Scouting Whitetails for Archery Season


By Robin Follette

Being new to bow hunting, there are a lot of things I need to learn. My biggest lesson to date is the difference in the behavior of bucks between our bow and rifle seasons. Seeing bucks outside of our rifle season is great, of course. Studying the details of their behavior felt like learning a sub-species. Coming off a long bear hunting season that required too many hours in the blind and stands to get the job done, my bow hunting time was limited. I asked experienced bow hunters for advice to help me make fewer mistakes.

Our expanded archery season opens the second week of September with the rest of the state opening the end of the month. Because the rut is still months away with an earlier date for when we start scouting in July, bucks aren’t “doe stupid.” They are more aware of our presence because they aren’t distracted by hormones.

If you canvas the area in July and possibly August depending on when your archery season opens, there’s time for the deer to forget about you. Look for where they’re bedding down at night, where they’re feeding and bedding down (probably side by side) during the day, and where they’re going to water. Whitetails get most of their water from the plants they eat but still drink, especially in a drought when the moisture in the plants is lower. Since you won’t be calling bucks during early and mid-season bow hunting you’ll be looking for them as they travel and eat.

Low buck rub on tree.

Look for alternate routes back to your vehicle. You might get away with crossing an open field at noon but need to come back out through the woods to avoid bumping into deer an hour later.

Google Earth is helpful at locating trails in an area you aren’t familiar with. It’s so detailed now that it shows trails in our woods before leaves open and after they drop. I didn’t recognize a good sign on a trail because I focused too tightly on the trail and not my surroundings. A lightly used trail, probably a buck’s trail, intersected with a heavier trail I know does, fawns and young bucks use.

I missed a lightly traveled trail until six or seven piles of droppings in a 10’ x 10’ area were pointed out to me. Once you’ve discovered a trail look at small openings trailside. The piles of droppings in that small space are indicative of what we now know is a nine-point buck that beds down there at night. There isn’t any grass to flatten but once pointed out to me I could see where the duff was compressed.

Tracks show he comes into the opening from the area of a bog and leaves going out the same direction. There were no tracks heading toward the bog. There are two good places to set up a tree stand, one before and one after the opening. I’ll have a stand ready before archery season opens next year.

Look for old scrapes and rubs. They’re harder to spot than fresh ones and they won’t tell you how long ago a buck was there, but they’ll indicate territory. Bucks tend to return to those markers and licking branches from year to year.

Example of a scrape.

Game cameras on trails are helpful but won’t give you as many photos as you get in October. Instead of checking cameras once a week, once or twice a month is plenty. Feeding grounds are likely to change as the summer progresses. Our food plots weren’t touched until late September, and then the fields they’d been frequenting all summer were empty. Traffic to agricultural fields picks up later in summer as corn and soybeans ripen. Stock tanks and natural springs are great places for cameras during dry spells. You’ll either need to move your cameras as they change locations, or have another set of cameras.

Consider growing grass and weeds when you put cameras out in the summer. You won’t be back for at least two weeks, probably three. I didn’t take this into consideration when I placed a camera at a natural spring. Weeds grow incredibly fast and by the third week they were tall enough to trigger the camera. I had 1,786 pictures of swaying weeds and five pictures of a doe.

The edges of fields are good places to scout from the road. A set of binoculars or a rangefinder will help you assess the deer from the road. Deer are accustomed to traffic and won’t think much of your vehicle parked three hundred yards away.

Remaining scent free can be a bigger challenge during archery season than in the cooler months, especially as opening day gets closer. We get warm and might sweat, especially when putting up tree stands. The mosquitoes and other biting insects are likely to be out during prime hunting times of early morning and evening, and bug spray is tempting. Sunscreen should be avoided unless it’s scent free. Watch out for heavily suntan-lotioned folks in line at the convenience store when you stop for a cold drink.

Early scrapes and rubs might be smaller than later in the season. This scrape looks more like a skid mark made by a young buck slipping in the mud. The rub is low, ground level, and small. Look closely and without preconceived notions of what you’re supposed to find. Good luck!