The importance of pre-season scouting cannot be over-emphasized. Here the author’s son, Ken, inspects a scrape site. He’ll log this find on a map, along with other deer sign he finds in his hunting area, and analyze a game plan for the coming season.
Back during my first 15 years of whitetail hunting, beginning in 1945, nearly every hunter I knew either hunted deer by making drives or simply wandering or sneaking through the woods, calling it “still-hunting.” A few hunters called themselves “stump-sitters,” but none I knew sat on a stump very long. That was about it. Tree stands were unknown back then. Being a member of a gang that only made drives, though we regularly “filled out,” I was regularly disappointed by our lack of taking mature bucks. After I finally talked my father into leaving the old gang so we could still-hunt whitetails on our own, our buck hunting success did not particularly improve. During the following years when my own children were becoming old enough to begin hunting deer, I decided to try to improve their odds for taking mature bucks during “bucks only” hunting seasons (deer numbers were low in Minnesota back then), using my considerable knowledge and experience in research to study hunting-related habits and behavior of whitetails — an elaborate form of scouting. What I began to learn was so fascinating and so helpful — my kids taking mature bucks during their first hunts — that not only did this research became my life-long passion but the reason I’ve been encouraging hunters to scout ever since. Below is one of my earliest magazine articles about scouting, published in 1988.
Published in Sportsman’s Press
Deer Hunting Section
Thursday, September 15, 1988
By Dr. Ken Nordberg
Scouting is locating productive hunting areas where interference from other hunters is less likely (especially important when hunting older bucks). Scouting is locating whitetail home and breeding ranges and important range elements such as bedding, feeding and watering spots. It’s locating deer trails often used by specific deer. Scouting is gaining the knowledge necessary for formulating effective hunting strategies, for locating and preparing productive stand sites and/or productive hunt routes, relying primarily on knowledge gained from deer signs.
Wherever you hunt, whitetails utilize only about half of the available habitat. On any one day, they use about one-third of that half. In other words, whitetails use only about 17 percent of what you see. To be a successful hunter, you must locate and spend most of your hunting hours (undetected) within that productive 17 percent. Searching for that 17 percent while hunting is not only a waste of valuable hunting time, but a practice likely to cause deer to leave their home or breeding ranges, or cause them to limit movements to nighttime hours only.
Scouting is the only step that can minimize the role of luck in hunting. Luck is never a good ally, especially when hunting adult bucks. For those who do not scout, the odds for harvesting a 2-1/2 year-old buck (hunting on foot) are only about 1-in-60; about 1-in-120 for a 3-1/2 to 6-1/2 year-old buck. Hunters who scout and recognize strategic values of stand sites enjoy no less than 1-in-4 odds for harvesting adult bucks. Scouting is that important.
WHEN TO SCOUT
When scouting, you must invade normally secure areas of whitetails. If a stand hunter, upon discovering spots with obvious promise, it is usually necessary to alter the landscape somewhat — erecting stands, brushing-out shooting lanes, cleaning-up stand trails, etc. [Editors note: Remember this was written before most deer hunters considered scouting, before commercials stands were readily available, and before hunting regulations restricted the use of permanent stands, trailmaking, and shooting lanes. Now, that also includes recovering trail cam data.] All of this is viewed with considerable alarm by whitetails. Range abandonment or regular detouring around new stand sites is likely to follow for a period of five to 10 days or longer. Scouting, then, and preparing stand sites, should take place no later than two to three weeks before hunting.
[Editors note: An example of the type of tree stands we made back then.]
HOW TO SCOUT
Starting with a U.S. Geological Survey Map, make a large sketch of your hunting area. Then, while cruising in the field, sketch in major deer trails and landmarks. Wherever you find significant deer signs — tracks, droppings, beds, antler rubs, ground scrapes and evidences of feeding and watering — note them on your map. During the hunting season, update your map daily, noting fresh deer signs and sightings of deer.
Sure, it sounds like a lot of work, but when you’re done (it might take a couple of days), not only will your scouting/hunting map make it possible to formulate effective hunting strategies daily while you hunt, but it will be the basis for hunting success far into the future, only requiring a little updating from year to year.
When you’re a bona fide buck hunter, scouting is the real hunt. The hunting season becomes merely a time of waiting for certain bucks to do the things you know the will do at specific sites sooner or later (when influencing factors, such weather, are favorable). Buck hunting skill, then, is skill in scouting. No amount of aimless wandering can make up for a lack of it.
Next week: 15 Buck Stand Sites (a series)
[An example of one of Doc’s maps from back then. Now-a-days, his maps are huge Photoshop files, with multiple layers for trails, signs, and satellite images spanning many years.]