At this time of year I get several e-mails a day from all over the country asking questions about post season scouting and location preparation and I get a few on this site as well. What I typically do with e-mail requests is send an article attachment about the topic, so as I do with e-mail requests, Scott has allowed me to post a thread of a couple combined articles on post season scouting and location preparation. Post Season Scouting and Location Preparation For each of the three instructional whitetail bowhunting books my son Chris and I wrote, my 4 instructional DVD’s, as well as for hunting articles, from 1998 to date we’ve; researched many whitetail studies, tracked bowhunting license sales for each state, found the absolute land mass for each state in square miles, and researched specific data from Pope & Young statistical summary books to compile factual statistics and there was one very important piece of kill data that remained consistent throughout the years no matter the state. While Pope & Young entries per licensed hunters vary dramatically from state to state, and counties to counties within each state, no matter the state or area within each state, nearly 60% of all P&Y entries were taken during whatever time frame that states rut phases fell in to. In Michigan for instance the pre-rut and early stages of peak rut for bowhunters typically runs from October 25th to the November 14th gun opener. While I nearly flunked high school because I consistently got D’s and E’s in English due to a lack of interest, I excelled at math and it’s obvious to me that if that 3 week period of season consistently has had the highest percentage of success on record class bucks, it only makes sense that that’s the primary period to focus on, scout and prepare locations for, and take vacations in. Why pre-season scouting is so popular The vast majority of bowhunters do all their scouting and location preparation during pre-season while looking at and setting up on warm weather, lackadaisical summertime bedding to feeding sign. The most likely reasons most hunters scout and prepare locations during pre-season is that it’s been passed down through generations of hunters that that’s when you do it. The other reason is that’s when most TV, video, and print media hunting personalities do it. While the “passed down through the generations” is totally understandable, unless you hunt a similar type of property to the high profile media personalities, which very few hunters do, their kills and hunting practices should be viewed primarily as entertainment, because even though they are hunting mature whitetail bucks, from a difficulty to kill perspective, they are hunting a very different mature buck than you are. The majority of TV and video hunters own or lease large parcels of property or hunt on pay to hunt ranches in lieu of advertising the joint. Most properties they hunt have landscape manipulations and food plots, both of which are designed to hold deer and have destination locations to hunt over. In many of their hunts on properties without food plots you’ll notice bucks coming in as if drawn to some sort of hot tactic, however, if you pay close attention you’ll notice when the buck gets within shooting distance, oftentimes he’ll put his head down into weeds to feed on the bait (usually shelled corn) that has been inconspicuously and regularly spread out there for quite some time. On these properties bucks are passed until they reach an antler or age criterion suitable for our entertainment value and then the celebrities simply kill one of the many mature bucks on the property. If one is wounded and not recovered it’s edited out and another is shot. Unlike most athletic sports where all competitors work their way up to the professional levels by competing on the same ranges, courses, fields, courts, or whatever, deer hunting properties have no semblance of equality and you should never assume hunters in the media offer information that will work in your hunting area. Media hunters hunt in tremendous places where there are many mature bucks and where there’s no or very minimal other hunter competition. Also due to a lack of hunter encounter consequences while bucks are allowed to grow to maturity, once they reach the kill criteria they have a much greater tolerance of human activity and human odor than bucks in heavily pressured areas do and they move with more regularity during daylight hours. Simply put, there is not only a lot of them, their much easier to kill. A great example would be to compare the skillset required to catch bass on a private farm pond that rarely gets fished to the skillset required to catch bass on a public lake that gets pounded by fishermen every day. Any novice fisherman that can cast and retrieve a line could catch many bass in the farm pond, whereas that same novice would struggle to catch a single bass on the heavily fished public lake. That fishing pond/lake example exactly replicates the stark differences in hunting properties and skillset required to take mature bucks. In my opinion, a hunter from a heavily hunted area that is somewhat consistent at taking 2 ½ year old or older bucks, without using bait, would outperform most hunting personalities if allowed to hunt the same properties, whereas the inverse scenario of the personality being able to kill 2 1/2 year olds in heavily pressured areas would be a total struggle for the personality. There is also no doubt in my mind that many of you on this site would fall into that outperform the so-called expert category. While the numbers of bowhunters that manage or have access to managed properties is small, the numbers of everyday Joe hunters (us) that are becoming more selective on what they shoot is growing rapidly and that’s a good thing. If you have access to managed property you should feel very fortunate but don’t let your ego get the best of you and look down on others that kill what you consider inferior bucks as they may be the best bucks available on the pressured properties they hunt, or their goals may simply differ from yours. Why post-season scout? Setting up on summer sign during pre-season may produce an early season opportunity if all the scouting and location preparation in the surrounding area by you and other hunters hasn’t turned mature bucks nocturnal prior to season. By the rut phases however, mature buck movements usually change dramatically due to; a huge visual security cover change caused by the loss of tree and ground brush foliage, the peaking of their testosterone driven desire to breed, and a loss of interest in feeding due to their sex drive. While the peaking of testosterone levels and the loss of interest in feeding during the rut phases are obvious reasons for bucks to alter their routines, the loss of security cover foliage also alters transition routes and routines as well as what destination areas mature bucks may feel secure visiting during daylight hours. Tall soybeans and standing corn often become bedding areas and once their harvested the deer that bedded in them must move to other areas offering security cover. The loss of tree and brush foliage in mid to late October has the exact same effect as harvesting crops because areas where mature bucks may have felt secure in due to the ground foliage security, no longer exists. Once the snow flies deer alter their patterns and congregate to the best and easiest food source and bed in lower lying areas or stands of dense conifers that protect them from the cold winds, all of which makes sign left in the snow rather meaningless as far as next seasons rut activity is concerned. In northern regions it’s not uncommon when snow gets deep to have areas where deer resided in the fall, be totally devoid of deer until the snow melts in early spring. Snow also covers up fall runways and what I consider to be the most important signposts of all, ground scrapes and primary scrape areas. Once the snow melts in late winter/early spring, last fall’s rut sign will look exactly as it did before it came so wait until it’s gone to post season scout. At least 80% of my scouting and location preparation for the year is done immediately after season or as soon as the snow melts and prior to spring green. Advantages of post season scouting: When preparing trees for the rut phases the leaf foliage will be down and from ground level you’ll be able to see exactly what background cover you’ll have, if any. This should dictate how high up the tree or in what tree you need to set-up in. Every inch of your hunting area can be thoroughly scrutinized with as many visits as needed because spooking deer during post season will not affect next season’s deer movements like pre-season scouting and location preparation would. You can use deadfall and cut brush to block sections of out of range runways and then create a new section so that the runway passes within your comfort range. By fall the altered deer movements down your altered runway will have become habit. Most of the ground brush foliage is gone by late October, so during post-season the area you’re scouting will look very similar to what it will look like during the rut phases. During pre-season when brush and trees are in full foliage, nearly every location gives a false sense that there’s adequate security cover for deer to transition through. The previous season’s buck sign such as rubs, rub-lines, ground scrapes, scrape areas, utilized overhanging licking branches, and runways are still very obvious once the snow melts. During pre-season the previous seasons rut sign is grown over or nearly impossible to identify. During season and throughout the winter, especially if there has been heavy snow or ice storms, dead trees and branches fall and often block runways to the location site. To assure runways are useable, once a location is prepared I walk or crawl down every runway within shooting distance of the tree for at least 50 yards in each direction and remove deadfalls and trim overgrown brush along them to make it easier for deer, and especially a buck with good headgear, to travel down. At this time of year a scent free regiment is not required. During pre-season when the weather is warm, there is absolutely no way to properly prepare an early season location without profusely sweating and leaving human odor. That is enough to temporarily alter a mature bucks routine or turn him nocturnal, ruining any chance of success early in the season. Before getting started, if you have Internet access, print an aerial photo of yours and the surrounding properties in the largest magnification possible. Aerials will offer an overview of the area and help locate funnels, water, protrusions of cover into crop fields, amount of timber canopy, crop fields, marshes, swamps, etc., some of which can be difficult to recognize from the ground. The surrounding property layouts can also aid in knowing where and why deer cross the property line fence. In the lightly hunted and micro-managed areas media personalities hunt, they can pick locations strictly by looking at aerial and topo maps because other hunter competition doesn’t exist and therefore is of no concern in altering deer traffic, but that is definitely not the case in the heavy consequential hunting pressure (hchp) areas most of you hunt in. While aerials can offer valuable insight, I don’t care what any film or media personality may show or state, in hchp (heavy consequential hunting pressure) areas you must set out of foot to validate deer traffic and sign and more importantly how other hunters in the area may affect and alter the daytime deer traffic in those otherwise obvious aerial map locations. I had a sales manager from Ohio with me last winter (snow on the ground and no foliage) and as we were driving down I-27 from Clare to Lansing he utterly couldn’t get over the amount of hunting shacks dotting the landscape. In a 2 mile stretch of road he counted 34 shacks! I asked him if he would like to come up hunting and the words “absolutely no way” couldn’t have come out of his mouth any faster. That type of pressure affects everything including choosing locations from aerial maps without on-foot validation. For on-foot scouting you’ll need a fanny pack with some water, compass, possibly a GPS, and flagging tape for flagging potential locations. I also take my aerial maps to note; other hunter location’s, if they were baiting, property lines, and potential locations and why they are. A notepad can also be used. In order of importance, once on foot focus your attention on the following sign for stand locations: primary scrape areas, fruit and mast trees, within bedding areas, funnels between bedding areas and terrain feature funnels, areas offering security cover that protrude out into crop or weed fields, scrape lined runways, narrow draws offering transition security cover that protrude into crop or weed fields, funnels between bedding and feeding areas, clusters of rubs and rub lines, convergence points of several runways, and water in areas with minimal water sources. Most frequently on small to mid-sized parcels (5 to 40 acres) only a couple of those land features or previous signposts may exist. 1. Primary scrape areas A primary scrape area consists of several ground scrapes (could possibly be one large scrape) in a small opening or open area and they are always located in high doe traffic areas. Most commonly they are located; within close proximity to or at a preferred food source, where multiple runways converge, at pinch points within transition cover, and where differing terrain features meet and force consolidation of deer (doe) traffic. While ground scrapes are made by bucks, each scrape will have one to several overhanging licking branches that are socially scent marked by does and bucks with their saliva, preorbital, nasal, and forehead glands. Due to their high doe traffic location parameters, active scrape areas appeal to all bucks, especially leading up to and during the rut phases, so even if the dominant buck from the previous season was taken, the social scrape area will attract other mature bucks next season. Scrape areas are usually perennial however crop rotations, and fruit and mast production can cause them to change. Keep in mind that in hchp areas, isolated scrape areas that offer perimeter security cover are likely the only ones that will get visited by mature bucks during daylight hours, thus eliminating common perimeter scrapes around short crop fields as good hunting locations. While it’s common on TV and in videos to see big bucks taken along perimeters of short crop fields and food-plots, remember; they hunt micro-managed properties that; hold several mature bucks, have heavy breeding competition, and have minimal if any other hunter interference. For these and many other reasons, mature bucks in those types of areas are comfortable moving into open vulnerable areas during daylight and your hunting area likely doesn’t offer that same luxury. Well over half of the bucks I’ve taken in the past 25 seasons, whether at home or out-of-state, were taken from active scrape areas surrounded by some form of security cover. When hunted correctly and during the right time of season and time of day, an active scrape area within security cover is as good as it gets. 2. Mast and fruit trees: When apple trees (any fruit tree) and oaks (especially whites) located within security cover bear food they are awesome locations that depending on the area may become primary scrape areas. Other mast trees to note in big timber areas where there is no agriculture are chokecherry, beechnut, and locust trees (with long thorns and long beans). These mast and fruit trees grow in the upper Midwest and whatever preferred mast and fruit trees that grow in your area are what you should look for. During post season you won’t know which trees will produce food next fall, but the location and the sign at them should be noted as they may be sites you end up preparing. Isolated mast and fruit trees are excellent early season locations as well as rut phase locations if they continue to drop food. If there are only one or two fruit trees in an area, they will become a first come, first serve breakfast or dinner course and deer will somewhat compete to get to them first. If in a woods with lots of similar mast trees such as oaks, search for white oaks, and if there are a lot of them, choose the one closest to the best transition cover or nearest a known bedding area as it will likely be the first tree a mature buck would visit. White oaks are identified by their; rough bark up the tree and out each branch, rounded lobes on their leaves, and their small acorns. Burr oaks often found in swamps are a type of white oak and have big fuzzy caps on their acorns. Red oaks are identified by their; smooth bark up and out each branch, pointed lobes on their leaves, and large acorns. Do yourself a favor this fall and pick up one of each. Shell them and eat the white first and then the red. You will not forget this test and will immediately know why deer prefer whites. You’ll spit out the red due to its strong bitter tannins. Deer eat red oak acorns as well, but if there are whites in the vicinity and they offer sufficient security cover and transition cover to them, they will get visited first. 3. Within bedding areas Depending on the circumstances, for the life of me, I can’t understand why hunters don’t strategically hunt where mature bucks spend most of their lives. Bedding areas have many entry and exit routes and there are unlimited directions a deer can go once outside, so with limited rut phase hunting time, why not strategically hunt within the confines of their home? I have a hypothetical question. If someone wanted to kill you, wouldn’t their best opportunity be to wait inside your house where they know you’ll come home to each evening? In pressured areas the vast majority of daytime chasing and breeding by mature bucks takes place within the secure confines of bedding areas. Never forget that killing and not listening from the outside perimeter of a bedding area, is the end goal. Michigan and many other states gun seasons coincide with the peak rut when mature bucks are typically with or are in search of estrus does, so unless you have control over a large area, the likelihood of a mature buck wandering beyond your fence line and getting shot is pretty good. So why not strategically plan a couple all-day interior bedding area hunts between Halloween and gun season. To hunt within bedding areas they need to be scouted and locations need to be prepared during post season. When scouting interiors of bedding areas search for; isolated mast and fruit trees, scrape and or rub lined runways, rub clusters, and small openings where several runways can be within your comfortable shooting range and where there may be a scrape area. Standing cornfields are temporary bedding areas if the field is large enough. Mature bucks will transition between timber and standing corn and do so wherever the most secure transition route butts up to it. While I never hunt along perimeters of short or picked cornfield edges in Michigan, I do hunt along perimeters of standing cornfields and that’s where I tagged my first buck in the 2015 season. If you know a field will be planted in corn and there’s a lone oak within it, it needs to be prepared as a location. During the years the oak has acorns and the field is in standing corn, hunting it at any time of season can be productive. Swales or openings in standing cornfields are also great locations as deer will oftentimes skirt their edges when transitioning. These locations may require a ground blind be prepared later in the summer. There is an exception to hunting interiors of bedding areas. On private parcels, if there are several hunters on the same property and they all have equal authority, if you decide to hunt the bedding areas, they may want to as well. Interiors of bedding areas are not for party hunting, but rather for very specific and strategic solo hunting. If this is the case, leave the bedding area as a sanctuary area otherwise multiple hunters will blow all the deer out or severely alter their daytime movements. Most public lands are large enough that if you do the legwork, you can usually locate an isolated honey hole where others are unwilling to go due to the work involved in getting there and those are the exact locations mature bucks are pushed into once there’s perimeter pressure. 4. Funnels The most common way to describe most funnels or pinch points is to simulate them to an hour glass where deer movements from a larger area tapers down to a narrower passageway which most deer will move through to get from one area to another. Funnels often exist between large stands of timber, in long meandering saddles and draws, in swamps and marshy areas that border and follow rivers and creeks, at ends or along bottoms of ridges, and in agriculture areas where crop fields are not perfectly squared off and there are travel corridors between them. While other types of funnels such as those created by; small dry ground passageway gaps in large areas of standing water, a shallow flat a deer can walk across in an otherwise deep river or creek, mucky areas within the understudy of timber, differing densities of security cover understudy beneath the tree canopies, and changes in general terrain features are more difficult to notice, they are just as, if not more likely to consistently funnel deer traffic. It would take a long chapter in a book to describe each of these funnels and how they might apply to a hunting areas final location choices and Tom Campbell already gives me flak about my articles lengths. Pinch points located between bedding and open feeding areas (short crop fields) get used the entire season however the amount and type of hunting pressure an area receives will dictate whether or not a mature buck will transition through them during daylight hours. Funnels offering transition security cover located in travel corridors between bedding areas are my preference for rut phase hunting as during this period mature bucks are laser focused on searching their core areas for estrus does and the most likely places to find them are with bedding areas. The odds of mature bucks searching these haunts for hot does during daylight hours are also much higher than any other time of season due to the peaking of their testosterone levels during the rut phases. From an amount of sits standpoint, my history of success on mature bucks in hchp areas in funnels between bedding to open feeding areas is so dismal that I rarely prepare those types of locations anymore. My top 4 location options all have one common denominator, they are all destination locations or transition zones that offer some semblance of security cover. Always search for small transition or destination locations because deer naturally funnel through, gravitate to and or use them to; feed at, locate estrous does, breed in and transition through. In hchp areas, locations that also offer an immediate exit route with ample security cover are more apt to have daylight visits by mature bucks. 5. The rest Deer will transition through areas of untillable security cover that protrude into crop fields. If there’s a tree in which you can shoot to each edge as well as at the tip, you’ll have 3 phenomenal routes at which to shoot. It’s common for the edges and tips of these fingers of security transition cover to have active scrapes along them. One of the best locations I ever hunted was a long finger of untillable ground that extended into a crop field and it was only good during the years the field was in standing corn. The same holds true to protrusions into tall weed fields which often act as bedding areas. Water is pretty basic. If you locate a source of drinking water in an area otherwise devoid of water, and it offers a secure transition route to it, it will attract all deer during hot weather and will attract does during daylight and therefore bucks during the rut phases. Scrape and or rub lined runways need to be noted and not necessarily prepared unless your certain the buck using that route that made them, wasn’t killed. They are noted so that they can be checked the week prior to season for fresh rub activity and obviously set up on if it exists. On many parcels of both public and private property I’ve scouted over the years the only sign was runways. There were no; scrapes, crops, oaks or fruit trees, water, bedding area, funnels, points, and few if any rubs. Most often I walked away from them without preparing anything. If this is your quandary and there are no other property options, all you can do is scout for where the most runways converge and hope for the best. Always be on the lookout other hunter’s locations. They should be quite obvious by looking for cut lanes, scars on trees from climbers, and bare ground where bait piles were as a high percentage of Michigan hunters use bait. I view many other hunter locations as deer deflectors for the mature bucks I target and typically their hunting skillset can be assessed by looking at their set-ups. If possible avoid setting up anywhere near other hunters as they will likely have the mature bucks in the area well educated and likely nocturnal outside their secure bedding areas. 6. Six is not a location, but rather a requirement for every location when hunting in hchp areas Some hunters that own, lease or have their own large parcel of property to hunt, struggle to accept the hard reality that the amount and type of hunting pressure an area receives has a direct correlation to how many mature bucks exist, how much they move during daylight, their tolerance to human presence and odor, and how difficult they are to kill. No matter how awesome the sign looks, without transition and perimeter security cover, the odds of a daytime visit by a mature buck in an hchp area is extremely low. Security cover is that vital to a location’s daytime mature buck traffic. Having perimeter security cover negates setting up along edges of short or picked crop field edges even if there is a scrape area, clusters of rubs, and multiple runways passing by. I learned over 30 years ago not to waste my time hunting exposed areas for mature bucks in heavily pressured areas. To be extremely blunt, anyone consistently taking mature bucks from exposed areas such as in food plots and short or picked crop fields is not hunting in a heavily pressured area. This is so blatantly obvious when watching most TV shows and videos. Security cover is so critical to daytime movements in hchp areas that when scouting public land I have a standing rule that I never waver on. No matter how awesome the signposts or location looks, if I can easily walk to it, it won’t get set up. Not only will other hunters set up at or near the area due to the easy access, the likelihood that mature bucks made or left that sign during the security of darkness is nearly 100%. On public lands in Michigan I only pay attention to sign left in areas where few if any other hunters are willing to go. Locations only accessible by using chest waders, hip boots, canoe, boat, or crawling through brush are where you need to scout and interestingly, those will be the same areas mature bucks may feel secure moving in during daylight. When scouting hchp areas think of it this way. If all the hunters in the area were trying to kill you, where are the places on the property where you might feel secure moving in, or transitioning through during daylight hours. Once you find those locations and if there is sign, you can bet that if hunted correctly, there’s a good chance of an opportunity. You certainly wouldn’t walk into an exposed area or through a stand of open timber with no understudy security cover. This realistic thought process should narrow your search down quite a bit and save a lot of time in preparing locations that are relatively worthless for daytime mature buck traffic. Unlike the old days when on foot searching was it for large parcels of public ground, nowadays some of these remote locations are easily found by reviewing Internet aerial maps. While scouting, mark location prospects on your map or note pad and don’t set anything up until you’ve totally scrutinized the entire property. Otherwise you prematurely might set up a location and then find a better one close by. That’s the beauty of post season scouting, you can trash out the area without concern of altering fall traffic. When scouting during post season, relax and take all the time you need, don’t make it any more difficult or stressful than it needs to be. Once all your scouting is done and you’ve noted potential hunting locations of interest, it’s time to decide which ones to prepare. Do not do this hastily. Take into consideration which ones are best suited for early season, the October lull, and the all-important rut phases. Choose according to sign, security cover requirements, available trees or ground blind cover, other hunter’s locations, and accessibility for other hunter’s. It’s also very important to know how heavily pressured the area is as that should make a difference in not only choosing your locations, but in how you prepare them. Once your locations are decided, you have ample time to prepare them as spring green-up while preparing locations, is a non-factor. Location preparation Choosing the right tree You’ve finished your post-season scouting and have a series of locations marked on your map to be prepared. Now you have all spring to properly prepare them and when you do, always prepare locations in order of importance with what you assume are the best spots being prepared first. I wrote another article in this month’s issue about the tools required to properly prepare a new location and those tools will definitely make the preparation work much easier. There are a lot of “the most important aspect of bowhunting is” arguments that could justifiably be made and choosing the right tree at a location is definitely near the top. Scouting, tree choice and location preparation embody the time and hard work that your hunting acquaintances never witness, yet unknowingly to them, the fruits of that time and work is what makes them think you’re just lucky. Hunters in managed areas are expected to kill big bucks, but for regular Joe hunters that hunt mediocre ground, the taking of a mature buck is simply the checkmate of a lot of hard and tedious work. The most valuable lesson I’ve learned is how to relate deer sign with its location, factor in the amount and type of hunting pressure the area receives, the amount and type of security and transition cover it has, and evaluate whether or not the location is conducive for daytime mature buck activity. When pursuing mature bucks in heavily pressured areas, security cover needs should always be considered before choosing locations or preparing anything because all the mature buck sign in the world is totally meaningless to hunt over if it was made during the security of darkness. Unlike what’s commonly viewed on managed or lightly hunted properties where bucks are taken in open vulnerable areas such as in short or picked crop fields and exposed food plots, or in mature timber with no understudy, in heavily pressured areas what little daytime mature buck activity that occurs is almost always within a couple bounds of exit security cover. Bucks in managed areas have to reach a specific age or antler criterion before they are at risk of getting killed whereas bucks in heavily pressured areas are targeted by many hunters during their first antlered season. If they don’t learn quickly how to avoid vulnerable areas during daylight hours, they don’t survive to a second antlered season. Studies show that in some areas of the country, year and a half old bucks comprise around 80% of the annual buck kill and most areas in Michigan are definitely in that boat. In such areas, few bucks survive to 2 ½ years of age and studies show that in some areas 3 ½ year old and older bucks comprise a mere 2% of the antlered buck population. That would mean if there were 20 antlered bucks per section (640 acres), there would only be two 3 ½ year or older or older bucks in 5 sections or 3,200 acres. Going forward I’m going to assume you’re hunting in a heavily pressured area and any proper set-up in such areas will work in any other area. Choosing the right tree at a new location: Choosing the right tree seems simple but at many locations it’s not. I prepared 5 new locations last December and at one of them it took me 25 minutes just to choose what I think will be the right tree. In 1998 I did an in-field seminar and at a location where three different terrain features converged I had all 18 participants choose a tree and not one chose the same tree I did, so it’s not that automatic. In most areas in Michigan mature bucks and does actually search for hunters in trees and unlike what’s commonly seen on film, when they pick you, they won’t look at you and after a few seconds put their heads back down and go about their business offering a shot, they will immediately spook. This fact has a direct correlation on tree choice and stand height. On a 2001 hunt in Iowa which is an extremely low hunter density state, I had a huge 8 point stop at fifteen yards and stare up at me. After several seconds, he put his head down just like on TV and continued, offering a twelve yard chip shot. At home he would have turned inside out and exited without hesitation. Ask yourself these questions because they should factor into your tree choice. What time of season and how frequently will I hunt here, will there likely be other deer around for an extended period of time such as at a destination scrape area or mast or fruit tree, how much hunting pressure does the surrounding area receive, what are my shooting distance limitations, and what’s my comfort level with heights? Each answer should play a role in the tree you choose as well as how it’s prepared. When choosing trees, wind direction is a consideration for most hunters, but not for me. Since the late 90’s I’ve paid zero attention to wind direction because I learned how to properly care for and use activated carbon-lined Scent Lok suits, head covers, gloves, and backpack and use them in conjunction with clean knee high rubber or neoprene boots. For my first 35 seasons I paid 100% attention to wind direction, but now I don’t and never get winded or have deer spook when they cross my entry routes. I should clarify that a bit. The only time wind direction may influence my tree selection is at a primary scrape area because it’s possible for a mature buck to come in from the downwind side and only scent check it. Since the prevailing wind direction in the fall is usually from the northwest, if there’s a suitable tree on the southeast side of the area, that’s the tree I’ll choose. However, active sign and not wind direction, will dictate when I hunt there. Begin the tree selection process by slowly walking or crawling down every surrounding runway while looking at every suitable tree and don’t make a decision until you’re finished. You want to choose the tree that offers a shot opportunity to the most runways however it must be a suitable tree that you won’t get picked in. Conifers and oaks are the most ideal trees when available. Conifers hold their needles year round and oaks hold their leaves long into the season, offering better concealment cover. Most trees lose their foliage prior to the rut phases, so for rut locations, if available pick a large diameter tree with a crotch or large branches at your hunting height to help conceal your body profile. If crotches or large branches don’t exist, consider going higher up the tree. The additional height will aid in keeping you out of a deer’s peripheral vision and allow you to get away with minor movements during the shot process. In Michigan I feel totally exposed when hunting below 25 feet in a tree with no cover which is typically the case during the rut and I always practice and sight my bow in from a similar height to replicate the same form when taking steeper shot angles. Bowhunters that exclusively practice from the ground will typically shoot several inches high when taking steep shot angles from trees because unknowingly, there eye, to anchor, to bow hand triangle slightly changes because they dip their head down before they draw. Try never to pick a tree directly over where you expect a shot opportunity. Doing so will cause; severe shot angles, a narrow target area, and no chance of a double-lung hit which should always be the goal. There will also be a much higher probability of getting picked as deer will be coming directly at you. For early season hunting all trees will have foliage offering concealment and background cover, somewhat negating the need to hunt as high up trees as during the rut phases. Always choose a tree that offers adequate background and concealment cover even if it leaves a runway or two slightly out of range because they can usually be altered. All the hard work to prepare shooting lanes and entry and exit routes at an awesome location will be wasted if you prepare an inadequate tree from which you’ll get busted. If no adequate tree is available and the location is awesome, a well concealed ground blind may be required. Clearing shooting lanes The hardest physical work starts now and if you have health issues, or are out of shape, get someone to help you or take a lot of breaks. For public land and knock on doors for free permission hunters like myself, make sure you know exactly what the federal, state or property owners allow concerning trimming trees, clearing shooting lanes, and making and marking entry and exit routes. One might think that once a tree has been chosen that preparing it would be the first thing you do but before preparing the tree, the process of properly choosing and then clearing shooting lanes is done first. The type of location and how frequently it gets hunted has a lot to do with properly choosing and clearing lanes. Example 1: If only hunting a spot two or three times per season, which is common for rut phase locations, cut shooting lanes wide enough so that you’ll have ample room to vocally stop a rapidly moving buck because in pressured areas second opportunities rarely occur. Example 2: At destination locations such as a mast or fruit tree or a primary scrape area where deer will come to and stop; concentrate your efforts on the primary lane to the destination area. Example 3: Totally opposite of example 2, interior bedding area locations typically require several subtle lanes. Once the hunting criterion has been established, walk or crawl down the farthest runways that are within shooting distance of the chosen tree. As you move down the runways look for the area between you and the tree where the least amount of brush and sapling need cleared as that will be required for shooting lanes. Clearing shooting lanes to the farthest runways will automatically put runways between it and your tree into play, eliminating the need to cut more lanes than necessary. The goal is to have as few lanes as possible without missing any potential shot opportunities. Oftentimes when scouting I come across other hunter locations and wonder how in the world they ever get a shot because their shooting lanes are so narrow and inferior. Having a great location and hunting it perfectly is a waste of your time if you can’t get off a shot when an opportunity presents itself. The, I hit a small branch excuse only means the location preparer did a terrible job of clearing shooting lanes. As infrequently as opportunities arise in heavily pressured areas, make sure they count. Large branches and saplings may be visible in low light conditions, but the small arrow deflecting stuff won’t be. Other than the large stuff, in each shooting lane everything must go that’s between a deer’s chest height and where you will be holding your bow at full draw. Cut the tall stick-weeds in front of each runway that could deflect an arrow and the tiny branches coming off other trees with your extension saw. The only thing that should be left in a shooting lane between your bow and a deer’s vitals area is air. Cut trees, brush, and saplings tight to the ground and cover large stubs with moss, leaves, or a small dead branch. With no stubs showing, it will be more difficult for other hunters to notice your location after green-up. Make sure not to block any runways with your cuttings. At small destination locations such as a mast or fruit tree or a primary scrape area, concentrate your efforts on the lane to the destination site as that’s where all the runways lead to and likely where your shot will be. At some destination areas a decent sized single shooting lane may be all you need. Old brushy apple trees will likely require some major trimming to open up shot opportunities to their opposite side. Unlike does and subordinate bucks that casually move around while feeding under mast and fruit trees, mature bucks typically come in from the side offering the most security cover and only eat within a small zone under the tree before exiting back into the same security cover from the direction they came in from. You need that shot opportunity and may have to rape part of the tree to be able to shoot to its opposite side. Within bedding areas it’s common for there to be runways everywhere and during the rut for bucks to be chasing does past you without being on any of them. These locations will not get hunted often and may need as many as 5 shooting lanes fanned out like spokes on a wheel to take full advantage of the situation. No matter the location, each shooting lane should be 4 to 8 feet wide so you have space to vocally stop a buck if he’s moving fast or pursuing a hot doe. Once finished clearing lanes to runways already within range it’s time to check for and alter any slightly out of range runways to within your shooting distance wheelhouse. Walk beyond the farthest runway in each lane and look for other runways. If you locate one that could be altered within range do so by strategically blocking 2 sections of it with deadfall debris or cuttings from the lanes you cleared. Join the 2 ends by cutting a new runway section that will bring it within shooting distance and join it with the farthest runway in your already cut lane. Once lanes seem finished drag all cut stuff as far away from the location as possible and put them cut side down into the heaviest cover available without blocking any runways. By pre-season which is when most hunters scout, the stood up cuttings will look like natural dead saplings or brush and other hunters won’t recognize it and look for your location. Preparing the tree Since 1981 I’ve exclusively hunted from a self-designed (arborist) style harness that rolls up to the size of a softball, weighs a pound-and-a-half, and easily fits in my hunting pack with all my other layer garments and gear and I prepare every tree for using the harness. There’s rarely a season that goes by where I don’t have at least 30 locations prepared and ready to hunt and even though I never hunt them all, at any time of season any one of them is ready if the sign warrants a hunt. Having that many prepared locations, not having to worry about theft or someone else hunting my tree, not having to own 30 to 50 stands, and for many other reasons hunting from a harness is a pretty huge advantage. Proper lane clearing is tough and by now your likely sweaty and tired, and want to go home and come back another day to finish. Take a break but don’t cave because when the final tack is placed and you’re back at your vehicle, you’ll be extremely glad you finished and that coffee or cold drink on the way home will be sweet. Once shooting lanes seem finished, go to your tree and pick out the side that appears easiest to climb in as straight a line as possible. If it leans, go up the side leaning away as if climbing a ladder as it will be easier to ascend and descend. Put on your safety climbing harness and attach the sheathed camp saw to your belt. For extremely rough barked trees you may also need the hatchet. My harness has side pockets for steps, step starter, bow holders, and rope and a fanny pack can serve the same purpose. I haven’t used a tree stand since 1981 but will pretend I do. Tie your stand, and extension saw if you think you’ll need it, to the rope and tie the other end to one of your back belt loops to keep it out of the way. Neatly place the remaining rope on the ground so it can unroll as you ascend. With safety harness attached, begin placing sticks or steps. For spacing steps, use your knee, waist, and shoulders. Typically the distance between knee and waist and waist and shoulders is about 18 inches and that spacing is easy to climb. During the process, cut all dead or small live branches that might be mistaken as steps when descending in the dark. With boots on, your feet can’t feel the difference between a small branch and a step and removing branches tight to the tree will eliminate the possibility of stepping on and snapping a branch and falling. On still days ascending or descending a tree can be noisy and very possibly spook deer when hunting within or close to a bedding area or near where deer feed. If you think spooking deer while descending a tree doesn’t matter because you’re leaving, you’re wrong. Every time a deer is spooked at a location, even if it’s not the target deer, it lessens your odds of a future opportunity. If in a rough barked tree and your within close proximity (near a bedding or feeding area) to where deer might be when ascending or descending, using the camp saw or hatchet, trim any loose bark from the area around each step before placing it. This insures your boots won’t snap-off any rough bark while climbing. When screwing in steps make sure all the threads are buried into the meat of the tree. In trees with large chunked or flaky bark such as white oaks, cottonwoods, hickories, etc., always use folding steps. The threads on a folding step can be buried into the meat of the tree between gaps of deep bark and then the step portion can be dropped down into that gap. In relatively smooth barked trees conventional rod steps are fine, but in deep barked trees they’re very dangerous because the side of the step becomes a stop when it hits the bark and doesn’t allow the threads to penetrate deep enough into the meat of the tree to support your weight. Once up the tree and at the desired location, pull your stand up and securely hang it where the least amount of body movement will be required to shoot in the lane you most expect an opportunity to occur. With safety harness attached step into it the stand and go through your shot process motions imagining there is a deer on each runway in every prepared shooting lane. If any branches encumber your body movements or impede a shot, cut them off. Also trim any rough bark from areas your upper body may rub against. With the extension saw cut any shot impeding branches in the tree that you couldn’t reach from the ground. Now is the reason you cleared shooting lanes before preparing the tree. It’s very common when in the tree to notice stuff in shooting lanes that you missed when clearing them on the ground. If alone, mentally note what you missed in each lane or if someone’s with you, have them cut it while you dictate. Strategically place a few screw in bow holders for your backpack and bow. Using your rangefinder check the distance to each runway and note them for future reference. If your first hunt will be in the morning and a buck comes through at the crack of dawn before a rangefinder might work, you’ll know the distance. Lastly, make sure to clear a straight shot to the ground for your bow rope and check it by lowering a gear item before descending. Pulling a bow up through branches in the dark or lowering it through branches you can’t see after dark is not a good plan. In pressured areas theft is rampant, so if concerned pull your bottom 6 steps, all your sticks, or stand and make sure to arrive early enough to re-set them. Theft is one of the umpteen reasons I exclusively hunt from a harness system. Once on the ground finish your shooting lanes by cutting the stuff you noted while in the tree. Clear the leaves and debris from you’re standing area at the base of the tree and where your bow will lay once tied to your rope. Make sure all cut stuff is far as from the location as possible and not blocking any runways. Preparing locations has been a topic taken way to lightly by most so-called experts because in the managed areas they hunt bucks move through open timber and into exposed feeding areas and those types of locations don’t require much expertise in preparing. It’s difficult to write or talk about something you don’t actually do. Entry and exit routes The final leg of the location preparation process is entry and exit routes. Due to the typical security cover landscape mature bucks in pressured areas require for daytime movements, entry and exit routes usually require a lot of work and it’s common to spend more time creating and marking access routes than actually prepping the location itself. When specifically targeting mature bucks, phenomenal hunting locations can be ruined if you don’t use non-invasive routes to get to and leave them. I would rather walk an extra mile and have the chance at a mature buck than walk a short distance and potentially spook him because it’s easier and more convenient. However, it’s not about long walks, it’s about planning entry and departure routes so as not to alarm deer of your presence. Accesses and departures often require tactical planning and after you set-up a location several questions need answering before considering your routes in and out. What’s the seasonal timing of the location? Is it a morning, all day, evening, or either time frame hunting location? Where may deer be when I approach the site? How do I get there and depart without spooking deer? And exactly what is your honest evaluation of your scent control regiment? My locations are always prepared knowing exactly what time of season and day they will be hunted and very frequently my decision is based strictly on how I can access and depart them. Morning hunt entries must be such that you avoid crossing or going along edges of short crop fields or through oak laden timber where deer may be feeding or chasing in, otherwise you may spook the very deer you’re trying to kill. Morning entry routes should be through terrain features where deer are least likely to be at night such as along swamp edges, weed fields, brushy areas, timber without mast or fruit trees, edges of standing corn, and maybe there’s creek bed, ditch, draw, or gulley you can transition through. Exit routes however for many morning spots are different than the entry routes. Evening entry routes are much simpler because deer are typically more confined in known bedding areas. You can walk across short crop fields or through mature timber without understudy; however you typically have to have a different exit route. While bedding area locations are specifically for all day hunts during the rut phases only with 2 hour prior to daybreak entries and half an hour after dark exits so as not to spook deer bedded in them, routes must still be planned based on where deer might be before and after dark. While the topic gets little ink or footage, spooking deer with exits can be as detrimental as spooking them with entries and many hunters pay no mind to exit routes because that hunt is over. Do this a time or two and afternoon deer movements at that location may completely dry up, not to mention pushing mature bucks into a more nocturnal routines which can affect your entire season. I’ve hunted with several seasoned hunters and while I’ve kept my mouth shut, have been shocked by some of their entry and departure routes. From a distance I’ve also witnessed other hunters ascending and descending trees in the dark with headlamps shining wherever their head turns and watched hunters enter and depart on routes that were definitely spooking deer, unknowingly temporarily saving the lives of deer. Routes cleared through brush will likely end up as portions of deer runways as deer frequently travel the path of least resistance. Human odor is a huge issue when choosing and making routes and if your scent control regiment is inadequate, you’ll leave a residual scent ribbon of odor when walking through tall grasses, weeds, or when brushing against brush along the route. If this is the case, make sure your routes don’t cross runways or allows you to brush against vegetation as you near the location. Prior to having my current scent control regiment, mature deer would oftentimes stop when they hit my entry route scent ribbon and stomp the ground, maybe snort, and exit in the direction they came in from. I used scent eliminating sprays at the time but they were and still are severely inadequate as a total scent control program. Even the TV and video hunters that get paid to endorse sprays, still hunt the wind and the deer they hunt are far more tolerant of human odor that their brethren in heavily pressured areas. The main objectives when making routes is; not to spook deer, easy route to walk, marked well enough so as not to take one step off course (especially during darkness), and the most difficult part is keeping them as inconspicuous as possible to other hunters. When making routes remove dead branches along it because it’s typically dead quiet on morning entries and evening exits and a snapped branch can be heard from a long distance. Once an entry route is finished you should be able to walk the last 100 yards to your tree without touching any brush or tall weeds. The only thing touching anything should be the bottom of your boots and in many locations a return trip prior to season to cut new growth may be required. Marking entry and exit routes After the summer growth your routes may look much different than when you prepared them and be very difficult if not impossible to follow in the dark. In the dark you want to follow an exact route and not take one step outside it and reflective markers make it easy. Struggling in the dark to follow a route creates stress, anxiety, makes you sweat, makes it more likely to leave odor on brush because you’re not always on your clean route, more noise, and pisses you off all at the same time. In areas where you’re concerned about other hunters finding your locations, use HME’s brown tacks because they blend in with the bark making them difficult for other hunters to see during daylight. On public lands the last thing you want to do is put a white reflective tack every few yards to your stand but if you’re not concerned with other hunters finding and following your markers, use white tacks because their reflection can be seen from farther distances. In marshes, tall weeds, and through brush with limp branches, use HS’s reflective bread ties. Make sure to cut back branches, new buds, and other vegetation that would otherwise grow or leaf out during summer and block the view of tacks or ties. At home in the dark, test the reflection distance of whatever tacks and ties you use with your hunting flashlight to assure marker spacing is adequate. While marking routes, whenever a sharp turn is required, put two tacks in the tree, this will let you know to search right or left for the next marker. The goal is to be able to space and easily follow your markers while trying to make it difficult for someone else to. Now your location is finished, make notes on your aerial photos or maps as to your entry and exit routes and any pertinent information you may need to know before hunting it. After a few hunts you won’t need the notes, but there have been times I’ve went back and re-prepared locations I’d abandoned and the old notes came in handy. Once I finish preparing new locations on a given property, I go to my previous season’s locations and trim new growth in shooting lanes and in tree, clean up deer runways and my entry and exit routes of dead debris, and where needed, add reflective tacks to assure an easy access and exit for the upcoming season.