In this new age of whitetail hunting, the scouting game largely revolves around a basic batch of tools and methods. Trail cameras, digital mapping applications on your phone, shed hunting and being able to observe deer movement throughout the entire year are all solid approaches, and all are helpful.
But what’s becoming a lost art is the ability to “once-over” a property and subsequently decide whether it’s worth hunting or not, based purely on the results of that speed-scouting. It takes a certain level of woodsmanship, knowledge of deer and simply knowing what to look for to speed-scout successfully.
You might be asking yourself what’s the point in speed-scouting a property, or why you’d need to decide so quickly whether or not you’d want to hunt there. In reality, there are many scenarios in which this strategy comes into play.
For example, spring and summer are popular times of year for leasing deer land. If you’ve ever looked to pick up a lease, you might have had a few different options. But what you didn’t have was the luxury of running trail cameras all summer or fall to choose precisely which property would be best to lease. You might have had to check out all of them in a hurry and then decide quickly which one to go with.
Speed-scouting also can be a vital skill if you own hunting land far from home. Even if you’re running cellular scouting cameras from afar, you’ll never be able to closely monitor every deer or every piece of fresh deer sign on your property. A skill worth having is the ability to quickly scout even a familiar property just prior to a hunt. You’ll likely find new clues that influence your strategy.
Maybe you only hunt close to home but simply don’t have the time to continually monitor multiple parcels. Whether you’ve acquired multiple properties by permission or you’re focusing on several slices of public land, let’s talk about how to know what to look for during a speed-scout in order to turn that valuable time into success when the hunt begins.
Make a Quick Assessment
To get the most intel from speed-scouting a piece of land, the first and foremost thing you want to do is assess it holistically. As soon as you enter the property, take in every detail you can. Are there open fields? Is there timber? Are you able to pull out a map (digital or hard copy) to take a look at the property boundaries?
Major habitat features are key to developing a quick understanding of a property from the beginning. You don’t want to head in not understanding how it lays out. If you have the ability to walk or take a UTV around the property edges, do so at this point. Assessing the perimeter is a great place to start.
Especially on big tracts, walk or ride the edges to look for a place to dive in deeper. You might not be able to walk the entire piece in a day, so be prepared to make a decision based on what you do have time to check. Select key areas to continue your speed-scout with a closer look. Then it’s time to dive in.
Food, Water & Bedding
The three most important habitat features for whitetails, especially mature bucks, are food, water and bedding. It would take a book on each topic to completely explain how they relate to whitetail behavior and hunting strategy, especially in different areas of North America. But I’ll try to give a quick run-down on how I look for these features on a speed-scouting mission.
Before I’ve even seen a buck to hunt or captured a trail camera photo of him, my strategy is to nail down the areas in which he’d feel safe and secure enough to bed, plus the spots where he will eat and drink throughout the year. If I can find those, usually my chances of killing him will skyrocket.
My search usually begins with food sources, and agricultural fields are the easiest to identify. I make notes of what was planted the year prior and what’s scheduled to go in the ground the current year, if not already planted.
But it’s important to pay attention to more than just crop fields. When speed- scouting, be on the lookout for other types of deer food, especially foods utilized during fall. Perhaps the most important of these, depending on where you’re hunting, is hard and soft mast. To find these gems, keep your eyes peeled for mast droppers such as white and red oaks, chestnuts, apple, pear and other nut/fruit trees. All of the above can produce heavy hauls of mast adored by whitetails, and nearly all will drop their bounty at different times of fall.
Oaks are the predominant mast trees in my area, so when scouting a new farm I pay attention to the ground to see if there are acorn caps from the year prior. If scouting in summer, I look to see if acorns are developing on the trees. Keep in mind if you see oaks but don’t see acorns, it might only mean the tree isn’t producing that year. The following year, there could be a bumper crop. It can take time to know for sure.
Other than trees, look for popular deer food sources within the “deer zone” at or below five feet from ground level. There are countless native plants deer enjoy snacking on, but some of the easiest to recognize are greenbrier, blackberry, honeysuckle and muscadine — again, depending on where you live.
Finding plenty of wild plants with clear indications of browsing means deer are keying in on them. Whether or not a property has any good food sources of this nature can have a big impact on my willingness to hunt it.
Water is just as important. When I’m checking out a new property, I always want to know if the place contains a creek, spring, pond or any other type of reliable water source. We all know water is essential for whitetails, and sometimes the best stand and blind locations are set to take advantage of deer movement around these places. I try to prioritize water on my checklist of must-have deer habitat, but artificial water sources can be an option for land that lacks it.
Bedding cover can come in many forms. Thick and nasty cover is a great starting point, and that’s primarily what you should look for on a speed-scout. But CRP can make for great bedding cover as well, as can cedar swamps, islands in marsh country and the sides on ridges.
Ultimately, you need to know if there are areas on the property that provide good bedding to not just mature bucks but deer in general. If the piece doesn’t have any good bedding spots, look to the neighboring properties to see if they exist there. Also, if legal and/or possible, consider creating your own bedding areas for deer.
By creating your own, I mean having the ability to do Timber Stand Improvement (TSI). TSI projects can be as simple as creating a few hinge-cut areas or as complex as completely redesigning and replanting a forest for the long term. Of course, native grasses can also be planted to create bedding areas. The options are endless, and most of the time your budget will dictate the extent of what you can do to create or improve bedding cover.
Find The Buck Sign
How are you supposed to determine the quality or quantity of bucks on a property in such a short time span? It starts with focusing on certain deer sign that could indicate what’s in the area. An easy place to start is to look for rubs.
There are two types of rubs I’m looking for. The first kind are simply just rubs that tell me bucks are traveling through the property during some time of fall/winter. Edges of food sources, pinch points and funnels are great starting points to look for these.
When it comes to knowing whether big bucks made those rubs, that can be a tall task. But the higher up on the tree the rubs are, the better the chance they were made by a mature buck.
Another “type” of rub I’m looking for is one around or near beds. Think back to finding bedding areas. If able to locate good bedding areas, I scout the heck out of them. If you’re able to locate actual beds and then find rubs on the trails leading to/from those beds, that can be like winning the lottery when it comes to scouting.
If you know exactly where a buck beds at least some of the time, it obviously can be a huge advantage when planning your hunts. Of course, it’s especially helpful if he’s bedding on the property at least some of the time in fall/winter, when you can hunt him.
Scrapes and shed antlers are other buck sign to look for, but they can be hard to find during certain times of year. Locating either in the spring or summer is tough, especially if the ground is dense with vegetation. However, if you can speed-scout a piece before green-up, any scrapes or sheds found can give you an advantage in determining the location’s potential.
Scrapes are a great indicator. That’s because most are laid down by bucks during the pre-rut, before they start traveling more widely in search of does. Finding a large number of scrapes can improve the odds that there’s good buck activity during early fall, meaning those bucks will most likely be in the general area before the main rut kicks in. Once the rut starts and bucks begin traveling out of their normal home ranges, scraping activity goes down significantly.
If you happen to find any shed antlers, you’ll gain immediately knowledge of those bucks’ antler potential. Don’t be discouraged if you only find sheds of young bucks, though. It’s not likely you’ll stumble onto a property and quickly find the antlers of the biggest, most mature deer on the place. But hey, it’s possible. So keep your eyes peeled.
Note that when you find sheds, you should ask yourself if you think bucks were only using the property late in the year, because of the presence of a good winter food source, or if they use it throughout the year.
No matter the time of year you’re speed-scouting a property, something deer always leave behind are tracks. In areas where you can easily find tracks, such as creek crossings, fields, river banks, etc., take a hard look to see if you can identify any big ones.
Here in the upper Midwest, what I consider to be a “big” track is one about four fingers wide. If you come across a big track, you know that buck has been there at least fairly recently. Looking at tracks has truly become an afterthought for most people, mainly because of trail cameras. But during a speed-scout, it can be a crucial part of deciding if you want to hunt a given property.
This is unequivocally one of the most important things you should be doing during a speed-scout. It’s also one of the most challenging. To look at a property in spring or summer and be able to envision it when you’ll actually be hunting is hard. But no matter what kind of deer sign you find, you need to be able to see how it will apply months down the road, as well as what it will mean to your hunting.
Let’s use an easy example of scouting a river bottom that butts up to a big corn field. Odds are that in summer, when you’re scouting, there might not seem to be a ton of activity in the timber. While the corn is standing, a lot of deer will simply spend the majority of their time in the field. Other than to slip off to a water source, they don’t have to leave it. They can simply bed and feed within the corn.
What you have to be able to envision is how things will change once the corn is picked. Deer will have to retreat to the timber for cover, though the picked field will still act as a good food source. If you’re scouting a piece like this, it’s most likely going to be a good rut and late-season spot. So if you can hunt it then, it might be worth choosing. If the property you’re speed scouting is one you’ll only be able to hunt early in the fall, though, this example piece might not be one to pick.
Know When to Bail
Equally important to knowing if a property looks good is being able to walk away from one that doesn’t. When you put boots on the ground but then don’t find what you’re looking for, don’t be afraid to bail and go look for something else. Don’t make a poor piece seem good in your head.
Trust me, I’ve done this before, and it can come back to bite you in the butt. If the buck sign isn’t there, or things aren’t adding up to you, move on to the next property. Whether you’re looking for a lease, a go-to public land spot to focus on, or whatever your situation is, nothing’s more precious than time. Don’t waste it making a property out to be something it isn’t. Trust your gut or risk hunting the heck out of a property to no avail.
Remember the Basics
At the end of the day, when it comes to speed-scouting a property and being able to understand and predict how it will hunt, remember the basics. If you hope to be able to do this in a day’s time, the most important part of scouting won’t be just finding sign but being able to put everything together on how it will look next fall.
Don’t take anything you find at face value. Analyze, analyze and analyze some more! Always be asking, “Why are there rubs here?” Or, “Why isn’t there any rut sign?”
Every bit of sign is like a puzzle piece. You’ll never find all of them — but the more you can discover and properly interpret, the better your odds of success will be come hunting season.