Winter always seems to drag. Cold weather, gray skies and closed deer seasons make bowhunters blue. At best, spring turkey season is over a month away at deer season’s end, and for those in the North, bowfishing usually isn’t an option because most lakes and rivers remain ice-covered.
Even though bowhunting opportunities aren’t flourishing in mid- to late winter, several hunting-related activities are ideal for restless souls. Shooting your bow indoors is a great option and whitetail habitat work is rewarding, but winter scouting pays great dividends, too. Make the most of your scouting trips by reading what follows. And when deer season arrives, you’ll be more prepared than ever.
1. Locate Food Sources
Food is the most important key to unlocking the whitetail’s world. The need to feed drives deer activity and behavior year-round. Food sources change continually, so you must identify major feeding areas to ensure you stay atop the action next fall. Agricultural crops are obvious food sources, and they’re easy to locate, but natural fare is less apparent and just as important. Look for hard-mast trees like oaks. Their acorns provide one of the whitetail’s favorite foods, and hunting over them at the right time yields great results.
Also look for apple, pear, plum and persimmon trees. Deer often flock to “soft mast” trees when they’re dropping fruit. Also, note other natural browse deer like to eat. For instance, they’ll vacuum up locust trees’ seed-filled pods that drop in fall, and they’ll browse thick patches of green-briar during winter. And don’t overlook maple leaves in early fall. Their sugar content increases as they turn colors and start dropping, and deer devour them like candy.
2. Find Bedding Areas
Knowing where deer bed is critical. Doe bedding areas play a big role when plotting rut-hunting tactics, but that’s not the only time these locations are important. When you enter and exit your hunting sites, you must know where deer are likely bedded to avoid disturbing them. Consistently bumping bedded deer will likely reduce their daytime activities. Note these bedding areas’ locations during postseason scouting trips. That way you can better avoid them during autumn, and improve your advantage during the rut.
3. Identify Travel Routes
Late winter and early spring are great times to identify travel routes. Snow and mud highlight deer trails like highways on a roadmap. Identifying deer travel routes so precisely is extremely helpful when selecting sites for treestands or ground blinds, or placing trail cameras.
4. Thick Cover is Critical
Thick cover is critical to good deer hunting. In areas with high hunting pressure – like in Michigan, my home state – cover can be as important as food in locating whitetails. Cover provides bedding areas, fawning areas for does, and sanctuary when deer feel threatened. It’s also where blood trails often lead after successful bowhunts. Preferred cover varies depending on where you hunt. It could be a dense swamp, fields of tall grass, or young woodlots with thick underbrush and dense saplings.
5. Select Possible Stand Locations
Everything in the woods is more visible in winter and early spring, which makes it easier to select possible sites for a treestand or ground blind. To find them again later, mark the site on a GPS unit and tie flagging ribbon on the tree.
6. Look for Buck Sign
It’s exciting to find buck sign where you hunt, and it’s often easy to spot while post-season scouting. The previous rut leaves rubs and scrapes that reveal much about an area and how deer use it. For example, a line of rubs along a deer trail indicates a buck followed that trail, and if the trees are all rubbed on the same side, it’s fair to assume that buck made them while moving from that direction. The more information you gather, the more likely you’ll succeed next fall.
7. Don’t Forget Water
Hunting over water is a productive tactic during early-season hunts when heat is a factor, but deer don’t stop drinking when the mercury drops. Although deer can satisfy their hydration needs with vegetation in cooler temperatures, they will break thin ice and drink water if it’s convenient. Reliable water sources can be prime locations most bowhunters overlook.
8. Record What You Find
Postseason scouting often reveals things you’ll want to relocate, so keep records as you go. Carry a handheld GPS unit and your smartphone. Some mapping apps don’t even require reliable cell coverage once you download their background maps or aerial photos at home. In addition, I prefer to print satellite images and mark them by hand as I scout. Once home, I review everything and use that information to prepare and plan strategies for fall.
9. Look for Antlers
One last benefit of late-winter/early-spring scouting is hunting simultaneously for shed antlers. White-tailed bucks shed their antlers each winter before growing new sets in spring and summer. You can find cast antlers while scouting if you know where to look. Search winter feeding and bedding areas, for example. Bedding sites with lots of conifers can hold deer for weeks because the thick cover helps block cold winter winds. Also, comb south-facing hillsides where bucks bed all day to soak up sunlight.
Finding shed antlers where you hunt brings excitement and plenty of mystery. When you pick up a shed, you’re holding something a buck carried on its head for over nine months. You wonder where that antler has been, and what it has rubbed or jabbed. Sheds also generate hope for the hunting season to come, assuming the buck that shed the antler makes it to autumn. That’s exciting news, for sure!