Aside from in-season scouting, if I could only scout once per year, you can bet it’d be during the month of February. In fact, the weekend after my state’s deer season closes for the year, I’m blowing through all my hunting spots, trying to connect the dots and confirm or disprove any of my in-season inclinations.
Here in the South, some deer seasons run a couple weeks past Groundhog Day, and unlike the majority of deer country, the South isn’t blanketed by snow this time of year (typically), which makes for great scouting opportunities. There are also parts of the South with rut action not too far in the rearview mirror. The woods are bare, tracks and trails obvious, and the remaining cover jumps out like a spooked buck. While it might not be complete, the woods this time of year can provide a semi-blueprint for deer movement in a given area. You’ll have to put the rest of the pieces together, but this is the best time to do it.
If you’re not winter scouting, you’re doing yourself a major disservice. Consider this: did you struggle toward the end of the season? Did the deer appear to vanish from their typical haunts? Winter scouting can address those questions and better prepare you for next season. Plus, it’s cool to walk through those untouchable spots or sanctuaries you avoided just a few weeks prior. Here are a few things to consider as you reflect on this past season and prepare for the next.
A lot of the South experiences a wide range of rut dates that might span from mid-November to late-January. In fact, in my home state of Mississippi, a lot of big rutting bucks are killed after New Year’s Day. This means that the recent sign observed in February is still relevant and could help you kill one of those bucks during this window next season.
Just make sure you’re looking at recent rubs, scrapes, trails, etc., and not ones from October. One way to distinguish between recent rubs or scrapes and ones made in the early season is to revisit a fresh rub or scrape that you found in October. This will help you to (relatively) age a rub when you spot them just after the season’s close.
This is not a tall task for southern states. Still, you need to concentrate most of your efforts near places where bucks will actually daylight. Those dreamy thigh-width rubs in the open timber are sirens calling hunters to a dead end. Sure, they’re good indicators that you’re on the right track, but you’ll need more confirmation than that to find the X.
If that rub happens to lead to a cluster of rubs or beaten trails that converge near bedding, you’re getting warmer. These bedding areas could include cutovers, young pine plantations, Chinese privet thickets, cane breaks, or blowdowns. Anywhere that might require briar breeches is a safe bet. Just make sure you’re logging this info in something like onX otherwise, you’ll likely forget about it by the time next season rolls around.
If you run trail cameras, it can be tempting to pull them as soon as the season ends, especially if you’ve been soaking them all season. However, leaving them out through February can pay off and might even help you find a specific buck’s sheds. Because of the staggered rut dates and late fawn drops, a doe might come into heat in those last weeks of the season.
Several years ago, my dad and I couldn’t make it back to his property to pull cameras until mid-February. When we did, we noticed a couple of “new” bucks cruising through in shooting hours during the last week of January. A couple more pics in February also confirmed that some regulars also made it through the season. While that intel didn’t lead to one of those specific bucks, it did lead to my dad taking his biggest buck to date during those last weeks of January the following year.
Not only will winter scouting give you an extra step for next season, but it can help you restock those brownie points you just blew through. If you’re like me and you have a spouse and kids, this is a great time to give your significant other a day to themselves and get your kids outdoors.
Bringing the kiddos on your next scouting trip will give you quality time together, allow you to check that scouting box, and keep you in good graces with your partner. You’ll get a jump start on next season and look like a hero doing it.
Feature image via Matt Hansen.