I met a guy who knew a guy, and that's how I secured permission on one of the best properties I know. But then the work began; to hunt it effectively, I had to learn the property and what the deer are doing on it.
Approaching a new property can be a daunting task, particularly if it's a sizable piece of land. The property I just referred to is three quarter sections large, that's 480 acres. Roughly half of it is covered in a matrix of old growth aspen and spruce forest. Ideal whitetail habitat, it has slough bottoms surrounded by dense willows and several different topographical variations that create perfect natural funnels.
When I first set foot on this property, my inclination was to walk the field edges and look for heavily used game trails exiting the woods. In my mind, these paths would reveal where concentrations of deer leave the woods to feed or exit the fields to return to bedding cover. True enough, this provided some valuable information. Over the years, I've taken several deer hunting those very trails close to field edges. But during my first season on that same property I later learned that I missed out on the finest hunting because I failed to do my research.
On one hand, many of us are afraid to set foot in the woods because we feel that may disrupt the deer and cause them to change their habits if not vacate altogether. Let me say this. As a rule, if you move carefully and methodically through the woods, whitetails will most often shift out of your way and soon after you leave they'll return. Whitetails have an innate ability to survive and thrive in the heart of intense human development. Don't get me wrong, pressure is an issue and it can significantly dampen visible daytime movement, but one individual carefully and quietly moving through the woods is something they overcome quickly.
So, back to how I learned about the aforementioned property. As I hunted that first season I see several deer, but what amazed me was the number of deer I'd observe as I walked into my stand before daylight and out at dusk. Realizing that I must be missing something, I dug deeper. I spoke with the farmer, I researched maps and aerial photographs, and most importantly I took the plunge and walked almost every inch of the property. Blown away by what I learned, it became clear that I'd been hunting good spots, but not great spots. Soon thereafter I shifted my stand sites and experienced an entirely new phenomenon. I still had to put my time in, but from each of my stands I was now seeing many different deer and several of them were truly spectacular bucks!
Bottom line - if you have access to a new property and want to learn as much as possible about it, consider these five things:
STEP 1 - Talk with the Landowner
Whether it's simply someone who owns the property or an individual that farms the land, take the time to speak with them. Chances are they've spent considerable time on the property and have consequently made valuable observations. While they may or may not have set foot in the woods, their observations about deer movement can be invaluable. Farmers in particular can often describe locations where they consistently see deer feeding. The nearby woods are of course great places to begin scouring the woods.
Furthermore, landowners or other custodians can shed light on the type of deer living on the land. More than once I've learned of Boone and Crockett class bucks that rarely show themselves, by sitting down with the landowner over coffee.
One deer in particular I've been hunting for several years. Two seasons ago, I rattled him in to 26 yards. I estimate he would have scored in the mid-180's at that time. My arrow hit a branch and I never saw him again that year. To my knowledge he is still alive today. Last year I saw him once only. Thanks to an ongoing dialogue with the farmer, I've learned that every once in a while he shows himself during late summer feeding patterns.
Even with information from the landowner, dialogue isn't enough. Considerably more research is required to thoroughly learn a new property. Studying paper resources like photos and maps is the next step.
STEP 2 - Study Air Photos and Topographic Maps
A bird's eye view can be invaluable. Aerial photos and even satellite imagery in some instances can reveal an incredible amount of information. Likewise topo maps can supplement what you see in the photos. One of the hottest resources available today is Google Earth (http://earth.google.com ). This online resource offers a variety of functions including a 3D option in which the user can modify the angle of view. The downside is that not all remote areas are available in high resolution as of yet.
As you look at each photo and map, take note of the cover i.e., type and density of trees, shrubs, clearings, meadows, ridges, and valleys. By highlighting these features, you'll be able to pinpoint the most probable bedding cover, staging areas, feeding areas, and access trails to and from bedding and feeding. Pay particular attention to natural funnels, i.e., areas that force deer to travel through specific movement corridors as they travel from one part of the woods to another. Often ridges, valleys or narrow strips of cover will serve this purpose. Likewise, consider lakes and streams that may influence deer movement. Last but not least, take note of less conspicuous bays, coves or clearings in which deer might feed because they feel comfortably hidden from roadways. After looking at photos and maps, its time to wear out some boot leather.
STEP 3 - Go for a Walk
Probably the most important step involves lacing up your boots and going for a hike. Not just any hike, mind you. To truly learn about any new property, it's important to scour every nook and cranny. This involves stepping off of the manmade trails and into the cover. Whitetails have an incredible ability to elude hunters. If there is a place to hide, they know about it. Only by probing every area of the property can you gain a clear understanding of where the deer are spending their time.
Be methodical as you hike through the woods. Bring the aerial photo and topo map. Keep track of where you are at any given time so that you can thoroughly cover the woods and fields. Be sure to walk the ridges, valleys and any natural funnels.
As you hike around, take note of trails. Some will be more heavily used than others. Trail intersections are worth noting. At the same time, look for scrapes and rub lines. The ones I pay the most attention to are those that have successive rubs on nearby trees, i.e., that were made in previous years. Depending on the time of year that you're hiking around, scrapes may not be evident.
An added bonus to walking a new property is the prospect of finding shed antlers. Shed hunting, although a different activity itself, can offer up loads of information about the class of deer on the property.
During your hike, also take note of special features like clearings, cut lines, and trees that might be suitable for stands. At the same time remember that does will generally concentrate in proximity to food and bucks will invariably focus on the doe groups, especially in the fall.
STEP 4 - Consider Food Sources
The most nutritional food sources will attract the deer. In most instances, the food sources are in the open agricultural fields. Whether you're hunting a property that has alfalfa, peas, corn, soybeans, or an intentional food plot like Biologic, resident deer will find the best available food source and that is where you'll find them at first and last light.
As you approach this new property, consider investing some time glassing these food sources at dawn and dusk. This will reveal at least a portion of the deer that are on the property. Take note of where specific doe groups enter and exit the fields. Depending on whether you'll be hunting the early, mid-, or late season will help you to determine where to set your stand or blind. In the early season and even in the post-rut, setting stands or blinds near or even on these fields can produce well. If you're planning to hunt the pre-rut or peak rut, these fields can be decent places to sit, but you may find better success by setting up in the woods some distance (e.g., 50-100 yards) away from these food sources on primary movement corridors with the idea of intersecting bucks searching for does.
STEP 5 - Use a Trail Camera
With the advent of trail cameras, deer hunting has taken on a whole new look in the twenty-first century. By strategically placing these cameras, we can virtually hunt 24/7 year round. As you approach a new property, consider placing trail cameras along game trails that you suspect may be most heavily used. By recording images or even video you can learn what the deer are doing on that property around the clock.
Most importantly, know that no matter how much you learn about a new property or how many years you hunt, you'll always learn new and interesting things about it. I'm constantly amazed at the new information I gather each season as I hunt the same properties.
Kevin Wilson is a freelance outdoors writer and professional big game & waterfowl
guide/outfitter from Alberta, Canada. Confessing an obsession for big whitetails
and bighorn sheep, he has hunted most North American big game species with either
bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun. Specializing in archery, freshwater fishing,
waterfowl and big game hunting, his articles can be found in several well known
outdoor publications across the U.S. and Canada. For more information on his
outfitting services, visit www.venturenorthoutfitting.com .
Member of OWAA & OWC.