Scouting Whitetails

Scouting Big Woods Whitetails

By Tim Smoke, Team iHuntFit

The 30-minute walk to the stand location was a success, finding the right tree in the dark, well that was a different matter. After a 15 minute searched, I settled on a tree that needed the least amount of trimming to get up to a decent height.  Settled in my perch just as the sun was breaking the horizon, I had high hopes that my educated guesses would pay off.  The morning started slow, a young yearling doe was the first to greet me on her way back from what I assumed was the main late October food source, an oak ridge, littered with big mature oaks. Not long after the small doe came by, I heard a subtle grunt behind me coming from the ridge. Not knowing how far the deer was, I slowly turned to see if I could spot the buck. As I turned, I spotted a mature doe trotting my direction and not thirty yards behind her was a mature 10 point. I instantly shifted into kill mode. Release aid clipped on the string; I started looking for the spot I thought I could make the shot. As I identified the spot, the doe was making her way through the shooting lane. As the buck entered the lane, I bleated, stopping him in his tracks. Already at full draw, the 22-yard shot found its mark, sending the buck on a death run that lasted only 60 yards, falling over within eyesight! 

Scouting Whitetail Deer

The US Army controls the piece of public ground I hunt. The lands primary purpose is for training our elite military for missions around the world. When Soldiers are not training, the land opens for hunting, but having access to the same areas can be tough depending on what is closed due to the training being conducted. The area I chose to hunt was closed for some time do to training, thus why I had no chance to put boots on the ground before the hunt. Knowing that there had been low pressure from hunters, I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity. Doing a solid map reconnaissance, I decided on what seemed to be a perfect deep woods pinch point. So what made this area so appealing? I will break down in this article how I selected this spot. When hunting big woods it can be overwhelming when trying to pick a spot in what seems like an endless sea of trees and brush. A quick disclaimer, I always recommend getting boots on the ground when possible, it helps confirm or deny what you think may be a deer’s core area, but if not possible, my example shows that proper knowledge and assumptions can put you on deer in a pinch.

Whitetails are predictable, they are slaves to their stomach, they like good bedding cover, and they use the terrain and edge cover to their advantage when traveling. With these ideas in mind, I try to identify likely ambush points that are between bedding and cover and have a terrain feature that will funnel a deer to within bow range. Another important aspect is how far the spot is from the nearest road. Hunting public land, I choose to go the extra mile and get as far from the road as possible, this decreases my chance of seeing other hunters. More times than not I select locations that do not have easy access or a designated parking spot, doing this ultimately decreases hunter competition. Using these criteria, I use a topographic map and aerial imagery to identify a spot that looks promising.

How to Scout Whitetails

The topo map shows me the terrain, the aerial imagery shows me edge cover, tree density and even oak covered ridges. I use Google earth, as it allows me to manipulate the time of year imagery has been taken. I adjust the time bar to January so that I can see those oaks and conifer stands; this helps me decide what kind of cover is available. The disadvantage of looking at summer imagery is that it can deceive you into what is really going to be there after the leaves start falling. Another feature I like about Google earth is the pan and tilt function that allows me to lay the imagery on its side to get a better understanding of how the terrain relates to the woods. This can be key for identifying possible stand locations as well as possible entry and exit routes to and from the stand. Using this approach, I use aerial imagery to locate oak ridges, areas with edge cover, a change in vegetation, and thick brush chocked spots that may serve as bedding cover. Unbelievably it is easy to identify edge cover in big timber. It does not have to be like classic farm country, were agriculture backs up to wood lots or CRP, it can be a subtle changes. I look for mature forest that butts up against a clear cut or overgrown openings in the canopy.  Where these spots come together often times forms preferred travel routes, loaded with trails, rubs and scrapes.

Once potential food and bedding have been identified, I switch back to looking at topographical maps to locate terrain features that can possibly serve as pinch points or funnels. Hunting big woods can be intimidating, but once you understand how and why deer move in big timber, you will be able to cross off many sections of woods based on the topography. My favorite stand set up is on the downwind side of a classic draw pinch. To be more precise, I like to hunt at the top of a draw. Deer are no different from humans; they like to travel the easiest route possible, as long as it provides some level of protection.  Deer will often times travel across the top part of a draw that drops off sharply below. These spots can be great ambush points as they travel between bedding and food. With the wind in your favor, your scent is blown over the steep portion of the draw, protecting you from being winded by the majority of deer in the area.  I selected this exact setup for the hunt I described at the beginning of this article. A closer examination of the area after the hunt revealed three trails that intersected near the mouth of the draw, along these trails were numerous scrapes, the sign in the area coupled with the deer I shot obviously confirmed that the map reconnaissance was a success.

How to Scout Whitetail Deer

Deer have several preferred travel routes that can lead to encounters with whitetails in big timber. Rule number one is you had better believe that deer are moving with a purpose, deer do not meander through the woods; they are using distinct travel patterns based on wind direction, terrain and destination.  If you have ever walked off to the side of a ridge, you may have noticed that deer prefer to walk the side hill instead of directly on top of the ridge. They will walk the downwind side scent checking the top of the ridge for danger and or a hot doe, if danger does presents itself, they can quickly escape to the downhill side. Another key terrain feature to key on are saddles or low points between ridges or hilltops. These are common crossing points for deer; they use them with the wind in their favor as the feel more protected in the low ground between high points. Creek crossings are tried and true pinch points for traveling deer. Often times oxbows will have a deep spot carved out from moving water but often times there will be shallow spots on the entry and exit of the oxbow, these can be great locations to set an ambush.

When hunting big timber there are some tools of the trade that I cannot live without. The number one most important item is a good GPS. I never leave home without my Garmin. If you are serious about big woods deer hunting, a GPS will help you figure out how deer are using the woods to move, sleep and eat.  Marking waypoints when I locate food sources, beds, scrapes, and rubs. I will also turn on the tracking feature on the GPS, walking trails so that I can see exactly how trails relate to the terrain.  After a scouting session or hunt, download all the data onto a computer into Google earth. Google earth is a must have on your computer. It will show you exactly where the waypoints you entered are on the both the aerial and topo maps, giving you a birds eye view of why deer are moving the way they do. It can help you figure out the best ambush spots based on terrain and wind directions. Trail cameras are an invaluable tool that have helped me tremendously over the last several years. I will set cameras up over pinch point trails, scrapes and even beds to figure out how and when deer use them. Using the date/time stamp from a trail camera picture, I will use the history function on weather underground to look up what the wind was on that particular day. This can help you determine what spots to hunt on a given wind direction.  The whole idea is to set the deck in your favor. The more information you have the better your chances of catching up with a mature buck during daylight hours. Having a good understanding of deer movement patterns allowed me to make assumptions on a piece of ground I had not been able to hunt or scout prior to, scoring big on a mature buck.

I think a common mistake people make when hunting big timber is they will set up along a well-used trail, but not take into account its location. Trails lead from cover to food but these spots may be a mile apart, being in the wrong spot can lead to little or no deer sightings as deer may not be in that spot until after dark. Select your location closer to bedding areas to up your chances of getting daytime movement. Be bold, hunting cautiously can be good at first, but once you are confident on how deer are using an area, move in for the kill. What’s the worst thing that could happen, you bump a deer or you realize you need to adjust your stand location based on observed movement.  These tactics and techniques can be used anywhere you hunt, not just big woods. This is by no means an exact science but paying attention to the details will open your eyes to how deer in your area operate. Having the ability to plan a hunt based on a deer’s movement pattern and current weather conditions increases your odds at success each and every time you hunt, after all that’s why we do it, to release that arrow or pull that trigger on our prey!