I haven’t conducted a formal survey, but I feel confident speculating that most Realtree wearers are just like me. You probably hunt whitetails. Now is the time to get out there and scout for big bucks. A little off-season work will give you a leg up on the deer you’ll hunt next fall.
Finding the Hotspots
Scouting from January through March might seem untimely, but it’s a great way to unlock the secrets of whitetails. Lace up your hiking boots and roam every inch of a private or public hunting area. Search for old trails, rubs and scrapes that you might have missed last fall. If you live way up North, you’ll have to wait for the snow to melt before looking for ground clues.
Walk fast and out in the open, and don’t worry if deer see or smell you. Whitetails are sharp, but come on. No way a buck will remember your intrusion into his core area when you come back to hunt him 8 or 9 months from now.
As you scout along, scribble all the “new” sign you find on topographic maps and aerial photographs. Over the spring and summer, study those charts. You’ll be ahead of the game come September and October because whitetails are habitual animals that establish the same general feeding, bedding and rutting patterns in the same areas year after year. As you search for deer clues, mark old and fresh tracks and droppings on your topos and aerials.
Look for Game
Many scouts get so wrapped up in looking for old trails, rubs and scrapes that they miss the best sign of all — four fresh tracks with a deer standing in them. I never hit the woods without an 8X binocular around my neck. As mentioned, I scout fast and don’t give a flip about being hidden. But before crossing an open field or right-of-way, I do the smart thing and glass the far edges. Before climbing a ridge, I zero my optic into thickets on the sides and top. After cresting a rise, I glass hollows and creek bottoms below. You’d be surprised how many deer you’ll spot milling around and browsing on a late-winter day. Since hunting season has been closed for a couple of months, the animals are less skittish.
On a balmy February afternoon a few years back, I scouted a woodlot near home. I walked 2 miles, sloshed across two beaver ponds and scouted a ridge I’d never hunted before. It was covered in honeysuckle and greenbrier and blazed with old rubs and scrapes. “I’m gonna come back and hunt this spot next fall,” I thought. During rifle season the following November, I hung a treestand on the thick ridge and nailed a 9-pointer running a scrape line. That double dose of success sure made a believer out of me.
Trails: Primary and secondary trails that linked feeding and bedding areas last fall are fairly easy to spot into early spring. If cover and food remain the same, deer will run the paths (or new ones nearby) next autumn. Many trails will be pocked with fresh tracks since deer use them year-round. Look for deep, splayed, 3-inch prints in mud or snow, sign that a mature buck still roams the place.
Rubs: Signposts blazed by bucks three or four months ago still shine like beacons. Mark big rubs with red "Xs” on your charts — they indicate some segment of a good buck’s fall core area. If he’s still alive, he’ll be back next autumn.
Scrapes: In temperate regions and after the snowmelt up North, some of last fall’s scrapes are visible into February and March. Cut scrape lines and follow them for a mile or more, noting where bucks pawed (and also rubbed trees) in cover edges and at the junctions of doe trails. Those will be prime spots for stands when the rut heats up next fall. Sheds: Nothing beats running across a big side of bone in late winter. You have something tangible to show for all that scouting. You know an 8- or 10-pointer should be in the area and sporting an even larger rack next fall. Look for sheds in late-season feeding areas and bedding thickets.