Scouting for Deer Post Season | Establishing a Base for Next Year
Now that snow has finally covered some parts of the country, it seems winter is actually here. Unfortunately, its arrival means the end of many deer hunting seasons. Most of these are probably firearm seasons, since archery seasons are usually pretty liberal and open until the end of the calendar year or later. Hopefully your firearm season was eventful this year. If it was, these tips on scouting for deer in the post season will help you to stay at the top of your game next year. If you weren’t very lucky this year, then you really should hit the woods now when the time is right to learn as much as you can. On the other hand, if you’re still bow hunting, you can apply these same principles at the end of your season.
Take A Note:
Take these tips on scouting for deer in the post season with this thought in mind: “The most valuable information/scouting you truly have is the observations and data collected during the season”. While post season scouting directly after the season can translate into crucial information relating to the late season, it does not directly correlate to activity during the early season and the rut. Observations/scouting/intel is the most valuable to the time they are made.
While most hunters start scouting for deer to find new tree stand locations, much of this occurs in late summer, well before firearm seasons open. Because of the timing, deer activity patterns are usually far different from what they will be later in the season. While some of these patterns will hold true, it’s not the most reliable or current information to trust. That’s why scouting for deer, or writing down and keeping track of your observations during all parts of the year is important. For the purposes of this article, scouting for deer in the post season can help you find valuable information for next year’s late season. Let’s look at the what, where, when, why, and how of scouting for deer after the season closes!
Why Scout After Hunting Season?
So why is scouting for deer hunting a good idea after the hunting season closes instead of before it opens? Well, it’s important to scout either season for the same reasons. Sure you might be running trail cameras during the off season, but by walking through your hunting area, you can learn a lot about deer and how they interact with the local landscape. You can find new tree stand locations based on the information you collect, which will help you tweak your hunting approach each year to be more effective.
But the real magic of post season scouting is that you can get real-time information about the deer you hunt. You’ll be following their trails and observing their habits immediately after the hunting season, which means you will know more about their patterns for next year’s hunt. It’s important to compare observations from pre-season and post season scouting trips so you know generally what they will do at the same time next year when they transition. While in-season deer scouting would provide information you could use to hunt deer in the current year, there’s also a high chance you could spook them out of your life forever.
Another nice thing is that you can wander anywhere you like without fear of spooking deer. In fact, you’re hoping to bump deer from their beds while you’re doing this, so you can pinpoint exactly where they’re located during this time of the year. If nobody can hunt them anymore, it doesn’t matter if you scare them off to a different property for a few days. They’ll have plenty of time to cool down (almost a year) before you hunt them there again, so it does no lasting harm.
When to Start Scouting for Deer
Really, as long as you’re done hunting for a given season or location, it’s time to get out there and burn some boot leather. It’s ideal if the season itself is closed so you don’t interrupt every other hunter’s opportunities or inadvertently chase “your buck” to another property owner’s firearm blast. But as long as you can get out there and dedicate some time to walking the property without affecting your hunt or long-term success, that’s as good a time as any to do your deer scouting mission.
If you hunt during the late season or in northern areas, you have an additional advantage over early season or southern hunters. Late fall or winter deer scouting works so well because the cooler temperatures will have frozen wet areas, allowing you access to some remote swamps you would never want to step foot into otherwise. That’s often where mature bucks like to hide out. You also typically have snow on the ground to help with tracking deer movement. You can easily see where they have been congregating (e.g., feeding, bedding, etc.) or using specific travel corridors to get around. Additionally, the trees and underbrush are bare of leaves this time of year, which allows you to see further and find more deer sign without having to walk every square foot of forest.
The ideal conditions are after there has been a fresh snow of a couple inches. Wait 2 to 3 days to let deer move about on their daily routines, and then get out in the woods to track. The trails will be obvious to follow, and the snow depth is shallow enough to easily interpret a wide and long buck track versus a doe or fawn track.
What and Where?
In an obviously general sense, you should look for deer sign (e.g., tracks, trails, beds, rubs, scrapes, evidence of feeding) while you’re out on a post season scouting trip. But similar to pre-season scouting, you should also look for basic deer necessities, which include food, water, and shelter. Food sources are a good spot to start your search and might include food plots, agricultural fields, oak trees, apple trees, young woody growth from a clear-cut, etc. Water sources are more important if it’s still a very hot time of year or if it’s a drought year, and you will often find a focal point of deer traffic near creeks, rivers, or ponds. Finally, shelter gets more important as the winter rolls on and deer need to escape from winter winds. Good late season deer bedding areas can include dense conifer plantations, natural spruce or cedar swamps, tall CRP fields, or remote cattail islands. If you can find these areas, you should be able to find deer sign somewhere.
But if you’ve hunted the property a fair amount in the past, use this time as an opportunity to explore new areas. Focus on finding hidden or remote places you can’t normally access or sneak into without alerting deer. This might allow you to find a new mature buck bedding area or a cluster of white oaks that could rain down acorns earlier in the fall. Remote bedding cover and food sources are often targeted by bucks that try to escape hunting pressure during the season, and they are often used during daylight hours versus large agricultural fields. Your trip also might expose a travel corridor you would have never guessed that deer would use. Sometimes they will surprise you in the wandering paths they take just to stay out of sight.
How to Scout for Deer?
There is really no wrong way to go about your post season scouting, provided you’re walking around the woods and learning something new about the area. But if you’re a little confused about how to find whitetail deer, you can start walking on a main trail or through a large destination feeding field until you cut a deer trail. It shouldn’t take long in most places. While it’s a great learning exercise to follow any deer trail (just to see what they do and where they go), you’re probably interested in overall herd patterns and buck movement more than following a single doe trail. Try looking around for a larger trail that’s well-used by several deer or a lone trail that has large tracks (3 to 4 inches across and 4 to 5 inches long). You’ll either follow the main doe herd to their bedding area or a buck to his bedroom, respectively.
Post season scouting is a good tracking exercise in itself and an opportunity to observe the secret habits of deer in the woods. You’ll often find their trail veers off to follow an interior forest edge you would have never even noticed, or they stop to browse on a certain type of tree/shrub more often than others. Keep an eye open for natural funnels or pinch points along the trail that would work well for an ambush site. Similarly, you should look for potential trees that would work well for your tree stands.
Eventually, you should be able to follow their tracks to a bedding area. If you were really quiet and stealthy, you could even get close enough to jump them from their beds, but there’s really no point to sneaking around the woods for this kind of post-season deer scouting. You want to cover as much ground as possible to learn the most you can in the shortest amount of time. When you do find a bed, take a moment to examine it closely and even hunch down to view the area from a bedded deer’s perspective. It might sound crazy, but you can learn a lot by doing this. Viewing it from their perspective might show you why they choose a certain spot (e.g., good visibility from the ground, cover behind and upwind of them, etc.). Loosely size up the bed to see if it’s likely a buck or doe bed. A buck’s bed will typically be alone, over 40 inches long, and may even smell like a rutting buck, depending on the time of year. A doe or fawn bed, however, will be smaller and usually clustered with other beds nearby. Take a look around at the habitat and surrounding cover. If a single buck chose to bed here, it’s likely others will do the same in the future or at other similar spots you find.
Don’t Forget the Cameras!
A big mistake many hunters make each and every year is pulling their trail cameras down days after the season closes. Don’t! Instead get some bait out in front of the cameras (if legal in your state) and wither run a trail camera survey, or keep tabs on your hit-list bucks and whether or not they have shed their antlers.
Post-Season Scouting: Don’t Miss It
If you’re done archery or firearm hunting for the year, don’t miss out on the opportunity to do some post-season scouting. You can learn so much about deer and their habits in the current season you’re hunting them, which will make you a more efficient and calculated hunter next year. Use the deer scouting tips above to make the process even easier.