By Jeff Johnston
By September, most states are just a month out from the bow-season opener. Trouble is, no matter how much time you’ve spent afield scouting and installing food plots and/or hanging stands, during the next 30 days bucks will likely change their patterns. To up your odds during the first weeks of the season, you should continue scouting through September, but not so heavily as to alter their movements. Here’s how.
High-Impact vs. Low-Impact Scouting
Twenty years ago hunters had less options to actively scout, and most of them were high-impact techniques, such as roaming the woods looking for sign. Today, technology allows us to receive real-time trailcam images even as we sleep. And for up-to-date, low-impact glimpses into the deer woods—intel on which you can formulate an opening day strategy—nothing beats them.
The Trailcam Revolution
If you’re like me, you have many treestand locations based on years of hunting the same property. Or maybe you’re hunting a new or a small property and have only a few stands. Either way, after you’ve conducted boots-on-the-ground scouting to find great stand locations, you need to know which stand presents the most favorable odds of tagging a bruiser when the season opens. This is best performed by sitting in these various stands several times during the days just prior to the season. In the past this meant the risk of potentially spooking a buck, so often I refrained. But trailcams allow us to be in many places at once, and so they can give you low-impact, real-time intel on where to sit—or perhaps to make minor stand location tweaks—on opening day.
One year on a whim I placed a trailcam at the base of a stand that I’d hung years prior but seldom used. When I checked the camera three days before the season opened, I saw a big 10-pointer. I hunted there on opening day, and sure enough, at 8:30 a.m., I saw him about 60 yards through the woods but couldn’t get a shot. Long after he’d wandered off, I climbed down and rehung my stand closer to the ripe acorns he’d been eating. I regret to mention that I do not have a trophy picture of him because just two hours later my arrow sailed right over his back. Other than that, the strategy of placing a camera near my stand a few days before the season, discovering a buck, and then tweaking my stand location slightly to get a shot worked beautifully.
One month before the season begins, I place a trailcam near each of my treestands. I can’t afford more than a couple cell-based units, so I’ll place these on my favorite stands that I can’t access easily. A few days before the season opens, I’ll fetch the memory cards from my easy-to-access cams to keep disturbance to a minimum. If I discover a buck worth hunting, I’ll hunt that stand the opening week, wind allowing. If I don’t see any good deer on camera—which happens all too often—each afternoon of the season I’ll sneak to another stand where I have an unchecked camera and repeat until I get an image of a good buck. When I do—or even if I get images of several does or smaller bucks that might indicate a hot oak tree starting to drop acorns—I’ll focus my hunting there.
If I still can’t find leads on any of my trailcams, I’ll do my best to not let my confidence wane. After all, trailcams only capture small slices of the surrounding woods, and traversing bucks are often missed. So I’ll repeat the process until something turns up or until the pre-rut begins in late October and patterns change. This low-impact method of scout-hunting gives me purpose rather than just wandering around the woods scouting (and spooking) deer or sitting blindly in a stand.
In other more open or crop-heavy regions of the country, hunters may be able to glass from afar to scout specific deer before deciding exactly where to hunt. For example, if your hunting property has large areas of open country, crop fields, food plot meadows, towering hills, or mountain vantages, you should take advantage of them by actually getting out and scouting just before the season with your own two eyes.
Try to use any natural cover from which to glass, like atop hay bales on a field’s edge, windmills, sitting farm equipment, barn lofts, highway pullouts, etc. If none are available, you might be best served by hanging a surveillance treestand a few hundred yards from where you believe bucks will frequent.
Glass at dawn and/or dusk with 10X or 12X binoculars. If you see a shooter, note the exact time and place he entered and exited. If you see him again in the days that follow, you’ve established some type of pattern and now have a clue as where to hang a stand or how to tweak one you may already have in the area. But if hanging a stand requires massive disturbance, you might be better served to go in on opening day with a climbing stand. Hang it on the edge of the field downwind from where you saw him enter or exit.
After the hunt, lightly scout for entry and exit trails, tweak the stand location if need be, and quietly cut shooting lanes if you must. Then set a trailcam so you can scout the buck even while you’re not around.
Word of Mouth
Another great low-impact scouting tactic is to ask nearby farmers, neighbors, mailmen, or oil field workers if they’ve seen any big deer on or near your property lately. Of course, some of these folks might not be willing to divulge such info, but most will. And because most of these people are on schedules, they’ll know approximately what time they tend to see a giant buck jump the fence near your property during the last days of September. So either hang a trailcam there to see for yourself or hang a stand if you don’t have better leads.
And for any intel given, it never hurts to give the source a nice little gift to show your appreciation. Plenty of times my neighbors have clued me into big bucks that I otherwise wouldn’t have known existed. This word-of-mouth, low-impact scouting can make all the difference come opening day.
The Essentials Gear Box.
Our editors have hand-picked these essential pieces of gear to make you a more successful hunter when you hit the game trails this season.