Scouting for deer is the most important step in killing one. Sure, you can head to the woods without a single scouting hour logged and come away with a deer, even a big one. But the likelihood of success is minute in comparison to those who spend time collecting intel on the deer they plan to pursue come season.
Those Who Should Scout
Articles such as this one are often misinterpreted in that it’s geared solely toward trophy hunters. That’s false. All deer hunters, including trophy hunters, meat hunters and combinations of the two, should all scout. Mature bucks are hard to kill. Fat does are too. Do the homework. Fill more tags.
Where to Find Deer
Whitetails — both bachelor groups of bucks and family groups of does — behave similarly in late summer. Both can be found relatively close to the food sources they’re feeding on at the time. For example, if a deer is eating primarily soybeans at the time, expect the majority of deer to be bedding within a couple hundred yards of that food source. It’s even common to see deer bedding right off the edge of a food source, just inside of cover.
All in all, during the summer and early fall, it’s all about food. Where the optimal food sources are located is where the majority of the local deer population will be. That’s soybeans until the leaves begin to turn yellow. Then deer turn to alternative food sources such as other agricultural sources, soft mast and hard mast.
As for deer not located in agricultural-rich areas, mast, forbs and other greens will be the focus. It can be hard to locate deer, but all the more reason for implementing a solid scouting plan. Once you find the deer, keep up with the changing food sources to predict upcoming pattern changes.
Another key concept to keep in mind is water. People often overlook water when scouting. It’s just as important as food. Studies have even shown that many deer go to water before food after rising from their daytime beds. That said, it can be difficult at times to take advantage of water when it’s in abundant supply. And such is the case in many parts of the country this year with the above-average rainfall we’ve seen within the last month.
Scouting Methods for Whitetails
There are numerous methods of scouting deer in the summer. I file those methods into two categories, low-impact and high-impact. I generally choose those that are low impact because I don’t want to intentionally alert deer to my presence.
High Impact: I define this as any activity involving extensive time and efforts in close proximity to whitetails involving high risk of detection. That might be in-the-field scouting efforts looking for sign, hanging trail cameras near or in areas where deer bed, and any other activity in an attempt to collect information.
Low Impact: The key is to find the deer you want to hunt and learn as much as you can without alerting the deer or group of deer you’re pursuing. That’s a delicate relationship, but low-impact scouting strategies are the way to accomplish this goal.
The lowest impact strategy out there is scouting digitally. Using aerial and topography maps is a great place to begin. It’s a great tool to identify potential bedding areas and travel routes and holds zero risk of alerting deer.
The next thing to consider — and most certainly a crucial piece of the scouting puzzle — is scouting from afar. It’s far and away the best way to monitor deer movement without them having a chance to pick you out. Generally, that means getting no closer than 300 to 400 yards from the deer, if not farther. Get some good glass, find a good vantage point, and watch for deer.
Beyond that, trail cameras are great tools, if used properly. Placing cameras too close to bedding areas, putting them upwind of bedded deer, checking them too frequently, pulling cards at peak movement/feeding times, and checking cameras when the wind isn’t in your favor are all costly mistakes that can’t be undone and in turn makes low-impact efforts high-impact costs.
As mentioned, the best method of scouting is to begin with maps, transition to scouting from afar, and once you have an idea of what the deer is/are doing, move in closer with trail cameras and in-the-field scouting tactics. That’s generally a solid plan if executed correctly.
While you’re in there hanging cameras, don’t forget to go old school, slip on some rubber boots, and scan the landscape for active trails. These are easy to identify with the lush, green vegetation contrasting against worn trails with nothing but dug-out dirt.
If you’re hunting for meat, I’d simply look for the most tracks you can find and set up along that travel route where deer are emerging in daylight. If a big rack is the goal, look for large tracks. A good rule of thumb is any track that is four fingers wide (this is relative with different sized hands); you can bet it’s a big mature buck.
Map Their Habits
Once you’ve got all of the intel you can collect on the deer you’re going to pursue, plot everything out on an aerial map. Document feeding destination, bedding areas and travel routes between the two. Plot camera locations and pinpoint potential stand sites. Then assess each potential stand site based on wind direction, risk of detection, and the potential of an encounter. Weigh these things and compare it to everything you learn during scouting efforts.
It’s important to take things you hear about summer-to-fall transitions with a grain of salt. About half the outdoor writers I know will say summer scouting is useless and that all — or at least the majority of — bucks relocate to their fall ranges before the season begins. The other half swear by summer scouting and attribute their regular success to it. I’m caught in-between.
I will say, that in the last five years, I’ve killed three mature bucks that I received summer velvet photos of and killed those deer within 150 yards of where I received regular summertime photos of them. One of those bucks was taken in September, one in October, and one in November. Each of them kept their summer ranges as their fall ranges and core areas remained unaltered until I killed them. I also think it's important to say the September buck was taken on a 40-acre property, the October buck on a 25-acre parcel, and the November buck on a 200-acre farm. That in itself is proof enough for me that summer scouting (even on small properties) is in fact worth the time spent conducting it.
Let’s look at the flip side of this. Some bucks do in fact leave their summer ranges to spend the fall elsewhere. It’s likely they choose to do that on their own. It’s also likely that hunting pressure and/or human influence provoked them to seek out safer territories away from hunters. We don’t fully understand this behavior yet. But that’s what we do know.
Regardless, summer scouting is beneficial, it is important, and you will see better results if you choose to scout for deer in summer. Plus, it’s fun to get out there in the field. As I’ve always said, it isn’t the destination, but the journey that quenches our thirst for adventure. It isn’t the kill, but the hunt that we seek.