Preseason deer scouting

For some, deer hunting is a year round sport, but if you’re late to the party, you can still make last minute preparations that will get you that trophy buck.
For some, deer hunting is a year round sport, but if you’re late to the party, you can still make last minute preparations that will get you that trophy buck.

Deer hunters should be prepared to figure out where whitetails will be when bow season opens, and knowing food sources and approaching trails will give you a leg up.

Perry Ross of Big Creek, Miss., never thinks of deer hunting as a seasonal sport. At 55, he’s got nearly 50 years under his belt in the woods, and for him, there’s the offseason and the on-season — but it’s always deer season. 

Ross hunts huge parcels of land in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas as part of his business, Ross Trophy Outfitters, but he’s always got something cooking at home by the time the opening day of archery season rolls around.

Ross believes deer season actually begins the day the previous season ends. He understands that not every deer hunter keeps such a strict regimen, and he had some tips for hunters who are late to the party.

Hunters need to locate stands to take into account the predominant southwest wind early in deer season, plus the occasional north wind.

“If you watch deer hunting on TV, you see hunters headed out into the cold to hunt; that’s not (home),” he said. “This is hot-weather hunting for the first part of the season, and you have to plan and hunt differently because of that.”

Food sources for deer

With a month to go until the fun starts, many deer clubs are rushing to get food plots in the ground. Ross said they are important for nutrition and antler development, and they can be hunted over, but along the Gulf Coast, food plots typically aren’t a big draw during daylight hours until much later in the season.

“You are much better off during the preseason identifying the places that have oak flats,” he said. “Water oaks and pin oaks will drop first, and then you’ll get white oaks and red oaks and whatever else is available. Your better deer tend not to hit food plots or baited areas until after dark.”

Ross (662-983-9304) said identifying the No. 1 food source deer will use on a property — oak trees — will provide clues about where to hunt. Some hunters will throw up a ladder stand with a clear view of several trees in close proximity; Ross wants to back up and find trails leading to those oaks, which requires spending some quality time on the ground scouting.

“As hunters, we do a lot to educate deer about how we hunt them,” Ross said. “We put up trail cameras, and we go in there every day and check them. When a good buck does show up on camera, he knows you better than you know him.”

Not leaving scent

Having hunted in wide-open ranges as well as thicker forests, Ross said Southern deer rely on their sense of smell a lot more than sight or hearing. At times, deer may not believe what they see if they can’t attach a scent to it. Because of that, how a hunter approaches an area is critical anytime he steps in the woods.

“When I’m preseason scouting, whether that’s using a program like X-maps or just a hand-held map, I’m looking for likely bedding areas and then for pinch points or edges between the bedding area and those oak flats,” Ross said. “I’m also planning my approach to those areas, even the first time I walk in. I want to make sure I’m going in downwind and not leaving a bunch of scent behind to educate those deer.”

While other hunters are busy building and putting up stands, Ross (www.rosstrophyoutfitters.com) prefers the versatility of a climbing stand or a portable lock-on. If he has an area he likes from his scouting, he keeps in mind the two most-likely wind scenarios he’ll face — southwest or north winds — and he makes sure he’s identified areas to place his stand for the daily conditions when he goes to hunt.

“We get a lot of southwest winds in the early season, so I want to make sure I have my area planned out for a southwest stand,” he said. “When the weather changes, we get north winds for a few days, so I also want to plan for that.”

Trail cameras

Like other hunters who are out hanging and checking trail cameras before the season, Ross will use game cameras to collect information, but his take on them is more pro-active than most.

Trail cameras provide clues to deer movements, but guide Perry Ross bets you’re going to need more cameras than you think, and he recommends checking them weekly instead of daily.

“First of all, you’re going to need more cameras than you think,” he said. “I’m trying to identify a trophy buck’s core area, so when you see them, then look for the travel route he’s using and back down that trail to his bedding area.”

Ross has a warning for hunters who fall in love with a buck they find on camera: everything changes once the velvet comes off. He said a good buck is likely to move once the season arrives. He believes this is God’s way of making sure the buck isn’t inbreeding. You can kill him, he said, but you have to do it quickly.

“The good news is that some good buck on another property will leave there and is likely to show up where you’re at,” he said. “That’s why identifying the core area is important. Get in there and hunt him before the mating season changes everything.” 

A final tip on preseason scouting and even seasonal scouting with cameras is to check them every six or seven days instead of daily. If you have a camera at a baited area, check it when you put out new bait. If it’s close to an area you are hunting, take a card with you on the hunt and pull the old card on your way out.

Timing is everything

Ross summed up his thoughts on being late to any piece of property, both in joining a club and on the day of the hunt. He tells the story of being a new member in a big club. When opening day arrived, all the members drove out to their stands in their side-by-sides, hunted until 10:30 and came back for breakfast. Ross had done his scouting and figured out likely escape routes once the hunting pressure increased, and he used that knowledge to kill a nice buck every opening day for several years.

Locating a big buck’s core area helps hunters avoid being left behind when the buck changes patterns, looking for does.

“I took a climber and went in the long way, well before daylight,” he said. “I had figured out where the deer were approaching other stands and where they would go once things got hectic. The second thing I did was stay in the woods well past 10 o’clock. Once everyone else packed up and began to leave, they pushed the deer right to me, and I had 15 to 20 nice bucks to choose from.

“Most of the time, especially in a big club, you have to be smarter than the deer — as well as smarter than the competition.”

No matter the weapon, practice

While you’re getting the land and your knowledge of it in shape, don’t forget about re-honing those shooting skills. Whether you hunt with modern firearm, bow or primitive weapon, putting practice time in at the range is a great idea. 

Spending time at the range or in the backyard shooting your bow and/or gun will help you make that critical shot once the season opens.

Les Smith has his property set up for some long shots, even out to the 400-yard range.

“We’ve got some permanent shooting houses where we can see 400 to 500 yards,” he said. “That kind of shot isn’t for everyone, but if you don’t practice at that range, you’ll never make that shot when it counts.”

While having a steady rest and reliable equipment are keys to accurate hunting, toning muscle strength for bow season is a real asset for archers like veteran hunter Chuck Wilson.

“I try to shoot year-round, but I get my bow out at least two months ahead of time, so by late July or August, I start shooting 15 or 20 shots in the afternoon after work,” Wilson said. “I don’t just stand and shoot, either. I get out one of my ladder stands and move it around and try to think of real-life shots I may have to make, like shooting to my weak side or behind me or leaning out to shoot around a limb. That way I know I can make a tough shot or if I need to wait for a better one.”

Last-minute land: Go deep, stay late

Most hunting clubs or landowners look for new members or leases during the summer. Word-of-mouth is the more common way that openings get filled, but some larger clubs or tracts may advertise in the newspaper, want ads or even online on social media pages. 

Getting in on a lease or hunt-club land late in the preseason doesn’t have to hurt your chances of taking a big buck.

However, if you’ve ever been a member of a large club, you’ve probably witnessed last-minute openings that were hard to fill. That being said, it pays to network with other hunters and let people know if you’re looking for a new place to hunt.

“We have around 15 members in a big tract I hunt,” said hunter Ron Smith. “The lease comes due in June, and nearly every year, there’s somebody that says they’re going to pay their dues and then something comes up. I don’t know how many times we’re in September looking to fill at least one spot.”

Public land seems to get a bad rap, but while you may not be able to build stands or plant food plots on WMAs, taking the time to learn public land means you’ll never have to be without a place to hunt.

Succeeding on public land or on private lands that are new to you have basically the same requirement — hunt deeper and longer.

“I hunted public land for many years,” Smith said. “It was always my experience that most hunters didn’t hunt very far from the truck, and they would be gone after about 10 o’clock in the morning. People get spoiled, but the deer don’t just vanish after the morning hours. That’s actually a pretty good time to have somebody spook one to you.”

Phillip Gentry
About Phillip Gentry 14 Articles
Phillip Gentry is a freelance outdoor writer and photographer who says that if it swims, walks, hops, flies or crawls he’s usually not too far behind.