My hunting nemesis over the last decade has been the big woods, primarily the miles upon miles of unbroken timber in northern Wisconsin. It’s a region with a low deer density due to a myriad factors. Predators ranging from wolves to bears to coyotes roam the landscape, and one bad winter can set the whole whitetail herd back to a shell of its pre-winter numbers.
There aren’t any definitive destination food sources to work with, and as far as I can tell, the deer seem to have large home ranges. This situation isn’t unique to the northern third of the Badger State, of course. Hunters who hail from the upper fringes of the country, the Northeast, or the Deep South all deal with the challenge of big woods whitetails.
In all cases, winter scouting can be the key to figuring out what seems like an awful lot of whitetail randomness. Few bowhunters know this better than MeatEater contributor Beau Martonik.
Whatever Food is Available Martonik, who excels at hunting mountain whitetails in his home state of Pennsylvania, looks first to food as he starts to rack up the wintertime scouting miles. “The big thing for me is newer clear cuts,” Martonik said. “Not only do I run cameras on them to see what bucks made it through, but I try to figure out exactly how the deer use the fresher cuts.”
He does this by putting a lot of miles on his winter boots and focusing his efforts on clear cuts that also feature some adjacent, geothermal cover.
“I love areas where the deer have a good winter bedding area close to a new clear cut. This is where I’ll find current deer activity, but also where I tend to find bucks once the season opens.”
Pay attention to Martonik’s last statement—it’s an important one. He knows that even though the conditions couldn’t be more different from October, the locations bucks feed in now will be locations they’ll feed in when his home-state season opens.
Martonik also doesn’t shy away from hiking through wetlands, swamps, and thick bottoms to figure out whitetails. In doing that, there is one thing he’s always interested in finding—big tracks. “If I find a big buck track in the snow, I’ll follow it,” Martonik said. “I want to see how he’s using the land, and there is no way to do that any other time of year as easily as you can with fresh snow.”
A Layered Approach Martonik admits that he looks at all his whitetail scouting, but particularly his winter scouting, as a long-game strategy. I do, too. This is a hard message to get across because we often paint a very linear picture of deer scouting, where strategy leads directly to a dead buck. This is the nature of sharing “how-to” information, but in the case of winter scouting for big woods bucks, it would be a disservice.
The truth is, the conditions that favored buck activity in a specific spot last year might be totally different this year. But in three seasons from now they might perfectly mirror one another. All it takes is a change in the mast, a new pack of wolves, or three acres of browse maturing to change it all up.
Building on years of scouting allows you to take a broader view of your hunting area and develop backup plans. When it comes to busting through the snow in huge areas of timber or walking miles and miles through the winter swamps of the southern end of the whitetail’s range, it’s all about tempered expectations.
Make note of the rubs and visible scrapes and pay attention to what last season’s bucks give you. But pay closer attention to the trails that couldn’t have possibly been made in one season. Those will provide more consistency from year to year than rubs or scrapes probably ever will.
It’s also worthwhile to pay attention to the evidence of other hunters. The access is usually predictable in big woods. If there's a two-track winding through your ground or another way for people to get in easily, the hunting pressure will originate from there. Are there spots you can walk that just aren’t easy to get to? Look at them now.
This comes into play where I live with wetlands, swamps, and beaver ponds. Dealing with water when it’s not frozen is tough. In the dead of winter, it’s nothing to go look at that isolated island in a cranberry bog or the ridge of high ground that bisects a huge marsh. If hiking on safe ice is an option, you’ve suddenly got a way to see everything that the whitetails might use all fall, without ever having to don waders or buy a kayak.
Either way, remember that the work you do now might not pay off for a few seasons, but that it will pay off. Time in the woods and miles on your boots are what kill deer in the big woods. It’s simple stuff, even if it’s far from easy.