This is Part 9 of the Ground to Gun series with Craig and Neil Dougherty, as they provide excerpts and insights from their newest book “Whitetails: From Ground To Gun – A Guide To Hunting and Growing Mature Whitetails.” If you don’t own this book yet, it should definitely be on your Christmas list! It’s a great read for any avid whitetail hunter. -MK
By Craig & Neil Dougherty
The best time to learn how your property “works” (and we do mean “works”) is early winter, a few weeks after hunting season ends. The worst time to learn it is a few weeks before hunting season (unless you are not planning on hunting there that season). Post-season deer are still in their hunting season mode (as far as deer movement and patterns go), and you just may find some tracking snow to help you out. If you wait until a few weeks after the season to do your work, the deer will be settled sufficiently so that you can move about without starting an all-out deer stampede. Deer sign is generally easy to find this time of year as the ground is soft, the trees are rubbed, scrapes are in evidence, and feeding and bedding areas are readily identified. Best of all, the sign laid down recently was created under hunting conditions. Take a pencil and begin to pencil in deer travel routes on a topo map. Same goes for feeding areas and bedding locations.
Can you learn your property during hunting season? Of course, but the minute we give you permission to do it, you will be tempted to traipse all over the place alerting deer to your presence and worse, sending them to your neighbors to be shot. Pay close attention going to and from your stand and note everything you see. Also, you should be constantly alert on your stand, not for the deer you are going to kill, but the deer that are avoiding you. If you see a deer sneaking away from your set-up, figure out why and make a mental note. Record it when you get back to camp. Did he smell you or catch your silhouette against an open skyline? Did the wind come around from the back or did he pick you up in a wind funnel that naturally collects scent from a 20-acre area? Toss a few wind floaters and figure it out. You’re in the woods anyway; it won’t hurt you to learn something. Just don’t do anything you wouldn’t do in a normal stealth hunting environment.
Walk ‘Em Back
Post-season is also a super time to learn how that old buck you hunted last season beat you at your own (or his own) game. We call this “walking ‘em back” which basically refers to slipping into your hunting areas and walking the tracks backwards. Take a close look at the trails around food plots or your stand locations. How did the majority of the deer approach the area? Where did they come from? Where did they scent you from? Have they figured you out? How can you change the set-up to beat them next year? (Remember, deer are scent driven). Now move 50-150 yards down wind to the prevailing winds and look for more evidence of deer skirting your hunting set-up. It won’t be as pronounced as a primary trail into a feeding area, but more than likely, the sign will have been made by a mature deer. Deer have the ability to scent-check a food plot or stand locations from a few hundred yards away and you can bet a mature old buck will do it every opportunity he gets.
If you’re trying to find “old big boy,” don’t be fooled by well-established trails showing lots of activity. That’s the one used by the does, fawns, and young bucks. Look for the “road less traveled;” older deer (especially mature bucks) will often take their time in the woods moving from point to point using cover and their nose to avoid danger. Find these locations and mark them on your map. Then hunt them next year toward the latter part of the season.
A number of years back, Craig took a fine old buck off of a snow-covered food plot on a late season hunt. The next day, Neil back tracked him in the snow and discovered that the buck had checked out 3 separate stands before coming into the open. These stands had been bowhunted periodically for a number of years preceding the kill, and the old buck was obviously wise to them. They don’t get big racks and worn teeth rushing into the open without first checking things out.
We have noticed over the years that some of our best deer had their own way of doing things. They rub different trees, and hook brush differently, and definitely travel different trails than most deer do. Neil gets excited by faint trails in the thick cover; especially if you can see where a good buck hooked his horns on some brush or rubbed a larger than average tree. Over time you will develop a good eye for rubs or other sign made by larger-than-average bucks. You have a better chance of connecting with a mature deer on the “trail less traveled” than the “cow path” to the feedlot.
Go to the areas they used for late season feeding and “walk ‘em back.” Take the track backwards to see what they are up to. Walking ‘em back is a great way to learn about how deer are interacting with their environment. How do they approach a given area in a given wind? Do they change approaches with the wind? Be sure to learn where deer are bedding on your property. If they do not bed on your property, get busy and start building them some bedding areas closer to home. You don’t want them walking through 3 sets of neighbor’s posters just to get to your food plots do you?
Post-season is also a good time to check out your sanctuary areas if you are wondering about the habitat in them. We stay out of sanctuaries, but every 5-10 years, we take a look to see if they are still providing food, security, and cover. Check them out if you haven’t seen them in a few years. This is also a good time to do work in your sanctuary area.
Don’t be afraid to take your pocket camera along and take a bunch of photos. It costs nothing, and they can be real handy when going over your maps a few months later. The idea is to get enough detail on the map to jog your memory 5 or 6 months later when you dig out the old map to help you set a few stands for the fall. And remember, scouting is more than a leisurely walk in the woods. You are on a mission to find things out and you should view it accordingly. The quicker you learn the property, the quicker you can stay out of it! That’s right, stay out of it.
If you’re interested in learning more about smart scouting from Neil & Craig, pick up a copy of the Dougherty’s new book “Whitetails: From Ground To Gun“
Quality Deer Management Association CEO Brian Murphy describes this book by saying it “provides detailed insight into what makes a great hunting property and how to consistently harvest mature bucks. It is a clear roadmap to QDM success.”
Pick up a copy today (click here to buy “Whitetails: From Ground to Gun”)