By Josh Lantz
Many successful deer hunters spend more time scouting than hunting. And for the whitetail elite, scouting is a year-round proposition.
However, late summer seems to be the time when most everyday deer hunters get serious. Archery season is right around the corner, and they’re anxious to pattern deer for fast success once the opener arrives. Consequently, they ramp up their scouting activities in the field.
Human encroachment into the whitetail’s world is a complex thing. When it comes to observing human activity, for example, mature deer seem to know the difference between agricultural activity and hunting activity. There may be two primary reasons for this.
The first is that nobody is actually shooting at deer in the spring and summer when farmers are busy planting and tending to crops. That means a hunter riding the field edges on an ATV checking trail cameras really doesn’t seem that threatening during these periods.
The second is body language. From a deer’s perspective, once the hunting season draws near or actually starts, they notice that humans are suddenly sneaking around and acting like predators. Naturally, this puts them into a heightened state of alarm. Then all the shooting starts.
Don’t abandon scouting during the weeks leading up to the archery opener. Simply consider backing off and giving your deer some room. Change your tactics. Play it safe, and make sure you’re the one patterning deer, not the other way around.
1. Long-Distance Observation
Long-distance glassing from the roadside or other nonintrusive vantage points can reveal a lot of useful information about daily deer movements, including those of individual bucks and bachelor groups of bucks. The best part is that all this information on deer movement coming during the critical weeks or even days prior to hunting season is virtually risk free.
The term “long” is relative here. Find a unobtrusive spot that reveals multiple vistas into fields, food plots, watering areas, scrape lines or trails leading in and out of the cover, be it the woods or some type of geographical feature like a ravine or washout.
While you may not see a lot of mature bucks, glassing from such safe zones can show you how deer are moving relative to your property’s features, including food sources, water sources, and stand or blind sites. Fill in the blanks; you can bet that the bigger bucks will follow a similar pattern, usually just downwind and in thicker cover.
2. Low-Impact Camera Usage
Fine-tune your scouting camera sets by the end of August, especially any cameras placed in the timber or near bedding areas. If you insist on keeping cameras in such locations, set them and forget them until you have an opportunity to tend to them while you’re actually hunting.
Many hunters quickly swap SD cards or download images from cameras in sensitive locations only when passing by them during the course of the season. In other words, resist the temptation and don’t make any special trips that might result in alerting deer and modifying their behavior.
Cameras placed along the edges of fields and food plots are easier to manage and remain viable sources of scouting intel during the weeks leading up to the hunting season. Remember, deer are always watching, listening and learning, so check these cameras during hours when you are unlikely to be hunting, such as midday.
Instead of sneaking around on foot, do it from your ATV and don’t wear camo. You may seem less threatening to deer, and you’ll definitely leave less human scent on the ground.
Speaking of scent, follow your scent-control regimen whenever you enter the field, and be especially cautious about leaving your scent behind on scouting cameras.
3. Scout at Night
Sound crazy? Try it. Scouting at night can put hunters on a level playing field with the deer they pursue, while revealing individual animals — often mature bucks — that are otherwise unlikely to be observed during daylight hours.
Devices like FLIR’s Scout series of thermal handhelds work by detecting minute temperature differences in both live and inert objects, amplifying those differences and then projecting an image onto a small screen. Because thermal imaging does not rely on light, the images look the same in full sunlight as they do in total darkness. The formerly classified technology is improving by leaps and bounds, and it is also now available to regular folks, including hunters, at pretty reasonable prices.
FLIR Scout models start below $600. In the world of optics, one can pay a lot more for a good riflescope or pair of binoculars. In addition to daytime and nighttime scouting, thermal handhelds can be incredibly useful to hunters when lawfully used for game recovery and avoiding bumping game while traveling to and from hunting locations in the dark. In areas with populations of potentially dangerous predators, the potential benefits become even more pronounced. It’s prudent to check with your state’s wildlife law enforcement agency before taking a handheld thermal imager in the field while also possessing a firearm or bow, as laws vary and are often unclear.
Scouting at night with a FLIR thermal imager is incredibly exciting because you may see bucks that you aren’t seeing in the daytime. But don’t get carried away. Make sure you have a favorable, low-impact route to and from your scouting location, and be sure to employ full scent control.
The point of late-summer nighttime scouting is the same as daytime scouting — to see and pattern deer from a noninvasive vantage point — so don’t push the envelope. The best nighttime scouting locations during late summer are elevated, easily accessible positions that afford relatively open views of prime food sources that are likely to attract numbers of deer.
Range will depend on the detection capabilities of your particular thermal imager. FLIR’s affordable Scout TK model will easily detect human- or deer-sized targets out to at least 100 yards, though you may not see a lot of detail at the far end of that range. Stepping up to a Scout II or III model will provide greatly improved range and detail, especially the 640-resolution sub-model, which will detect human-sized subjects at over 1,200 yards.
I’ve been using the 640-resolution Scout III while scouting this season and have learned that I can easily pass within about 100 yards of deer in the dark without alarming them. This has taken place in open areas with clear lines of sight. I suspect I could get even closer, but haven’t had the need to try. Occasionally, deer have heard me and looked in my direction, but watching through the thermal imager, it’s clear they can’t tell what I am and quickly return to feeding.
The point, however, is that without a thermal imager, I would never have known those deer were there and almost certainly would have bumped them. Deer can see fairly well at night, but nowhere near as well as we can with a thermal handheld.
Everyone wants to know if thermal imagers can see a deer’s antlers. The answer is a definite yes during the summer months.
My Scout III clearly shows antlers in velvet in good detail even at long distances, and while I haven’t had the opportunity to test it yet on fully developed antlers, I suspect that it will “see them” under the right circumstances. At a reasonable range, the unit reveals remarkable detail in other natural materials like leaves, grass and bark. All it takes is a small change in temperature between the antlers and the backdrop for them to likely show up.
Early season bucks often have strong and well-established patterns that make them vulnerable to informed hunters. That’s why the temptation to heighten the intensity of scouting activities increases as the hunting season nears. The unfortunate irony comes when our ramped-up scouting lays those established patterns to waste, as the deer patterns the hunter instead of the other way around.
Don’t scout harder, scout smarter. Make low-impact your mantra. Scout from a safe distance, maintain a strict scent-control regimen and use today’s technology to show you the pieces of the puzzle you’ve been missing.