Developing a particular set of skills to your highest ability is no easy task. Whether it's shooting a bow, hunting for deer, swinging a baseball bat or any other skill that is learned over time it often requires a deep knowledge and fundamental understanding of both the basics as well as advanced techniques. For those of us who spend much of our time pursuing whitetail deer it has been engrained in our brains that post-season scouting is possibly the best way to gain a better understanding of our quarry. In light of this we spend countless hours walking countless miles around our hunting grounds each winter and spring, hoping to unlock the mysteries of killing trophy whitetails.
As a young whitetail hunter I bought into pretty much every piece of information I read in a magazine or book, or saw on TV or in a video - including the post-season scouting craze. I figured that unless I got out in the woods and walked until I had blisters on my feet, cataloging every piece of deer sign I could find I wasn't a "serious" hunter. Surely THIS would start me on the path to success! Despite my best efforts, and after several seasons of unfilled tags, I began taking a closer look into my techniques which started with post-season scouting. I was putting in the time, so why wasn't I seeing the rewards?
I've spent many hours walking up and down hills, across creeks and ravines, through snow, mud and water - and for what? It suppose it was good excercise anyways...
The answer to this, my bowhunting friends, is that I wasn't really learning anything that was helping me become a better bowhunter! I was simply doing as I was told, but never fully understanding why or how it was going to benefit me. Heck, part of it was probably just to tell my buddies that I spent 4 hours walking in the woods today just to prove how "serious" I really was! Allow me to explain futher...
For most deer hunters our post-season scouting is done during late winter and early spring. The trouble with this is that much of of the sign we're seeing now was made after the season ended and the local whitetails have drastically altered virtually every aspect of their lives. After the rut winds down and cold weather moves in it's not uncommon for deer to move several miles to find a good food source. During much of December and all through January and February it's entirely possible that the deer you were hunting last fall, and will be hunting again next fall, are not using your hunting property at all! So you put the miles on your boots but can't seem to figure out where all the deer went. In some cases we may even write off particular areas due to lack of deer sign.
Conversely, you may have one of the better food sources in the area and thus have an overwhelming amount of deer sign. I know many hunters who have been fooled into thinking that the concentration of sign automatically means this is spot they should be hunting. So they come back during the summer and hang their treestands, but are sadly disappointed come fall when the spot fails to produce the action they were hoping for. Typically this is because all of these deer who were so heavily concentrated during the winter months have dispersed and could very well be miles away once again. Sadly, hunting where the deer were 8 months ago really doesn't do us a whole lot of good.
Heavily packed trails and fence crossings like this are quite often located next to primary winter food sources. Despite their appearance these areas of concentrated late-season sign aren't always the best spots to hunt come next fall.
Another often misleading piece of sign are shed antlers. Although they are certainly enjoyable to find, in many cases they don't tell us any helpful information about how to kill that particular animal. Most often I've found that shed antlers only tell us that animal happened to be in that spot at that particular time, and nothing more. Why is this? Once again we go back to winter food sources. Bucks will travel great distance to find enough food to get them through winter, during which time they will frequently bed close to this food source. Consider the fact that most antlers are found in or directly adjecent to winter food and bedding sources this does little to tell us where that whitetail may be come October.
This about this - how many shed antlers have you found off bucks that you've never seen or have no trail camera photos of? Additionally, how many bucks do you see countless times throughout the hunting season and get tons of trail camera pictures of, yet can never find their sheds?
Now not all post-season scouting can be quite so misleading. The prime example of this is buck rubs - and more specifically BIG buck rubs. A big buck rub is generally one of our first indications that there's a trophy quality whitetail in our hunting area. Although a big rub doesn't necessarily mean it was made by a big buck, the chances are pretty good that it was. Finding a large rub, and more importantly a bunch of large rubs, is a pretty good indicator that you're onto a potential hot spot for next fall.
The trick here is to determine what type of area these rubs are being made in. Is this a thick area that a buck may be using to bed in? Or is it on the edge of a field where a buck is staging before dark? Or maybe the rubs are located along some type of travel corridor in between doe bedding areas? It is important to try and figure out why these rubs were being made here in order to figure out the most effecctive way to hunt that spot in the future. Of course this assuming you can prove that a big buck is still using this area. But that's another topic for another Blog.
Finding this type of rub is enough to get any bowhunter's heart pumping, but it's important to analyze the big picture before deciding to hunt this area. A large rub like this one, located just yards off a primary food source, is quite often made at night which doesn't always indicate a good place to hunt.
Most of us hunt the same properties year after year which hopefully means we've learned quite a bit about the deer we're hunting. For the most part doe bedding areas don't move around from year to year and our natural funnels and pinch points usually aren't going anywhere either. So once you've located these areas there's usually no need to overly scout them each year. Taking a quick walk through them to make sure nothing drastic has changed should suffice in most cases. The rest of your time in the woods is probably best spent looking for shed antlers, because even though they might not help us a whole lot they sure are a bunch of fun to find!
The bigger of these two shed antlers is from a buck that was never seen while hunting this particular farm, nor where there any trail camera photos of him either. Although he's a nice mature animal that we would like to harvest, there's no guarantee that he'll be anywhere near this spot come summer or fall. Don't make the mistake of assuming just because you found a buck's shed that he's calling that area home.
The past 5 seasons I've been lucky enough to harvest 6 good whitetails with my bow, miss a 7th, and videotape my good friend Mike Willand harvest an 8th all without the aid of post-season scouting. While I feel that these winter and spring walk-a-thons do serve a few good purposes, by and large I'm beginning to think they're rather unnecessary and overrated. Maybe it's time we break the cycle of trying to become the most hardcore, shed-hunting, deer-scouting bowhunter on the block and start focusing on scouting smarter, not harder.
Next month I'll continue my Lazy Hunter blog with some talk about locating whitetails using trail cameras, and how that information can help lead us in the right direction. Until then, feel free to skip your post season scouting trips and spend some much-need time with your family or working off that "honey do" list you built up last November!