Spend the preseason scouting deer and you only have it half right. You also need to scout other hunters. What other hunters do has a huge impact on deer, so you need to figure out their movements beforehand. Dr. James Kroll, noted whitetail biologist and author of The Art and Science of Patterning Whitetails, knows how to do both. Here’s his advice.
THE COMPETITION First, find the hunters. The good news is that most are easy to pattern, according to Kroll. “Average Joe will stick with the same strategies and hunting areas that got him his first deer,” he says. “Consequently, deer pattern him very quickly.” So can you.
Start by sitting down with a topo map or an aerial photograph of your hunting area and a couple of highlighter pens. Using a ruler and the map scale, highlight all ground within 1,500 feet of a road. Do the same for land around power lines, pipelines, two-tracks, and any paths open to ATVs or other offroad vehicles . These easily accessible areas will attract heavy hunting pressure, and deer will avoid them.
Next, map the tree stands . Typically, hunters return year after year to favorite stands, says Kroll, whose tracking studies show that deer quickly learn to stay away from these places. The phenomenon contributes to what he calls New Member Syndrome: “Someone joins a hunting club, and everybody sends him to a spot where they think there are no deer. But guess what happens: The guy gets a buck.” Use your preseason trips afield to locate existing stands, then highlight them on your map.
Once you locate the high-pressure zones in your area, also consider the high-pressure times. “The vast majority of people hunt from dawn to 10, then again from 3 P.M. until dark,” Kroll notes. “Yet research shows a distinct midday peak in the movements of mature bucks.” Plan to pack a lunch and hit your spots between 11 A.M. and 2 P.M.
THE QUARRY Next, find the deer. Mapping high-pressure zones eliminates huge swaths of territory. Although there’s still lots of ground unshaded on your map, not all of it holds deer. So grab another highlighter pen and start eliminating the obvious.
A buck sanctuary, by Kroll’s definition, is any spot that is infrequently disturbed by people, with enough cover to hide a deer. Shading areas that offer little cover , then, excludes more ground and lets you examine more closely the remaining unshaded areas of your map.
“Look for terrain that features some kind of barrier to hunters,” Kroll suggests. Hilltops surrounded by steep slopes; stretches of good cover isolated by streams, marshes, or property lines; and ravines screened by thick brush dissuade all but the most motivated hunters. As long as you’re willing to go the extra yards and through some tough terrain, you can have these areas virtually to yourself.
Now hit the field for an up-close look at the potential hideouts you’ve marked on your map. “The first thing you need to figure out is where deer are traveling,” Kroll says, “so get out and look for rubs.” Record the rubs you find , then connect the dots to identify travel corridors.
Finally, mark key food sources  such as cropfields, oak trees, and even weed patches on ground disturbed by cattle, paying special attention to those connected by travel corridors to the hideouts you mapped. These offer the best-case scenario: good hiding spots with sheltered access to food.
Now take one last look at your map: You should have at least a couple–and probably a few–unpressured hotspots  to focus on when the season opens.
With deer numbers at historic highs in much of the country, traditional scouting tactics often lead to information overload, especially when you’re studying tracks to figure out a buck’s direction of travel. Ground that’s too heavily trodden is more likely to leave you confused than to provide any useful clues.
The solution is to take advantage of a well-timed storm. A hard overnight rain that ends be fore daybreak, for instance, obscures or erases old tracks just before deer move from their feeding areas back to their beds. If you head out for a scouting session in the morning, you will likely find fresh hoofprints on a slate that had been wiped clean–clearly showing you the travel routes that deer use to return to their bedrooms.
Likewise, an afternoon thunderstorm that ends before dusk gives you the perfect opportunity to find fresh tracks that trace the route from beds to feeding areas. So scout around these timely storms, and you’ll get hard proof of where the deer are. –Steven Hill
LOOK OFF THE BRIGHT SIDE: A topo map, highlighter pens, and a process of elimination can lead you to a trophy whitetail.