Scouting For Hunting Success
(Originally published in the Western Outdoorsman Magazine)

© By Othmar Vohringer

A high percentage of hunters scout incorrectly or not at all. With that these hunters defeat themselves of hunting success long before they even set foot into the woods.

Assuming you can shoot and that you have a deer population to hunt there are only two factors that determine hunting success: proper scouting and luck.

While I admit that I like luck, I would rather depend on scouting to be successful in killing a deer. Scouting gets me in the right place at the right time. Scouting will tell me where to hang my stands and when to hunt from them. From there on it’s luck. If you don’t scout or scout improperly it’s ALL down to luck. A smart man once said, “Hunting success is 60 percent scouting and 40 percent luck.” I fully agree with that statement.

For many hunters the term “scouting” is somewhat of a mystery and opinions on what scouting is differs greatly from one hunter to the next. There are those among us that drive along the back roads a few days before the season opens to see how many deer are in the fields. Others think that finding a deer trail with fresh droppings on it is all that is required to make a decision on where to hunt. A growing number of hunters are misled in believing that hanging game cameras near trails is equal to scouting. However, taking pictures of deer does not even come close to scouting. While a picture is nice to look at you can’t tell from it where the deer is coming from and where it is going, and most importantly, why the deer was in the area and for how long it will stay in that area.

When I started deer hunting I was no different from most hunters. I still remember the day I went scouting in anticipation of my very first bow hunt. That was over 17 years ago. To say I soon became frustrated would be an understatement. The only thing I knew for sure was that seeing deer or deer sign was simply not even close enough to make an educated decision about where to hang my stands. I realized that in order to shoot deer consistently and not have to depend on luck alone my scouting had to reveal much more than just what deer are doing right now and right here. In order to become successful as a hunter I had to be able to determine months ahead of hunting season where the deer will be at any given time during the hunting season, what trails they will be using and during what time of the hunting season. Above all I had to find out why the deer are in a given area and not in others. I had to find a scouting system that let me figure out all the things I needed to know without letting the deer know that I am spying on them.

The answer to my questions and how to develop a dependable pre-season scouting system came to me when I remembered two important lessons I learned from my animal behaviour studies. Deer, unlike humans, don’t do anything just because they feel like it. There is always a specific reason and need for everything deer do. Secondly, all deer movement is based on what I call “the four factors of deer movement”. These factors are FOOD, COVER, TERRAIN and STRUCTURE. (To a lesser degree water is a fifth factor in arid areas or during particularly hot and dry years). These four factors are the corner stones of proper scouting, because all deer movement is somehow related to one or more of these factors.

The beauty of scouting by the four factors of deer movement is that once I fully understood how these factors relate to each other I was able to find stand sites for the early season, pre-rut, rut and the late season long before the hunting season opens, which means you do not run the risk of being patterned by the deer and letting them know what you’re up to. Figuring out the four factors of deer movement in your hunting area will provide you with reliable answers to what I call the four “W” of scouting. These are, Where? What? When? and combining the former is Why? Lets look at these four factors in detail and see how we can combine them to find stand locations that will predictably and consistently produce.

Of the four factors food is by far the most important. Food is the catalyst of all deer movement; food is what makes the deer travel. When I said that on a seminar a hunter replied: “For me food is of no consideration. I only hunt bucks during the rut and bucks don’t eat during that time.” Of course he was right. Bucks don’t eat much during the rut. In fact bucks loose 25 to 30 percent of their body weight during that time because they are more concerned with breeding than eating. However, the doe’s continue to travel to feed and the bucks travel with the does and therefore the food factor still applies for buck hunters too. Figure out the food source the does use and the bucks will be there too.

Food sources change almost constantly and deer match their movement patterns accordingly. A smart hunter therefore closely monitors the changing food sources, and also knows what the preferred agricultural and woodland food sources are in his hunting area and at what time during the season a particular food is available to the deer. What is the “preferred food source”? There are certain foods a deer prefers over all others. Mostly these foods are high in nutrition; things like corn, soybeans and other agricultural crops. Preferred woodland food sources consist of acorns, wild apples, clover, honeysuckle and a variety of other shrubs, fruits and plants that provide deer with essential nutrients and these are the ones we have to find and key in on.

The preferred food often changes from area to area. While deer in one area might prefer acorns and corn, in another area it might be something different, such as honeysuckle, clover, berries and alfalfa. Observing deer, talking to local hunters and following deer trails before the hunting season opens will reveal what deer in your area like to eat. Making careful notes of all the available food and at what time during the hunting season they are available will reveal at what time during the season deer will visit a given area and what trails they will use to travel to and from the food. Finding the food sources gives you a starting point from where you have to find the remaining factors, cover, terrain and structure. The three remaining factors determine how and where deer travel to and from the food sources.

Of the three remaining factors, cover is the most important to deer movement. Deer use cover in one of two ways: either as resting places (bedding areas) or as travel corridors. Traveling in cover gives deer a great measure of security and they will make detours of considerable distances to take advantage of available cover rather than risking exposing themselves to predators by walking in the open. Cover comes in many forms. It can be a thicket, an irrigation ditch, an overgrown fence line, a hedgerow, a gully, ravine or it can be as little as a small depression in an otherwise featureless landscape.

Less obvious cover features consist of a standing row of corn, a stretch of tall grass, a wooded or brushy finger jutting out into a field. Anything that allows deer to travel without exposing themselves fully to the open yet still enables them to see into the open areas constitutes cover. Deer do not require much cover to completely vanish from a hunter or predator’s sight. Deer are masters at blending into the surrounding landscape and using every available feature as cover. A few years ago I observed a small buck evading hunters by taking advantage of a fencerow and a strip of knee-high grass. The buck sneaked along, crawling on his belly, ever so often he would freeze in mid-movement to watch the hunters walk by him at less than 50 yards. They never knew the buck was watching them. So look for anything that could provide a deer with some measure of cover to travel. It will be in these cover features where you will find the main trails, rubs, scrapes and other deer sign.

As you look at a topographical map you will notice that the terrain (topography) consists of undulations made up of hills, flatlands, mountains and so on. When deer travel they are like you and me in that they prefer the easiest route from point A to point B. Deer often will travel some distance to walk in comfort around a steep hill rather than exert valuable energy by hiking over the hill. Think what would be the easiest route for you to get from one point to another and that likely is the same route deer choose too, provided it gives them sufficient cover.

Within the terrain are things that I call structure. Structure comes in two forms: natural and man-made features that influence deer movement. As a hunter I am interested in structure that funnels deer movement through a narrow spot in the landscape. Structures can be anything from a blown down tree, a cattle fence, a creek, or a narrow saddle on a steep hill or a bench. Roads also constitute structures that dictate where deer travel. Some man-made structures such as a fences can be modified in such a way that it forces deer to travel to the advantage of the hunter. My favourite structures to hunt are cattle fences near a break in the fence. As well, hedgerows leading from a woodlot into a field, shallow creek crossings, saddles and other crossing points are deer travel magnets that can yield very productive stand sites.

Often-overlooked forms of structures are edges. Edges exist everywhere where two types of structures meet, like a cornfield bordering onto a woodlot or where a stand of hardwood borders onto a stand of softwood trees. An edge of a thicket inside a woodlot is also a structure deer use for travel. Deer prefer to travel along such edges because it provides them a travel route with cover. Wherever two or more edges meet are hotspots for deer travel and it is along these edges where you’re likely to find buck sign.

Putting It Together:
Here is an example of how I used the four factors of deer movement to find the location for one of my most productive stands. The treestand was located on the narrowest spot (funnel structure) of an old overgrown tractor road winding gently up a steep hillside and onto a ridge top. At the ridge top several oak trees produced a large annual mast crop (preferred food source) that attracted deer coming from the cornfield at the bottom of the hill. The field bordered directly onto the woodland (edge structure). The deer exited the field from several trails that merged into a larger trail, just inside the woodland along the field and woodland edge, leading up a shallow depression that led in turn onto the overgrown tractor road where deer could travel comfortably up to the ridge top. On the narrowest spot in the road where deer had to walk single file is where my stand was hanging in a pine tree 18 ft. off the ground. The only time the deer traveled that route was when the preferred food source, the white oaks, became available. At any other time deer had no reason to travel on that trail.

By applying the scouting tactics discussed in this article I can promise that you will see more deer on your stand sites, the shooting part is up to you.

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