The term scouting is used loosely in the deer hunting community. To some deer hunters it simply means walking through the woods looking around for deer. To others it may mean looking around for distinct trails to determine a tree stand location. But scouting for deer sign can be similar to a detective putting all the clues together to solve a case. In this example the “case” is of course, where are the deer feeding, bedding, and traveling?
Whether you’re in a new hunting location or you just want to do a better job of scouting where you’ve hunted before, knowing what to look for in deer sign will tell a story. For early season scouting, finding things like tracks, trails, sheds, rubs, and droppings will help you decide where to set up on opening morning.
Deer tracks can certainly tell you where a deer has been. A fresh track will still have clean edges and will be free of any debris. Older tracks will be more blurred out around the edges and may have leaves and other debris inside the imprint. Pay attention to which way the track is headed and take a mental note.
A lot has been debated about a doe and buck track looking different. The fact is, there is little scientific evidence to prove a deer’s gender from its track. Size is about the only indicator but keep in mind a mature doe track can be the same size as a young buck track.
In areas where there are enough tracks and deer traveling, you’ll find deer trails. Deer trails are probably the biggest factor in determining where most hunters will put a tree stand. Trails are said to be the highway of the woods. Deer trails are not just random, they will normally lead somewhere.
When scouting, you can follow these trails to see if they lead to a bedding area or perhaps a food source. This can be a big clue in putting together deer movement. Signs of buck rubs along a trail will indicate that bucks – or at least one buck – is using the trail as well.
Any area where a few trails come together like a hub can be a spot where there is likely to be a lot of deer movement. A buck may come through this area – or just downwind of it later in the season to scent check it for a hot doe.
Like other sign, deer droppings indicate that a deer has been there. A fresh pile of droppings will look shiny and won’t be as dried out as an older pile. Use a stick to determine the freshness of found droppings.
Another area of debate is buck and doe droppings. But again, there is no scientific evidence to support whether or not they look different. Pinned deer have been tested and there is no telling the two apart.
What has been tested though, with some solid evidence, is that the form and shape of a pile of droppings may indicate what the deer may have been feeding on. Round individual droppings can suggest the deer was feeding on browse such as acorns, leaves, or twigs. A cluster of droppings all stuck together indicate a diet of grasses, fruit, alfalfa, or clover.
Where there are droppings there are probably also tracks. Determine the direction of the tracks and what the deer are feeding on by the form of their droppings and you are that much closer to patterning the deer.
High Tech Scouting
In recent years, there have been great advances in deer scouting. With better optics, GPS units, and trail cameras – scouting for deer has gone hi-tech.
On a Kansas hunt a few years ago, we glassed several nice bucks from a safe distance as they came out to feed. We had literally just arrived to the hunting property and set up our RV before deciding to do some glassing with the Swarovski spotting scope. We knew exactly where to set up the tree stands for the next day. Without the hi-tech optics, we would have been guessing as to where the deer came out to feed.
I remember keeping records of deer sign and sightings twenty years ago on paper. I would mark deer sign, known bedding and feeding areas, and tree stand locations on a hand-drawn map. Today it is so much easier with GPS units. A good unit will give you a satellite view of your property so you can accurately mark trails, hot spots, tree stands, bedding and feeding areas, and travel corridors.
The trail camera is probably the biggest advancement tool in scouting deer. Not only does it mark a deer’s whereabouts (that may or may not have left visual sign) but it captures an image of the deer and marks the time of day. From a trail camera, you can see when, where, and which way deer are heading without actually being there stinking the place up.
Trail cameras are also great for knowing which bucks are on your property so you can name them and put together a hit list. With software programs like Buckview which comes with the Reconyx trail cameras, you can mark trails, beds, tracks, stands, food sources, and more on a satellite view of your property along with the stored images and the location of the cameras that captured them.
Proper early season deer scouting can be a lot of work, but like anything else, if you put in the time you will be rewarded. Use both old techniques and new technology to put together the clues that will help you solve the mystery of deer movement.
Thanks for reading and happy scouting!