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Deer: Post-Season Scouting, Part 3 - Mapping Hot Stand Sites - Pacific Northwest Bowhunting

Mapping Hot Stand Sites

In parts 1 and 2 of this series I focused on gathering intelligence on deer movement and core rut zones.  In part 3, we’re going to put that data to work.  Before we begin, I want to clarify what I mean by “hot stand sites”.  I define a “stand site” as a good location to set up either a ground blind or treestand.  A “hot” stand site is the precise location carefully selected to provide the highest odds at shot opportunities on bucks when you plan to hunt that location.  Still-Hunting is a different topic altogether so for the context of this post, we’ll not delve into it here.

So, let’s get busy.  Armed with marked up aerials, topo maps, and a notebook, it’s time to sit down and really put a strategy in motion – at the kitchen table.  Food sources, trail networks, shed antler locations, deer sightings (including time of year, weather, and what they were doing) are all important pieces of the puzzle.  No detail is too small or irrelevant.  Early season stand locations will be dramatically different than late season spots so I’ll break them down a bit.  But in either case, it is important to inform your “boot time” in the field with considerable planning on paper ahead of time, thereby minimizing your intrusion and scent dispersal imposed on your hunting areas.

Early Season* (August/September)

Key points:

  • Best time of year to “pattern” bucks
  • Hunt food sources but don’t overlook water sources in hot weather
  • Low impact scouting – glassing, trailcams
  • Be aware of thermals and time of day when choosing stand location

In general, early season bucks will still be in their summer patterns and may still be in velvet, especially smaller bucks.  Typically, they will be hanging together in small groups.  It’s difficult to pinpoint a really “hot” stand location during the early season mainly because lush summer food is everywhere, the urge to breed isn’t yet in play, and deer are dispersed enjoying the dog days of summer.  Still, bucks will be more visible early and late in the day, and if there is ever a time to pattern a mature blacktail buck it is during the first 5-10 days of the early season.  Until they shed velvet (and assuming they aren’t bothered) their activity patterns will remain somewhat predictable.  Granted, you typically won’t find the same buck using the same trail day in, day out, but you can usually get enough information to dial in the general movement pattern and preferred feeding area.  Watch the wind and set up accordingly.

Generally, I do not try to unravel bedding areas during the early season unless the situation calls for it.  Instead I focus on food and water.  Bucks will feed continually throughout the day, in fact, I’d go as far as to say that if you see an undisturbed buck on his feet, he’ll be feeding.  They will water at least once per day, more frequently during sustained hot weather, and they feed throughout the day, often bedding within their primary feed areas such a clear cut bench or on the uphill side of a stump/tree.  During the early season trail cameras can be extremely valuable in figuring out deer movements and learning about the age-class of bucks in the area.  Glassing from a high point or a treestand from a distance can also provided an excellent means to see what is moving, when, and where.  I once counted 16 different bucks and a bear in one evening from a “scouting” stand set 25 feet up at the edge of a large clear cut.  Staying downwind and using the power of optics to dissect the extensive feed area, I was able to watch a pile of undisturbed bucks without breaking a sweat or tipping them off.  And because I was 25 feet off the ground, I could see more country – and more bucks.  It may surprise you but this was on public land in a highly pressured area, along a major logging road.

*California’s bow season opens in July. 

Late Season (October – December)

Key points:

  • Think “Does”
  • Avoid crowds
  • Funnels are key
  • Bucks will scent check resident doe groups and their trail networks
  • Expect action at any time of day

Note: A lot of people are interested in rattling and calling blacktails, and I am dedicated to these tactics.  However, that’s a topic for a future post.

In general, between October 1 and December 31, bucks will be interested in breeding.  Think of these two dates as either end of the intensity bell curve, with the peak somewhere in between.  That “somewhere” is also a topic for a future post so for now just assume it’s around mid-November.

Does, does, does…it’s almost a cliché to “hunt the does” but it truly is the name of the game.  And precisely why you need to keep track of does year-round.  As a general rule, especially in non-migratory deer herds, does generally use the same range all year.  So it’s logical to think that these does will attract bucks like magnets as the rut phases progress.  This attraction equates to increased daytime movement and opens the door of opportunity for the well-studied bowhunter.  Your goal is simply to place your stand along a buck’s path during legal shooting hours.  It’s much easier to write those words than it is to do in the woods.  To be successful, you need to consider these five primary factors:

  1. Hunting pressure
  2. The whereabouts of doe groups and home ranges
  3. Knowledge of topography and trail systems
  4. Prevailing wind direction
  5. Access

To illustrate how I process this list of variables, review the image below.  [Note: click the image, then click the smaller image again after the page loads to see it full size].  Use your maps and aerial images to get you close, and do the fine tuning on the ground.  I’ve noted doe sightings with yellow “D’s”, rubs with red “R’s”, shed antlers with icons, major travel routes/trails with white lines.  The red ovals are my “mapped” stand locations.  I may have two or three stands set up for each location to handle varying winds.  In any case, the first factor I consider is hunting pressure.  Bottom line – I avoid other hunters at all cost, even if I know a good buck is in the area.  I’ve had too many people walk under my stands or otherwise blunder my hunts.  I’d rather work harder to locate unpressured pockets of deer to hunt than waste my precious hunting time by being impacted by other hunters.

I’m a big fan of funnels between known doe hangouts because they concentrate movements of multiple trails through a finite location.  If I can’t locate a good funnel, then I look for trail intersections and hunt the downwind side.  Hunting a single trail is good but hunting intersections multiply your odds considerably because bucks will scent check these trails regularly at any point during the day as the rut heats up.  As the calendar gives way to November, I target thickets and intimate doe hangouts.  Bucks will be on their feet and on the move, often covering miles of country per day.  I killed my 2009 buck over 1 mile as the crow flies from where I had been collecting trailcam photos of him.  He left his core area to find a receptive doe – a doe I’d been keeping tabs on for a full year.

Prevailing winds can change daily due to fall storms and the ever-swirling jet stream in the Pacific Northwest.  Stay flexible, memorize the 5-factors checklist and review it each time you set up a stand.  There is not a single recipe that works, but if you have addressed all five points, you are on the right track to own the game and maximize your odds at a good buck..  Fine tuning is always necessary.  For example, I packed a stand for two days trying to find the perfect tree to put me inside bow range of prime spots before I realized a treestand wouldn’t work well for that area.  I hunted from the ground and killed a buck on my first hunt.

In Part 4 I’ll explain  how shed antlers can tell you more than meets the eye.  Stay tuned!