Next-Level Scouting For Mature Bucks
Last September, I was easing my truck down the dirt road of a west Georgia WMA after a very hot and unproductive bowhunt when I saw a group of bucks feeding in a field off the side of the road. Instantly my mind turned to their location, where they came from and how they got there. Having scouted earlier that season, I recalled a large, dead oak tree in the pines next to the field the bucks were feeding in. The bald canopy of the oak created a circle of sunlight on the forest floor, resulting in a nice thicket in an otherwise open forest. Tracks on the road in between the oak and the field seemed to confirm my suspicions, so I picked a day when the wind and thermals would be in my favor and moved in for the kill.
After using the topography and foliage to conceal my sneak to 70 yards off the edge of the thicket, I got set up and began the waiting game.
Just after 4 p.m., I looked down to the ditch that led up toward the thicket to see one of the bucks I had seen in the field walking straight toward me. Surprised by how early in the afternoon he showed up, I rushed to get my bow up and my camera pointed in the right direction. The buck had read the script and did exactly what I needed him to do. I got the camera on him, drew my bow just as the buck stopped and then sent the arrow right underneath him. He barreled back into the safety of the bedding area he came from.
To say I was disappointed in my miss would be an understatement, but I couldn’t help but crack a smile after the miss. After all, I did successfully predict the bucks bedding location and travel path. Finding hundreds of deer beds, buck beds in particular, over the summer helped me predict the exact location that the missed buck would travel.
The better we understand the deer in our area, the better off we will be hunting them in a few months. When thinking about locating deer sign, the first thing that comes to many minds is rubs, scrapes and trails. However, there’s another kind of sign that can yield some valuable information, beds.
The idea of scouting or hunting deer beds is a growing tactic in the whitetail world. Midwestern hunters such as Dan Infalt and Andre D’aquisto have had a lot of success with bed hunting tactics and have made it popular by sharing their stories, videos and tactics on forums, YouTube and social media.
Although hunting in the Midwest is vastly different than hunting in the Southeast, the information we gain from scouting deer bedding, specifically buck bedding, can be extremely useful.
Scouting beds can be beneficial for several different reasons. First of all, you will better understand how the deer use the terrain and cover to their advantage, which will not only help you hunt them, but it will also help you learn about what you should look for when you hunt a new area. It will also help you know where to set up for cruising bucks during the rut, and it can even help you learn about how to access some of your favorite honey holes without getting busted.
Buck vs. Doe Beds
Whenever I talk about finding beds with people who are unfamiliar with the tactic, I’m almost always met with the question, “How can you tell buck beds from doe beds?”
When you first start scouting beds, it can be difficult to differentiate between doe bedding and buck bedding. A deer can bed anywhere, but the location of the bed and what’s around it can tip you off as to whether a buck or doe was the one frequenting the bed.
Does tend to travel, feed and bed in groups. Since they are almost always with other does, you’ll often find their beds in groups. They use their numbers to their advantage by bedding in semi circles, with each bed facing in a different direction so they can cover almost all sides with their sight.
Since their numbers give them such an advantage, it’s not uncommon to find a group of doe beds in a surprisingly open area. When you run across a bed, take a look around to see if there are other beds of different sizes in the immediate area. If you see another bed a few feet away that’s smaller or larger than the first bed you found, it’s a safe bet that there were a few does bedding there.
For most of the hunting season, bucks travel alone. Since they are more solitary, they don’t have the advantage of numbers to keep them safe, so their beds tend to show up in more strategic places. Most of the buck beds I find are located up against blowdowns, boulders or some other kind of solid background. Buck beds also tend to be more worn in, sometimes worn into the dirt, since they return to specific beds more often than does do. Buck beds are also usually accompanied by buck sign, mostly rubs.
Bucks return to the same bedding locations often, but that does not mean that they always lay in the same exact bed. You may find several beds in one area, but if they all appear to be the same size and there are rubs in the immediate area, it’s a safe bet that you’ve found a buck bed.
In areas where good cover is limited, it’s common to find bucks and does bedding in very close proximity, even outside of the rut. It’s also common for multiple bucks to use the same thicket for bedding in those scenarios. This brings up the term “satellite bedding,” which people like Dan Infalt use to describe situations where a dominant buck takes the best bed in a particular area, leaving all the subordinate bucks to less-than-ideal beds.
While scouting late last summer, a friend and I found a textbook case of satellite bedding. I bumped a buck out of his bed while scouting a small creek bottom that drained down into an old reclaimed coal mine. The reclaimed area was mostly grass and pines that were about chest tall, and the creek drainage was mostly hardwood saplings about 2 inches in diameter. The bed, which was worn down to the dirt, was facing into the creek bottom with his back to the reclaim. His bed was definitely the premier location of the drainage, but the bottom was filled with other beds in less ideal locations. Not only did that buck have a great setup, but he also had other deer bedded around him that would alert him if they got spooked by something.
Sight, Smell & Sound
A deer does not have fangs or claws to defend itself, which means that they live and die by their ability to detect danger and conceal themselves. A deer detects danger with sight, smell and sound; therefore, a deer will ideally bed where it has these three senses to its greatest advantage.
Deer are creatures of edge, which means they like to hang around areas where two habitat types meet. This could be where hardwoods meet pines, where a cutover meets woods, or on the edges of fields or fencerows. Growing up we would simply look at cutovers and assume that deer always bedded there without much care as to where in the cutover they bedded. Since I started scouting beds, I’ve found that’s not necessarily the case.
This past December, I was able to arrow a big 6 1/2-year-old doe on some public land. After I shot her, she ran to the bedding area that she came from, an old cutover on top of a ridge. The cutover is extremely thick throughout, and the rain that rolled in almost immediately after I shot her washed away most of the blood trail. We had to resort to grid searching the thick cutover, which was full of young pines, briars and various grasses. At first glance, you would have thought the cutover would be full of beds throughout, but upon grid searching it, we found that most of the beds were on a point coming out of the main thicket.
My doe had gone to the very edge of the point to bed, which is where we found her. The point was just as thick as the rest of the cutover, but it was clear that the deer highly preferred that area to bed down. They probably preferred it because of the amount of edges, and for the fact that they could ether escape any danger by running deep into the middle of the cutover or by running off the edge of the ridge into the huge creek bottom on both sides of the point.
The weather conditions play a big part on where the deer are actually going to lay. On low wind, calm quiet days, I’ve found that the deer are usually bedding about 10 yards into the thickets. Since it’s so quiet, it would be nearly impossible for any kind of predator to sneak into the thicket without making enough noise to alert the deer to its presence. Since the deer are still close to the edge in those situations, it’s still easy for them to smell whatever critters may be moving around the edges of the thicket from the small gusts of wind or thermals from that day.
On the other hand, we have days with moderate or high winds. On those days, the deer can’t hear as well, so rather than using sound to their advantage, they use sight. On days like that, the deer tend to bed on the very edge, with their backs to the thicket, so they can watch the open area in front of them. Most of the time, they will be laying on the edge of the thicket where the wind can be coming over their backs so they can smell anything behind them and see anything in front of them. Although I find most beds on the edges of thick areas, it’s not uncommon to find beds a few yards off the edge of the thicket.
Thinking about the dominant wind directions for your area can help you narrow down your search areas for beds. During the fall and winter, we usually get north or northwestern winds. Since most of the winds come from the north, it’s good to search the southern ends of thickets for beds. Even though we mostly get northern winds, it’s still good to scout beds that set up for all other directions. Warm weather usually brings in southern winds, and since we get plenty of warm weather during our winters, it’s good to find the beds the deer use for those winds, too.
Deer respond to any pressure you put on them. That means if you’re spooking deer while walking in, hunting or walking out, they will alter their movement because of it. Most public land and hunting clubs get their fair share of hunting pressure, so it’s not uncommon for deer to bed according to that pressure.
I find a lot of beds that seem to monitor hunter access. You can find deer bedding in spots where they can see, smell or hear parking areas or access trails. One bed I found last spring was situated in a small hardwood drainage running through a very thick cutover. The northwest corner of the cutover had a gate with a commonly used access trail leading away from it, and the hardwood bottom ended just over 100 yards south of the gate. The buck’s bed was at the tip of the hardwood bottom in a blowdown on the edge of the cutover just 120 yards directly south of the gate. On days with northern winds, the buck could bed there and smell the area where most hunters parked. That way, if someone parked there, the buck could smell them and slip out of the area unseen before the hunter ever left the parking area.
On the other hand, the same buck was not only smelling the parking area all day, but he was also watching the hardwood bottom below him. If he saw any sign of danger in the bottom below him, all he had to do was stand up and slip into the thick cutover to escape.
Knowing where these beds are can help you get to and from your stands without bumping deer. After you find enough beds, you can start accurately predicting where they will be on a map. Being able to predict where the beds will be in an area you are unfamiliar with can help you enter and exit an area cleanly and hunt it more efficiently.
Editor’s Note: Andrew Maxwell is the owner and co-host of the Southern Outdoorsmen Podcast and youtube channel, and a State Captain for the Southeastern Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. He grew up hunting and fishing, mostly on public lands. He now hunts public lands exclusively for any game species the south has to offer. He can be reached at [email protected]
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