As this fall progresses and transitions into winter, we are going to closely evaluate what it means to be a devoted whitetail hunter 365 days a year and what common thread binds us all together in our successes. The effort you assert during your pre-season scouting sessions will ultimately affect the outcome of your hunts, but it doesn't stop there.
Once the season is underway, one of the biggest mistakes you can make is to quit scouting, and once the season is over, staying home until opening day will certainly not put you in the driver's seat. Stay tuned with North American Whitetail this season as we fully evaluate how to be efficient as a 365-days-a-year player.
Whether you live 10 minutes or three hours from your property, you need to maximize your efforts in order to get a firm grip on the habits of the local whitetail population. There is no substitute for spending time on foot walking through your properties, but there are times when staying out of the woods is essential; it can take years to intimately know a particular piece of land.
Herein, we'll discuss a few things that will improve the amount and quality of information you will gather by scouting, regardless of when, but we are also going to look at strategies specific to the pre-season and early season. This is your chance to make any tactical and last minute adjustments to your approach in an effort to capitalize on the early-season feeding pattern.
If you only take one thing from this article I hope it is that you begin keeping a journal to document your efforts and encounters. I cannot over-emphasize the value of having this information at your fingertips. Only after you invest in this aspect of outdoor observation will you fully grasp that documentation will help you kill more and bigger whitetails. Beyond that, it's free.
The information you keep can be as elaborate as you like, all the way down to the last detail, or you can keep it brief and to the point, documenting the weather conditions, stand location/food source and number of deer encountered. The bottom line when maintaining a journal is it needs to contain highlights that were unique and applicable to your next outing, even if it seems irrelevant at the time.
Being able to look back at how you reacted to certain situations in the past is how you apply what you learn in the woods each fall. Whether you carry a notebook in your pack, or you update it each time after you return home, just the simple fact you took the time to note your learning experiences could mean the difference between peeling the adhesive cover from the back of your tag or accidentally putting it through the laundry for the third time.
Some of the greatest minds in whitetail hunting today understand the importance of taking your pre-season work to the extreme, and their results speak for themselves. To help me illustrate the endless value on this topic is Midwestern whitetail fanatic Terry Drury, who is the elder half of the legendary duo known as the Drury Brothers.
"We look at whitetail scouting from more of an observatory standpoint, and we are dedicated to watching, observing and documenting the whitetail's habits as there is always something new to learn," Terry explained. "Understanding the travel patterns of a whitetail is essential to how often you encounter him during the season, but recognizing the changes of his habits as the season progresses will help you stay one step ahead him."
Drury explains that the late summer and early fall pattern revolves around green food sources, and often soybeans. Late summer is the time when bucks are really coming into their own as their antlers are done growing, and they will begin to shed their velvet by the last week of August and going into early September.
"There are circumstances when getting out and putting on some boot miles will really help you pin down a pattern," Drury said, "but the last few weeks leading up to the season's opener are not the time for this, as your intrusion could negatively affect the already established feeding pattern."
FROM A DISTANCE
"There is no substitute for observing whitetail movement from a distance," Drury explained. "I would suggest setting up at a distance of about 500 yards or greater and watching with your Nikon spotting scope, documenting when and where each deer enters the food source. Where you set up to observe specifically is dependent upon your property, as there may be situations where you can sit in your pickup or you might have to get out and hike into an area. If possible, plan to make this trip a couple times a week and sit for a couple hours in order to get the entire pattern nailed down."
When scouting during the late summer, even at a great distance you still need to use the conditions and your surroundings to your advantage. If you are going to sneak into an elevated observation location where deer could potentially appear closer than anticipated, you need to mind the wind and stay as scent-free as possible. I would also recommend wearing your camouflage and choosing a location with substantial backdrop.
Hilltops are a great location from which to observe movement over a great distance, but the biggest mistake early-season observers make is sitting on the crest of the hill. This makes your silhouette stand out. Instead, move down the face of the hill and set up allowing your human outline to better blend with the background.
"As of very recently, observing movement patterns via trail cameras has become one of the chief methods for collecting data about your deer herd," Drury says. "A hunter can get a better grasp on the sex ratio (and) age structure and have a better overall knowledge of their travel patterns. However, I fear many hunters are making a couple mistakes that do have negative impacts on their intentions once the season has begun.
"A consistent mistake hunters make is they rely too heavily upon their cameras. While it is true you cannot get too many photos nor have too many cameras, how you execute the application of the data you collect is the secret. Document the time that particular deer are showing up, (and) notice the weather conditions, direction he is heading and on what food source he is intent on feeding. Collaborate this information and formulate a plan of attack based on his habitual feeding patterns and you will most likely capitalize earlier rather than later, as in the early season whitetails are slaves to their stomachs.
"Between my brother, Mark, and (me), last season alone we collected nearly half a
million photos. Our secret to successful trail camera monitoring is to put them in locations where you don't have to penetrate security cover to access. We also understand that deer are deer, meaning they will always surprise us regardless of what our Reconyx cameras are telling us."
Camera use is very effective all season long, but as the rut progresses and the food preference changes, so does adequate trail camera location. Being able to recognize this transition is a major factor in your early-season success and a topic we will discuss in further detail in the next article.
THEY GOTTA EAT
Early-season food sources are generally easy to determine all across North America. Drury says 'greens' are the ticket early on, and depending upon what the rotation in your area will be, you can find early-season success hunting green secondary and destination food sources. In most scenarios, lush alfalfa, green soybeans or any kind of implemented food plots such as Biologic Maximum or Clover Plus will attract deer from all directions. Any time these food sources are located near a bedding area, you can assure daytime usage, thus presenting a perfect opportunity to observe from a long distance.
"As soon as the bucks shed their velvet, patterns may change on a daily basis, as they tend to grow less tolerant of each other and their food preferences might change as the nights grow shorter and cooler," Drury said. "We try to implement a green-to-green transition, thus providing the deer with fresh food maturing at different times. For example, once a particular soybean food source has been basically fed out, another soybean food plot will be maturing to attract those same deer at a later date."
If you are hunting in a location where there is not an abundance of crop production, deer also prefer general browse and especially acorns. This is a situation where hunters really need to know the travel patterns of the herd they are hunting. For example, a 25- to 50-acre soybean destination food source in Missouri might be the equivalent of a large acorn-producing oak flat in West Virginia. Substantial scouting needs to be completed in both cases to maximize your hunting efforts.
"Once the hunting season has begun, don't over-hunt any of your sets, especially if you are seeing a large animal in your area," Drury continued. "That is the single greatest mistake I see guys making on a regular basis, and in most cases, it costs them an opportunity at their dream buck. Take the time to get to know an area and a specific buck, and only hunt that area when the conditions are conducive to a silent and low-impact approach and retreat.
"If deer hunting was ever 'easy,' the early season can be deemed as such. Food is a priority for all living things, especially mature does who are generally the first to come into estrous, and the bucks are bulking up for the onset of the rut. The does always keep feeding their No. 1 priority and the bucks know this, therefore putting both mature bucks and does on the early-season food sources regularly."
If you must make a last minute stand adjustment, you need to do it during the time of day when the deer will not be present, and the conditions need to hide your presence or you could negatively impact the travel and feeding patterns. Mature deer will not tolerate human intrusion, so being quick, quiet, and effective are essential to an aggressive maneuver this late in the game. Take a friend who knows the drill and get out of there as quickly and quietly as possible.
Late summer scouting is a tremendous time to enjoy the beauty of creation and the onset of our favorite autumn passion. If you have an opportunity, take a child with you so they can also enjoy observing and learning the habits of one of North America's most elusive big game animals. The smile on their faces will be worth every minute of your investment!
Observe from a distance, document your findings, move in when the conditions are right, breath easy, and pick a spot. He is one mouthful away from his last mistake!