Gerald Almy: Scout now for this fall’s buck
\Ask hunters when the best time to scout deer is and most will say late summer or early fall. But the fact is late winter through early spring is in many ways a better time to gather information that will help you ambush a buck next fall.
Cover is sparse so you can get a clear picture of the habitat and sign. And you don’t have to worry about spooking the quarry. If you jump a buck now, chances are he’ll be back in his core area within a day or two and totally forget about the encounter by fall.
Grab your topo map and aerial photographs, put on some hiking boots and hit the woods now for the best scouting sessions of all.
This is the time to find out crucial details about the travel patterns, core areas, escape routes, breeding territories, rub lines, food sources, and bedding spots of your local deer herd. This is also a great time to expand your hunting territory by checking out new areas to try next fall. And this is the perfect activity to combine with shed hunting. Finding those dropped antlers can tell you a lot about where your local herd’s winter core areas and feeding sites are.
You might find out that if you move your stand just a hundred yards over a ridge it will put you in a major transition corridor or prime breeding area for a November rut hunt. Or you might find a totally new spot that might be more promising.
Always try to keep the big picture in mind as you scout in late winter. Feeding areas will stand out clearly. Pinpoint corn, soybean, alfalfa, wheat and oat fields, as well as orchards and areas with large mast-bearing oaks. Look for fruit trees, shrubs, and areas with transition foods such as honeysuckle, greenbrier, blackberry, grapes, persimmons, and saplings that deer browse on as they move between major feeding and bedding areas. These transition areas are often prime stand locations.
Trails are easier to see after leaves have fallen and the deer paths have been trodden on all fall and winter. Look for areas where spokes of trails from feeding areas join more prominent paths leading to bedding areas.
Also look for thinly outlined trails in thicker cover where big bucks might travel paralleling the major trails used by does and young bucks. These are often located 30-80 yards to the side of the main trails. Those are prime spots to waylay a mature buck.
Rubs are easier to find now than in autumn. Look for larger ones on wrist-sized trees or bigger that indicate a mature buck is in the area. Try to unravel a buck’s travel route by finding other trees he has marked.
Also look for scrapes where deer have pawed away leaves and left their scent. Pay special attention to larger ones with licking branches above them. Those will be key locations to focus on next fall as the rut approaches, and right afterwards during post-rut. Chances are good bucks will either refresh those scrapes next fall or make new ones in that area, which has proven to be a good location to hook up with does.
Search for escape cover, too. Look for dense vegetation, swampy areas, brushy benches or knolls, thickets, and rugged elevated areas where most people won’t venture. The best ones will also be a good hike in from the nearest road. Those will be prime spots on opening day and on weekends during gun seasons.
Funnels where a buck’s movement is constricted through a narrow passage stand out well in winter. These include strips of woods between fields, brushy hollows, stream borders, saddles, overgrown fence rows, shallow river crossings, or any other area that encourages deer to travel through a certain spot.
Note on your topo, in a notebook, or on a drawing of the hunting area where you find these key areas. Also mark where you actually see deer during your scouting. With all this information compiled you can then sit back and analyze your findings.
Pinpoint good blind sites or trees to hang a stand in and trim branches that might be in the way for a clear shot. The more of this work you can do now, the less you’ll have to disturb the hunting area right before seasons open.
During summer, you can then do most of your scouting by using optics from long distance and placing trail cameras in strategic locations. Just before archery season, make one or two low-impact, midday forays. Reconfirm your findings from your winter-spring scouting expeditions, hang stands, and check for fresh sign.
Then sit back and wait for the opener–confident and prepared!
Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.