Story contributed by Todd Koenig of recordingtheoutdoors.com
Think back for a moment. Was your deer season what you expected? Good or bad, now is the time to make it better. There are several reasons why you should definitely be in the woods right now scouting for next year. Personally, I like to scout year round; however, late winter (post season) is an excellent time to do this. Deer seasons have closed throughout most of the United States and the spring turkey hunting season hasn’t opened. February happens to be one of my favorite months to scout for several reasons; temperatures start to moderate, daylight hours are growing, and bucks have lost their antlers. Scouting now allows you to get a great head start on next hunting season.
When I find a rub line, I like to mark them in my smartphone’s GPS hunting app. These areas tend to be utilized season after season.
Best Time To Scout
Scouting now during the post season gives you plenty of time to organize your hunt locations and decide which ones will be at the top of your list. With the absence of leaves and possible snow on the ground, deer sign such as trails, rubs, and bedding areas can be seen quickly and easily. This will allow you to make calculated decisions regarding the upcoming season. Post season scouting is also a great time to do any necessary prep work to the area without negatively affecting the habits of the deer during hunting season. This can include cutting shooting lanes or moving pre-existing stands.
Outside of the rut, deer are relatively easy to pattern. They need food, water, and a secure location to bed. Ideally, these areas will be in close proximity to one another. Add to the mix thick swamps and escape routes and the deer will be very content to stay in the area year after year. While these patterns do change for bucks during the rut and for all deer based on seasonal food sources, bedding areas remain pretty consistent. In addition, post-season is the time to look for clues regarding which bucks survived and to map out food sources and stand locations. I like to find the travel routes between these feeding and bedding areas to increase my chances of encountering deer as they move through the area. If you expect hunting pressure in your neck of the woods, then the escape routes are also potential locations to make note of.
In the past I have used Google Earth to review potential scouting areas. Today, I use my smartphone with a hunting/scouting app to examine the landscape. There are also great topography maps that can be purchased through companies on the internet. Any of these options will give you aerial and topo views of the terrain allowing you to pinpoint areas of interest.
What To Bring
When I am scouting I always bring a backpack with seven essential items. This includes a digital topo map (paper version works also), 5-6 screw in steps, an extendable tree saw, a digital camera, game camera, wind indicating powder/kids colored smoke bombs, and a small survival/first aid kit. Be sure to check local laws regarding screw in steps. Once I have my gear it’s time to have fun and get out in the woods. The major reason I enjoy post season scouting in the North is that the ground is frozen. This allows me easy access to the swamps, bogs, wetlands, and islands hidden within my hunting area. As I am scouting, I am always searching for two things; trees that will accommodate stands and locations for ground blinds. I will make note of any and all areas on my maps for future reference.
Topo maps are a great tool for locating and scouting new and existing hunting locations.
What To Look For
While scouting the woods, I like to make note of major deer trails on my map. Following these trails can help me locate their bedding areas. In central Minnesota, the eastern facing slopes of hillsides are hotspots, with the southern facing slopes a distance second. Tamarack swamps and pine groves are also popular locations to check out. These areas are also excellent starting points to look for sheds, unless you have had a recent snowfall. I like to look for smaller trails leading out of bedding areas. The junction between the small trails and large trails are a prime location to set up a trail camera. I have one trail camera that has been left out year round for four years on one such trail. It has given me an inside glimpse to the daily routines of the local deer.
As the trails leave the bedding areas, they will continue to fork off and lead to smaller and smaller paths. Many of these small trails may not be evident without snow, so use it to your advantage! By following the lesser trails, you will be better able to map deer movement. I usually don’t spend a lot of time following single tracks; however, if you are new to deer hunting or never have done this, it is definitely a true learning experience! It is a great post season scouting activity because you have plenty of time to scout before the hunting season and you get to see exactly what the deer are doing. If the deer paused or is milling around, look and see if you can pinpoint the cause. If it pawed the ground, kneel down and examine the area; was it eating something? If so, can you tell what it was? Snow allows us to track individual deer and gain great insight into their lives.
Food sources can be tricky to find during the hard post-season depending on the depth of the snow. The huge variety of food that was available during the warm months has dwindled and is limited to browse and whatever potential treats deer can scratch out beneath the snow and ice. If you have hunted the area before and know of existing food sources, check those areas out again to see if the deer are still using them. Otherwise, use your maps to locate potential oak ridges, field or wetland edges, and any major changes in terrain or vegetation. These transition areas or ‘edges’ many times offer potential food sources. Look for deer tracks, trails, and pawed up snow. Then examine the area for whatever the deer were searching for.
Right now is a great time to trim branches and generally get an area ready for your hunt.
Who says you can’t prepare a site during post season scouting? Do the work now. It is a perfect time: bugs are not present, working conditions are cool, and you have months for the deer to forget about your activity. When I find a location I like, I look for trees or areas that will allow me to brush in a ground blind. Don’t forget to save and mark your locations so you can find your spot in the future! If it’s a tree then I use my screw in steps to get an elevated perspective of the area. If my view from the tree is not quite what I expected, I can usually find another tree from my lookout that will work. Once I have found a spot I like, I perform several tasks which include: document my findings with pictures, clear an area to shoot, and check local wind currents.
View From Above
While up in the tree I also take several pictures of the surrounding landscape. These pictures help me when I am back on the ground to document the spot. I take pictures facing north first and then rotate clockwise 360 degrees around the tree. This allows me to do two things when I am back on the ground. First, I am able to look at the pictures and use my extendable tree saw to clear branches and brush for clear shots. Second, I am able to go over these pictures at a later date and keep the area “fresh” in my memory. Before I leave I climb back up in the tree to double check everything and retake pictures if I made any major changes. Make sure to check local laws or with landowners before cutting branches and clearing brush. If the area is better suited for a ground blind, I follow the same steps, but from the exact spot I plan to place the blind.
Know The Wind
I am always conscious of wind direction, even during post season scouting. During the post season, I love to use kid’s colored smoke bombs to check the local wind currents. These work well from a tree or on the ground. Red and orange are my favorite colors because they show up well against the snow and the gray white winter sky. When lit, these smoke bombs produce about 30 seconds of continuous thick colored smoke. The colored smoke produced gives a great visual of the true complexity of the wind direction as the smoke twists and travels through the rolling wooded landscape. I would not recommend this technique close to hunting season as it produces a strong sulfur smell that will surely get the attention of any wildlife downwind. Also, please use common sense and don’t use during drought conditions. Pre-season and during hunting, I do check the wind often and use the hunting style wind powder.
Who Made It, Who Didn’t
The best part of post season scouting is finding out what bucks have survived the hunting season! This is done one of two ways: getting pictures on trail cameras or finding sheds. I find both to be equally exciting. I absolutely love checking my cameras to find out what or who has passed within bow range of my lens. I don’t know of a deer hunter alive whose heart doesn’t skip a beat when they come across a shed. Both of these tools give the bowhunter hope for the future; that their special buck has survived and will again test their wits when the season reopens.
Using trail cameras post season will allow you to see who survived and when the bucks lose their antlers.
If you are shed hunting there are several areas that you should concentrate your efforts. A great starting spot along the trails at any spot where the deer have to jump and make a hard landing or duck under an obstacle. Fences, creeks, and ditches where deer are forced to jump and make a hard landing can dislodge already loosened antlers. Bedding areas are also great areas to spend some time searching for sheds. If you have ever seen a deer get up out of their bed, they tend to shake like a wet dog, which can also fling off an antler.
Not Just During The Season
If you have game cameras, don’t forget to use them during the post season. If you do not have one I would recommend getting one to help you scout. Again, check local laws regarding the use of game cameras. You will find them an addicting tool that will help you plan your next hunt. They will also give valuable insight to what the deer are doing after the rut. I run several mineral stations and immediately post season I like to enhance these stations with either corn or a deer feed block. These added nutritional supplements bring deer in like a magnet and gives me a great photo record of what bucks survived the hunting season and approximately when they shed their antlers. I get as much enjoyment out of checking my cameras as I do hunting and I run them year round. Always check local laws regarding mineral stations or baiting, even during the post season.
The Right Stuff
When choosing game cameras there are many makes and models available. You will want to do your research before you purchase one. Battery life is one of my top criteria. There is nothing more frustrating than checking your camera only to find the batteries have gone dead and you missed out on a large time period of photos. Another important feature is resolution; it helps you pick out details, such as antlers.
Now that you are prepared and have many high potential areas scouted, you can continue to monitor them through the summer months. With plans in place for next fall, you have a huge advantage over other hunters who spend their winter and spring doing other things. Finding sheds and pre-season scouting for turkeys is an added bonus. With post season scouting plans complete, your chances of a successful hunt will leave your buddies drooling.