Checking Things Out: Public Land In-Season Scouting Methods

It’s already after Halloween and into the first wild week of November, the official unofficial kickoff to the whitetail rut around these parts. Work and family stuff have kept me plenty busy lately, but I’ve managed a few good public-land bowhunts in the central Wisconsin area during the past week. No arrows loosed yet, but I have seen quite a few does and fawns, a few small bucks, and watched a spike buck and a fork buck bed down and doze off within 50 yards of me on separate occasions and different properties. Very neat experiences. My dad was also able to fill an antlerless tag — from the ground without a blind — on one of the public-land parcels we hunted late last week.

A late October snowfall helped the author find some extremely fresh scrapes, rubs and more deer sign on a couple of fast hiking in-season scouting trips on public land. (Photo: Chris Berens/DDH)

Out of the six times I was able to hunt in the last week, I was only skunked for deer sightings on two sits — both were new spots I never hunted before, and with my dad’s successful kill in there too, I consider that to be pretty good for small public parcels in central Wisconsin with the amount of hunting pressure in the area. The bigger bucks are out there and moving; it’s just a matter of timing now.

None of these public-land deer hunting spots are super-secret out-of-the-way areas, though they did require some research to find and scout the first few times, but the main credit for the amount of deer sightings is scouting in the last few weeks. In-season speed scouting to be more specific. I try to scout as much as possible in the winter, spring and summer, but as many fellow hunters can relate to, work, family and other obligations don’t allow as much off-season scouting as I’d like. So I rely quite a bit on three methods of in-season scouting, and would like to share my spin on what works for me.

The first method is glassing and shining crop fields adjacent to public land parcels in the central part of the state. This doesn’t really work much for me in the northern big woods areas simply because there are no agricultural fields, and not many young clear-cut logging areas are next to roads to glass or shine from.

Shining deer with a powerful light at night is legal in Wisconsin within set times and dates, and there cannot be any firearms, bows or crossbows in the vehicle at the time. Some local ordinances may differ on the rules. Be sure to check local regulations before trying it. Respect other vehicles on the road and nearby homes — don’t shine the light anywhere near them!

The goal here is to quick get a light on the field and take a fast scan of what’s out there. I’m looking for numbers of deer, their locations in the field, and possibly any bucks. Then lights out. That’s it. Don’t sit there and watch them or talk loud or have the radio blaring. Around here, it doesn’t take long and the deer won’t stick around to let you watch.

I will also sacrifice an evening hunt or two, or if I have to work late and don’t have time for a hunt, and take some binoculars on a little road trip around last light to the same fields adjacent to public hunting land. The deer aren’t as nonchalant with vehicles as they were in the summer, so I don’t like to stick around long enough to make them nervous. This also helps me see any other hunting pressure from where I find other vehicles parked.

My goal with those tactics is to just get an idea of what fields the deer are using as food sources, since some sources are losing their attractiveness as the weather gets colder, and since many soybean and corn fields are being harvested. I don’t want to disturb the deer any more than they already are, I just want to get a handle on what fields they are utilizing and where they might be entering those fields. Then I can relate this info to where I already have spots scouted, or what the terrain and cover is like in that area to possibly make a play from a new spot.

A late October snowfall also helped reveal some fresh rubs and other deer sign, all of which are clues to form a plan for hunting an area. (Photo: Chris Berens/DDH)

The second in-season scouting tactic I rely heavily on is taking a fast hiking cruise of a few key areas. I go in pretty light for these trips, just carrying my bow, my pack with a trail camera or two, and some water and snacks. Always need to have snacks! For these trips, I have the mindset beforehand that I’m not sneaking around or still-hunting. I’m covering ground to find fresh sign and that’s it. Some hunters may frown on this and say I’m risking jumping deer and spreading around scent. My feeling is that I’d rather risk that than spend my limited hunting time sitting in a dead area.

Finding fresh scrapes, new beds, new and old rubs, big tracks, heavily used trails and signs of browsing and feeding, as wells as signs of other hunters, are the goals of these trips. This is especially true in the big woods areas I hunt, as the old saying goes, 90 percent of the deer are in 10 percent of the woods. And you really need to stay on fresh sign to see deer up there.

The final in-season scouting tactic I’ve started to use more in the last few years is to place more trail cameras out to keep tabs on deer movement. I honestly don’t use cameras around the farm country of central Wisconsin simply because there are so many other people around, and I worry about having them stolen (good cameras aren’t cheap after all), and I also worry about my hunting activity being discovered by someone else. So, I only run cameras in the less-hunted areas of the big woods. If I find a likely spot on a scrape or rub line, doe bedding area edge or terrain funnel, I’ll quickly make a mock scrape to help stop a buck and set up a camera right there, dousing it with scent-free spray before leaving. And when I return in a week or two I’ll sacrifice a few hours of hunting time to hike out and check those cameras, scouting along the way.

Staying on top of current deer activity and fresh sign has been vital to experiencing good hunts on the public land I hunt. With many different hunting land parcels, terrain and cover types, it allows me to adjust to different wind directions, hunting pressure and other factors. Plus, it’s fun getting out and exploring every time.

What are some of your best in-season scouting techniques? I’d love to hear about them. Send me an email at