Finding and Identifying Sign is something I do year round. Many times I tell people I hunt all year, but I can start killing on September 15th. What I mean by that is when archery season opens in Missouri my scouting is complete. On opening day I’m ready to sit in that one particular location that my most recent information dictates should give me the best opportunity to be successful in the early season. This doesn’t mean I don’t spend plenty of time scouting during the hunting season, but opening day is not the time to start. As soon as our season closes on January 15th I’m thinking of my next move. In recent years I haven’t even taken my trail cameras out of the woods.
This begs an important question however. As a new hunter, what do you look for when examining your hunting property for the coming season? Every hunter I’ve ever met has slightly different strategies, but there are three biological factors about whitetails that every woodsman should always consider; food, sleep and sex. These three factors will not change with geographical locations, but finding and identifying signs and locations of each will differ between different locations around the country. Since the majority of my experience comes form the Midwest, this is where I will focus my suggestions.
My hunting generally takes place on two types of terrain within the Midwest. In Missouri we have the hills and hollers of the Ozark Mountains in the southern part of the state and gentle rolling hills with open crop farm land in the north. Since I set a goal each year of killing mature whitetails I hunt mostly in the timber rather than the edges of open fields. My strategy and goals remain the same regardless of my location, but there are many more acres of big woods in some parts of the Midwest than others and that’s where I set out to reach my goals, in the timber.
Fortunately for me and my goals, deer sign is much more obvious in the woods than wide open spaces and the first sign I will look for is that of travel routes. Trails are usually pretty obvious. Just think of a sidewalk next to a road. They aren’t giant, but you can find them if you just pay attention. These travel routes will reveal much information and I usually start by finding where they transition form the woods to the fields. Remember that one of our biological factors is food, and if we can find where deer are entering the fields to eat we can find where they’re coming from.
The next level of identification is social areas, or what many call staging areas. These are usually within 100 yards into the timber from an open field. These areas will show signs of droppings, rubs and scrapes as deer will communicate with each other here. The large amount of sign will show that these areas are a funnel where larger numbers of deer will come together from different directions deeper within the woods. If I want to target a mature buck I will look for rubs on small to medium sized trees. Imagine taking a knife and carving one side of a tree down past the outer bark. The result will be a lighter portion on the tree that sticks out like a flag. This is a buck’s way of communicating that his property line starts here and that other bucks should stay away. This relates to the biological factor of sex and is also an area in which I like to focus my efforts.
However, it’s important to understand the third biological factor of sleep. Many times these rubs will lead to a buck’s bedding area. Although a deer can be found bedding anywhere with safe cover from predators, bedding areas will will normally be more prevalent in thicker parts of the forest. In the Midwest your odds of disturbing a bedding area are higher in denser locations with a high concentration of cedar trees. It’s also pretty easy to identify when you’ve gone too close because there is usually very fine line within the woods where hardwoods turn into cedars. Don’t cross that line. In fact, try not to get close to it. Allow deer to remain comfortable and undisturbed in their bedrooms. Hardwoods will produce mast crop like acorns and other browse that will attract a deer’s biological need to feed. Take advantage of the trails and rub lines that lead to these more open spaces within the hardwoods and pay attention to droppings to determine how recent deer have been around. If you find droppings that are shiny, soft and moist you’re in an area where at least does are feeding.
Even in areas with much of the aforementioned sign I may not see the older age class of deer I want to target until closer to the pre rut. This is a time of year, usually beginning in late October when a whitetail’s third biological urge will take over. This is also the perfect time to take advantage of mistakes a buck will make when the overwhelming need to find a doe ready to bread will become more important than his otherwise keen sense to survive. If you’ve placed your stand or blind in an area where does are feeding and socializing, then you’re in a great spot to see bucks looking for and even chasing these does.
Think of it like going out to a nightclub. You don’t want to wait outside nor do you want to sit at the bar eating and drinking. You want to be somewhere in the middle of the dance floor where everyone is ready to party.