Photo by Illinois Learn to Hunt

August 1, 2023

Pre-Season Scouting Illinois Deer

Three men wearing camoflage take a moment to snap a photo together before heading to their hunting spot. They are in a fall field with a treeline behind them. Some of the trees still have their fall leaves, but many of the deciduous trees have already lost their leaves.
Jason from the Illinois Learn to Hunt program escorts last year’s Hunt Camp winners – Aamer and Muhammad to their hunting spot for the evening. Photo by Illinois Learn to Hunt Program.

At some point every mid-summer in Illinois, the corn is fully grown, the blackbirds start forming large flocks and a smile comes across your face as you know that fall is approaching. It won’t be long until teal are buzzing about, and doves start getting concentrated on some food sources. Now is the time to begin your pre-season scouting for white-tailed deer.

No new gadget or technological advancement can replicate scouting. There are a few that can help you along that journey but if you want the best chance of success, you have to put the pre-season work in. In the hunting world, success truly favors the prepared.

Public Lands Hunting Reports

As an Illinois public land hunter, our first step in remote scouting is always to review the public lands hunting reports published by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. These reports give you a snapshot of what is harvested at individual public land sites and for some species, the number of hunters pursuing that species. This can be extremely useful to compare sites for hunting pressure and harvest trends when narrowing down which sites you want to hunt. We encourage you to look at several years of reports as harvest can fluctuate annually.

Remote Scouting

Remote scouting means viewing property details and features when you are not physically there. Usually this is done using paper maps, or electronic maps on a device such as a computer or phone. Remote scouting does not replace field scouting efforts. It’s best used in conjunction with field scouting and can narrow down your in-the-field scouting to just priority areas.

Much of deer scouting is identifying two key areas: feeding and bedding areas. Once you identify these locations, finding travel routes between these points is your next step.

When visiting the site for in-person scouting, start with the best spots you identified when remote scouting. Hopefully the work you did from home will help get you on target quicker when hiking around.

Aerial Photos or Satellite Imagery

Aerial photographs, if recent, can let you know where grain and green browse plots may be. Look for isolated fallow fields, cedars and grasslands with scattered trees for possible bedding locations. These areas tend to not change as much each year as food plots and agriculture. Always make note of what looks like the most limiting habitat at a site. Is it forest, open fields, or food sources.

Topographic Maps

Having the ability to read and understand topographic maps is an essential skill for any hunter. When looking at a topographic map, the first thing you will notice are contour lines snaking around the map. Contour lines are a closed loop, never intersect, and all points along the same contour line are at the same elevation above sea level. Essentially, by following a contour line on the ground you would not travel uphill nor downhill but remain at the same elevation. Another crucial component of contour lines relies on the spacing between lines. The closer the contour lines are together, the steeper the slope; the farther apart the lines are, the gentler the slope. Being able to identify the terrain and slope aspect (direction the slope faces) can be incredibly important for any deer hunter. Deer will often follow the natural contours of the landscape, just like us humans, for efficiency’s sake.

Of equal importance is the direction this slope faces, south. South facing slopes receive more solar radiation throughout the day leading to warmer temperatures; these often a great place to find bedded deer on frigid days. When remote scouting, make notes of south facing slopes. Slope aspect can also help you pinpoint potential leeward bedding sites. Leeward bedding is when deer bed on the downwind side of a slope, protecting themselves from prevailing winds. Another common bedding area that can be readily identified using topographic maps is ridge-point bedding.

A point that extends off a ridge provides ample security and exit routes for deer. When using these areas, deer will be facing into the lowland with the prominent wind direction coming down the ridge behind them. This allows deer to watch for danger in front of them, while scent-checking to ensure there is nothing approaching from the rear.

Trail Cameras

A trail camera image of a white-tailed deer buck (male) standing in woods surrounded by small trees and bushes.
The trail camera that captured this image was placed along an escape route from a commonly used ridge point bedding location. Along this exit route, four different bucks were regularly using this area to bed at differing times. Photo by Dan Stephens.

While not essential, trail cameras are an excellent tool to add to your scouting bag. Once you find a good location you can set a camera up in the pre-season to see what and when animals are moving through. This can be especially important if you are targeting mature bucks.

The primary mistake that people make when using trail cameras is a lack of organization. Start each scouting season getting fresh batteries and cards in all your cameras and set the date and time correctly. Put a number or name on each camera and SD card with a sharpie. Keep a journal of what camera goes to what location and then what card is in each camera. Then save all pictures into a unique file for each different location. Doing this will make your trail camera scouting more fruitful and less frustrating later.

In this trail camera image two male white-tailed deer and a female white-tailed deer stand in a woodland with minimal understory vegetation.
Family group: This image is from a trail camera that was placed in the bottom of a valley where a well-defined deer trail was established, crossing from one side of the valley to the other. In addition to the heavy foot traffic from multiple deer, year-old rubs were prominent in the location. Photo by Dan Stephens.

You can put cameras in spots you may want to hunt or also at the entrances of bedding or feeding areas to see who all is around. Remember that on public land, theft may be encountered. Making efforts to conceal your camera, adding a lock or placing it higher than normal reach, are all ways to try to mitigate theft.

You can choose to get a cellular camera that will send photos directly to you if you purchase a data plan. These can be a huge help for those who have little time to go back and forth or for those who want to save gas and mileage. You also get more real-time information. You do need to get a monthly data plan to get the pictures but if you have much of a drive at all, you will save it on gas in no time.

Scouting is Fun!

Apart from giving you the best chance at success, pre-season scouting is just flat out enjoyable. Walking through the woods trying to learn about an animal helps you to develop a deep appreciation for not just the critter you are after but the habitat in which it lives.

As if you needed an excuse to go wandering around in the woods looking for cool stuff? By the way: fall mushrooms will be fruiting soon, keep an eye out for chicken-of-the-woods, puffballs, chanterelles and hen-of-the-woods. Oh my!

If you want to learn more about pre-season scouting or hunting in general check out the free Illinois Learn to Hunt videos.

Who is on the Illinois Learn to Hunt team? Visit the About page on the website to meet the team members.

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