Skill #1: Recognize Deer Magnets on a Map
RIVERS A large river will channel deer trails along its edge as they follow the contour of the drainage. Find dash marks that show a riffle area. This is a likely crossing point and a potential stand site.
RIDGES Traveling over the peak of a ridge exposes a buck to danger, so search for dips or "saddles" on the map where he can cross and stay hidden. The juncture of several ridges is another likely place to find a trail.
HOLLOWS Gullies leading from high daytime beds to lowland feeding areas are potential travel routes. Another ideal trail location is a spot where several hollows or draws merge to form a shelf or bench.
POINTS Look for points where a ridge or hill juts down into flatland. Deer trails often intersect the tip of these "fingers." PONDS You'll often discover a trail leading to water where deer come to drink in hot, dry weather.
POWER LINES Deer will feed here, but you'll find the trail paralleling the line 5 to 10 yards back in the woods, where the animals can see out into the clearing but remain hidden.
DIPS In flat terrain, look for tiny depressions in the contour. These could indicate ditches or low areas that bucks might travel while moving through open fields.
Skill #2: Unravel a Rub Line
First, focus on trees 3 inches in diameter or larger to make sure you're locked in on an older buck. Also get out early, since mature bucks make the first rubs in September.
The side of the tree that's stripped clean of bark is the one the buck faced as he was walking. Look for faint indications of a trail—tracks, bent grass, scuffled leaves—and go in that direction searching for another rub. Study the terrain around you and check your topo to try to predict where the buck was headed.
In the early season, the pattern you will likely find is a travel corridor leading from thick, elevated, rugged land where the buck beds to lower, more open feeding areas. This is the buck's core home range. Mark each rub on the map, then walk ahead seeking out the next one, until you decipher his movements. Find key ambush spots along that route, preferably where a funnel channels his path through a narrow area. Hang your stand there.
Skill #3: Find Early Scrapes
Bucks make scrapes by kicking the ground clear of leaves and depositing scent on overhead tree branches with their foreheads, antlers, and saliva. Finding the earliest scrapes is the key to pinpointing mature bucks, since 3-year-old and older deer leave these signposts before younger deer do.
Good places to concentrate your efforts include abandoned logging roads, natural clearings in forests, creekbottoms, benches, knolls, fields, and staging areas—on level or slightly sloping ground that's dry but not rocky, and without heavy grass, which makes it hard for the deer to hoof the ground clear. Make sure there is a small branch 4 to 5 feet above the ground. Scrapes without an overhead limb are casual markings that won't be revisited.
And don't settle for just one scrape. Search for a line of them, indicating that they were made along a travel route. Bucks do 80 to 90 percent of their scraping at night, often right after sunset. Because of this, the best stand site is along a trail leading to a series of scrapes, where you can catch the animal moving during daylight.
Skill #4: Hunt Acorns
You need a mature hardwood forest. White and red oaks don't begin producing mast until they're two decades old, and they'll be two to three times that old before they bear their largest crops. Rocky uplands are the least productive habitats, whereas moister bottomlands have the richest yield.
WHITE OAK ACORNS drop the earliest, starting in September, so look for them first. Their nuts are small, with a sweeter flavor and less tannic acid. White oak leaves have rounded edges.
RED AND 3 BLACK OAK ACORNS fall later. Both have pointed leaf edges and larger nuts.
White oaks usually produce some acorns every year but a bumper crop only every three to five years. Red and black oaks typically have good crops every other year. For the best hunting, key in on forests with quality soil, abundant rainfall, and a mixture of red, black, white, and chestnut oaks.
Skill #5: Identify Staging Areas
Bucks don't march boldly into an open field to feed. Instead, they travel toward it, then pause when they reach a staging area within 30 to 200 yards. There they'll mill about, nibbling on whatever bushes, forbs, or fruits they can find and waiting until it's almost dark. Only then will they venture out into the open.
Identify these potential hotspots by backtracking a short way from the nighttime feeding grounds into cover, looking for an abundance of sign such as disturbed leaves, tracks, nibbled stems on bushes, droppings, and rubs. Check the wind conditions and place your stand downwind. Expect deer to arrive at the staging area 10 to 30 minutes before sunset.
Skill #6: Decode Droppings
The first thing to determine is whether a deer really left that pile. Rabbit pellets are lighter, more scattered, and round. Deer droppings are darker, more tightly clustered, and oval. They are a deep dark brown at first and turn lighter brown after a few days. After a few weeks, they become paler still, almost tan. The newest droppings—less than 12 hours old—look shiny and moist.
Fresh pellets that are firm and hard indicate that the deer was browsing on twigs and bushes. Scout clear-cuts, selectively logged areas, and transition zones between bedding and feeding areas for habitat with large bushes or young trees. If the droppings are moister and softer, the animal has been consuming a mixture of browse and either grasses, alfalfa, or clover. And if they're almost loose, the deer has likely been eating fruits.
Finally, consider the size of the pile. A large one suggests a good-size deer, possibly a mature buck.
Skill #6: Locate Bedding Areas
Look for beds in two key areas—nighttime feeding spots and daylight resting spots. Beds that you find in alfalfa and clover fields, abandoned orchards, oak flats, and other prime open feeding areas were made after dark.
Backtrack from these through likely travel corridors and transition areas toward heavier cover or higher elevations. Go partway into moderately heavy cover and you'll likely find several beds clustered together. Some will be medium, some small. These are doe and fawn beds.
Now head for even higher benches and knolls—or in flat terrain, denser cover, thickets, and swamps. Begin searching here for lone beds, 3 to 4 feet long, belonging to mature bucks. In summer and early fall, you may see several of these fairly close together, made by several bachelors.
These are key daytime hangouts. Once you find them, don't return again or the buck may get spooked and switch to a different area. Instead, back off 150 to 300 yards along travel routes from the bedding area and hang a stand. If you can locate both night- and daytime beds, all you have to do is connect the dots and find good stand spots between them at funnel points.
Skill #7: Use a Trail Camera
Trail cameras can be toys or they can be useful scouting tools. Put out a pile of corn and you can burn up lots of film and get some great shots, but it does nothing for your hunting. The right way to use these gadgets is to place them along natural travel routes you've found through scouting. This will help you pin down which trails are most likely being used by mature bucks in the area and which are frequented mostly by does and fawns.
If you find a well-used deer path, put a camera there but also look for lightly used paths off to the side and 30 to 60 yards downwind. Those are the kind of spots where big bucks are likely to turn up. Avoid checking trail cameras too often. Once every two to four days is plenty.
Skill #8: Identify Food Sources
A deer consumes 5 pounds or more of forage per day. You can narrow your search for hot feeding areas by looking closely for sign: hoofprints, soft fresh droppings, and partially chewed apples in an abandoned orchard; nipped-off raspberry, greenbrier, and blackberry leaves on bushes in travel corridors; honeysuckle plants with leafless stems; partially chewed maple leaves; scraps of persimmons, wild pears, quince, or pawpaws; trails leading to cornfields with broken-down stalks, soybean fields with plants stripped of leaves, and alfalfa fields that look ragged with the tender tops chewed away. Since deer lack upper front teeth, the stems of the plants will be torn off rather than neatly snipped.