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One of the most popular buzzwords in the outdoor world is “scouting,” which is usually meant to suggest that hunters and trappers (and sometimes fishermen) should spend large amounts of time roaming the woods and fields in search of “sign” if they expect to have a successful season.
Even though many thousands, perhaps millions of words have been published on the topic, with writers and (and even some real experts!) going into great detail on the vagaries of wind, tracks, trails, rubs, scrapes and behavioral shifts in pre-rut, rut and post-rut whitetails, they do it mostly for the money. The average hunter rarely if ever does any scouting prior to a trip, and if he does decide to enter the woods before opening day it’s just to walk straight into the woods to the same stand he’s always used and, upon seeing a deer track, scat or rub, declare that all signs point to a big season ahead!
I have always enjoyed the concept of scouting – to me it’s just another excuse to be in the woods and see what’s going on. It’s a “science” some hunters take way too seriously, however. One year I wrote an article for Field & Stream called “The Truth About Deer Sign,” and it generated tons of mail because, at the time, the outdoor writing brotherhood was just getting into the importance and value of an overturned leaf, a splayed toe-print and other such evidence of monster bucks in our midst. My point was that most hunters couldn’t tell a fresh track from one that was weeks or even months old. I came to this conclusion one fall after spotting a particularly deep, sharp track in a muddy trail behind my house in Bradford. I found the track in July during a dry, cool summer in which no rain came. By mid-September the track looked as good as new. The clincher was when one of my hunting buddies, a guy who had been looking at deer tracks for 40 years, knelt down and said, “Yep, that buck came through here probably this morning or yesterday afternoon!”
I knew for a fact that the track had been there no less than six weeks, yet this “expert” contended that it had been made within a day. Hmmm . . . . Luckily, we found more, bigger, fresher sign farther down in the valley near Beaver Brook, and we shot some nice bucks down there, too. I’m glad I didn’t let him talk me into hunting over that fresh track, because I lived there for about five more years and never saw a deer in that spot!
But, I did do more than a normal share of scouting every year, and found that there were dozens of better places to go than that little thicket behind the house. If there’s any advantage at all of scouting, it’s to let you know that, sometime between last season’s end and this season’s beginning, things have changed. The most common problem from a hunter’s standpoint is the creation of a new clear-cut where mature woods once stood. With today’s ever-more-efficient woodcutting equipment, a 50-ace plot can be denuded in a matter of a few days. When that plot turns out to have been the best bedding or feeding area in the region, the deer move out and hunters are left shaking their heads as they sift through dry leaves and twigs in hopes of finding a fresh track.
Many hunters discover such disasters the day of their hunt because they didn’t take the time to scout. Such a drastic environmental change causes deer to adapt to what remains, and it might take two or three days of hunting time to unravel the mystery. In most cases, the deer will simply switch trails and bedding areas, and this could mean a diversion from 100 yards to 1,000 yards away.
For example, one year a 100-acre block was cut out of the woods where I hunted, and I had the hardest time finding even a fresh track within the hillside chopping, which had once been one of the most popular bedding areas in the region. I used to find beds, scrapes, rubs and other sign almost without looking for it, but once the trees were down it seemed that the deer just walked away and left it.
I kept going back, expanding my search area each time, determined to figure out where all those deer had gone, and it wasn’t till I’d expended the better part of a week that I found the clue I was looking for. Well down in the bottom of the cutting, where ankle-deep water and mossy blow downs kept the woods crews from going any farther, I picked up a trail that was shoulder wide and 6 inches deep in deer tracks going both ways. It was then a simple matter of following the trail to the new bedding and feeding areas, and my season turned out to be a great success as a result.
Other hunters I knew waited till their first day of hunting time, found that the woods had been cleared and just wandered of to find new places to hunt. It’s not easy to find and hunt a new area, especially when your mind is on your old, familiar hunting grounds. Nothing makes sense and nothing looks right, and that kind of confusion often causes hunters to just give it up for the season.
The simple solution to a great hunting season? Start looking things over now! Plan to spend a morning or afternoon each week just wandering the woods and fields where you plan to hunt. You’ll be getting into shape and finding the clues you’ll need to fool that big buck this fall. Make the most of the season by taking up bowhunting, which gets you into the woods in September and October. By November’s opening day of the firearms season, you’ll have every deer in the county identified and patterned.
To have even more fun, find a fresh track this month, mark it in some way, and have one of your hunting buddies take a look at it a month from now. Don’t be surprised if he tells you it was made “early this morning or late last night.” Being an “expert” can do that to you sometimes!
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