by: John Eberhardt.
How many times have you heard of or witnessed a nice buck consistently come out and feed in the same location every evening during the summer only to dissipate into thin air just prior to season. In areas with a heavy consequential hunting pressure this vanishing act happens far more frequently than not. Unknowingly, many hunters create this vanishing act with their overzealous pre-season scouting and location preparation.
By traipsing through the woods, busting through brush, hanging stands, clearing shooting lanes, and marking entry and exit routes just prior to season, hunters in areas with heavy consequential hunting pressure make mature bucks aware that it is time to alter their vulnerable summer habits to elude intruders.
Areas where bowhunter densities exceed 10 per square mile and gun hunter densities are double that on opening day, and where nearly every one of those hunters target any legal antlered buck, are considered areas with heavy consequential hunting pressure, which from here out will be abbreviated hchp. In hchp areas the common thought process is that if a buck is passed on, once he crosses the fence the neighbors will take him.
In hchp areas bucks of all age groups must learn quickly how to avoid hunters otherwise they get wounded or killed. Few bucks survive beyond 2 ½ years of age, and those that do likely suffered consequences from previous hunter encounters and carry old wounds.
Deer can’t differentiate between scouting and hunting, and after a winter, spring, and summer of being totally left alone, they view the sudden influx of human activity within their core area as an immediate threat to their survival and react by assuming more nocturnal movement habits. When hunting for mature bucks in hchp areas, improper per-season scouting can ruin any chance of success prior to the rut phases when bucks start to think with more than just their brains.
In hchp areas even something as benign as hanging a motion camera at a hunting location can have catastrophic results on that sites potential. Deer don’t know you just want to take their picture; your intrusion is a threat to their existence.
For the record, an hchp area should not be confused with areas with many hunters where there are hunter engagement criteria’s or rules. When there are many hunters in a large managed area or on a pay to hunt ranch with specific age or antler criteria rules, there are no consequences for daytime activity by bucks until they reach the kill criteria. So no matter how many hunters there are they only represent a human presence, not a consequential threat to a buck’s existence while growing to maturity. In such areas, once a buck’s criterion has been met, his lack of fear from previous non-consequential hunter encounters makes him extremely vulnerable, and relatively easy to hunt and kill.
In hchp areas which include everywhere I hunt in Michigan, more than 80% of my scouting and tree preparation is done during post season. Why during post season? Because prior to spring green up I can molest any property to my heart’s content without concern of spooking deer and I am looking at sign left from the previous rut phases such as ground scrapes, utilized licking branches, rubs, and rut phase traffic areas. Since statistically well over 55% record book bucks are taken during the short rut phases, sign left from the previous rut is what I primarily search for and set-up on.
During my post season scouting ventures I am also searching for early season hunting locations. Since all early season deer activity revolves around preferred food sources, they are on my list of things to look for.
In hchp areas the commonly written about and filmed practice of hunting along short crop field edges for mature bucks just doesn’t cut it. In such areas short crop fields such as alfalfa, soy beans, wheat stubble, and picked corn are simply to open and therefore vulnerable for a mature buck to feed in during season. Anyone that consistently takes mature bucks along perimeters of open short crop edges is definitely not hunting in an area or on property with hchp.
Standing corn however is another matter. If I know a field will be in standing corn its perimeter will be on my list for potential locations. Standing corn offers both food and security cover and if the sign, in the form of runways warrants it, and there is adequate transition cover to it, I will set-up locations along their perimeters. Once the corn is cut those sites are abandoned until the next time they are in standing corn.
My priority for early season locations is at destination feeding sites that offer perimeter and transition security cover to them from known bedding areas. The secure feeding sites I search for are apple or pear trees, solitary white oaks in a sea of other types of trees, and red oaks if there are no white oaks. The basic requirement is that the fruit or mast trees not be in a sea of other similar trees. If that were the case, there would be no reason for my location to be a destination site.
White oaks are easily identified by their rough bark all the way up the tree and out their branches and by the rounded lobes on their leaves. Red oaks have smooth bark and pointed lobes. Bitter tannins are what differentiates the taste between the acorns a white and red oak drop. Do yourself a favor next fall and pick up one of each and eat it; you will immediately know why deer gravitate to white oaks.
Another location on my list is isolated water sources in areas otherwise devoid of water. A secluded water hole where there are no other water sources within a half mile or more are awesome for hunting during unseasonably warm weather, which is often the case during the first couple days of season. Just like at a secluded apple or white oak location, if it is getting used there should be fresh bucks sign nearby and tons of tracks.
Tree preparation, shooting lanes, and entry and exit routes are 100% prepared during post season with absolutely no idea if the trees are going to offer food next fall and that is where pre-season speed touring comes into play. I chose the term “speed touring” because that is exactly what it is; I am not scouting for new hunting locations, just rapidly touring through my previously set-up fruit and mast tree locations during midday, to see if they offer both food and current buck activity. I have been pre-season speed touring for at least 25 seasons but have always lumped it terminology wise with the standard term, pre-season scouting.
Speed touring should always be done during midday when most deer will be bedded, and if at all possible during inclement weather conditions such as a hard rain or windy conditions. Inclement weather will aid in masking your noise and in dissipating any human odor you may leave behind.
Unlike states with September bowseason openers, Michigan’s opens October 1st so I wait until mid-September to speed tour my pre-set locations. Mature bucks across the upper Midwest have typically shed their velvet by the end of the first week of September allowing me to positively confirm fresh buck activity leading to or at my sites.
By mid to late September, if isolated fruit and mast trees are dropping food, they will usually have fresh buck sign nearby. This will usually be in the form of large droppings under it, rubs and oftentimes scrapes nearby, or a rub line leading to it. If there is no confirmed buck sign, but the trees are dropping food I note it and continue on touring my sites before making early season hunting plans.
When a location has adequate sign, there will be work to do. The tree I hunt from and my shooting lanes will be immediately cleared of any new summer growth that might impede a shot opportunity. But since the location was properly prepared prior to summer green-up, the re-prep time is minimal. I never come back another day to re-prep a location because that would be defeating the purpose of a single low impact intrusion.
Other than public land where I usually have to access my sites with hip boots, waders, canoe, or crawling on my hands and knees through brush to get away from other hunters, this speed touring process takes very little time per parcel because the locations have already been discovered.
Once my early season locations have been toured and the ones with food and sign have been re-prepared a plan of attack for which order they are to be hunted must be made. This plan takes into account which sites are best suited for mornings or evenings, which ones looked to have mature buck sign, and which are best suited for a mature buck to transition to and feel comfortable visiting during daylight shooting hours.
The most critical question before an order of importance can be made is, which locations are in areas where other hunters pre-season scouting ventures have the least impact on a buck I may be pursuing? As earlier mentioned, in most areas I hunt mature bucks (3 ½ years and older) have turned nocturnal prior to season due to intrusive pre-season scouting ventures by other hunters in their core living area.
Other than public lands, by knocking on doors for permission I currently have 4 other parcels that have fruit or mast trees on them. I share a 400-acre northern Michigan parcel with 3 other hunters. 260-acres of it are groomed crop fields and the remaining 140 is mature timber that is totally devoid of understudy worthy of a mature buck bedding in. When there is a mature buck in the area, unless bedded in a standing cornfield, he doesn’t bed on the property.
For Michigan 400-acres is a monstrous chunk of property yet this parcel is not well suited for daytime mature buck activity. Why? Because even though a mature buck may use the property, he beds on neighboring property and turns nocturnal due to the neighbors intrusive pre-season scouting ventures.
Although I have a couple locations prepared at isolated apple trees and a couple at white oaks I don’t hunt this parcel early in the season. It has however been productive for daytime mature buck activity during the rut phases when mature bucks are pursuing does.
Another piece in southern Michigan is 20-acres and shared with 3 other bowhunters. Although this parcel is small it has a dense 7-acre bedding area that we have all agreed to stay out of. Since this is the densest bedding area in the section it always seems to hold a mature buck. There is one secluded apple tree on the property with transition cover to the bedding area and since I found it first I have dibs on it and the other hunters stay away. We are all on board with post-season tree preparation (since it is so small we no longer need to scout for new locations), and during pre-season, as scent free as possible and on the same day we tidy up our locations, and then hunt them with extreme moderation.
Since our pre-season speed clean up venture doesn’t interfere with where the mature buck beds, we are not altering his behavior. Two of us have been very successful at taking mature bucks on this parcel, but only I have had success during the first few days of season at the isolated apple tree. A parcels size is never a prerequisite for its quality.
On another private piece I received permission on in 2009 I have one location prepared next to an apple tree and have yet to hunt it because the tree has yet to have apples.
On another 20 acre parcel that the owner and his son also bowhunt, I have a couple locations set-up next to apple trees and I have taken one good buck there early in the season.
On a public land location I have hunted since the early 1980’s I have to crawl about 100-yards through tunnels under the autumn olive bushes canopy to access a couple isolated apple trees. When I tour this location, if the trees have apples the location will be put in my early season rotation. This location heats up later in the season as the mass of public land hunters push deer back into the dense difficult to get to area.
To put speed touring for early season locations into perspective, over the years I lose and pursue new permission more than I care to discuss, but am very aware that in hchp areas, that goes with the territory. Still, every year by the end of April I have at least 40 locations prepared for the upcoming season, most of which have been set-up for years while some are in new locations. In an average season only a few of the fruit and mast tree locations will offer food and adequate sign to warrant early season hunts.
In northern Michigan in 2010 we had a 3 week warm spell in early April that made the apple trees blossom and then a couple weeks of hard frost that killed them. None of the apple trees and white oaks where I hunt produced a crop and I ended up hunting the first couple days along a standing corn field. It is a good plan to have several location options at or near white oaks and apple or pear trees, at secluded water holes, or in transition areas that offer security cover between bedding and other types of preferred food sources because some years will be better than others concerning food production.
Speed touring requires some specific tools for location touch up and because it is so close to season, the most important tool is scent free clothing. It is nearly impossible to totally mask the noise of a physical intrusion, but by practicing extreme scent control by wearing an activated carbon suit, gloves, cap, clean rubber boots, and a clean pack, your tour will be as scent free as possible.
The other required tools will be quite minimal because all you will be doing is cleaning up what little new growth occurred during summer and possibly reflective tacking a few more trees along entry and exit routes. I take a 14-foot extension saw, a sheathed long bladed camp saw, Florian brush cutters, compass, 6-treesteps (most of my trees had the bottom 6 steps removed after post season preparation), a climbing safety harness, depending on the location white or brown reflective tacks and ties, and depending on how well I know the property, my aerial map of it.
While rare, there have been seasons when the worst-case scenario happened and none of my existing early season locations offered food, water, or had enough buck sign to warrant a hunt. I had no option but to become pro-active and look for a couple new early season locations. When this predicament occurs or you do not have any pre-set hunting sites, there is no option but to scout for and set-up new locations.
Typically, if you have hunted a parcel for years you should have some locations somewhat ready. During a single midday visit, try “speed touring” those locations for a couple early season sites and do not return again until opening day. In hchp areas, taking a mature buck is extremely difficult. In fact if you are taking a mature buck every season in Michigan, you are definitely not hunting in a heavy consequential hunting pressured area. But this “speed touring” method may occasionally give you an additional opportunity.
Editors note: John Eberhart is an accomplished big-buck bow-hunter from Michgian that specializes in bowhunting heavy consequential hunting pressure areas. You can learn more about his tactics through his instructional books and dvd’s available at: www.deer-john.net