Scout Smart For Early Season Opportunities

John EberhartBucks n Bears, Friends of ELO

By:  John Eberhart.

I don’t get it? There were several deer coming out into the soybean field every evening like clockwork all summer, and one of the bucks was a shooter. Then shortly after the big guy rubbed out he seemingly dissipated into thin air and I never saw him all season.

If I had a 5 spot for every time I’ve heard a similar story I’d have enough to buy a tricked out new bow.

Nobody can read a deer’s mind and studies done in captive environments or in areas where hunting is nearly non-existent are relatively meaningless in shedding light on deer behavior in heavily pressured areas as most of Michigan is.

After 52 seasons of bowhunting whitetails in many differing types of areas including 100% timber/swamp, a mix of timber/swamp and agriculture, flat agricultural areas with minimal timber, and just about every hunting circumstance from a pressured standpoint, a behavioral pattern of how deer and mature bucks in particular, react to human intrusions has been firmly established.

The most logical answer to the “I don’t get it” question is; the area receives heavy consequential hunting pressure and most of the other hunters within that particular bucks core living area improperly pre-season scouted and prepared their locations prior to season. And in heavily pressured areas there’s absolutely nothing you can do about when and how the other hunters in the area do what they do.

Let’s be perfectly honest about hunting pressure.

In large managed areas where hunters don’t engage bucks with life threatening encounters until they grow to a specific kill criterion, their daytime survival instincts at avoiding hunters is minimal when compared to survival instincts of bucks in areas where hunters target any legal antlered buck and in many cases button bucks assuming their does.

In managed areas where only bucks of a specific age or antler criteria are targeted, no matter the amount of hunters, their presence can’t be considered as consequential hunting pressure, but rather just hunter presence. It’s easily witnessed by watching nearly any TV show or hunting video where bucks that hunters from heavily pressured areas would hang on the wall are allowed to pass by without incident.

The reality is the overwhelming vast majority of so-called TV and video experts EXCLUSIVELY hunt on their own large micro-managed properties, leases, or pay to hunt ranches, and some even hunt in fenced in enclosures, all of which in no manner whatsoever, replicate hunting conditions where the vast majority of hunters, hunt.

Some so-called TV and video experts may be descent hunters, but in the areas they hunt, the simple analogy is they don’t even have to be good to kill monster bucks. Given the opportunity to hunt the same properties as the TV and video personalities, most of my circle of hunting friends would easily be as successful as the personalities.

“100% wild, 100% fair chase” is TV and video terminology that is true but should be subject to interpretation scrutiny just as the loosely used term “hunting pressure” should. Because terminology in hunting circles is so vague, to depict some form of reality I came up with the term “heavy consequential hunting pressure” (hchp) to differentiate and add clarity to the type of hunting pressure most bowhunters deal with.

Hchp is defined as; an area with a minimum of 10 bowhunters per square mile and at least double that amount of gun hunters and where most hunters are targeting any legal antlered buck. The section (640 acres) in zone 3 that I hunt in every year on opening day has at least 30 other bowhunters sitting in trees and very few of them are fussy as to what they might shoot.

HCHP directly influences; how many bucks survive beyond their first set of antlers, if or how much they move during season during daylight hours, the amount of transition or perimeter security cover mature bucks require for daytime movements, and how severely they react to human sightings, odor and intrusions of any sort.

In hchp areas some bucks will survive wounds from consequential encounters with hunters trying to kill them. In my 52 Michigan seasons of exclusively hunting public and knock-on-doors for free permission properties, only one of the many 3 ½ year old or older bucks I’ve taken did not have at least one wound caused by a previous hunter encounter and a couple had 3 wounds from different weapons. On the flip side, none of the nineteen similar age class bucks I’ve taken on public, walk-on, and knock-on-doors for free permission properties in Iowa, Kansas, Illinois, or Missouri had a wound from a previous hunter encounter.

In hchp areas, other than maybe a brief flurry of spring turkey hunting activity most properties remain unmolested through mid-August. Then an exodus of bowhunters replicate what they’ve been programmed to do by the many TV, video and media personalities, and make their annual pre-season scouting and location preparation intrusions.

It’s obvious in hchp areas that pre-season scouting ventures by so many hunters cause bucks that survived their first antlered season to become nearly totally nocturnal beyond the confines of their secure core bedding areas before the season opener.

If pursuing a particular mature buck in an hchp area, if you replicate how most TV and video personalities hunt, most likely you’ll never see that buck during season during daylight hours. Mature bucks in hchp areas simply don’t risk moving through open timber or entering exposed vulnerable areas during daylight as bucks in large managed areas do. They have become much wiser than that, otherwise they would be dead.

Scouting in HCHP areas

Pre-season scouting in hchp areas should only focus on setting up a couple locations for the first few days of season. So how do you scout and prepare locations without a mature buck knowing of and reacting to your intrusion into his home zone since that’s the only intrusion within his core area that you have control over?

Watch the weather forecast and wait for an inclement weather front such as rain or strong winds. Inclement weather aids in masking noise while scouting, cutting shooting lanes and preparing trees and human odors will dissipate quicker than during dry/calm conditions.

If inclement weather is not in the forecast, scout and prep between the hours of 9am and 4pm when deer are least likely to be up and moving. Try to do all scouting and location preparation on a given property in a single day as multiple pre-season intrusions will lower the possibility of arrowing an early season buck.

Wear a properly cared for activated carbon lined suit, gloves and rubber boots to keep your odor to a minimum. Activated carbon is used by NASA in space suits, in every chemical warfare suit in the world, in hospitals and EMS units worldwide for poison ingestion, and in multitudes of industries for molecular capture and filtration purposes because it’s the most adsorptive substance known to man, period!

Where to look 

When you combine hchp with the natural survival instincts of whitetails, a natural byproduct occurs. Mature bucks gravitate to the best security cover available or difficult to access areas where few hunters will make the effort to go. Quite often these areas require waders, hip boots, a canoe or boat to access.

The only cool thing about hunting hchp areas is that you don’t have to waste your time scouting open vulnerable areas as seen on TV and in video’s because hunting those types of areas will rarely yield positive results on mature bucks. This should dramatically cut the amount of areas you need to scout in and for me it has oftentimes negated me hunting on a given property altogether as there may not have been an area I felt a mature buck would feel safe moving through during daylight hours. All the sign in the world is meaningless if none of it were made during shooting hours.

Food sources

Early season is all about food. The ideal early season location would be a single or small group of trees that are dropping preferred fruit or mast such as apples and white oak acorns, and have them located within perimeter security cover with adequate transition cover to a bedding area.

Search for small destination feeding locations, not large areas of the same food source where deer can wander and feed out of range. The smaller the destination area, the more likely you are to receive a shot opportunity.

Deer prefer white oak acorns over all others due to their low tannin levels (substance that makes them bitter), so if there are lots of oaks, search for the white oaks. White oaks are easily identified by their rough bark up the tree and out their branches and by the rounded lobes on their leaves. If there are no white oaks but are other oak types and they offer the security cover mentioned above, set-up a location.

In hchp areas deer will feed on less preferred sources such as browse during daylight hours if the more preferred food sources don’t offer adequate transition and perimeter security cover. They will move into more exposed feeding areas such as open timber oaks or short crop fields under the cover of darkness.

Scrape Areas

Scrapes are made at locations where there is consistent doe traffic. Scrapes found prior to season are dominance signposts started by mature bucks with at least one breeding season under their belt, making them rare finds in hchp areas.

While rare, pre-season scrape areas are most frequently found near isolated food sources and are go to spots for opening day if protected by perimeter security cover.

If a runway from a bedding to feeding area has scrapes along it and it offers transition security cover, it will likely have an occasional rub as well and be worthy of setting up a location.

Set-up scrape locations within shooting distance of the scrape with the most utilized licking branches over it because it is likely getting used the most. Active scrapes near isolated mast and fruit trees have consistently proven to be my most productive locations throughout the season.

Rubs

It’s difficult to determine the size and shape of buck antlers by a rub, however there are clues that indicate antler characteristics and a buck’s size.

The top portion of a subordinate bucks rub will usually be no more than 32 inches off the ground but as buck’s age they become taller and their rubs are higher off the ground. Because I don’t gun hunt, in 1997 I began traveling to the Midwest during Michigan’s gun season to continue bowhunting. In the Midwest 3 ½ year old and older bucks are common and it was difficult relating to the rubs reaching heights of 48 inches as they were rare sightings in Michigan.

Subordinate and mature bucks will rub on small diameter saplings and trees, but when you see rubs on large diameter trees and the occasional bush thrashed until reduced to bunch of busted stubs, the likelihood a mature buck performed the destruction is extremely high.

Due to their weight and power mature bucks also leave deeper tine puncture marks into the meat of the tree. Shredded bark in the main rub area indicates a buck with heavily pearling or small points near base of his rack which is also a mature buck characteristic.

Most mature bucks are rubbed-out by September 5th so wait at least a week after that date so you’ll have rubs to verify buck activity at a location before setting it up. Scrapes and or rubs should dictate which isolated mast or fruit tree destination locations you set-up at.

Rub-lined runways or clusters of rubs between bedding and feeding areas are good locations if there is adequate security cover along the route otherwise they were likely made during the security of darkness.

Secondary Findings

Just prior to season perimeters of short crop fields such as wheat stubble, hay, soybeans, and picked corn may be signposted with occasional rubs and scrapes. While monster bucks on TV and in videos commonly get killed in short crop fields and exposed areas, mature bucks in hchp areas rarely if ever enter exposed vulnerable areas during daylight. However, year-and-a-half old bucks can be easily targeted along short field edges.

If you locate tall rubs or an occasional scrape along a runway leading into a short crop field, set-up a minimum of 30 yards off the field’s edge. There is a slim chance a mature buck may come in and stage within security cover close to the field edge prior to entering it after dark.

Signposting’s along the perimeter of standing cornfields are quite different. Standing corn offers excellent security cover and deer often bed in it and transition in and out of it in areas where it butts-up to adequate transition cover. Set-up where the most sign is and be sure you’re close enough to the field’s edge to shoot into it. Mature bucks often transition along the perimeter of standing corn scent checking for early estrous does that may have passed through.

It’s extremely rare that a buck can be sighted and patterned from a road without pre-season intervention from other hunters. However, if the opportunity presents itself, note the exact location where the buck comes out and a few days prior to season, make evening observations to confirm he’s consistently entering the field.

Dressed in full properly cared for Scent Lok, go in the day before season during mid-day and set-up as close to the field’s edge as possible and clear just one subtle shooting lane to the runway he’s using. Make your intrusion as scent-free and quick as possible and get out and hunt there on opening evening. Again, preparing the location in inclement weather is advised.

Conclusion

Don’t overthink and overdo pre-season scouting and once locations are set-up leave the area alone. Don’t even think about setting foot in the area until season as additional visits will alter patterns and likely any possible early season opportunity.

Hchp equates too many hunters pursuing not only the same bucks, but about every deer and you can’t worry about things others do that are out of your control. Perform your pre-season scouting regiment correctly and maybe that buck will offer you an early season opportunity.

Editors note: John Eberhart is an accomplished Michigan bow-hunter that specializes in heavy consequential hunting pressure areas with 28 bucks listed in CBM’s recordbook from 19 different properties in 10 different counties. John produced a 3 volume instructional DVD series.

John Eberhart has bowhunted in his home state of Michigan for over 50 seasons and has 31 bucks listed in the Michigan record book and has taken more more that didn’t make the book. Those 31 Michigan book bucks came from 19 different properties in 10 different counties and all of Johns bucks came from public and knock on doors for free permission properties. John also has also taken 19 P&Y bucks from 13 different properties on his out of state bow hunts and they also exclusively came off public, free walk-on and knock on doors for free permission properties and just as with his Michigan bucks, they were taken without the aid of bait or food plots.

John has produced a 3-DVD instructional bow hunting series called “Bowhunting Pressured Whitetails” volumes I, II, and III,  and along with his son Chris, John co-authored 3 instructional bow hunting books “Bowhunting Pressured Whitetails”, Precision Bowhunting”, and Bowhunting Whitetails The Eberhart Way”. John has also written articles for many magazines both regionally and nationally and has done many podcasts which are on his website @: www.deer-john.net.

What separates John’s accomplishment of having an accumulative total of 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 all his life.

A few years back John began Eberhart’s Whitetail Workshops which are 2-day events held in Central Michigan and whether you hunt public, free permission, family owned, leased, managed or out of state properties; attending one of John’s 2 day in-field/classroom workshops will give you the knowledge to be a serious threat to whatever mature bucks are on any property you ever hunt. One of John’s quotes is, what’s the sense of having motion pictures of big bucks, if you don’t have the hunting skillset to kill them. For information on Eberharts Whitetail Workshops please visit: www.deer-john.net