Sunday, March 21, 2010

Top 10 Reasons to Scout in the Off-season

I saw a question posted the other day on TnDeer that got me thinking. And when I thought I was through thinking, I got to thinking some more because it was a really simple, but very good question, which was, “Why should I scout in the off-season when deer will be on a completely different pattern when next season rolls around?” You can click on the link to see the ensuing discussion.

I started writing down all the reasons I could think of and the list quickly grew pretty long. Being the obsessive/compulsive mess that I am, I started categorizing and grouping reasons until I came up with my very own (with all due respect to David Letterman), Pursuit Hunting Top 10 Reasons to Scout in the Off-season.

A point of clarification: I consider the time between the end of hunting season and the emergence of green vegetation in the spring to be the post-season. Anything between green-up and opening day is pre-season.

So now, without further adieu, (drum-roll please) I give you the first-ever Pursuit Hunting Top 10 List:

#10 Look for Sheds

OK, I have to admit that I really don’t do this much, unless I accidentally trip over one, but if you need a tangible reward for hitting the woods, this is a good place to start. If it gets you off the couch during those days when there’s nothing in season, then by all means do it. Just try to incorporate some of the more productive things that I’ll talk about as we get further down the list.

#9 Look for last year’s Rubs

Well, I don’t really do a lot of this either, or at least it isn’t my specific purpose. I do take note of ‘em whenever I see them, however, particularly if they are signpost rubs. Some folks like doing it though, so if you do, go for it. Whatever it takes. I’ll talk more about what I try to learn from old rubs shortly.

#8 Practice Using Map, Compass, and GPS

Alright, now that I’m warmed up, I’ll start talking about stuff that I really do.

The post-season is a great time to hone your navigational skills. GPS’s work better without leaves on the trees and you have much better visibility for sighting ahead with your compass and just getting a visual reference on terrain features to compare them to the squiggly brown lines on your topo map.

The lack of low-lying vegetation and briers makes it much easier to bushwhack cross-country following a compass heading too. The cooler temperatures and lack of biting critters of the flying, crawling, and slithering variety also make bushwhacking much more enjoyable.

Here are some ideas for incorporating navigational drills into your scouting.

Study a topo map of the area before you go and create waypoints on your map and GPS for terrain features like saddles, funnels, or converging ridges that you want to check out. Try getting there with just your map and compass. Do it by following a straight line compass heading and also by following terrain features like creeks and ridges. Check your GPS from time to time as you are travelling if you want and also when you think you have arrived.

Set a waypoint at the spot where you park your vehicle and practice using map and compass to plot a straight-line course back once you are through scouting. Use the GPS waypoint to set your initial bearing if you want or as a fallback if you get turned around. Make it a game to see how close you can get to your vehicle using just your map and compass.

The time you spend getting comfortable with your navigational system in the off season will pay huge dividends when it comes time to head back into the boonies during the season.

#7 Explore New Areas

This idea goes with #8 like peas and corn, Mamma always said…

Expand your hunting opportunities by getting familiar with a new piece of property. If you don’t have access to private land, don’t let that stop you. I’d be willing to bet that there are some great pieces of public hunting land within easy driving distance. Get more than a couple hundred yards off the nearest road or field and you’ll probably have the place pretty much to yourself.

An area that you’ve never visited before is a great place to practice the navigational skills we just talked about. Study a topo map ahead of time and pick out spots that you think should have pretty good deer activity, then go there and see how well you did.

Use your experience also to develop your record keeping system. Keep detailed notes of what you discover. A couple months from now when the season is drawing near, you’ll be glad you made note of that big ‘ol female persimmon tree, or that slick trail leading into a cedar thicket.

#6 Get More Familiar With Your Hunting Area

When the season rolls around, you want to be completely comfortable getting anywhere on the property in the dark. If there is anywhere you are hesitant to go because it is difficult to find, figure out a way to get there. Cut a trail, put up flagging tape, put up reflective tacks, study terrain features like creeks and ridges that you can follow in the dark, make mental notes of landmarks like odd-shaped trees or rocks. If you want to consistently be on deer, you are going to have to move around a lot. Don’t hamstring yourself with self-imposed un-huntable areas.

#5 Study the Terrain

Identify major terrain features like saddles, funnels, edges, and points and note how they affect deer travel patterns. In the post season, you should be able to easily see the contours of the land and the well-used travel routes.

It is also a good time of year to look for micro funnels like blowdowns or fence crossings that can impact travel patterns in a big way. A major storm can instantly create micro funnels by knocking down trees across trails or fences, so it is important to check for any major changes since last season.

#4 Head into the Thick Stuff

When it is late in the season and there is less available cover, deer will stick close to the thickest, gnarliest stuff they can find. Take the time to find it and get into it to figure out how deer are using it. How do they get in and out? Where do they bed? Are there any good ambush sites nearby?

The post-season is the perfect time to explore thick cover because it is easier to read the sign. Its easier to get around in, and if you bump a deer out of its sanctuary, it isn’t going to affect its behavior six to nine months from now.

#3 Look for Future Mast Sources

Although the post season is too early to identify specific trees that will develop acorns or fruit, it isn’t too early to start narrowing down the areas to scout again later in the pre-season. A good pair of binoculars will help you cover a lot of ground.

If you need to brush up on your tree identification skills, this is a good time to practice. There are lots of photos in the Tree ID articles on this site and you can pick up an inexpensive field guide to help. See my recommendations in any of the Tree ID articles.

Some species of trees like white oaks and red oaks are pretty widely dispersed, so concentrate on finding areas where there are several large trees in a relatively small area. All things being equal, deer will prefer to feed in areas with the highest concentration of available food. Look on the ground for old acorn caps under any promising-looking areas. If everything looks good, make note of the spot on your map so you can come back in a couple months and check for maturing mast.

Other species like persimmons tend to grow individually or in tight-knit clusters. Chestnut oaks commonly grow in almost pure stands. Know where they are likely to be (check the Tree ID articles for tips) and spend some time locating them now for future reference. Keep in mind that only female persimmons produce fruit, so check for old calyxes and seeds on the ground to determine the sex.

As the pre-season progresses, you will start to be able to use binoculars to look up into the canopy of mast-producing trees and figure out which ones will bear fruit or nuts. Remember, only a small fraction of trees actually produce mast in a given year, so use your off-season scouting trips to narrow down the number of places to scout once the season rolls around. Make note of any promising trees so that you can come back later to see if they have become a dominant tree. A little work now will pay big dividends later on when the pressure is on.

#2 Hone your Powers of Observation and Interpretation (Eyes and Whys)

Let’s face it, even when you know what you are looking for, deer sign can be hard to see. Rubs and scrapes are easy, but you actually have to train your eyes and your brain to notice small things like a couple of moist deer pellets, or a single track in soft dirt, or the browsed-off tips of a cedar limb, or maybe just some turned-over leaves. There is a ton of information for our brains to process as we walk through a deer’s world. The only way to get better at seeing it all is through practice.

As if finding deer sign wasn’t hard enough, interpretation can be even harder. Constantly asking yourself “why?” will go a long way toward helping you improve your scouting skills. Why was a deer feeding here? Why was a deer travelling here? Why did a deer take cover here? Why would it choose to bed on this side of the ridge rather than the other? Figuring out the role that external factors like wind direction, food availability, predation, and a hundred other things played in all those “why” questions is the key.

The answers to your “why” questions can help you spot patterns that you can extend to other areas and other situations. I firmly believe that the ability to recognize patterns of deer behavior and to adjust hunting strategy as a result is what sets the truly skilled hunter apart from the average hunter. The more time you spend in the deer’s world, the more skilled you are going to be at recognizing and interpreting the little details and patterns that can tell a big story.

And the #1 reason to scout in the post-season is:

#1 To Enjoy More Time in the Great Outdoors

In any survey of why we hunt, “spending time outdoors” always ranks near the top of the list. Don’t let the lack of an open season keep you indoors.

This is a great time of year to take a child, or a new hunter, or even your dog out to your favorite hunting spots and just enjoy being there. Absorb all the knowledge you can from the activities we’ve discussed and pass along some of what you’ve learned to the next generation. I feel like I learn something every time I’m in the woods.

During the season it is hard for me to relax when I’m in the woods. I feel pressure to scout that next big white oak, and the next one, and the next one, all the while staying alert for game. In the off season I can just relax and enjoy the sounds of the woods and the sun on my face and the wind in my hair (what’s left of it).

Take a snack and enjoy a bite to eat under your favorite oak tree. Sit on a log and talk. Take a nap. Enjoy a leisurely stroll. It’s all good…


Mark - Wired To Hunt said...

Nice article! Like I mentioned in the D & DH forum. I would also recommend scouting for other hunting pressure in the off season. Find out where others are hunting and you can develop a strategy to catch deer as they avoid those areas! This type of scouting is particularly important in highly pressured states like Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Matt Elder said...

Great post. All of those are excellent reasons to scout in the offseason. If my hunting experience has shown me one thing, it's that when you put in the hard work and scouting, it usually pays off. Not to mention when you work all year for a trophy, not just a season, it's seems to be more special when a successful hunt comes together.

Pursuit Hunter said...

Mark - that's a great point. I'm lucky enough to hunt in areas that don't get a lot of pressure, so I've never done that. I can see that it would be very helpful in areas where hunting pressure is a dominant factor in deer movement. I scanned your blog, by the way, and really enjoyed it. I'll be back for more.

Matt - agree 100% One of the reasons why I chose Pursuit Hunting for the name of this site is that for me, the true essence of hunting is more about the pursuit than the final result.

Anonymous said...

GPS's fail, mine failed the other day when enroute to my morning spot. I have to cross a pine forest in a hardwood forest. I got in there and the thing started spinning. I pulled my Silva and walked us right to the blind still over 200 yards away. I've been teaching my sons how to use the compass. One navigated us out, 967 yards off the road as the crow fly's according to google earth. This is in a thickly covered Virginia forest. He walked us out to within 40 yards of the truck! The next morning, I missed my blind by 100 yards, not so good. Had to back track but still got there in plenty of time. In darkness, in thick Virginia forest with just a small headlamp, no pins, no topo but a damn good compass and skills I learned in the Marines. I use my GPS as a back up and for marking signs. I thought because of the depth I was hunting at, I'll use it but it failed. I used to make my own maps with graph paper and a compass prior to google earth. Compasses never fail. If there good before you trek, they'll be good during your trek.