Most sportsmen scout for deer in the summer or early fall, shortly before seasons open. Some of the best hunters, however, do the bulk of their scouting from late winter through early spring.
This may seem odd, but the ground cover and vegetation is thin now, so you can get a clear picture of the habitat and sign. Another good thing about late winter scouting: you don’t have to worry about spooking the quarry. If you push out a buck now chances are he’ll be back in his core area within a day or two and won’t remember the encounter by fall.
February through March is a great 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 perfect time to expand your hunting territory by checking out new areas to try next fall.
To make double use of your time, while you’re scouting, you can also be looking for sheds. Finding those dropped antlers can tell you a lot about where your local herd’s winter core bedding 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 and wheat 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.
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 stand out clearly in the winter woods. Look for larger ones on wrist-sized trees or bigger that indicate a mature buck is in the area. Instead of looking for just one rub, though, try to unravel a buck’s travel route by finding other trees he has marked and see where they lead to.
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.
In areas that receive lots of hunting pressure, look for escape cover. Search 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.
Areas where a buck’s movement is constricted through a narrow passage stand out well in winter. These “funnels” 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.
Always carry a notebook or map and jot down important signs you find on these trips. Also mark where you actually see deer during your scouting. With all this information compiled, you can then sit back and analyze your findings.
Choose 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.
When summer arrives, 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 forays to reconfirm your findings from your winter-spring scouting expeditions, hang stands, and check for fresh signs.