woodlot were laden with mast. The deer used the woodlot as a source of food between the fertilized pasture and the grownup weedfield. It was a prime stand morning, midday or afternoon. The deer felt secure there. They bedded in the weedfield and fed in the woodlot or in the pasture at night. The dry creek and two fence crossings provided structure to alter travel and green growth along the edges insured good cover as well as browse.

Then in 1993, the mast failed. In August, I could see no sign of mast anywhere in the woodlot. A lone, early persimmon tree drew no attention. The food source had changed. I found it 350 yards away-45 acres of corn. The cornfield was across the road from property I had permission to hunt. The corn was surrounded by hardwood timber. Until the corn was picked, I had no chance of hunting those deer.

My fourth deer of the 1993 season was taken by banking on pressure to move him. Several years ago, I found, during a March scouting session, a natural. On a short ridge, deep in a public hunting area, I found a dense thicket, absolutely filled with old beds and rubs. But this thicket was only 100 yards from a gravel road. Besides, it showed no recent use. It was a very thick, thicket. I had to crawl to get in it and there were only two trees that would hold a stand. Since then, I have killed a deer there on the opening morning of that Wildlife Management Area (WMA), nine day season, for five straight years. The deer come to avoid the pressure in the surrounding timber. I am there to welcome them. Each summer, I check to make sure the food source that holds the deer in that area is still viable. Simply put, pre season scouting is confirming post season information.

My worn, dog eared, post season notebook indicates I have at least 31 stand sites to check for traveling bucks. On 11 pages of notes, I have directions to find 31 areas of traditional rubs and scrapes. These are rubs or scrapes that appear in the same place each year. Usually, they are in areas that see little use except when the bucks start looking for the does. These are the traveling bucks, moving all day, constantly searching.

In pre season I am only looking for one thing-habitat change. I don't look for mast trees or fruit trees or agricultural plots. I only want to know if the cover is still there. Has the habitat been altered sufficiently to cause the deer to change their travel route? There won't usually be trails to look for. Forget droppings or early rubs. This is an area to be hunted just before and during the rut. Otherwise, stay away and leave it alone. This is big buck territory and you'd better treat it with care.

I try to get all my pre season scouting done in three days and I want to be done at least 10 days before the season opens. Before I quit guiding, I had some 2,500 acres to cover and if things go right, by late August, I am done with my scouting until the season opens. I'll have, at that time, 12-15 stands in place and locations for three dozen more noted. Now, it is imperative that I STAY OUT OF THE WOODS.

The next time I go into the woods, I'll go to kill a deer. I want to do nothing to alert the deer to my interest or presence. From this point on, my actions will be non invasive. I won't invade their territory until I am ready to shoot.

I have hung my stands or made my ground blinds based on where the deer are going to be. I made many of these choices before the deer knew they were going to be there. I have done nothing to cause them to be wary of man the hunter. Now how can I keep them that way throughout the season? How can I hunt fresh deer every day?

My method is simple. I never hunt from the same stand twice in seven days. No matter what I see or what happens from a stand, I do not hunt it again for seven days and if the conditions are not right for a particular stand, I don't hunt it. This doesn't take a lot of land or a lot of stands. It merely takes will power. When you see a 33-point typical buck that will score a net of 450 Boone and Crockett points, it is hard to not hunt him every day. I've never had that problem but I did leave a really nice 10 pointer alone for two weeks. Unfortunately, he tried to breed a bread truck just before daylight on the day I decided to try him again. In Illinois, in 1997, I saw a dandy buck and guessed at what he was doing. I hung a stand and stayed away for four days. I killed him 120 minutes after I climbed into the stand the first time. He scored a net of 135 and weighed 190 pounds dressed. Some very quick, very careful scouting was the key.

I firmly believe that scouting is 90 percent of my hunting time. I spend far more time scouting than I do hunting. But this scouting has allowed me to optimize my hunting time. In other words, in 1993, I was successful 78 percent of the time I hunted. Successful to me, is seeing deer within 50 yards of my stand. It does not mean I shot one. Pre season scouting is a simple matter of understanding and recognizing the food source, matching that to the terrain and travel pattern of the deer, understanding the relationship of cover and structure and making a stand site choice, based on knowledge and information. Pre season scouting, properly done, is the key to smart and effective stand site selection. And that is the key to meat in the freezer and a trophy on the wall. In 2001,

I hunted Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska over a 10-day period. I had never seen any of the land before. I killed four bucks ranging in size from 118 inches to 142 inches. I passed up shots at over 40 different bucks. I scouted far more than I hunted. And it worked.

John is a freelance writer and lecturer from Lebanon, Tennessee