For each of the three instructional whitetail bowhunting books my son Chris and I wrote, my 4 instructional DVD’s, as well as for hunting articles, from 1998 to date we’ve; researched many whitetail studies, tracked bowhunting license sales for each state, found the absolute land mass for each state in square miles, and researched specific data from Pope & Young statistical summary books to compile factual statistics and there was one very important piece of kill data that remained consistent throughout the years.
While Pope & Young entries per licensed hunters vary dramatically from state to state, and counties to counties within each state, no matter the state or area 55 to 65% of all P&Y entries were taken during whatever time frame that states rut phases fell in to. In Michigan for instance the pre-rut and early stages of peak rut for bowhunters typically runs from October 25th to the November 14th gun opener.
While I nearly flunked high school because I consistently got D’s and E’s in English due to a lack of interest, I excelled at math and it’s obvious to me that if that 3 week period of season consistently has had the highest percentage of success on record class bucks, it only makes sense that that’s the period to focus on and scout and prepare locations for.
Why pre-season scouting is so popular
The vast majority of bowhunters do all their scouting and location preparation during pre-season while looking at and setting up on warm weather, lackadaisical summertime bedding to feeding sign.
The most likely reasons most hunters scout and prepare locations during pre-season is that it’s been passed down through generations of hunters that that’s when you do it. The other reason is that’s when most TV, video, and print media hunting personalities do it.
While the “passed down through the generations” is totally understandable, unless you hunt a similar type of property to high profile media hunters, which very few in Michigan do, their kills and hunting practices should be viewed primarily as entertainment, because even though they are hunting mature whitetail bucks, from a difficulty to kill perspective, they are hunting are a very different mature buck than you are.
The majority of TV and video hunters own or lease large parcels of property or hunt on pay to hunt ranches in lieu of advertising the joint. Most properties they hunt have landscape manipulations and food plots both of which are designed to hold deer and have destination locations to hunt over. In many of their hunts on properties without food plots you’ll notice bucks coming in as if drawn to some sort of hot tactic, however, if you pay close attention you’ll notice when the buck gets within shooting distance, oftentimes he’ll put his head down into weeds to feed on the bait (usually shelled corn) that has been inconspicuously and regularly spread out there for quite some time.
On these properties bucks are passed until they reach an antler or age criterion suitable for our entertainment value and then the celebrities simply kill one of the many mature bucks on the property. If one is wounded and not recovered it’s edited out and another is shot.
Unlike most athletic sports where all competitors work their way up to the professional levels by competing on the same ranges, courses, fields, courts, or whatever, deer hunting properties have no semblance of equality and you should never assume all hunters in the media offer information that will work in your hunting area.
Media hunters hunt in tremendous places where there are many mature bucks and where there’s no or very minimal other hunter competition. Also due to a lack of hunter encounter consequences while bucks are allowed to grow to maturity, once they reach the kill criteria they have a much greater tolerance of human activity and human odor than bucks in heavily pressured areas do and they move with more regularity during daylight hours. Simply put, there is not only a lot of them, their much easier to kill.
A great example would be to compare the skillset required to catch bass on a private farm pond that rarely gets fished to the skillset required to catch bass on a public lake that gets pounded by fishermen every day. Any novice fisherman that can cast and retrieve a line could catch many bass in the farm pond, whereas that same novice would struggle to catch a single bass on the heavily fished public lake. That fishing pond/lake example exactly replicates the stark differences in hunting properties and skillset required to take mature bucks.
In my opinion, a hunter from a heavily hunted area that is somewhat consistent at taking 2 ½ year old or older bucks, without using bait, would outperform most hunting personalities if allowed to hunt the same properties, whereas the inverse scenario would be a total struggle for the personality. There is also no doubt in my mind that many of you reading this article would fall into that outperform category.
While the numbers of Michigan bowhunters that manage or have access to managed properties (nothing remotely similar to that of TV and video hunter’s properties) is small, the numbers of everyday Joe Michigan hunters that are becoming more selective on what they shoot is growing rapidly and that’s a good thing. In 2015 I saw more kill pictures of mature bucks than ever before and by a relatively large margin.
If you have access to managed property on which several 3 ½ year old or older bucks reside every year, feel very fortunate but don’t let your ego get the best of you and look down on others that kill what you consider inferior bucks as they may be the best bucks available on the pressured properties they hunt or their goals may simply differ from yours.
Why post-season scout?
Setting up on summer sign may produce an early season opportunity if all the scouting and location preparation in the surrounding area by you and other hunters hasn’t turned mature bucks nocturnal prior to season, which in Michigan is often the case.
By the rut phases however, mature buck movements usually change dramatically due to; a huge visual security cover change caused by the loss of tree and ground brush foliage, the peaking of their testosterone driven desire to breed, and a loss of interest in feeding due to their sex drive.
While the peaking of testosterone levels and the loss of interest in feeding during the rut phases are obvious reasons for bucks to alter their routines, so is the loss of security cover foliage.
Tall soybeans and standing corn often become bedding areas and once their harvested the deer that bedded in them must move to other areas offering security cover. The loss of tree and brush foliage in mid to late October has the exact same effect as harvesting crops because areas where mature bucks may have felt secure in due to the ground foliage security, no longer exists.
Once the snow flies deer alter their patterns and congregate to the best and easiest food source and bed in lower lying areas protected from the cold winds, both of which makes sign left in the snow rather meaningless as far as next seasons rut activity is concerned. It’s not that uncommon when snow gets deep to have areas that held deer in fall be totally devoid of them. Snow also covers up fall runways and what I consider to be the most important signposts of all, ground scrapes and primary scrape areas.
Once the snow melts in late winter/early spring, last fall’s rut sign will look exactly as it did before it came so wait until it’s gone to scout. At least 80% of my scouting and location preparation is done during post-season or as soon as the snow melts and prior to spring green.
Last season I filled my second buck tag with my bow on opening morning of gun season and once the November gun season was over I began scouting for 2016. Because the ground was bare through most of December, I scouted, located, and prepared 5 locations for this fall and have more notes on things to do this spring.
Advantages of post season scouting:
- When preparing trees for the rut phases the leaf foliage will be down and from ground level you’ll be able to see exactly what background cover you’ll have, if any. This should dictate how high up the tree or in what tree you need to set-up in.
- Every inch of your hunting area can be thoroughly scrutinized with as many visits as needed because spooking deer during post season will not affect next season’s deer movements like pre-season scouting and location preparation would.
- You can use deadfall and cut brush to block sections of out of range runways and then create a new section so that the runway passes within your comfort range. By fall the altered deer movements down your altered runway will have become habit.
- Most of the ground brush foliage is gone by late October, so during post-season the area you’re scouting will look very similar to what it will look like during the rut phases. During pre-season when brush and trees are in full foliage, nearly every location gives a false sense that there’s adequate security cover for deer to transition through.
- The previous season’s buck sign such as rubs, rub-lines, ground scrapes, scrape areas, utilized overhanging licking branches, and runways are still very obvious once the snow melts. During pre-season the previous seasons rut sign is grown over or nearly impossible to identify.
- During season and throughout the winter, especially if there has been heavy snow or ice storms, dead trees and branches fall and often block runways to the location site. To assure runways are useable, once a location is prepared I walk or crawl down every runway within shooting distance of the tree for at least 50 yards in each direction and remove deadfalls and trim overgrown brush along them to make it easier for deer, and especially a buck with good headgear, to travel down.
- At this time of year a scent free regiment is not required. During pre-season when the weather is warm, there is absolutely no way to properly prepare an early season location without profusely sweating and leaving human odor. That is enough to temporarily alter a mature bucks routine or turn him nocturnal, ruining any chance of success early in the season.
Before getting started, if you have Internet access, print an aerial photo of yours and the surrounding properties in the largest magnification possible. Aerials will offer an overview of the area and help locate funnels, water, protrusions of cover into crop fields, amount of timber canopy, crop fields, marshes, swamps, etc., some of which can be difficult to recognize from the ground. The surrounding property layouts can also aid in knowing where and why deer cross the property line fence.
In the lightly hunted and micro-managed areas media personalities hunt, they can pick locations strictly by looking at aerial and topo maps because other hunter competition doesn’t exist and therefore is of no concern in altering deer traffic, but that is definitely not the case in the heavy consequential hunting pressure (hchp) areas most of you hunt in.
While aerials can offer valuable insight, I don’t care what any film or media personality may show or state, in hchp areas you must set out of foot to validate deer traffic and sign and more importantly how other hunters in the area may alter the daytime deer traffic in those obvious aerial map locations.
I had a sales manager from Ohio with me recently and as we were driving down I-27 from Clare to Lansing he utterly couldn’t get over the amount of hunting shacks dotting the landscape. In a 2 mile stretch of road he counted 34 shacks! I asked him if he would like to come up hunting and the words “absolutely no way” couldn’t have come out of his mouth any faster. That type of pressure affects everything including choosing locations from an aerial maps without on-foot validation.
For on-foot scouting you’ll need a fanny pack with some water, compass, possibly a GPS, and flagging tape for flagging potential locations. I also take my aerial maps to note; other hunter location’s, if they were baiting, property lines, and potential locations and why they are. A notepad can also be used.
In order of importance, once on foot focus your attention on the following sign for stand locations: primary scrape areas, fruit and mast trees, within bedding areas, funnels between bedding areas and terrain feature funnels, areas offering security cover that protrude out into crop or weed fields, scrape lined runways, narrow draws offering transition security cover that protrude into crop or weed fields, funnels between bedding and feeding areas, clusters of rubs and rub lines, convergence points of several runways, and water in areas with minimal water sources.
Most frequently on small to mid-sized parcels (5 to 40 acres) only a couple of those land features or previous signposts may exist.
The next issue will contain Part 2
Editors note: John Eberhart is an accomplished big-buck bow-hunter that specializes in heavy consequential hunting pressure areas with 28 bucks listed in CBM’s recordbook from 19 different properties and 10 different counties. John produced a 3 volume instructional DVD series titled “Bowhunting Pressured Whitetails” and co-authored the books, “Bowhunting Pressured Whitetails”, “Precision Bowhunting”, and “Bowhunting Whitetails The Eberhart Way”. They are available at: www.deer-john.net