Late Summer Scouting for Whitetails
by Larry Waishuhn, host of DSC’s “Trailing the Hunter’s Moon”
“That Ruger FTW Hunter of yours really does like Hornady 250-grain GMX, doesn’t it?” commented Tim Fallon, owner and proprietor of the Sportsman’s All-Weather All-Terrain Marksmanship school at FTW Ranch in Barksdale, TX, when I showed him two targets I had shot at the Lodge range with my .375 Ruger a few minutes before.
“Yes Sir!” I said, and described what I did to achieve that result. “Three shots essentially into the same hole at 50 yards, and basically the same at 100. That impresses me! From the range card you did for me, sighted dead on at 50 yards it’s again dead on at 200 yards, and only 3-inches low at 250.”
“I ‘trued it’ at the 200 and 250-yard steel plates. At the latter, I hit the plate 3-inches low of dead center with a dead center hold. I noticed on the range card with the Trijicon 4-15X scope you mounted on the rifle for me, at 750 yards, I simply hold the tenth line down from the primary center crosshair on target. I haven’t trued the rifle/scope/ammo at that distance. But next time I come up, I want to try to do exactly that,” I said. Not that I would ever shoot at a critter at that distance. But I do admit shooting at and hitting steel plates that far away with what most hunters consider an ‘elephant gun’ is great fun.
“You coming back to the ranch before we leave for Sweden and Norway?” asked Tim, knowing I dearly love spending time on his FTW Ranch, which thankfully is only about 60 miles north of where I live. I love going to FTW not only to shoot and visit with those attending S.A.A.M. and the instructors, but also to spend time learning about the critters that live there, especially whitetail deer.
“Based on how I shot at the range today, I feel pretty confident being able to hit a small bodied roe deer at 200 yards should I need to, and a reindeer even farther out. In either instance I, like you, hope to get as close as possible before pulling the trigger. From what Stefan with Scandinavian Prohunters told us at the Dallas Safari Club convention, where we had Patty Curnutte (www.theglobalsportsman.com) set up the hunt, with both animals we should get opportunities at one hundred yards or less,” I countered. Tim nodded an affirmative. “I do want to come back, however, right after we get back from our Scandinavian safari to do some whitetail scouting. I know you’ve got some whitetails here that will bear looking for. If not for me, then certainly for some of your clients coming to hunt later this fall.” Tim again nodded an affirmative.
The FTW produces some absolute monstrously antlered whitetails, the result of an excellent management program in terms of both range and herd. Each year the ranch does numerous controlled burns, which provide fresh, plentiful, and excellent nutritious browse and forage growth. Deer and exotic game populations on the ranch are also carefully monitored and controlled. During hard nutrition times in that region of the Texas Hill Country, in late winter and late summer, the ranch also provides supplemental feed, but only if needed. The deer and exotic populations are carried at a density the range can support during the worst of vegetation times.
For the past several years, my grandsons and granddaughter have hunted the FTW Ranch, helping Fallon and crew with their management program by harvesting does and bucks with less-than-desirable antlers for their age. As any hunter/conservationist will tell you, deer populations need to be controlled to insure proper habitat management. Doing so keeps the deer herd healthy, but more importantly, it keeps the habitat healthy insuring diversity of vegetation and of wildlife. Under such management programs all wildlife benefits, especially song birds, small mammals, insects – truly all wildlife.
I, too have helped with shooting does on the FTW. With roper habitat management (meaning plentiful native food) does provide extremely good tasting venison. I have, however, on occasion also hunted bucks on the FTW. One year I also took a 170 class 10-point with a short drop-tine, a buck for which I hunted several days. My choice of firearms for that hunt was my Ruger Model 77 Hawkeye, a Guide Rifle chambered in .375 Ruger, shooting Hornady’s 300-grain DGX. That particular Ruger preferred the DGX ammo over any other. With it I could easily keep five shots within a 1-inch group at 100 yards from a solid rest. Perhaps more importantly, I knew exactly where the bullet would go when I shot a deer at 200 yards and beyond.
Timing, Techniques, and What to Look For
Tim and crew use a fair number of trail cameras to help them get an idea of where bucks are traveling, and to some extent, when. Me? I appreciate trail cameras and the information gained from them when I’m scouting for other hunters. But when it comes to my personal hunting, I like being surprised by what might be found in the area I hunt. Maybe it’s a bit “old school,” but to me there is something to be said about hunting where the bucks don’t all have names. Although, in years past, I occasionally named the bucks, but not these days!
Maybe, too, I’m a bit old school when it comes to scouting for mature bucks. I enjoy doing some during the late summer, however, I do most of my scouting starting in late winter. I concede the summer to the deer, and start scouting again late summer to early fall, mostly from a distance.
During the late winter I spend a fair amount of time looking for shed or cast antlers. Over the years, hunting numerous places across North America for whitetails and looking for shed antlers, my clients (back when I used to guide on the ranches I managed) and I have frequently ended up taking a particular buck within less than 100 yards of where I found his cast antler the previous winter. I’ve found that some truly old mature bucks tend to have rather small home ranges. Not all of the bucks I’ve dealt with, but enough to have that work for me. Some of the bucks I’ve hunted decreased the area over which they ranged as they got older. In so doing, they became extremely knowledgeable of their home. These are the bucks that tend to be extremely wary and secretive. They know every square inch of their reduced range, including how to avoid hunters. These, too, are the bucks I truly enjoy pursuing and with which to match wits. Sometimes I win, but most of the time I don’t!
Scrapes, Rubs, and Keeping Track
I look for their cast antlers, but also try to determine where the bucks who’ve shed them have their scrapes and rubs. Often these rubs and scrapes show repeated use of the same rubbing trees and same scrapes year after year. Being old school, rather than using “Google Earth” or similar apps, I tend to hand draw maps of the area I hunt showing the various features of the property.
I usually start my post-season scouting about two weeks after the deer seasons close. By then the deer are pretty well back to their normal patterns and they’re not spooked badly by human presence. With map and pen in hand, I do my best to find all the rubs and scrapes in the area. I look for rubs with scars for past years’ use. And I look for scrapes that are deep and show a lot of use. I mark the location of these on my hand-drawn map. These will serve as reference points for where I’ll want to start hunting the following fall.
Interestingly, I watched a particular scrape on a cedar tree about 40 miles from where I live. The scrape was active every year I checked until about four years ago, when the new landowner bulldozed that ancient cedar tree. That scrape remained active for at least 21 years, and it was likely active years before I started watching it. During those years, particularly the early ones when I hunted that property personally, I guided several hunters to good bucks in the immediate area and rattled up a lot of bucks there!
When I find cast antlers, I mark them on my map and number them with a corresponding number on the map where I found the antler. I also note if it appears to come from mature, or about-to-be mature, bucks. In subsequent years, if I find cast antlers from the same buck, I can compare them in terms of size from year to year.
Preparing the Range
In mid-summer, I return to the hunting area where I did my late winter scouting and shed hunting. If the property has a dense thicket, I go into the thicket and cut some winding trails, about 6-feet wide, into the thicket. I lay these out so, regardless which way the wind blows, I can hunt these “cuts,” particularly from the ground, using my Nature Blinds’ Stalking Shield (www.natureblinds.com) and my Rattling Forks (www.rattlingforks.com) rattling horns.
I cut the vegetation down to about two inches above the ground. When finished, I fertilize these trails with Triple 13 fertilizer or whatever cheap fertilizer I can buy at the local feed/seed dealer. These make great secretive and hidden food plots. This task accomplished, I don’t return to these areas until I’m ready to hunt them.
If there are mast trees on the property, I spend some time in August and early September looking to see what particular trees are producing acorns. When there are many acorn/nuts of soft mast (persimmon) producing trees, I select several. I return to those trees during winter and fertilize them with the cheapest fertilizer I can find at the local feed/seed dealer. I dig a shallow trench along the drip-line, where the outermost branches end, which is where the tree’s primary feed roots are. I pour fertilizer into the trench then rake the soil back into place.
Fertilizing mast trees makes their nuts and fruits “sweeter.” Deer quickly pick up on the “sweeter” and more nutritious acorns and soft mast. In a short time, they’ll feed on the fruit and nuts from these trees before and above they do any other. By fertilizing mast trees, you can actually pull deer to one individual tree or a grouping of trees, creating a natural and legal food plot.
Other Attractive Natural Areas
For several years I managed a considerable chunk of property in Union and Crittenden County, Kentucky, on the Ohio River where Kentucky, Illinois, and Indiana come together. The property in three different areas had considerable honeysuckle, an ideal winter browse. Interestingly, honeysuckle responds positively to fertilizer. In the area I personally hunted, every year I fertilized honeysuckle in select spots that were ideal for hunting. It was in one such fertilized honeysuckle food plot where I shot my biggest Kentucky buck. I did no scouting in these areas, and I didn’t go there until hunting season opened and I was carrying a rifle. I didn’t need to. I knew there would always be deer in the immediate area because of the honeysuckle.
The only real scouting I do these days during the late summer is to check on food, or changes in land practices, which might be different than the practices in the past. I seldom do any up-close and personal scouting during this time. I find a place where I can scout from afar using binoculars, check oak trees for acorns, or watch squirrel activity. If there are a lot of squirrels in the area, chances are there are going to be acorns. If there are acorns, there will likely be deer when those acorns start falling.
Other Opportunities to Look For
Where I hunt in Texas, water comes at a premium. In mid- to early September in Texas, mourning and whitewing dove seasons begin. I only very occasionally shoot a shotgun, but I love going on dove hunts. But, while others are shooting birds, I like to slip away from the group and go find a remote waterhole there to watch, to see what kind of deer are watering there. Over the years I’ve used such scouting techniques quite often. More than one of my really nice Texas whitetails were scouted during early fall dove season.
Two days after sighting in my rifle, I got a call from Tim Fallon. “Wait’ll you see the trail camera picture we got of a buck last night. Pretty sure it’s the old buck I told you about last hunting season. He should be 9-years old this year based on what we know about him. It looks like he’s got the best antlers he’s ever had. He just might go 180 or better. If you come hunt him, and are so fortunate to take him, I’ve got a feeling he’ll be heading to the Wildlife Gallery for them to do their taxidermy magic.” I simply smiled!
So much for my being surprised! But then the 9-year old may well turn out doing as other bucks have done in the past. Just about the time you think you’ve got an old mature buck figured out, get ready! He’s going to teach you another new lesson! It’s one of the things I dearly love about whitetail hunting!
DSC’s TRAILING THE HUNTER’S MOON appears on The Sportsman Channel, the prime airing time being Sunday nights at 9:30 pm central. To learn more about the year around series and more of Larry’s writings, please visit www.trailingthehuntersmoon.com or visit the Facebook page DSCs Trailing the Hunters Moon.