Scouting for deer in the early season is a little like sneaking a peek at a blind date before you meet. When it comes to deer, if you don’t put in the time and effort to do the scouting, you might miss out on the date completely.
In the early season the weather is often hot, too hot for your hunting clothing so you’re stripped down to short sleeves and getting scratched up trying to slip between the briars. The landscape looks completely different than it will in November after the leaves have fallen. Everything is green and lush, trails are narrow, and the poison ivy is still in leaves, oh joy. It’s hard to get around in the woods this time of year, slow going. The thick woods make your visibility very limited and the terrain rolls unexpectedly into hillsides and ravines if you’re unfamiliar with the place you’re hunting. I’m scouting the Clear Fork Valley of the Mohican River in late September and the leaves are just beginning to turn. I should be excited to be in this beautiful place but I’ll be honest, this is hard work.
I passed through here last spring while hunting turkey. If there’s a Murphy’s Law of the woods it’s that you’ll see a ton of deer in turkey season and a ton of turkey in deer season. You try to just chalk it up as an advanced scouting experience and come back to that place closer to the intended hunting season. This is the area where Johnny Appleseed planted nurseries and some of the wild trees I’m finding back in the woods might well be descendants of the ones he planted two hundred years ago. There’s plenty here to attract the deer. The hickory, beech and oak trees are now heavy with their nuts, the hillsides are lush, and it looks like a different planet from when the Trilliums were first poking up through the frost covered ground last Spring.
Finding the trails, the deer highways in which I can find the tracks is the start to a dizzying maze through brush and scrub, along the edges of big stands of timber, and hopefully back into the cornfields that might as well have a big neon sign over them flashing “DEER EAT HERE”. Every time I dress out a deer I inspect the contents of its stomach to tell me where it’s been. Nuts, mast and green hay may be present, but if there is standing corn anywhere around your intended hunting place, you can bet that whitetails will be visiting that diner. You can plant food plots of clover and hang as many salt blocks and molasses covered treats that the guy in the store told you will bring deer running, and I will still hang my stand on route to the corn field every time because at some time during the day, that buck is going to visit the corn to stock up on this staple of his diet.
I often warn hunters against trying too hard to imagine a scenario and then wait for it to happen like some Walter Mitty of the Wilderness. However, to a certain extent, that’s exactly what you have to do when hunting deer. You find a spot where the signs point to deer being there, you try to figure out when they are likely to be there, and then you lie in wait to arrange the meeting. Just don’t be too focused on what you’re doing; that is, try to find a place where you can cover several avenues of approach and several places where the deer might pause while you ready a shot. I’ve seen guys set up in thick cover and look down a narrow path, waiting all day for a deer to come running straight at them. It seldom happens that way, and your time in the woods is precious. Spread your bets around a little.
The Whitetail Deer is a highly evolved animal with keen senses, so you can feel alright about employing some tricks to level the playing field. When I find an area I want to hunt, I’ll hang a few scent wicks to lure pre-rut bucks into the area. They may not be mating yet, but they’ll always be curious. I often use automatic trail cameras to survey the individual deer in the area, and used in conjunction with strategically placed scent wicks, you can almost get the bucks to pose for you.