Change of Plans

    Many deer hunters resort to the same tactics year after year with inconsistent results. If you’re stuck in a deer hunting rut, here are some ways to break out of it and find more success.

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    — By Dylan Tramp

    Many whitetail hunters resort to sitting the same spots day in and day out, season after season. Reading the signs and knowing when to pull the plug can be difficult, as hunters simply like to stick with what they know and are comfortable with.

    There’s the saying, “if you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.” If you didn’t fill your deer tag last season, or simply didn’t find the success you desired, there comes a time when you need a change. Here’s a look at some ways you can adapt that will hopefully lead to punched tags and filled freezers. 

    Benefits of Exploring New Places

    Branching out and trying something new or learning new hunting areas can help you grow as a hunter. When starting fresh, you will be forced to put together a new puzzle with no preconceived notions hindering your success.

    Hopefully, this enables you to find a fresh new perspective and learn things that you might have previously overlooked, such as how deer are using the landscape, what is their preferred browse, where they like to bed, and, in general, why they do what they do.

    After stimulating your brain and learning new areas, you can then apply what you’ve learned to your old stomping grounds. You might even find a new favorite honey hole. Just be careful not to get too attached, because the goal is to continue learning and adding to your existing skill set.

    Reading Sign

    With the advancement of technology, a majority of deer scouting can be done online utilizing satellite imagery and topographical maps. However, e-scouting will never be able to completely replace boots on the ground scouting. Setting foot on the land gives you the opportunity to see deer trails, rubs, scrapes, beds, terrain funnels and other factors that you otherwise wouldn’t know exist.

    Whitetail scouting can be a year-round event, though certain times of the year can be more productive. When scouting an entirely new area, spring can be tough to beat. Between the snow melt and spring green up, last year’s deer sign is usually still highly visible. Scrapes have not yet filled in with grasses. Trails are very apparent in the fallen leaves. Rubs still look fresh and are visible from long distances. Scouting during the spring gives us an accurate look at where the deer were last fall. When hunting this year’s rut, look for signs of past rutting activity and you have a great starting point.

    Midseason Scouting

    While off-season scouting has its time and place, hunters willing to adapt should also continue scouting throughout the season. By taking the time to survey deer movement throughout the season, hunters are able to study deer activity in real time and adapt accordingly. Every small effort adds up in the big picture.

    Midseason scouting can be as simple as scouting from your pickup, watching deer feed in nearby ag fields. By being present and studying the local deer movement, not only will you learn their preferred food source, but you’ll also quickly eliminate less productive areas. By scouting from your vehicle, you might even get a visual of a target buck on a daylight pattern. If so, you now know when and where to strike.

    Midseason boots on the ground scouting still plays an invaluable role. If you live in areas with less agriculture, or hunt exclusively within the timber, you likely will not be able to scout deer effectively from your vehicle. Conversely, there is value in low-impact scouting and keeping human disturbance to a minimum.

    This is certainly true if you have only one small property to hunt or don’t have abundant opportunities on nearby public land. In this scenario, you certainly don’t want to hinder your success and let the deer know you’re hunting them. But, at the same time, this is why we should continue to adapt, explore new places, give ourselves options and roll the dice.

    When you decide to get aggressive and take to the woods midseason, observe fresh sign and start putting the whitetail puzzle together. Head out with purpose, and force yourself to answer several questions along the way. Where are the bucks going to be this time of year? What is their primary need? Where is this trail leading to and from? Was this scrape or rub likely made in the daylight or under the cover of darkness? Is the sign fresh, or was this activity from a month ago? Where are deer likely bedding? When you find the bedding, think, why are they bedding here? And lastly, how can I take advantage of this information to find success?

    Studying Hunting Pressure

    Another component of my scouting strategy includes observing other hunting pressure. If you share a property with multiple hunters or hunt public land, this is an important factor to consider. Simply put, if the deer are being pressured, they will find places without danger and take refuge there.

    For example, your trail camera might show a big buck walking by your favorite ladder stand at 2 a.m., which should tell you that mature deer in that area are not likely visiting heavily pressured areas during shooting hours.

    When it comes to hunting heavily pressured areas, find tucked away areas with minimal human intrusion, and you’ll likely find deer. 

    Find areas with minimal human intrusion, and you will likely find deer. If you scout exclusively during the offseason, you likely will not get a clear picture of the local hunting pressure. By studying parking areas and walking the woods in search of treestands, trail cameras and ground blinds, you will quickly realize whether your newfound honey hole is already public knowledge or a new secret spot you can add to your list.

    Adaptive Strategies

    In recent years, the term “aggressive” gets thrown around in reference to whitetail hunting strategies. While some of these intrusive techniques can be considered aggressive, I like to think of it as adapting to the current situation at hand. If you aren’t seeing deer at your regular spots, adapt and find places that the deer are currently using.

    A simple, yet effective strategy is to slowly scout the area with the wind in your face to ensure you aren’t blowing out the entire area upon entry. Bring along your weapon of choice, a portable treestand or even a simple stool. If you find extremely fresh sign in abundance, hit the brakes. Situate yourself near the sign while ensuring your human scent in a safe direction. Productive sign might include a large community scrape within timber, a very fresh rub line, heavily used trails with fresh scat, or even a heavily used watering hole or creek crossing.

    Another aggressive strategy that is gaining in popularity is the infamous “bump and dump.” If you are in the thick of it and accidentally bump a mature buck out of his bed, mark a waypoint and ready yourself for his return. The thought process is the buck likely beds in this area for a reason and has done so for many years. It is a safe place and was carefully selected to offer protection from approaching danger. If the buck was bedded during the midday hours and caught you approaching, his bedding location worked to his advantage and he got away safely.

    Many avid whitetail hunters will tell you that you can kick a buck out of his bedding area once and he will return to investigate. If you bump him out of the area twice, he will likely not return and find a new area, free of human intrusion. If you find yourself in this situation, have a treestand at the ready and set it up considering tomorrow’s anticipated wind direction. Then, slip in the following morning under the cover of darkness in hopes the buck returns to his sanctuary.

    Another strategy is to simply spend more time scouting deer during the season, even if it means taking a few days off from hunting. Just as you did while offseason scouting, drive back roads and glass open fields in hopes of catching a buck on his feet during daylight. With this strategy, you will cover more ground than you would have sitting in one spot and studying localized deer movement. If you catch a buck on his feet, slip in the following day with a targeted approach.

    Mobile Hunting Logistics

    It is important to touch briefly on the logistical side of becoming a more mobile hunter. While fancy equipment isn’t always necessary, using quality gear can absolutely make for a much more pleasant experience. In turn, a more pleasant experience will likely result in continuing your journey and remaining mobile.

    Because you will be doing a considerable amount of hiking, keep your gear light and to a minimum. A lightweight tree stand and set of climbing sticks do wonders in preserving your energy and dedication. A safety harness with lineman’s belt also takes major strain off your shoulders and allows you to hang the treestand hands free. With that being said, keep in mind many big deer have been shot from the ground.

    If you’re going mobile, keep your gear light and to a minimum. A lightweight tree stand and set of climbing sticks do wonders in preserving energy and dedication to stay on the move.

    Proper clothing and a layering system will also increase your enjoyment of the process. Wearing hot, bulky bibs while walking through the woods and hanging your treestand will surely suck the fun out of the experience. A lightweight and breathable base layer is a good choice for the hike in, followed by a warm set of clothes stashed away in your pack for after the work has ceased and your heart rate and body have both cooled down.

    If you find yourself stuck in a rut, it may be time to venture outside your comfort zone. If you’ve been hunting the same locations for years and only finding intermittent success, know when to pull the plug and try something new. One thing is certain, you will stumble on occasion, but you will learn valuable lessons along the way and grow as a hunter.

    About the Author: Dylan Tramp is an avid angler and public-land bowhunter from Rapid City, S.D.