If you’re like most hunters, early spring is an exciting time for you. You’ve been waiting all winter to get back to the woods. Turkey and deer hunting seasons are so close you can almost taste them. But why wait until hunting seasons officially open, when pre-season scouting offers the perfect excuse to start your forest forays early?
Scouting is the most important pre-season activity a hunter can do, for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that in order to be an effective hunter, you must know where your game will be and when they will be there. Becoming familiar with the day-to-day activities of your quarry will put you one step ahead when hunting season finally arrives.
When to scout
The best time to go pre-season scouting depends on the reason you’re doing it. Some hunters want to familiarize themselves with the patterns of their game in general. This can be done year-round and is a good idea if you want to simply learn more about the species.
However, if you plan to scout specific game in order to hunt them, you should go as close to your planned hunting trip as possible. Most hunters will say to scout no sooner than a week before the hunt. Many hunters will plan a few extra days into their trip and spend the first day or two scouting. This method allows you to familiarize yourself with the patterns of the specific game you will be hunting.
What to look for
There are a few things to keep in mind when scouting:
- Food sources. First, pay close attention to the animals’ food sources. Knowing your game’s eating habits can help you anticipate where and when a deer or turkey will be—a powerful tool for a hunter. Scouting food sources also allows you to scope out good cover for when you are actually hunting. Take note of what time of day the animal comes out to eat, too. For example, you may know the best grazing spot for elk, but if you show up at the wrong time of day you’ll be in for a long wait.
- Water sources. It’s also important to scout for water sources. Fresh water is essential to any woodland animal, and knowing where your game gets that water is another great tool to have. It’s a good idea to spend at least a few days scouting for both food and water sources. This lets you get a feel for when the animals eat and drink, what sort of routes they take to get to the sources, and where they run off to if spooked.
- Patterning. While you’re scouting for food and water sources, pay close attention to the routes your game take. This is called patterning. Patterning helps you narrow down where game will be and when, and can eliminate needless waits. The more time you spend patterning, the better chance you’ll have of knowing where you need to be.
- Terrain. You should also have a good understanding of the area you’ll be hunting in. Are there any cliffs or ravines animals may avoid? Any lakes or streams they favor? Where are the heavily wooded areas, and where the grassy plains? Where do the animals go when it rains? When it’s warm? Cold? Take along a topographical map or aerial photograph of the area in which you’ll be hunting, and make notes about what you observe.
- Signs of life. If your scouting doesn’t amount to many sightings, don’t despair. Animals leave plenty of clues when it comes to their whereabouts. Tracks are an obvious one. Keeping an eye out for animal tracks lets you know where your game has been as well as where potential predators have been. Droppings are another obvious tell. Knowing the type of droppings your game makes can help you spot high-traffic areas. If you’re hunting deer, rubs are another great find. Rubs are worn spots caused by a deer or elk rubbing his antlers and forehead against a tree. Rubs are used by deer to mark territory, and they are a great indicator of a high-use area.
What to bring
Even if you won’t be doing any actual hunting on your scouting trip, it’s a good idea to bring along some of your hunting gear, including your binoculars and a map of the area. A sturdy hunting knife is always a good survival tool to have on hand, and a reliable LED flashlight is another must-have for any trip into the wild.
Finally, bring a notebook and pen, and make sure you record your findings. Keeping track of what you see and when you see it will prove invaluable when it comes time to hunt. The more often you scout, the more data you will have to refer to and the better able you’ll be to predict game patterns.
So grab a notebook, a map, and some warm clothes and get out there and scout. You’ll be glad you did.
~Ben Nystrom, 2010