You can feel it in the breeze, you can see it in the leaves, and if you pay attention, you can see it in the behavior of the critters. Fall is upon us. Even my dog knows: It’s time to hunt.
Fall marks the start of many months of hunting, leading into winter waterfowl and possibly even pigs for some of us. Fall opportunities in my area offer deer, bear, quail, squirrel, dove and rabbit. If you’re ready to maximize your hunting opportunities this is the perfect time for it. If you plan your time right you can multi-species hunt nearly any day you are in the field.
Scouting is one of the most critical factors to having successful hunts for big game. To harvest an animal you must know areas they frequent and the terrain you’ll be hunting them in. If you spot and stalk you will need to know the terrain to find bedding areas. You want to find areas that allow you to overlook the bedding zones to watch them without being seen, and understand the wind patterns. This is important to know, since you will need to have multiple areas of access to reach the bedding areas without being winded by the deer. Blacktail deer here in California will generally give you one opportunity. Knowing how these animals use bedding areas helps you understand how you will approach the area. If you stand hunt, you can find good areas to set up your tree stand.
Before you head out into the field to scout I recommend doing some legwork. I call it “desktop scouting”. This is best done from a desktop or laptop computer, where you can easily multi-task and have screen real estate to make working with maps much more comfortable for longer periods. Download Google Earth Pro. Get a subscription to OnXMaps Hunt Maps. Between these two tools you will be able to locate areas that you feel might hold animals.
Bear in mind that all animals need three things: water, food, cover. Look for these areas on the maps. I look at draws that contain thick cover such as brush or thick stands of young trees. For deer, these areas should be within a mile, or at most, two miles from water. I use Hunt Maps to verify property boundaries and check Google Earth for elevation and other important features. The main reason I use Google Earth is that I can import other map data, such as topo maps, BLM and US Forest service data, as layers over my hunting areas. This gives me a vast set of data I can use to interpret the areas I want to scout before I even get out in the field.
Boots on the Ground
The next step is to get out there and scout the land. Start about a month before the season begins. Get out as often as possible, even if it’s just for an hour or two. You will want to bring some essentials:
- GPS (to mark potential spots to hunt, sit and watch)
- Range finder
- Spotting scope (if the terrain will allow you a vantage point)
I try to avoid tromping around in areas I might consider to be bedding areas. Deer most often bed during the day. Because of this, pushing through these areas during daylight might bump them from their beds. At the very least, you’re leaving your scent all over the areas they might be sleeping. You might force them to reconsider another bedding area!
Sit and watch these areas in the mornings and evenings. A half hour before sunrise and one to two hours after, then one to two hours before sunset and a half an hour after are the optimal times to watch these areas. Put this time in and it will pay off, I guarantee it! Try a few different areas. Mark all the spots you see any deer on your GPS and notate the day, time, wind direction, temps and, if available to you, barometric pressure. You can use this data later to try to form a pattern of when the deer will use these bedding areas.
The Scouting Hunt
It is often the case that certain small game and/or bird seasons will be open during the time you are scouting. For me, the two weeks prior to my favorite deer zone opening I am able to hunt grouse, quail and squirrel. When I am scouting I always bring my shotgun, loaded with #6 shot.
There are a couple of important factors to bear in mind when scout hunting. First and foremost, do not hunt small game in the same areas you are scouting. Not only do you risk pushing deer out of the area with gunfire, you are spreading your scent over a wide area. Instead, scout for deer in the mornings. When you’re done scouting, drive to another area you feel will hold small game/birds and hunt this area for the rest of the day. Logging roads are perfect for this. I will drive around to road scout new areas, while looking for small game at the same time.
If I see quail, rabbits or squirrels I will jump out of the truck and give chase. When I spot small draws or valleys I will often check them for quail. Stands of mature trees are a great place to find squirrels. Using this technique I can scout a lot of ground relatively quickly and usually bring home a small mixed bag of game. By the end of the season this adds up to a nice bonus bounty. I may also find new areas to hunt deer (or bear, if you’re into it).
Just remember to end your small game hunt in enough time to get back to your spots that you want to scout for the evening!
The Mushroom Hunter in Me
I’ll often use the periods between morning and evening in early season scouting to scout areas for mushrooms. In the Sierra Nevada range we have a considerable number of mushrooms in late summer and early fall. Some of these include:
- Chicken of the Woods
- Several edible Russula species (such as shrimp russala)
- Oysters (at lower elevations)
- White chanterelles (if you’re lucky!)
- Boletus edulis var. grandedulis, the King Bolete. A prize!
This can be an excellent time to find shrooms, so if you’re into it, use that time wisely! Mushrooms are an excellent compliment to most game dishes, and it’s satisfying to have a meal made of the game and foraged food in the same dish from the same season. If you’re new to mushroom hunting check out my article on mushroom hunting.
Now that the season has begun, you should have a decent plan on how you will be hunting. One of the most important aspects of big game hunting is to be in your spot at least an hour before shoot time. It is inevitable that you will make some noise getting to your spot. This time allows the woods around you to “settle”. Any animals startled by you, such as birds and squirrels, will get used to you being there and are less likely to alert deer of your presence. It will give you enough time to get set up and comfortable. It will also put you more in-tune with your surroundings.
Do the same for the evening hunt. I usually hunt two hours before sunset. I will get to my spot three hours before sunset, for the same reasons above.
The Space Between
You can sit and watch these areas all day, but the chances of seeing deer outside of the periods I have discussed are reduced significantly. This can be a decent time to hunt small game, but be aware that it is deer season. You may make other hunters unhappy if you are running around the woods shooting squirrels and quail! I usually take advantage of this when I hunt weekdays and will scout around to be sure there are no hunters parked in the areas I am shooting small game. On weekends I will use the late morning and early afternoon as an opportunity to nap, eat lunch, and review my evening plans. I may also nap again! Again, mushroom hunting can be productive in this period.
Don’t make the mistake of burning yourself out before your evening hunt. I have hunted hard enough that I’ve decided to call it a day before my evening hunt. Since evening hunts can be as good or better than mornings, it’s a terrible waste. Pace your day. As I mentioned above, naps can be incredible, especially since we get up so early to hunt. I often just lay down in the woods to nap. It’s a pretty peaceful experience!
Getting in Small Game and Birds Hunts During Deer Season
If you have a hunting dog, like me, or just love to hunt small game, fall can present a challenge on how to deer hunt and hunt small game. I try to plan my season out so that I can get my dog out often enough, but still have a fair chance at harvesting a deer. There a couple way ways I manage this.
First, I am lucky enough to live within a half hour of several areas I can hunt small game. Because I live on the west coast and work east coast hours, I will often take weekday afternoons to hunt small game. I also try to take a couple of days off a month to dedicate to small game.
I also plan a dedicated deer hunting trip, once per season. This trip will usually be 4-5 days long. This gives me an opportunity to completely focus on deer hunting. If I can kill a deer on this trip it leaves me more time to small game hunt the rest of the season!
Basically, plan according to your personal needs and schedule. Figure out in advance how you will plan your hunting days so that you can accomplish your goals. Can you work with your boss to add extra hours to your work day and get an extra day off per week? Be creative, you’d be surprised at how much more hunting time you can get in when you really look at the opportunities to juggle your time.
Good luck this season, and be sure to hit me up if you have any questions or stories to share!