With the snow mostly gone, packed snow still clung to the well-worn trails. Deer droppings, old and new, littered the beaten paths. It was early April, and the perfect time for some pre-season scouting.
Working my way down the deer trail, I meticulously scanned every inch of ground. Careful to cover every path possible, I eventually found the right antler belonging to one of my target bucks. If you’re a shed hunter, you know that when you find one, the match is usually somewhere nearby.
Sure enough, less than 20 yards away, there it was! Mass, width and height made this buck an easy Boone & Crockett contender. He had survived a gauntlet of hunters the previous fall, not to mention overcoming the better part of a bitter-cold winter. So soon, his life would become easier. In a few weeks, the warm sun would bring the woods and fields to life, providing necessary nutrients and hospitable conditions to carry this buck, and others, through to next fall.
To learn when, where, why and how deer are moving on your hunting ground, you need to invest time and energy. If I’ve learned anything over my last four decades in the deer woods, it’s that scouting in the off-season always improves my odds of filling a tag in the fall.
There’s simply no better time to scour the woods than the two weeks immediately after the snow disappears. This is the one off-season opportunity when the woods are virtually free of foliage and visibility is as good as it gets. Dormant grasses lay flat against the forest floor, the previous season’s scrape lines are still visible, deer trails and beds are obvious, copious deer droppings cover the trails and, if you’re lucky, the odds of finding shed antlers is high. In other words, there’s no better time to gather pre-season intel, vital information about the deer residing on your hunting land.
Timing and Strategy
For many of us, pre-season scouting is a year-round endeavor. It begins the day after the season closes. As a rule, one of the very first things I do to kick off my pre-season scouting involves studying aerial images before putting boots on the ground. On new properties, this gives me an initial feel for the topography. If it’s familiar ground, the images give me a refresher. I look for obvious corridors, ridges, valleys, water and food sources. In Canada, the iHunter App is well established, while stateside, onX Hunt and HuntStand are best known.
Walking trails and monitoring trail cameras is a key to pre-season preparation. But the truth is, once the rut subsides and deer transition into winter survival patterns, movement lessens and not a lot that’s exciting happens in a deer’s world over the winter. Cold-weather months transition them into winter survival patterns. Movement slows, and they shift into survival mode. In harsher climates, where environmental conditions make life a lot tougher, we’re generally better off leaving them to do their thing undisturbed.
During winter months, especially where snowpack is substantial, deer often yard up on or near the best available food sources. If you have the luxury of keeping an eye on them from a distance (a road or yard), you can easily monitor how they’re fareing, what they’re eating and when the bucks are losing their antlers.
Early spring is when I step up my own pre-season scouting efforts. I live in Alberta, so April is prime time. The further south you go on into the central and southern states, this timeframe may be more like early March.
At this time, the deer are finally getting a reprieve and the sign is remarkably easy to read. A thorough walk often reveals any deadheads, as well. In the end, it’s about learning as much as you can about the deer population in your hunting area. And there’s no better way to do this than by lacing up the hiking boots and putting on the miles.
My own early spring scouting forays involve probing every deer trail possible. Rarely do I leave any significant trail alone. In doing so, I note heavily-used travel corridors and mark likely stand and blind locations using aerial photos or one of the mentioned Apps. Even with today’s technological advantages, no other aspect of pre-season scouting can replace covering the miles on foot. It pays to cover every trail, ridge, and valley you can. Pay close attention to (and mark), the most heavily used trails, bedding areas, food sources, transition zones between them, and scrape lines. Whatever was active last fall will often see similar movement again next fall.
With my on-site recon work complete, I usually let trail cams do the rest of my pre-season scouting over the summer. I prefer to stay out of my hunting areas until a couple weeks before the opener. This is where wifi cameras really shine. With one last walk through for visual confirmations at the end of August, I stay out until hunting season.
Connect with Landowners
Landowner relations is a key element of my pre-season preparation. Unless you have a paid lease, approaching landowners for permission to hunt is always best done well before a farmer’s busy seasons.
As a rule, stay in touch with your existing landowners throughout the year, confirming permission to hunt long before the seasons open in late summer or early fall. If I’m approaching new landowners, my experience has taught me that April tends to be a great time. Snow has recently vanished, the weather is warming up, and moods are generally positive. Approaching them well before the season begins always increases your chances of securing access. The worst thing you can do is interrupt them during harvest, when every minute in the field is precious. By first giving them a phone call and then scheduling a time to drop by in person, you convey that you’re serious about your hunting. An in-person visit allows the landowner to see who you are. While many landowners are skeptical about granting permission over the phone, this is your chance to do a little in-person public relations work. Be sure to convey your respect not only for their land but also for the work they do.
From time to time, offering to give the landowner a few hours of your time to help out with chores or projects around the yard may just be the ticket to securing long-term access and a solid working relationship. Identifying your willingness to keep an eye out for their property while you are a guest can go a long way, as well. I know that with the landowners I deal with, just knowing I’m there during much of the hunting season gives them peace of mind.
If you’re serious about your deer hunting, it’s prudent to keep close track of your deer population. Off-season reconnaissance allows you to gather enough information to talk about the numbers of does, fawns and age classes of bucks on your hunting land.
Place trail cameras along field edges, in staging areas, on creek crossings, along ridges and in valleys to capture images of those deer. Doing these things will allow you to capture images of resident deer, which in turn will help you identify target bucks. These are the deer that you can watch grow and mature throughout the year and from year to year. By keeping track of these bucks year-round, you will gain a good understanding of their movement patterns.
Several years ago, I would routinely park along a roadway to glass a canola field I knew held magnum bucks. By investing every evening during the last few weeks of August, I would pinpoint precisely where the biggest bucks were exiting the woods and coming into the field to feed. As the season drew closer, I placed a stand just inside the tree line, right in the heart of their staging area. Inevitably, with the early archery opener, I’d get a shot at (or at least see) the buck I was after on Opening Day. The same holds true for gun hunting. By patterning or at least zeroing in on the home territory and bedding/feeding patterns of certain bucks, you can narrow your search for when the season opens.
Considering a Whitetail’s annual cycle, bucks begin to lose their antlers shortly after the rut. For those sub-species, particularly in the southeastern U.S., where Whitetails are rutting in December and January, their antlers may drop later. This may happen t on a similar schedule that is slightly offset by a few weeks for their northern cousins. In Alberta, where I do much of my Whitetail hunting and searching for sheds, the months of February through early April are golden.
If you’re struggling to find shed antlers, try this. First, drive back roads to look for well-used trails crossing those roads. Deep snow can be a lifesaver, because pounded deer trails are easier to see.
Those exiting bigger timber and crossing roads into feeding fields can be gold mines. I’m referring to trails resembling hard-packed cattle trails. When deer movement is concentrated mid-winter, it can only mean one thing; deer are using those trails to move from bedding to feeding and vice versa.
Most antlers are typically found in either of three areas: in or near their beds, on route to feeding areas, and right on the feed itself. Whether corn fields, pea fields, haystacks, planted food plots or even silage pits, with so much up-and-down head movement, these locales are likely to be deposit spots. Particularly in states or provinces that get a lot of snow, food sources can be scarce. Grain piles and open bins in farmyards will often make for easy picking. If you monitor these key locations as deer shed their antlers, you’re sure to pick up at least one or two. Regardless of where you look, be thorough and pay close attention to detail.
A few years ago, I remember discovering a grain pile near a stand of old-growth timber. It was a cold winter and the deer were yarding up. With good thermal cover nearby, the entire herd congregated in high numbers flocking to the readily available food source. During February alone on that property, I picked up 17 antlers. Among them were four different sets. Other probable spots include trails following the bottom of ravines and fence crossings.
Collecting as many sheds as possible (where regulations allow), gives you tangible evidence about the class of deer that made it through winter. Then you can begin taking other steps to monitor and pattern those deer over the spring and summer.
Scout for Ambush Locations
A big part of pre-season preparation involves looking for and preparing stand sites. One of the mistakes a lot of deer hunters make involves putting up stands the day before the season opener, or immediately prior to sitting in that location.
Yes, sometimes this works, but remember, every time you set foot in an area, you leave human scent. Take advantage of pre-season scouting forays to pinpoint likely ambush locations. Consider your trail camera intel, along with what you see on the ground, to determine probable ambush spots before the season opens. Most importantly, choose your stand or blind locations wisely. Consider food sources and what might change with crop harvests along with key rut movement. Deer are hypersensitive to human odor and may choose to vacate for a while until the scent dissipates. So, as a rule, keep your pre-season footprint small. Scout thoroughly but choose your scouting and stand/blind placement times wisely.
With this in mind, it’s always wise to put up stands or construct ground blinds at least a couple weeks before you want to hunt in a spot. This is not to say that you can’t place a stand and hunt it immediately. In fact, many of us have done just that and seen success. But to maximize your odds and minimize risk, allow things to settle down for a few days before sneaking in to hunt. In the end, it’s all about capitalizing on pre-season preparation to maximize the odds of success when it’s game time.