By: John Eberhart.
As you likely know by now the Michigan NRC has banned baiting in 12 counties for the 2018 deer season and in Michigan’s entire southern Peninsula for 2019 due to issues with chronic wasting disease or better known as CWD.
For at least a generation and a half (30 years) a pretty high percentage of Michigan bow and gun hunters have been introduced into the deer hunting world by exclusively hunting over bait and have known no other method for taking deer.
Also many hunters that began hunting without using bait have converted over to it because to put it bluntly and honestly, it makes seeing and killing deer much easier. Most deer hunters in their 50’s, 60’s and 70’s that began hunting in their teens didn’t start out by using bait, yet many have converted to it. Maybe it was due to; a lack of scouting time, to keep deer on their property, their property had no other reason for deer to be there due to a lack of a natural food source or secure bedding area, but the underlying reason is it made hunting much easier.
While I personally don’t bait, over the years I’d learned to accept it for the many that do because it was legal and brought in a lot of new deer hunters because they could immediately go out and see and get opportunities at deer.
The good news is that the ban on baiting is not the end of the world as many Michigan hunters including myself have consistently proven that deer and specifically mature bucks can be taken regularly without it. The short term bad news for those that did exclusively bait is they will have to make some changes in how they hunt to take advantage of natural deer movements.
Active scrapes and particularly primary scrape areas have been my #1 go to natural destination locations for bow hunting since the early 1980’s. Some studies have shown that 90 plus percent of mature buck (3 ½ years old or older) scrape activity is done during the security of darkness and over the past 20 years the widespread use of motion cameras by hunters have confirmed those studies.
Many nationally known hunting personalities and writers disregard active scrape hunting because they don’t know how, when, and what type of scrapes to hunt over and on the micro-managed properties they hunt where there are lots of mature bucks and their movements pretty much mirror the general daytime movements of other deer, killing mature bucks is a slam dunk and there’s no need to know how to hunt scrape areas.
I’ll never be able to accept the TV and video personalities gross misrepresentation of hunting where there is ZERO competition. In such areas the antlered buck to year and a half an older doe ratios are somewhat level, as are the older buck to older doe ratios which is a far cry from the normal deer herd structures the vast majority of hunters have where they hunt. That’s why TV and video hunters are so food plot and shelled corn hidden in the weeds so the viewer can’t see it, bait oriented. It makes taking one of the properties big, non-pressured mature bucks easy to kill.
Every professional sports icon like Tom Brady, LeBron James, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, Michael Phelps and Roger Federer to name a few, moved up the skill ladder to the next level by playing against and outperforming their competitor’s through middle school, high school, college and lastly by outperforming the other professionals they’ve competed with in the same sport. By the time they reach the pinnacle of a professional sport they have literally competed against and outperformed tens if not hundreds of thousands of other competitors while competing on the same courts, courses, fields and pools.
Think about it, every high profile TV and video hunting personality icon has never had to compete against anyone on the properties they hunt and in fact go out of their way to make sure of it. Yet a high percentage of hunters buy into what they instruct and think it will work in the pressured areas they hunt.
The gross TV misrepresentation of deer hunting once again flared its ugly head during a flight to West Virginia in April to scout a person’s property. The plane I was on during the first leg of the trip was the same plane used for the second leg so I remained on the plane between flights and struck up a hunting conversation with a female flight attendant in her late 40’s.
She had grown up in a deer hunting family in Wisconsin and even though she never hunted, she remained pro hunting into her early 30’s. Because hunting has to do with nature which she was into, she began watching a few TV hunting show’s and told me they blew her away.
She told me very blunt and boldly that she is now very much against hunting because the hunters on the shows went hunting a couple days, shot a big buck and then went crazy on stand and boasted about how great and sometimes difficult their 2 to 4 day hunts were. Since she personally never went hunting with her dad or brothers, she had no concept to just how far from reality those TV show hunts were.
I told her I had bowhunted for over 50 years and had written several books on the topic and that the vast majority of TV shows in no manner whatsoever replicate the reality of normal hunting conditions. She reluctantly said OK but I know I didn’t change her mind in the slightest and to reiterate what I’ve wrote on many occasions, if didn’t hunt and the TV shows and videos were all I had to base deer hunting on, I would also fall on the anti-hunting side myself as they make hunting look so simple and easy, when in reality for most hunters, it’s not. Fortunately I know the reality of TV shows and videos and how they hunt so I’m not jaded by them.
Over half of my 50 record book bucks (31 in the CBM book and 19 P&Y’s from out of state) were taken at active primary scrape areas including my 2017 Michigan 9 point which was standing over an active scrape when I arrowed him. And those were all taken on public and knock on doors for free permission properties which is the norm for many hunters.
I hold firm that active scrape areas are the most productive destination locations to hunt over when they; are located in the right places, have appropriate perimeter security cover, are properly prepared, are hunted at the right times of season and day and are properly entered and exited.
Confronted with intense competition from Michigan’s 320,000 bowhunters and nearly 700,000 gun hunters there has to be a learned process on how to effectively hunt mature bucks in heavily pressured areas if you are to have any chance at consistent results?
For over 30 years the majority of my attention has gravitated towards locating and hunting over primary scrape areas. In recollection, 18 of my 31 Michigan record book bucks and 11 of my 19 P&Y out of state bucks were taken at active scrape areas or an active scrape lined runway. Many of those scrape areas were located at natural destination locations such as apple or oak trees that were dropping food or where several terrain features converged into a bottleneck.
Scrape area hunting failure can be attributed to either; faulty recognition of which ones receive mature buck daytime activity, poor seasonal and daily hunting times, improper entries and exits, and improper set-ups.
So why, where and when does scrape area hunting become your best bet at taking a mature buck?
Identifying and Locating Individual Scrapes and Scrape Areas
A scrape is a small 1 to 4 foot area of churned up dirt located beneath one to several low hanging licking branches. Several scrape’s within a small area make-up what I refer to as a primary scrape area.
Primary scrape areas are generally made in small clearings with brush and or trees interspersed throughout with low hanging licking branches for scrapes to be made under. There will always be several runways that converge into a primary scrape area and when active they are main destination locations.
The overhanging licking branches are the main focus of communication and are scent marked by does and bucks with their saliva, pre-orbital, forehead and nasal glands, while the scrape is scent marked with urine and interdigital glands located between the hooves.
I’ve found active scrape areas as early as mid-August yet the appeal of scrape areas to bucks increases with their rise in testosterone levels leading up to the rut phases with peak activity being during pre-rut.
While individual scrapes may be found randomly along a bucks travel routes, scrape areas (multiple scrapes in a small zone) are always located where there is concentrated doe activity such as; at destination food sources such as fruit and preferred mast trees, along perimeters of crop fields, in pinch points of transition corridors, along perimeters or within bedding areas, and where differing types of terrain features converge.
While rare, water sources in areas otherwise devoid of water for ¼ mile or farther in any direction are also prime targets for scrape activity.
Most primary scrape areas are perennial, meaning that unless there are alterations in movement patterns due to changes in preferred food sources such as acorn masts, fruit production, crop rotations, etc. or alterations of the terrain due to property development, they will be used year after year.
The quantity of scrapes within a scrape area, how frequently they are re-visited and whether or not there are scrape areas at all can vary considerably depending on the landscape, general deer population, gender and age diversity of the local herd and hunting pressure circumstances.
In heavily hunted areas, due to the minimal amount of mature bucks, scrape areas are much less common than in lightly hunted and managed areas where the mature buck to doe ratios are similar forcing the many mature bucks to heavily compete for breeding rights and therefore visit the hubs of doe activity where they made the scrape areas.
The reason for the discrepancies is simple, in areas where there are lots of mature bucks that fiercely compete for breeding rights there are more and larger scrape areas. In areas with few mature bucks they don’t have to compete much for breeding rights resulting in fewer and smaller scrape areas.
On my hunts to the lightly hunted agriculturally rich states of Illinois, Iowa, and Kansas, I see as many mature bucks as I do mature does and in such areas there’s lots of scrape areas and I’ve seen as many as 23 scrapes within a large primary scrape area. It’s also common on a one week hunt to see a dozen different P&Y class bucks and I’ve seen as many as 18 in a week. That’s more than I’ll see in Michigan in at least 10 or so complete seasons.
These ae the 4 major reasons for scrape area discrepancies (quantities of them) from one area to another.
1.In areas with lots of agriculture, once the ground foliage drops and the crops (primarily corn) are harvested the deer are much more condensed into whatever adequate security cover remains to bed in and transition through. The more condensed and defined the doe traffic, the more likely to have scrape areas at those locations.
2.In lightly hunted and managed areas where there are lots of mature bucks that fiercely compete for breeding rights, there are more and larger scrape areas.
3.In heavily pressured areas where there are few mature bucks, because they are so dominant within their core area and because early on in the season had already sparred with the other bucks for pecking order, they rarely have to fight for estrus does resulting in less signposts and fewer and smaller scrape areas.
4.In big timber areas far from any agriculture (Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula), scrape areas are extremely rare or non-existent because does tend to wander and browse and have no defined feeding destination locations to entice bucks to make scrape areas at. In such areas there are also fewer deer and they have much larger core living areas.
How Primary Scrape Areas Are Used
While the overhanging licking branches in perennial scrape areas are centers of social communication by mature does and bucks throughout the year, the actual ground scrapes will get little if any activity from January through August.
Once mature bucks shed their velvet their testosterone levels begin to rise and at hubs of heavy doe traffic they will soon begin the ground scraping activity. As the rut approaches and testosterone levels begin to peak, scrape activity becomes much more intense. While 2 ½ year old and older bucks that have breeding seasons behind them are responsible for opening up most scrape areas, as the rut approaches year and a half old subordinate bucks also take part in scrape activity.
The rut is a two way street and as mature does get close to their estrous cycle, they will abandon their fawns and frequent active scrape areas leaving their come hither calling card by scent marking the licking branches and urinating in scrapes. Matriarch does have been there done that and are very in tune with the breeding procedure and on many occasions I’ve witnessed them enter a scrape area, leave their calling card scent and loiter in the area for up to half an hour.
The more utilized licking branches over a particular scrape, the more it is being revisited. So when preparing a location, always set-up within shooting distance of the scrape with the most utilized overhanging licking branches.
Adjusting to Hunting Pressure
Hunting pressure determines where, when, and how mature bucks move during daylight hours more than any other factor, PERIOD, and that includes the use of scrape areas! I’ve exclusively hunted public and knock on doors for free permission properties and confronted with Michigan’s intense competition I’ve learned how to effectively hunt areas in Michigan’s zone 3 which is as heavily hunted as anyplace in the country.
In heavily pressured areas, for scrape areas to be well-suited for daytime mature buck activity the area MUST offer perimeter security cover and transition security cover to or from a known bedding area. No matter the amount of mature buck scrape or surrounding rub activity, if it’s not being visited during shooting hours, it’s worthless to hunt over.
Scrape areas along perimeters of short crop fields or exposed areas can be disregarded unless your happy taking does and subordinate bucks. Scrape areas along perimeters of standing corn however are definitely worth hunting as mature bucks often bed in large standing cornfields and may take a step outside the corns security cover to work or check a scrape area. Once the corn is picked, to me the location is worthless because the odds of a daytime visit by a mature buck are extremely low.
In lightly hunted and managed areas, mature bucks will frequent open areas where the security cover requirements are not required and it’s obvious when watching TV shows and hunting videos where hunters take mature bucks in exposed areas on a regular basis.
Hunting active scrape areas
If you have a previously prepared location at a scrape area that fits the security cover requirements and you visit it during pre-season and it shows activity, don’t go near it again until season as mature bucks can’t differentiate whether you’re scouting or hunting and additional pre-season intrusions will cause mature bucks to visit them only under the security of darkness. Hunt it during the first few days of season and then mentally hang a DO NOT DISTURB sign on it and don’t go anywhere near it until pre-rut.
If the pre-season scouting by other hunters within a mature buck’s core living areas didn’t turn him nocturnal prior to season, the first few days of hunting pressure will. Hunting the area during the “Lull” will then alter the very doe traffic that made it a scrape area in the first place away from the area or will cause the does to only visit after dark. All mature buck activity during the rut phases revolves around doe traffic and when doe traffic is altered, so is the mature buck traffic once they begin pursuing does during daylight hours.
The pre-rut is about a ten day window prior to when the majority of does begin entering their estrous cycles (October 28th to November 5th in Michigan). The peaking of testosterone levels however will motivate mature bucks to search for does that come into estrus a bit early and scrape areas that meet the daytime security cover requirements will be on the bucks searching route. During this brief window bucks will remain true to their core areas thus creating a golden opportunity for scrape area hunting.
Your first hunt should be early enough in the afternoon so you can inspect the scrapes for activity and if none are active, hunt elsewhere. Don’t contaminate a potential hotspot with an unwarranted hunt and after dark exit because the buck you’re pursuing may still be nocturnal and you may unwittingly alert him with your after dark exit.
Before you leave you can use a stick to re-work a couple scrapes and place several drops of buck urine in them before leaving. Give the location a few days and repeat the process and after two attempts without activity, give it up.
While hunting inactive scrape areas is fine during peak-rut, don’t hunt them during pre-rut unless their active.
If the scrapes are active, hunt and if not successful, hunt there again the following morning. Oftentimes I’ll slip out of my harness and leave it and my bow and quiver in the tree to guarantee my morning return.
Side note: If the scrape area is at a fruit tree that’s dropping food, don’t hunt it on mornings as there will likely be deer feeding at it and you’ll spook them with your entry. Fruit tree scrape areas should only be hunted during evenings.
On morning hunts be on stand and settled in an absolute minimum of an hour and a half before dawn. Make sure your entry is such that you don’t spook deer that may be feeding in the area. When hunting active scrape areas during pre-rut try to remain on stand until at least noon and 3:00 pm or all day if possible.
Why such an early arrival? Even during the rut phases a pressured mature buck will generally continue to bed prior to first light and you should be set-up and quiet before he passes through the area. Otherwise, without knowing it, you may spook him with a typical half hour prior to daylight entry. If he’s spooked with your entry, the likelihood of seeing him later in the morning or during midday is slim.
On morning hunts I’ve witnessed bucks come in and bed or stage in the perimeter security cover well before first light and scent check does for receptivity as they passed through after daylight. These occurrences usually happen when the scrape areas are at their peak activity level, which is during pre-rut.
In pressured areas, primetime mature buck rut phase activity takes place between 11:00 am and 3:00 pm. This midday movement pattern in attempting to locate an estrous doe is often a mature buck’s only point of vulnerability.
Twenty of my Michigan book bucks were taken between October 28th and November 14th and 7 of those 20 were taken between 11 am and 3 pm while only 9% of my time spent on stand was during that midday period. That’s a 35% kill rate during only a 9% on stand percentage.
Bucks learn at an early age to either pattern normal hunter behavior and adjust their movements accordingly, or suffer the consequences. 28 of my 31 Michigan book bucks carried old wounds while none of my 19 P&Y bucks from out of state had ever been touched.
Once the majority of does begin entering their estrous cycles the peak rut begins and dominant buck routines get abandoned because they’re usually with estrus does negating the need to search. Scrape area activity decreases and mature bucks will oftentimes be drawn away from their core living areas when picking their next estrus does that may have overlapping core areas.
Don’t be discouraged by this erratic behavior as this is another time when primary scrape areas come into play. When a doe’s estrus cycle ends the buck that was with her will have to search for another and will revert back to his pre-rut routine of scent checking the local scrape areas when doing so.
Also, since bucks ranges expand during peak rut due to overlapping doe core areas, bucks from other areas will overlap into yours as well and will visit the local scrape areas to pick up their next partner. Never forget that primary scrape areas are made in heavy doe traffic areas, making them the best point to intercept an amorous buck even during peak rut.
During peak rut estrous does lead males around on very unpredictable routes and while breeding bucks will make every effort to corral estrous does within some form of security cover, they aren’t always successful, making them vulnerable to hunters on uncharted routes. This peak rut behavior helps balance the scale for all hunters, oftentimes making luck play as big a part in a hunter’s success as skill.
Editor’s note: John has 31 bucks in the Michigan record book from 19 different properties and another 19 P&Y bucks from 13 different properties on his 22 out of state bowhunts and has co-authored 3 instructional bowhunting books and a DVD series.
What separates John’s accomplishment of having 50 record book bucks from 32 different properties from any other hunter in the country is that he’s exclusively hunted on public and knock-on-doors for free permission properties.
John has co-authored 3 instructional bowhunting books, produced the 3 part DVD series “Bowhunting Pressured Whitetails” and has done many podcasts. To view the podcasts and for information on his books, DVD’s, 2 day in-field/classroom Eberharts Whitetail Workshops or to link to his D&DH YouTube video series please visit: www.deer-john.net or e-mail him direct at: [email protected]