What Off-Season Strategies Do You Implement to Better the Next Season?
Some trees are great for wildlife. Others aren’t so much. That’s why Archer’s Choice's Ralph Cianciarulo removes undesired tree species during the off-season. But when you do — hinge-cut them so deer will utilize them from a bedding and cover standpoint.
“Tree removal and replanting can help you change the movement of game on your property,” Cianciarulo said. “Once you learn the patterns, you can play the land management chess game and direct their movement for your benefits. Don’t just focus on what you think you know, but rather study the prevailing winds, make your entrance and exit trails so you have the least amount of impact and disturbance to your area. Check fence crossings and maybe repair areas you don’t want them to cross. This time of year, the creeks and rivers will be changing and can help you to understand how you can use these bottoms to get in and out of your area without detection come fall. Just remember, deer season doesn’t start in the fall. The more you’re in [the] woods, the better your odds will be.”
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Photo credit: Ralph Cianciarulo
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Another important thing to do is locate rut sign. The leaves are still off the trees and it’s fairly easy to see leftover evidence of the rut. Rubs are more visible. Scrapes less so, but still apparent. But when you find them, make note of it so you’ll remember next season where you found it.
“Shed hunting is happening now, but don’t forget to use this time to read sign as well,” Cianciarulo said. “Explore your hunting area(s). Mark down new scrapes and rub lines. Find any new trees down for future bedding areas. Check the rivers and creeks (they change yearly) [that] can help create new bottle necks or pinch points (as does new fallen trees). Don’t just look for sheds — look for future success.”
Photo credit: Ralph Cianciarulo
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Rubs and scrapes aren’t all you’re looking for. Check for tracks, trails and other evidence left behind by deer, too. Bone Collector's Travis “T-Bone” Turner does that during the off-season each year.
“There are hundreds of things you can do in the off-season to increase odds for the next season,” Turner said. “But one thing I have done and enjoy over the years is late-winter and early spring scouting for well-used travel trails before the green up. And of course, shed hunting while doing so. Also, trim shooting lanes and trails, too. It’s cool and you’re not sweating to death like in July and August. The trails are still fresh and fresh on your mind, so you get what truly needs to be done. It also gives it plenty of time to settle down before season.”
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Photo credit: Heartland Bowhunter
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Deer hunting is a game of cat and mouse. Get a little too close and you bust them. Get a little too far away and you don’t have a shot opportunity. Find that sweet spot and you likely fill your tag. I’m a big proponent of getting as close to the deer’s bed as possible when hunting (without spooking the bedded deer). That’s hard to do unless you know where they’re bedding at. Realtree pro staffer Art Helin gets that, too. And that’s why he maps the bedding areas and checks the landscape for prominent deer beds during the off-season.
“March and April scouting,” Helin said. “Bucks are back into bachelor groups, so heading into their personal space is less intrusive. Underbrush and low cover is usually dormant — especially in the Midwest. Due to this, you can see the topography, trails, rub lines and bedding areas easier. Scout throughout this time frame to make your fall setups more productive.”
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Photo credit: Art Helin
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Food plots should never be the primary food source on a property. Deer benefit more from good, quality natural browse. That said, food plots are very important pieces of the puzzle — especially when it comes to providing food during times of the year when food sources are lacking. It’s also good to provide supplemental feed (where and when legal). This is something Backwoods Life’s Michael Lee does to help hold deer. Check your state and local regulations.
“One of the best tools we use for [the] off-season is to keep constant food sources,” Lee said. “We use food plots as well as supplemental feeding. We keep corn in our spinner feeders to feed all wildlife as well as our deer but we also have trough-style or gravity feeders that we put our protein feed in. This helps the herd through the entire year and keeps them in top shape for fawning and antler growth. Also, we have them on camera all year to keep a good idea on our inventory.”
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Photo credit: Michael Lee
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Mineral is important. Most deer (especially in mineral-lacking locations) need access to minerals. It’s an essential part of their diet. Kip Campbell with Red Arrow understands that perfectly well.
“Two things that'll help hold more deer on your land is implementing year-round food plots, off-season mineral sites, and disturbing the deer herd’s core areas as little as possible,” Campbell said. “In other words, provide them with as much nutrition and sanctuary as possible. Riding four-wheelers and shooting guns is just part of being an American, but if you have the means, keep your hunting land for hunting and your recreation land for recreation — even in the off-season.”
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Photo credit: Kip Campbell
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Coyotes and other predators have greatly impacted deer and turkey populations across the country. According to Buckventures’ Daniel McVay, coyotes are inhabiting areas they’ve never been and affecting deer herds that have never had to deal with coyotes. Fawn recruitment rates (and even older age classes) are suffering for it, too.
“Truly managing land for deer hunting takes a lot of work and dedication,” McVay said. “One huge aspect that tends to be undervalued is controlling your predator population. It is a major part of our off-season and takes time for sure — but must be done. Not only do they kill fawns and sometimes adults, they put major stress on deer which can affect so many aspects of true management.”
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Photo credit: Daniel McVay
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Equipment is important to success. Making sure it’s in top condition is crucial for the following season. You don’t want to climb up a tree on opening day only to realize the straps have broken or the seat has rusted out. Conduct regular off-season maintenance on stands, cameras, weapons and all of your other gear. You’ll be more prepared for fall. Matt Bullins with Whitetail Fix has something to say about that, too.
“Take the time to check your equipment (rifles, bows, cameras, stands, etc.) prior to the season instead of waiting until the last minute,” Bullins said. “Make a checklist of items that you use each season (on a daily or consistent basis) and be sure to clean, inspect, shoot and store each item properly. Try to take a week or weekend and properly itemize your hunting gear after the season. You’re only going to be as good as your equipment functions. Be sure to take the time to sight in your gun and/or bow, check straps on stands, clean your garments/apparel, etc.”
Photo credit: Matt Bullins
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Shed hunting is a truly enjoyable activity for deer hunters — even for people who just like to get outdoors. It’s a fun pastime that keeps you active during the winter doldrums. Mike Stroff with Savage Outdoors feels it helps his hunting, too.
"Finding sheds in the off-season can be just as fun as hunting the bucks in the fall,” Stroff said. “One thing that helps me year-to-year on finding where mature bucks are spending a lot of their time is to pay attention where you are finding the mature bucks’ sheds. I tent to find a lot of my mature buck sheds in different locations than I do a lot of the immature bucks. Finding these big antlers can be the key to finding that same buck the next fall."
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Photo credit: Mike Stroff
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You can be as invasive as you want during the off-season (February to April) without doing much harm to your hunting. Deer may or may not be on the property at that time, but even if they are, there’s plenty of time for them to settle back in before next season rolls around. Canada in the Rough’s Keith Beasley takes advantage of that.
“Our properties in southern Canada are unique in the fact that the deer do not yard or spend much if any of the winter months on our land,” Beasley said. “So, we try and take advantage of the lack of deer by doing much of the heavy lifting in the winter months. If stands are being relocated, or new blind locations being set up from last year’s lessons or mistakes, this is when the chainsaws come out. We cut new shooting lanes, pockets, or assist in entry/exit points to fields. We don’t like doing this work when the leaves are on in late summer and unnecessarily sending the deer off our property for a few days/weeks.”
Photo credit: Kevin Beasley
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