This story was originally published in September 2021.
Scouting for white-tailed deer can help a hunter have a successful season, especially for those who are lucky enough to gain access to a new piece of property.
We asked Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife deer biologist Nathan Bieber to share some advice for folks trying to get the lay of the land.
First and foremost, ask the landowner for permission before venturing onto the parcel. Even though Maine law allows hunters to be on privately owned land that is not posted, getting written permission establishes a good relationship with the landowner and gives the hunter peace of mind that they are welcome.
An important side benefit of getting permission to hunt is being able to tap into the landowner’s local knowledge.
“The person who’s probably going to know the most about the deer on a property and where they’re hanging out and what’s there is that landowner,” Bieber said. “So if you build that connection right away, they can probably take care of a lot of scouting for you right up front.”
Deer need three basic things: food, bedding cover and water. Hunters should look for those elements and how they relate to each other in picking a hunting spot.
Topographical maps can provide some details about the landscape, showing water, ridges and potential travel corridors. Trail cameras, which can be placed at different locations and moved around, can give hunters a close-up look at what’s walking around.
“The longer you can do that during the year, the better picture you’re going to get to the activity on the property,” Bieber said.
Most deer hunters likely can identify droppings, tracks, tree rubs and scrapes, all of which are evidence of whether there are deer in the vicinity.
When exploring unknown territory, Bieber said to look for edge habitat, which deer and other wildlife like to frequent.
“That’s not just stark edges between a field and forest, but also edges between hardwood stands [of trees] and softwood stands or younger generating growth and older tree growth,” he said.
Hardcore hunters who hunt on their own property might spend much of the year trying to identify deer and pattern their movements. Bieber said it probably isn’t wise to be traipsing around the woods too close to the start of hunting season.
“It’s better to have your in-the-field scouting, stand prep and shooting-lane cutting done at least a couple of weeks before hunting and then try to rely on less invasive techniques after that like trail cameras,” he said.
With the regular archery season starting on Oct. 3, those hunters should be wrapping up scouting efforts. Firearms hunters still have some time before the regular season begins on Oct. 31 (Maine Residents Only Day).
It might be beneficial to treat scouting visits as though you are hunting. Walking slowly, stopping and observing for a few minutes, then resuming in similar fashion allows the woods to reset and also hones still-hunting skills.
Even if a hunter encounters good signs in a particular location, there are no guarantees the deer are going to be there on any given day. While does and fawns are likely to stay in the same general vicinity much of the time, bucks are far less predictable.
When the rut kicks in, mating behavior tends to put bucks on the move.
“Any bucks that you spot on your property in summer can very well be a mile or two away come hunting season,” Bieber said.
Spending too much time in the woods or focusing on a small parcel can alter deer behavior, both during preseason scouting and the season. Hunters should take care when getting into a stand or blind location to avoid spooking deer out of the area.
Deer patterns can easily be changed by obvious or frequent interventions by hunters, Bieber said.
Scouting from the perimeter of the property also can provide information without disturbing the deer elsewhere.
Even with a parcel of 100 acres or so and hunting alone, Bieber recommends not trying to “push” the whole property in a single day. It is better to hunt smaller sections over multiple days to reduce your chances of disturbing the deer.
Mature bucks, particularly, have over time learned the ways of hunters and are able to work around them.
“I cannot overemphasize how easy it actually is to change deer patterns toward nocturnal movements just by overpressuring an area, so you definitely want to avoid that,” Bieber said.
And just because you have done your homework doesn’t mean you aren’t going to have company. Bieber said it pays to know where other hunters are likely to access a parcel and to adjust accordingly.
With the knowledge that many hunters are going to be close to such trails, you might be better able to set up deeper in the woods.
“There’s a pretty good chance that you’re going to be stumbling across deer that have been pressured out of that part of the property where most people are hunting,” Bieber said.
We thank Nathan for his expertise and hope it helps you have a successful deer hunting season this year. Click here to watch a panel discussion produced last year by DIF&W featuring Bieber that includes lots of useful scouting information.