In the first installment of this three-part series, we covered the homework needed for aggressive Western scouting. Now you have a plan on paper, so to speak. Here’s how to put that plan into action.
Check Water Sources
After off-loading camp gear, supplies, etc., and armed with your marked up map, get mobile! Plan a route to scout out as many of your water sources as you can. You are looking for sign, mainly in the form of big tracks. There is not an abundance of game in these dry deserts and you must decipher where the few animals that reside there drink. Carefully study the waters’ edge first. Often, large tracks can be seen in the soft, wet, soil around the edge. However, in the West, cattle and game can share the same waters and the cattle tracks can obliterate everything else.
Tracks can be seen easily in the soft, wet soil at the water’s edge.
The edge of the water may also be hard or rocky and tracks may not show up easily. In these instances, start to circle the water source, making larger and larger passes each time. Look for tracks in areas of softer ground. Try to determine where you would approach if you were a cautious, old deer. As you circle farther from the actual water, the cattle tracks will become more and more dispersed and hopefully, you can find the sign you are looking for. After you locate a large track try to back-trail it as far as you can. This will give you the direction that the animal is coming and going from.
It is common to find several sets of tracks from the same buck overlapping on top of each other showing his preferred route. Carefully study the surrounding topography to determine which knob or ridge top will give the best view of this newly discovered travel route. Your previous map studies should have already hinted to this. I will spend the entire middle part of the day checking multiple waters. This is also a great way to learn the country and roads. Another tip to note is to constantly be on the watch for large tracks crossing the dirt roads. Road edges show tracks great and the more large tracks that you find the more leads you can follow up on.
Be on the lookout for tracks crossing the road in your daily travels.
Glass During Primetime
After you have located some big buck sign, it’s time to try to get a visual on the buck that is leaving it. Hopefully, you have deciphered where a buck is drinking, the direction that he traveling to and from the water, and you have chosen the vantage points that will give you the best look into his world without disturbing him.
Armed with your optics and tripod, plan to be sitting on your select vantage point before daybreak. Quality glass is an absolute must and even more important is a sturdy tripod on which to mount them. If you can see the actual water, start looking there first and you might get lucky. Slowly and carefully start glassing the travel corridor you believe the buck to be using to access the water. Many glassing articles stress a grid type pattern of covering the countryside, but I believe that looking in the most probable areas first will yield more buck sightings. You can fall back to the grid search after things slow down later in the morning.
As earlier noted, desert bucks need not water every day. This means that it may take more than one day to locate particular bucks. If you fail to locate the animal leaving the sign after a couple of days, you need to make a judgment call as to how much time to dedicate to this one particular area.
Try A Different Vantage Point
Use these questions to help you. Can I move to a different vantage point that offers a new angle into the buck’s territory? Is the country he inhabits conducive to getting a look at him or is it dog-hair thick and unable to penetrate with your binoculars? Miles of Western countryside are covered in thick, mature vegetation that is nearly impossible to see deer in. How many other solid leads did you uncover on your sign-checking adventures? Do you feel you have as good or better sign elsewhere? If so, you may want to move on after a day or two and pursue leads that have higher odds of success. But, if the tracks are as large as you have ever seen and the droppings the size of Milk Duds, you may want to spend some serious time before moving on.
Once tracks are located, use your tripod-mounted optics to dissect the countryside around the water.
Ideally, things will work out and after a glassing session or two you will get a look at the target buck. You can then determine if he is what you are looking for, or if you can dismiss him and search elsewhere. Often, several bucks are using the same water. You can get a rough estimate on how many are by closely counting and studying the tracks. Stay hooked to that location until you feel you have seen everything in the area.
We will discuss other tactics and strategies in the third and final installment.
Please read more Western scouting tips in Part 3.
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