The key to winter scouting effectively isn’t just locating as much sign as possible. It is, instead, about filtering your findings through a mental screen to separate them into two piles— nighttime and daytime sign.
Since you’re about five months too late to have any chance to see when the sign was actually made, this is all about educated guessing. The rub on the field edge? That was probably made at night. The rub 200 yards deep in the timber? That one was likely made in the daylight.
This is the sign that matters, and it only gets better if you find a big concentration of sign that was likely made during legal shooting hours.
Tracks, beds, rubs, scrapes, and trails all represent deer sign. But just like with deciphering if a rub was probably made in daylight, some of this sign means very little to your hunting season. Finding a bed right now, deep in a cattail slough, for example, might only mean that deer bed in that geothermal cover in the winter. Does that finding translate to actionable intel in the fall? Maybe.
The same goes for tracks and trails. If either is tied to an obvious winter food source, and not tied directly to a terrain feature that should funnel movement at any time of the season, it’s not that valuable.
While a lot of this involves guessing, you can know with near certainty that the rubs you find now, and many of the scrapes, were made during the hunting season. They rank the highest, and everything else falls a little lower in the sign hierarchy.
A lot of hunters get really excited to find scrapes, but I’m not one of them. I’ve found active scrapes during nearly every month of the year. I’ve also run cameras on all kinds of scrapes, which has shown me a hell of a lot of nocturnal movement. Bucks do visit them in daylight, of course, but in my experience, the ratio of nighttime to daytime visits is skewed heavily toward the dark.
For me, winter scouting becomes a worthwhile endeavor when I start finding rubs—especially lots of rubs located deep in the cover. This sign has high odds of originating during daylight hours, and higher odds of showing me where bucks spent real time during the season. But, even concentrations of rubs come in two forms.
A rub line tells you a lot about where a buck, or bucks, traveled last fall. This is good intel and can certainly help you figure out bedding areas, food sources, and the travel routes between. A concentration of rubs that isn’t an obvious line, is a different story.
These almost always represent staging areas and are often found along edge cover. They’ll be in places where bucks felt confident moving in daylight, which is important. A buck that is willing to get out of his bed and make rubs in a specific spot, over several days, is one that has revealed a deer secret—he felt safe there.
This is due to a variety of factors, including available cover, sight lines, and wind. A buck that has decent cover, solid visuals, and can use the wind to detect predators from directions he can’t see, is a buck that is going to believe he’s safe. He won’t be the only one who understands the advantage of a spot like that, either.
A concentration of rubs in a small area like this tells you even more than that, however. Rubs facing multiple, seemingly random directions mean that the deer likely spent a lot of time there, and that it’s probably close to a bedding area. It also tells you that there was probably some pressure, that pushed them deeper into the security cover.
I see this all of the time on public land, and it’s almost always tied to hunting pressure on the field edges, logging roads, and other easy-access spots. Do you know what that means? Next season, when the same hunters hunt the same spots, the deer will probably use the same areas to avoid them.
If you find a truly rubbed-up area this spring, you can bet that by a week or two into the upcoming season, some bucks will have pulled back to the safety of cover. This is one of the reasons people buy into the October Lull so much. The truth is, your job right now is to find where the bucks are going to be during the season, and that is going to be where they feel safe.