With whitetail seasons wrapping up across much of the country, one of the questions I get most often is when to start the scouting process. This inquiry is most common among newer hunters.
Growing up in a traditional Northern Michigan deer hunting family, I was trained early on that the time for scouting was the weekend before the season opened. Or, sometimes, even the night before.
Scouting back then entailed trekking into the woods with a bucket of corn and looking for rubs and scrapes on the way to the blind. If we found some, we’d confidently report back to camp with a grin. “Things are looking good. We saw some really nice rubs.”
If we didn’t, things would be a little more uncertain. “I’m not sure guys. We might have missed the rut. I didn’t see a single scrape.”
As someone who is now fully engrossed in the whitetail world, I realize our scouting methods were pretty weak.
In a perfect scenario, a deer hunter would never have to start scouting because they’d never stop scouting. It can truly be a year-round activity and some diehards make it a 24/7/365 hobby. This is obviously not practical for everyone, though.
In my opinion, there’s value in splitting the offseason into two parts. Part one should begin immediately after the close of hunting season—especially if there’s snow on the ground. If possible, I like to get at least one scouting trip per area completed with snow present. There are certain things you can learn in the snow that aren’t as easy to decipher from bare ground.
In particular, I like to use snow to scout for late season bedding areas. Beds are clearly identified in the snow at this time, and you’ll easily be able to tell whether a given area is used for buck bedding or doe bedding based off the number and size of the beds present. If you find a single large bed, it’s almost always a buck. If you see a cluster of beds in varying sizes, you’re likely looking at a doe family group.
Another useful exercise is to find a large buck track in a snow-covered food source and follow it all the way back to a bed. This is the kind of task you can only accomplish with snow and it can be enormously useful. Pay attention to how the buck approached the food source, where he stopped along the way, and how he used terrain to get to his destination.
Once you find his bed, examine the location. What was the direction of the wind he used when bedded? What kind of cover was he using? What could he see? What could he hear? What could he smell?
All of this can help you predict future buck behavior. Mature bucks tend to move through and use an area in the same way year after year. Even if this particular buck isn’t around the following year, some other buck will likely use that bed and move through the terrain in a similar way. Deer rarely move aimlessly across the landscape. They do what they do for a reason. Now is your first chance of the year to decipher that code.
It’s not advisable to scout any one location too extensively in the middle of winter, especially in the North where conditions make survival a serious challenge. After being hunted for several months, deer have dealt with a significant amount of stress. With food becoming more scarce and weather conditions becoming more difficult, conserving energy is of extreme importance. In this situation, it’s crucial to reduce your impact as much as possible and approach your scouting efforts in moderation.
Part two of scouting occurs in early spring, as soon as the snow melts away. With barren ground visible, a whole new layer of sign is available for analysis. The key is to take advantage of this window of time before new green growth covers up that sign.
Sign you find now might have been made in October or November of last year, but rest assured that similar patterns will repeat themselves in coming seasons. In addition to exploring beds, my main goals for this time of year are to confirm how deer are moving across the terrain by mapping out trails, identifying likely food sources and searching for concentrations of rubs and scrapes.
Again, I’m always asking questions when I find sign. Why were deer feeding here? Why are there so many rubs in this thicket? Why do all the trails converge on this knob?
Answering these questions while scouting will build your foundation for the coming fall. There’s no time to waste; your next hunting season begins today.