How to Scout for Deer After Bow Hunting Season Ends
It might seem like a long way off until our various archery seasons kick off again. And it is; roughly six months, but who’s counting? But just because our calendars have a lot of white space on them between now and then doesn’t mean we can’t be doing something productive for our bow hunting pursuits. There are plenty of things we can do as bow hunters to fill the gap and ultimately help us on opening day next fall. Sitting around home watching TV on the couch, even if it’s your favorite hunting program, won’t teach you about your specific deer herd or property. One thing will, though: winter deer scouting.
Most hunters associate deer scouting as only a fall activity and maybe a late summer one too. They envision glassing fields for bachelor bucks in August or walking around a couple days before archery season starts to find fresh deer sign. Many don’t realize the volume of information you can learn from a single winter deer scouting trip. The best part is that, unlike summer scouting, you don’t have to worry about spooking or bumping deer. Will it happen? It had better if you’re focusing on the right locations. But they’ve got months to cool down again before you start hunting them.
When they’re happily crunching on acorns in autumn’s soft light, they’ll have forgotten or forgiven any intrusion that happened half a year ago. That will make slipping a G5 Montec broadhead behind their shoulder so much easier. And with its diamond cut blades and 100% steel construction, it will pass through like a hot knife through butter!
Now if you have very hard winters where you live, whitetails tend to yard up in some places where they typically might not go during the bow hunting season. For example, in cold weather and deep snow, deer will undoubtedly try to locate dense stands of conifers (cedar, spruce, pines, etc.) to rest, where there is typically less snow and some protection from the elements. If you find one of these spots, it’s nice to know, but take it with a grain of salt as far as how it can help you when you have a bow in your hands. However, if you live in a more southern area or don’t have a bad winter, you can learn a lot that will paint the picture for next season. Here are some deer scouting tips to get you outdoors this weekend.
What’s the Ideal Timeframe?
So when exactly does winter deer scouting occur? Basically, you could consider any day after your season closes until the gobblers start getting antsy as the correct timeframe. The most ideal situation is post season deer scouting, where you literally go out the day after your season closes or the last day you know you’ll be able to hunt. That way, you can almost get a real-time snapshot of deer activity during the hunting season. But you can still collect important clues if you wait until March.
Having snow on the ground is a bonus in that it makes tracking deer so much easier. You can follow deer trails with ease with even a dusting of snow covering the leaves. Ideally, get out in the woods a couple days after a snow event, which is enough time to have the deer reveal their daily patterns, yet short enough of a timeframe to not have trails crisscrossing everywhere after a couple weeks of no snow.
Techniques and Best Locations for Winter Deer Scouting
Scouting whitetail deer isn’t hard, but it does take time. Unless you hunt on a tremendously big property (public or private), you should be able to cover enough ground to get a good idea of how the deer move and where they go. If it’s less than 100 acres, you should be able to thoroughly walk the property in a weekend, while larger parcels will take more time.
A lot of new hunters wonder how to find whitetail deer throughout the year or how to find deer trails. The answers are tied together. Whitetail deer in winter are compelled by two things: food and cover. Of course they still need water to survive, but they really need calories and somewhere to protect them from the harsh elements. That means feeding and bedding areas will be critical places you should target.
To start your winter deer scouting excursion, inspect any known feeding areas first. These could be standing corn or bean fields, small food plots, fruit orchards, or natural browse areas such as clear-cuts. Starting there, you’ll almost certainly find deer trails leading away from the food source. Follow the trails and tracks to see which direction they travel and find out where they bed. If possible, find a buck trail in the snow as that is likely what you’ll most be interested in pursuing next fall. Truly big whitetail bucks will almost always leave more pronounced dew claw marks on the back end of their track than a doe will.
Along the trail, look for other clues around you. Do you see lots of old rubs or evidence of browsing? Which side of the tree are the rubs on? They’ll generally be located on the side the buck was traveling from. If you notice a solid buck rub line along the way, it’s likely you found a reliable trail that at least one buck used during the hunting season. Keep this in mind and take pictures and notes of the area. Trails between bedding and feeding areas can be dynamite stand locations when bow hunting early season bucks that are still on a feeding pattern. Alternatively, if you notice a small location near a food source with several beds and lots of cluster rubs scattered throughout it, you may have found a buck’s staging area. Definitely record this spot.
If you manage to stay on a deer trail long enough and it stays within your property boundaries, you should find some beds eventually. You may jump some deer up at this point, which is OK. The stealthy bow hunter in each of us will cringe, but you’re not hurting your chances at harvesting an animal next fall. Examine the bedding area and walk around within it. Try to piece together why the deer are using that particular location. Maybe it offers a lot of thermal protection from the winter winds and snow, as we discussed earlier. Is it a remote corner of your property where the deer feel safe from predators and humans? Is it on a south-facing hillside with lots of sunlight exposure? If so, perhaps there is an abundance of low- to moderate-quality browse located within or very close to the bedding location. These are often highly-used bedding areas for deer in the winter. Instead of just taking a picture and walking onward, take a moment to really get in the whitetail’s head and try to determine what the benefit is for them for bedding in this exact location. Establishing the pattern will help you find other potential bedding locations on your bow hunting property.
Another area you may want to inspect is a water source, such as a natural creek, stream, river, pond, or homemade water hole. These areas are hotspots for bow hunting early season whitetails, and if they aren’t completely frozen over in winter may be a major draw for deer as well. Even if they’re frozen solid, you can still find deer trails through these areas that may teach you something.
Other Winter Deer Scouting Tips
Beyond these ideas, there are a few more things we can’t stress enough. The most important is to take notes and pictures while you’re out in the woods. At the time, it can feel like you’d surely never forget the location of a new bedding area, food source, or staging area. But if you have a productive day, it can be difficult to remember where you saw what. If you have a smartphone (or GPS and camera), you can easily take pictures at each location that you can further analyze later in your living room. You can also use an app like Google Earth to pinpoint your location for mapping it later. You can plot the points on your computer’s Google Earth program, which is honestly the best free deer scouting software out there. Or simply use a dry erase marker and some sticky notes to plot the location on a big laminated map. There’s literally no guesswork involved in this approach!
Another important thing to look for while you’re putting some miles on your boots are new tree stand locations. If the deer trail you’re on merges with others to skirt around a steep-banked ditch or creek crossing, you had better be recording the location. Similarly, if the trail between a bedding and feeding area narrows down to under 50 yards of wooded growth and is flanked by open areas on each side, write it down. Pinch points and funnels like these are amazing archery stand locations that have proven themselves during the rut in countless states. Provided you practice at outdoor or indoor archery ranges throughout the summer months, most compound bows will be more than capable of delivering a lethal broadhead out to 40 or 50 yards.
But perhaps the best part of winter deer scouting is that it allows you to really get to know your property on a different level. Without the grasses, ferns, shrubby undergrowth, and leaves on the trees, you can really see a lot more and gain a new perspective. These conditions also make it a great time to do some shed hunting. It shouldn’t be the focus of your trip as you’ll be moving pretty fast. But keep your eyes on the lookout, and you might be rewarded with some nice sheds to decorate the shelf at home. The frozen ground may also allow you to travel through that cattail slough leading to a remote island hump where you’ve always suspected a big buck called home. Now is the time to check.
Winter has plenty of other distractions, no doubt about it. Ice fishing, hockey, March Madness, and several other things compete for our time. But spend just a single weekend out on your hunting property soon; next weekend even. You will learn more than you could have thought possible, and you’ll be happy you did it next fall.