Maybe you spotted a buck feeding in an alfalfa field back in late July, or maybe a piece of land just felt good to you as you drove past it a week before the season. Whatever the case, the landowner said yes. So now, what are you going to do?
There is always the burning desire to walk the whole property to find the hottest sign and then start hunting it. But such a full-scale frontal assault is usually harmful to the real goal of deer hunting. What you need is a thoughtful strategy for hunting a spot you’ve never seen.
The approach you apply to this situation is the same one that will also make you a better hunter on the properties you hunt every year. Even if you’ve hunted one property for a lifetime, you still need to build your strategy from the ground up each season. Things change: food sources, timber cutting, development, farming practices, different bucks with different personalities and habits, the list goes on. Each new season is unique and presents new challenges to overcome and new lessons to learn. Knowing what you’re trying to accomplish is the first and most important step in the process of starting from scratch.
Understand the Goal
The following fundamentals are so important that I am tempted to classify them as the true “secrets.” Single-handedly they have the ability to make you a better hunter as soon as you put them into effect. One such bedrock principle should be the real goal of any deer hunting strategy: Don’t let the deer know they’re being hunted. It really is that simple—and that difficult.
When deer realize you’re hanging around their core area they’ll exhibit one of three responses: They’ll move off, a little wiser for the experience; they’ll become almost strictly nocturnal; or they’ll become so wary they never move without an absolute wind advantage. Even does become tough targets when exposed to hunting pressure. Any of the three responses makes the deer many times more difficult to hunt and kill.
Of course, the flipside is where the opportunity lies: If you can keep every deer in your hunting area from realizing that it’s being hunted, you will eventually succeed. Unfortunately, given the amazing ability of deer to detect danger, keeping them in the dark is no small feat. But anything you can do to reduce your impact even slightly—keeping even one deer from knowing your whereabouts—will only make you a more successful deer hunter over the long haul.
If you build your strategy on this foundation, no matter what else you do you will eventually be successful. Ignore this fundamental principle and nothing else you do will produce consistent results. So, here’s how to build your strategy on a solid foundation.
Use All Your Resources
Aerial Photos: I’d as soon hunt blind-folded as go into a season without a stack of aerial photos. What you learn from an hour studying these overhead pictures will change the way you hunt. Most of the information you need is right there: cover type and amount, most likely travel routes, even the probable food sources and bedding areas. When hunting an area for the first time, aerial photos may be your single greatest tool and an excellent way to stay ahead of changing travel patterns even in areas you hunt every year.
Aerial photos specialize in showing the cover, but you can also use them to learn something about the terrain. Shading will reveal slopes that turn into ditches and ravines. Both are terrain features that funnel deer travel. However, if you really want to understand the terrain you need to order topographical maps for your hunting area. These maps show even the most subtle terrain features such as low saddles and ditches that will influence where an undisturbed buck is likely to walk.
Word of Mouth: Never underestimate the importance of information you can pull from the landowner or others who live near your hunting area. Even though they may not be deer hunters, they still notice when a big buck crosses a road or an open field. They know things like where the big buck ran when they combined the back cornfield and where they usually cross between two woodlots. Find out everything you can: when each sighting took place, the time of the day, the direction of travel—everything.
Often, seemingly isolated incidents are not isolated when you start putting them together. Terrain or cover will influence the patterns of traveling deer in ways that you never anticipated. Only actual sightings can reveal this mystery. I’ve taken several nice bucks through the years as the direct result of advice received from area farmers. It usually goes something like this: “I always see that buck crossing the road right up on the hill,” or, “Whenever I drive back to feed the cattle there’s a buck down along the creek by that bend.” This is the very best low-impact resource at your disposal. Cultivate these relationships and act on the information. Trust me, these guys know.
Study the Wind: Changing winds have the ability to mess up your day and your hunting area quicker than any other factor. A weather radio is a valuable tool when trying to stay one step ahead of the wind. U.S. Weather Service forecasts usually provide a two-day wind outlook, providing enough information to make any stand corrections needed for the next day’s hunt. You can find weather radios in mail order catalogs from Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops. Some GPS units like Garmin’s Rino GPS/two-way radio have a weather station pre-programmed.
The Internet is another very good source for wind direction information. And since the Internet is now on many phones, there is no reason not to know what the wind is doing now and what it is going to do next.
Also, spend some time studying the topo maps to anticipate where the wind will swirl in the new hunting area. Wherever the direct flow of the wind is shielded, it will swirl. Keep that in mind and you will soon see all these spots on the maps without ever having to hang a stand and learn the hard way.
Road Crossings: You can learn a lot from the soft, dusty earth found on the sides of secondary roads. By zigzagging through your hunting area on side roads, you can find the highest deer densities and the biggest tracks. This is important information when choosing a specific stretch of river or creek bottom to hunt or trying to decide which woodlot has the most potential on any given day.
Usually there is some kind of trail through the road ditch to give you a hint on where to look, but your best chance for seeing individual tracks exists on the soft shoulder of the road itself. I study these tracks to learn two things: a) the number of deer in various parts of the hunting area and b) the size of the tracks. Of course, big tracks are the best. I usually don’t hunt the crossings themselves, but at least the information found here gives some indication of which areas have the most activity and where a big-footed buck is most likely to be on any given day. If you find a big set of tracks heading into a section, but none leaving, then you know he is still there.
Low-Impact Scouting: Walking field edges is another way you can learn while keeping your impact low. Stay on the downwind side of the woods. Again, this information will help you to find the highest concentration of big tracks. Just finding the bucks is the first half of any successful hunt.
Monitor Observation Stands