How to Scout and Hunt National Forest Land
More hunters than ever are taking the chance on new hunting areas. It’s the new frontier in deer hunting, in my opinion. Of course, it’s our philosophy at North American Whitetail, both in print and on TV, to bring you hunting experiences from many geographic regions. In so doing, we commonly find ourselves scouting and hunting in a compressed time period, just as you might on a DIY hunt to a new area.
Early in the history of NAW, I wrote about our research findings here at the Institute for White-tailed Deer Management & Research, noting how it might apply to readers’ management/hunting situations. Our research on buck movements and behavior led to a number of articles providing key insights into the world of mature bucks.
In summer 1991, one of my research technicians approached me with a challenge. “You get to hunt all these great places,” he chided. “But can you show me how to kill a good buck on national forest land in Texas?”
Younger and feeling full of “vinegar,” I accepted the challenge. I told my student to pick out one of the national forests (all of which are in the eastern part of the state) and we’d give it a go.
He chose Davy Crockett NF, one of the most heavily hunted public properties in Texas. He then picked out the general area for the experiment.
The first thing I did was acquire aerial imagery of the forest, along with USGS topographic maps. It wasn’t as easy then as today to acquire such resources, but the U.S. Forest Service and Soil Conservation Service had just what we needed.
The next step was to critically analyze the maps to find areas that fit the model of deer behavior and habitat preferences our research had developed. Fortunately, our research wasn’t limited to deer; we also studied hunters. Our early research had shown that the average hunter never gets more than 1,500 feet from a road or right-of-way. Using this knowledge, we drew a “hunter influence zone” extending that distance from all roads and rights-of-way. We’d just identified places few hunters visited.
We’d also learned whitetails are “drainage” creatures, preferring to associate their activities linearly along drainages. No matter how pronounced or subtle the drainage, deer use is higher in such areas than elsewhere. Each drainage has at least one doe social group (clan) living mostly adjacent to it. The social group is made of a tightly knit family of related does: mothers, sisters, daughters, aunts, etc.
The biological purpose of bucks is to maintain the genetic diversity of the population by traveling from drainage to drainage (one doe group to another) during the rut. They move between drainages mostly via “saddles,” which are topographically defined spots between the heads of two drainages.
To this point in the exercise, we’d found the areas of lower hunting pressure and then had parsed those into the zones featuring drainages. The next step was to find saddles connecting the drainages. This reduced our setup choices significantly.
The final step was to critically analyze the habitats associated with these areas. What we looked for was suitable bedding and foraging cover. Bedding cover in the region consists of young pine plantations and regenerating cutover areas 5-10 years of age. (In the North, this age class would have to be a bit older; trees grow more slowly as we move north.) We narrowed our search down to three areas.
The only way to further narrow our reconnaissance was to actually visit the areas. This wasn’t difficult, as by now we’d narrowed down several thousand acres to a few hundred.
It now was early September, two months until gun season. But rather than rush to the woods, I waited until the end of the month to allow bucks to establish rub lines and early scrapes. I’ve never placed much credence in scrapes, as most are made at night, but they do reveal info on the density and attitudes of the bucks. I took my assistant and his hunting buddy with me to share in the “teachable moments” afforded by this exercise, as well as to show them how to get into and set up on any hotspots we found.
Using aerial photos, we found the shortest paths to the scouting areas in question. Each one took about an hour to reach, and we determined the best approach to use for each area during hunting season. We primarily were looking for areas easy to travel through. Although the season was a good time away, we didn’t want to disturb the areas excessively.
In East Texas, the prevailing wind is from the southeast, even during gun season. However, cool “northers” often push through around opening day. So we took into account the wind direction our two hunters likely would be facing in November.
The next step was to go to the drainages and inspect mid-slope areas for trails and buck sign. Finding a rub is like finding the edge of a highway. Most hunters treat a rub as a point object, rather than a linear path. But when you find a rub, you need to look in all directions for the next one. It should lead to the next, and so on.
Bucks tell us where they go when in hard antler by leaving rubs. These travel corridors can be one-way or two-way, as evidenced by whether trees are rubbed on just one side or both.
So-called “signpost” rubs serve to notify other bucks, both visually and by smell, that a certain dominant buck uses that area. These rubs generally occur in only two places: in staging areas and around sanctuary beds. A staging area is a place where bucks congregate late in the evening to intercept does on their way to feed. Such a location is distinctive, featuring a very open understory and numerous larger-diameter trees rubbed substantially.
Older bucks arrive in these spots just at dark, deposit scent on their signposts, then bed and wait for the does to come through. Just before daylight, the bucks leave and head back to their sanctuary beds. Around each bed is a circle of signpost rubs, making these spots fairly easy to find — if you know what to look for.
Conducting a reconnaissance in each of our three identified areas on public land, I made my choice, basing it on several attributes. First, the travel corridor extended along the mid-slope of a drainage populated by older hardwood trees with some understory cover, then turned sharply to cross the small creek at a shallow point.
Second, the travel corridor extended up the drainage to a well-defined saddle some 200 yards away. Within the saddle area trees had been logged about 10 years earlier, producing a great bedding area.
Third, the drainage led downhill into a small cover of mixed oaks, which we determined by binocular examination were covered with developing acorns. It was a classic setup; all we had to do was devise an approach plan and find the “perfect” trees in which to hang stands.
As there would be two hunters to set up, the situation was a bit complicated. I decided to check the drainage on the other side of the saddle, finding a good location for a second stand there. Both spots would be perfect for a southeast wind, but a disaster with a north wind. In each place I marked the tree with a random pile of branches. (In heavily hunted areas it’s a shame you have to hide your markings, but why waste all that work and give away a great spot?)
We were conducting research on the social activities of mature bucks at the time. Based on that research, I recognized the tendency for a mature buck to travel with another buck (aka a “toady”), most often a year younger. So I cautioned both hunters to not shoot the first buck that came along the trail, as he might prove to be the lesser buck. (Of course, if the first buck was so big it didn’t matter, forget that advice!) My last admonition was not to hunt the two spots on opening morning unless the wind was from the southeast. We’d worked too hard to then “squirrel” the deal by being impatient.
I gave little more thought to this after that day. But at 9:45 a.m. on opening day of gun season, I received an excited call from my research assistant. There were no cell phones at that time, so he’d traveled a good half-hour or so to find a pay phone.
“You were right, Doc,” he said. “A buck came right down the trail, right to left, just like you said . . . and I shot him!”
Of course, I was thrilled. But then he revealed that after he’d shot the buck, he’d climbed down from the tree and heard a snort up the trail. “It was the big buck,” he confessed. “I guess you were right about waiting.”
I wasn’t upset. My friend had a nice young buck and hopefully had learned something about hunting whitetails on public lands.
Since those days, we’ve learned even more about buck behavior, activity and habitat preferences. New technologies such as trail cameras and GPS have greatly increased the efficiency of patterning deer. We no longer wait until September to pattern travel corridors, as we know rubs and even scrapes remain obvious to the trained eye for over a year.
I’m writing this on June 7, just after returning home from work on a buck-sign study in Georgia. Research intern Nathaniel Payne is using GPS to map the distribution of buck sign over a 4,000-acre area. We trained him to recognize rubs that were made last fall, and some even earlier. Old rubs are easy to spot; the tree tries to heal itself, making a callus scar. Even scrapes can be found, due to their telltale cupped depressions (even filled with leaves) and the broken licking branches over them. The bottom line is, you can pattern deer any time.
But what about a really “cold” DIY hunt for which you have only a few days or weeks to prepare? You can use the same techniques, but you have to use stealth and timing of work to not disturb the deer. I prefer to do all such reconnaissance work in midday and to move quickly in the process. A buck isn’t going to be run out of an area by what appears to be a human’s casual appearance. You can reduce disturbance further by doing most of your work at home or at the office, using the wealth of aerial and satellite imagery and maps.
When we began our research using GPS, the cost was very high and you had to have some very sophisticated geospatial analytical tools to make sense of the data. Now a host of smartphone apps can collect and display GPS locations, letting you conduct “computer” analyses with your brain.
A hunting career should provide skills based on years of observations, data and analytical thought about what happened (or didn’t) over that span. And that’s really what so much of deer hunting boils down to: experience. Some hunters are still using the same tactics they did when they started. Others have adapted, learning from their mistakes and successes alike. Going in “cold” is one of the best ways to learn skills, and being able to take a nice buck in the process is the last stage in the development of a skilled hunter.