There are many elements that contribute to a successful hunt. Different types of game and styles of hunting call for different tactics and equipment.
Still, there are commonalities, and regardless of what you pursue, whether it be whitetails or wood ducks, woodcock or wild turkey, the most consistently successful hunters are those who devote the most time to preseason scouting. And there’s no better time to begin than right now.
It has become something of a tradition for me to go out and build or rebuild my duck blinds on Labor Day weekend. The early flights of teal are in and the local breeders are starting to flock up on the major roosting and feeding areas, giving a clear indication where I’ll find web-footed waterfowl in another month. I’m probably giving them far too much credit, but I feel more confident brushing up my blinds now so the birds have time to get accustomed to them.
My “blinds” run the gamut from a flattened-out patch of reeds and a tussock seat to full-blown structures with floors made of pallets and sides made of chicken wire woven with cattails and other greenery. I have a few traditional blinds that I’ve hunted for more than two decades now. Still, I’m always looking for new hot spots.
You can start your scouting right at home with maps and aerial photos, then set out and investigate the more promising ones. Finding waterfowl is easy — just look for water. However, different fowl like different habitat. Puddlers like blacks and mallards prefer shallower areas like marshes and pond margins, where they can feed without fully submerging. Divers like hooded mergansers and ring-necked ducks) are more often found in deeper bog ponds. Along the coast you’ll find black ducks and teal in the estuaries and intertidal zones, and sea ducks like scoters and eiders in deeper in-shore waters.
You might think scouting for upland birds is silly, but there are some good reasons for it. For starters, it gives you and your bird dog an opportunity to stretch the legs, and in the dog’s case, the nose, so you’ll be in condition once the season is in. Second, it gives you a chance to look over your favorite covers to see that they’re still there — and not lost to development or posting — and still productive. Birds like grouse and woodcock prefer early successional habitat. Over time the cover matures and becomes less productive. And it gives you a chance to scout new areas. New cuts make great early season feeding areas for grouse, and woodcock will flood into older cuts overgrown with alders.
Wild turkeys tend to follow routine patterns in the fall, even more than in the spring, and they are especially faithful to abundant food sources. Once they locate a particularly productive oak ridge or a late-cut corn field, they’ll usually stick with it until the food is gone, or someone scares them off. Ride the roads and hike the hills looking for flocks, or evidence that they’ve been around. The birds are often in large groups this time of year and easy to see from a distance. And they leave a mess of turned over leaves and duff wherever they go.
Last on our scouting checklist are whitetails. They may well be on those same oak ridges and cut cornfields as turkeys. In fact, many novice hunters often mistake turkey scratchings for deer sign. With a little practice, it’s easy to tell the difference. You should also be scouting for signs like tracks and trails. They’ll tell you where the deer have been, though not necessarily when they’ve been there. This is where scouting cameras can be very handy. They’ll not only tell you when deer travel through a certain area, but what deer are there. Set up several, then refine your efforts to areas where you’re seeing good bucks.
Bucks will be rubbing the velvet off their antlers during the first few weeks of September. A single rub may be of little use, but a line of saplings freshly denuded of bark could be a regular travel route. Deer, especially older bucks, are far more susceptible to human disturbance than waterfowl, which is why preseason scouting is so important. You’ll want to have your tree stands hung and your shooting lanes cut long before you plan to hunt.
There is another reason why preseason scouting can be helpful. It gives you a jump on the competition, or at least it should.
The early bird gets the worm and there is a tradition among sportsmen that the first one to build a blind or hang a stand in a particular area gets that spot. You want to be that hunter. But if you’re not, please be respectful of those who were more diligent about their preseason scouting.
Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and Registered Maine Guide who lives in Pownal. He can be contacted at: