My heart sank, as the young doe the triple-beamed monster was following tried cutting left, when I so desperately wanted her to cut right. Just that fast, it appeared the doe that was bringing Mr. Big into my life was about to tear him away, when all I needed was a few more steps in my direction.
Luckily, Mr. Big didn't seem to care much for what his estrus doe wanted. He was going to get a drink at the water hole my stand covered, and she was coming with him whether she wanted to or not. Hooking around her, he tined her rather forcefully in the side, redirecting her to the water hole. Moments later, I was shaking like a leaf, trying to compose myself, before daring to climb down and walk over to where an Easton my Mathews had sent through his boiler room had laid him to rest.
Without a doubt, studying the topo map the previous winter was what alerted me to the potential stand site. Located where the three tapering points met, it formed a busy intersection for bucks going from, to and between the higher ridges above. However, it was the early-April foot scouting trip that sealed the deal. With various-sized beds dotting the high grounds, and rubs and scrapes smattering about those tops, it was obvious that this was as busy an intersection as I first suspected. The scrape marking the intersection, approximately the size of the hood of a truck, only cemented in my mind that this was THE spot to be.
As technology increases, foot scouting is seemingly becoming a less and less important part of filling buck tags. Between up to date aerial photography, readily available topo maps and trail cams, we can study our grounds more thoroughly than ever before.
That said, foot scouting is still mission critical. Frankly, it is what I rely on to confirm or disprove the potential stand sites I find on photos and topos, as well as banking on it alerting me to key info one can not find on photos and topos. Here's what to look for when hitting the woods this spring.
Unraveling the Rut
Starting off with a bang, the biggest payoff spring scouting provides is the road map for the local bucks' rutting patterns. Make no mistake about it. For as much as we're told that you can't pattern rutting bucks, that's pure malarkey.
Rutting bucks have a pattern they loosely follow for finding estrus does every bit as much, if not more so, than a typical buck's feeding pattern can be ID'd in early or late season. After all, a deer's "patterns" are nothing more than unearthing one of more things they have the tendency of doing. By definition, tendencies mean that they won't always do it and there will be exceptions. A buck feeding somewhat regularly on a specific food source isn't any more of a pattern than a buck somewhat regularly checking the same doe bedding area for estrus does.
Before spring bloom occurs in earnest, most all of the previous year's most regularly used scrapes — the ones we really care about — and virtually every rub stands out like a sore thumb. No, bucks aren't rubbing and are very rarely pawing the dirt at scrapes in spring. However, before the new growth of grass and weeds swallow the scrapes or leaf out makes seeing last year's rubs harder, spring provides us the opportunity to study the cumulation of the previous rut's most serious rut sign postings, such as scrapes and rubs.
Being able to study the sum total of all rubbing and serious scraping at once, while not having to worry about out scouting efforts harming our hunting, is dang near invaluable. So much so that it is the foundation of my coming season's scrape hunting activities. It's impossible to tell how seriously a scrape will or won't be hit, when first opened. However, the bowled shaped appearance and/or size of the pawed earth beneath the licking branch of the previous fall's scrapes do wonders for alerting us to which scrapes were worked the hardest the previous year.
Keep in mind that the most heavily hit scrapes exist because that specific location is effective in advertising these scrapes to a large number of deer. So long as massive changes in overall deer patterns don't shift deer away from this location, it's a pretty darn safe bet that the scrape location will be prime again this coming fall. The most common deal breaker is when the lick branch for the scrape gets broken off or otherwise destroyed. Even that can be fixed by merely attaching a licking branch to the tree.
With the area's most seriously worked scrapes located, I merely zero in on the ones that are back in deer cover — where I believe Mr. Big would feel safe visiting during legal hours — that I can also get to, hunt and get out of undetected. I also pay particular attention to the serious scrapes surrounding doe bedding areas, as setting up on them can work great on through the peak breeding phase and even later, as mature bucks continue looking for any doe fawns that eventually achieve estrus. Those are the scrapes I will be hunting during the upcoming fall's peak scrape phase. I find most all of them the previous spring, as that time of year allows me to gauge their use or comparative lack thereof.
I'll be brutally honest with you all. I generally feel that rub lines get more exposure than they deserve. I can count on my fingers how many I've been able to put together over the years, and most of those were in big woods settings, where buck numbers are low and it's easier to feel confident that the same buck is tearing up those bugger trees, as mature buck numbers tend to be low.
That said, I have seen a couple obvious rub lines in farm country, as well as the larger handful in the big woods, and each has been well worth setting up on. In both cases, that rub line almost always marks the trail Mr. Big follows between bedding and feeding. As already alluded to, that's a lot easier to do if all the rubs from the previous fall are already made and leaf off allows one to see better.
What I do find more consistently are loose clusters of rubs. That's also important, as it is a strong indicator that a or multiple bucks spend a decent amount of time in this location. This explains the clusters of rubs one often finds along the edges of prime food sources. It simply tells us that bucks are feeding there.
Now look at that cluster of rubs and or scrapes found back in the woods a bit, say 50 or 100 yards off that food source, maybe around a small opening within the deer cover. That most often indicates that bucks stage in that location, before and/or after venturing into the food source. These are often the very best places to hunt bucks' feeding patterns, as we can often better slip in, hunt and slip out undetected, as opposed to setting right up on the food. Best yet, more legal light movement tends to occur in the staging areas than the food source provides, buying us those precious minutes of daylight movement that we so often need.
Putting It All Together
The other invaluable opportunity spring scouting provides is the best timing for tying everything together and seeing the big picture of how deer use and flow through our hunting grounds. Though mentioned a couple times already, I cannot overstress the importance of being able to study all of the previous year's rutting sign at once. Now add in buck beds, doe bedding, trails, pinch points, food sources and everything else we can learn spring scouting.
As you can see, up until spring green up is the best time there is for putting everything deer did the previous fall and early winter together. When we can understand what the deer have historically been doing on that ground we can use our most powerful weapon, our brain, to determine the odds of those behaviors being repeated and how best to setup on them.
Never underestimate our analytical powers and use that weapon to its fullest extent. However, the key to pulling that off most effectively is having thorough and accurate data to work from. Yes, the deer that left the sign found in spring may already be dead, but there was a reason Mr. Big chose that spot to bed, that spot to feed, that spot to stage and loosely followed the rutting patterns your spring scouting efforts unearthed. Because he was Mr. Big, he could do what he wanted, where he wanted to and when he wanted, within the confines of the deer world. You can rest assured, there was a solid reason for it. Even if he is dead, odds are very high that the next in line will assume his patterns, as he had claimed the best of the best for himself.
Spring scouting provides us an invaluable opportunity to see how most of the more important aspects of last season's deer patterns played out. With solid and thorough data to work with, we can then use our most powerful weapon to its fullest capabilities. We can use our brains to analyze and determine the best hunting strategies for the upcoming season.