There is no better time to be in the woods than right now! With seasons ending across the United States this is the perfect time to hit the woods. If you are a diehard whitetail hunter like me the last thing you want to be doing right before or during the season is stomping around the properties you are hunting. But now that the seasons are ending, its the perfect time for you to get out and walk these properties. Typically I will still stay away from wintering areas and the hot spots that I plan on shed hunting in later on in March. You don’t want to go into the best spots and push the deer out of the area before they shed their antlers, so save that for a little bit later. Start with the outskirts or places you do not plan on going into later to look for sheds and scout. New areas are great places to do your post season scouting!
Make sure you slow down while walking! Take your time, look at what the woods are telling you. Trails, scrapes, and rubs are the obvious deer sign. When you see this sign keep a close eye on the terrain around these areas. Think about the direction of the trails, which way does the deer come from and which way was he leaving. You can often determine if they are traveling that way in the morning or evening by studying the area and understanding where those deer are bedding and what direction they are traveling to and from those beds. Think about the dominant winds and why and when deer would want to use that bedding area. Large single beds are almost always a sure sign of a buck bed. As they tend to pick locations away from the groups of does. Then get down and see what he can see when he is in that bed, think about the direction he would come from. Think about what wind he prefer to use that bed on. Study the tracks on the near by trails, older deer will have distinctly larger tracks whether that’s the size or the depth of the track. Locating this sign in post season helps you zone in on a bucks core area for the next season.
Now onto rubs, the most obvious buck sign. When looking for rubs keep in mind that a big buck can and will rub small trees. When you see a rub, take the time to look a little deeper. Check out the smaller markings and cuts above the main part of the rub, this will show where his tines were hitting the tree while he was rubbing it with the base of his antlers. Small rack buck won’t do much damage above the heart of the rub. Inspecting that gives you a great idea on the height and size of the frame on the buck. Next look at the direction the deer was facing when he made the rub. Determine if there are multiple rubs all facing the same way you can assume which direction the deer are traveling then. Put this in the back of your mind for when you come across bedding or feeding areas near by. Small rubs come from small or big buck, large rubs come from big and bigger buck! Like the picture below, you can imagine the excitement coming across a rub of this size. A guarantee a big mature buck was using that area that year.
Scrapes are also going to stand out this time of the year. I like finding the hot scrapes in winter because I know when I come back there in September there is a good chance that scrape will begin to get hot again. I like to run trail cameras on scrapes and the more I know about from winter scouting the better chance I will have at finding the fresh ones in fall. A scrape is a primary spot to capture a picture of the buck using those areas. In early season if you can find scrapes close to bedding you will have a great chance at shooting a buck over it.
One very overlooked piece of information is natural browse. Deer are constantly browsing and when you stop to look at it you can always tell you’re in a highly populated area by the browse line throughout the timber. A forester once told me while doing a walk-around that there was no shortage of deer on the property. I was surprised at his comment because the deer sign wasn’t that great, but he went on to tell me that everything that grew on the property was eaten back to the ground and browsed as high as the deer could reach. Not only did this make me look more at natural browse on my property but it told me I had too many doe or not enough food available. I chose to increase the forage per acre, but that can be read about in a later article of TSI. While checking the natural browse, you can see where all the ends of twigs and branches may be nipped off. Over the years I have become much more aware of this and it amazes me while watching deer how much they eat and what they browse on a daily basis. If you hunt big woods like myself make notes on the acorn crop you discover, where the heaviest acorn crop was that year, if they are white oaks or red oaks and you can usually tell right away if the deer frequented those areas. If you are lucky enough to hunt crop fields and food plots then you already know the primary food destinations pretty good year after year.
Conclusion – Winter tends to show you the deer sign better than any other time of the year. Scouting after the season is a win, win. You almost always leave knowing more about a property then when you started, and you never know what else you may come across. Deer tend to repeat their patterns from year to year, so by putting in a little work now you give yourself an edge later without having to intrude and pressure those deer weeks or days before the season. They will be comfortable in these areas 7 months from now, all you have to do is put all the information together. That buck you thought disappeared or got shot may just leave an antler behind for you to find and add another piece to the puzzle for chasing him next season!