I took advantage of the suddenly cooler weather during the first week of October to take a long “assessment hike” through the woods, fields and wetlands in my rural, sparsely-developed neighborhood. Except for a few new houses and some recent paving projects not much has changed in this area over the last 50 years. The woods, of course, have grown into mature stands of oak, maple, spruce and hemlock with a fir and pine or two for spice, but little else has gone on at least since the great Fire of ’47 roared through from Arundel to Bar Harbor.
At any other time of year my woodland wanderings include a walking stick, my trusty backpack and a few meager supplies: Water, gas stove, tin cup, a few tea bags and apples, granola bars or similar quick snacks. In October, however, I trade the stick in for a .410 shotgun or .22 rifle in the off chance that I’ll see a grouse, rabbit, squirrel or other “legal game in season.” I am prepared for but never really expect to see anything worth adding to the freezer because my walks generally take place in late morning or midday, when most of the preferred game species are inactive.
While I can say I’m hunting what I’m really doing on these October strolls is scouting, an over-used term that too few sportsmen acknowledge. The concept is mentioned in every pre-season, in-season and off-season article about hunting and it is great advice, but hardly anyone really takes it to heart. Hunters who go to the same places year after year and expect that nothing has changed will, one day, be quite surprised to find other hunters, buildings, new roads or trails, posted signs or other unexpected developments, many of which crop up between seasons with little or no fanfare.
For this reason I like to hike high and low through the woods, over ridges, through saddles, down steep slopes and along wetland fringes almost expecting to find obstacles that will change my hunting plan for the coming season. Most common of late are new posted signs, snowmobile trails and bridges, blocked roads and hunting camps that, a year ago, were nonexistent. There’s not much I can do about landowner’s making improvements or changes to their property and they’re welcome to it, but I just need to know, before deer season begins, that the great places I used to hunt are no longer available. Finding these variations in October gives me several weeks to regroup and find other places to hunt, but in a lazy year when I decide not to do my scouting, I end up walking out on Opening Day with no alternative plan should I encounter one or more of these glitches.
So, I head out in the early days of October to scout the areas I want to hunt come rifle season, as pleasant a way to examine the lay of the land without the anxiety of finding property that has been closed to the public since the last time I was there.
My October walks always take me farther afield than I normally would go during deer season simply because I want to find out what’s going on over the next ridge, around the bend or on the other side of the pond. Sometimes “my” hunting areas reveal no changes but new land uses could have taken place on adjacent properties which, come November, could affect the quality of hunting or the movement of whitetails in the surrounding area.
It doesn’t take much to change the habits of the local deer herd. One year a new gravel pit was opened that completely closed the travel routes and feeding areas of the local whitetails. In another area a huge clear-cut that took place on the other side of my favorite ridge caused the deer to move out of that area because the clear-cut was laid bare, leaving no brushy cover at all, and the deer were not about to expose themselves in the surrounding open hardwoods, at least not during the day. It took me two days of scouting to find out where the deer went (a nearby swamp) and then another day of hard hiking to find out where they were bedding and feeding. That’s a lot of walking, but the time to make these discoveries is before the season opens, not the day after.
I’m still old-school in that I use a compass and a small notebook to record my findings, directions and topographic details. Modern scouters rely more on GPS units, even their cell phones, to record their discoveries, but I have found that anything that runs on batteries is prone to failure at the most inopportune time. My trusty brass pin-on compass has been pointing North for over 60 years and has yet to steer me wrong, and my topographic maps printed back in the 1940s show elevations, boundaries, old roads and trails that still exist. When I encounter something new or unusual I’ll make a note of it on the map and record it in my notes, which are still clear and dependable decades after the fact. Technology is coming along very well but it’s not perfect yet and may not get there in my lifetime. Until then I’ll keep scouting with my compass and notebook.
One thing I’ve learned over the many years I’ve been taking these October scouting forays is to stop, take a break, consider the importance of any changes I notice and then make clear, concise notes about it. This is far superior to trusting to memory or waiting till I get home to gather my thoughts and notations. Instead, I’ll pick a convenient rock or log, brew some tea, examine my surroundings and then carefully jot down important details including directions, lay of the land, elevations, important landmarks and estimated distances between notable points.
On a good day I’ll come home with a fresh new description of the area I’ve scouted, a couple of squirrels, a grouse or rabbit for supper and renewed enthusiasm for the season ahead. What better way to spend cool, bright October morning!