A slight flicker of the buck’s left ear caught my eye along the edge of the brushy thicket that was located about 40 yards from my stand. It was almost like he had materialized out of thin air. Without hesitation, the wide-racked brawler walked right into the middle of a cleared shooting lane and offered me the perfect shot. I quickly placed the small red cross-hairs just behind the buck’s shoulder and softly squeezed the trigger. An echoing boom broke the early-morning silence and knocked the buck right into the frost-covered dirt.
Undoubtedly, stories like these make deer hunting and tagging shooter bucks sound pretty darn easy. As deer hunters, we all know that lady luck sometimes smiles on us and for whatever reason she pushes a big deer with extra-long tines right into our lap. However, if you want to consistently tag wall-hangers, you’re going to need to depend on much more than luck or chance.
In fact, you better hit the woods soon, with a proven post-season scouting and organizational plan that will help keep you directly in the middle of all the hardcore antler-action when the games begin next fall. The following off-season tactics for deer hunting will ultimately allow you to connect with more bruiser bucks on a regular basis.
COLD-WINTER TACTICS & STRATEGIES
In my opinion, the first several weeks that follow the conclusion of season are probably some of the best times of the entire year to locate a mature buck. At this point, you’re primarily dealing with the big bucks that have been smart enough to escape another hunting season. If you want to hang a tag on one of these experienced bucks, then you’re going to have to roll up your sleeves and do some homework.
Consequently, the cold winter months are the perfect time for die-hard antler addicts to search for next season’s prime target candidates. At this point in the year, the woods are practically wide-open and big buck sign is both easy to find and simple to read. The lack of foliage, coupled with occasional snow, makes tracks, heavily worn trails and preferred bedding areas stick out like a sore thumb. In addition, pinpointing last season’s tree rubs and scrape-lines are also a breeze during the cold winter months. Many of these same rub and scrape-lines will be utilized by mature bucks again the following season.
OTHER MAJOR ADVANTAGES
The cold winter months offer so many tactical and strategic advantages that it would be crazy for serious hunters to stay out of the woods during this period. For example, you can freely enter highly-sensitive core areas without worrying about spooking and educating shooter bucks. Carefully combing thick-entangled bedding locations, staging points, and primary travel corridors can provide you with some very important patterning information. Once again, it’s important to note that most of these key areas will be hotspots next season as well.
As you can imagine, knowing exactly where heavy-racked bucks prefer to move, feed, and bed will help you place more giants under your stand this fall. Speaking of stands, the winter months are also a perfect time to mark and setup prime ambush points for next season. Once locating these key areas, it’s relatively simple to hang stands, cut shooting lanes, and clear-out hunting entry and exit routes. After this initial work is completed, periodic maintenance, upkeep, and monitoring will be all that is needed to eventually ambush a real wall-hanger when the fall season finally rolls around.
Even if you prefer not to set up a stand and leave it on the land you’re scouting, You can do the prep work for choosing a site (and secondary options for various wind conditions) that will make your hunting life much easier in the fall.
Winter scouting also provides an excellent opportunity to assess and monitor the deer that inhabit your favorite hunting area. Off-season time in the field combined with high-impact trail-cam scouting will give you a pretty good idea about buck to doe ratios, age class, and the overall health of the deer herd. On private land, this information can tell you approximately how many does need to be harvested next season and whether or not you’re hunting locations provide adequate food sources. When hunting public land, you will be able to determine which areas have high carrying capacities and hold solid numbers of mature bucks.
FOCUS ON FOOD & COVER
Pinpointing remaining food sources will be the most important factor to consider when scouting during the off-season. The good news is that dwindling food supplies should make it fairly easy to locate these winter hotspots. If you’re hunting agricultural areas, try to focus on cold-weather crops like winter wheat, oats, late-picked corn fields, or even specially designed food plot blends and mixes. Public-land hunters should concentrate on green browse like honey-suckle or isolated areas that may still contain acorns.
It’s also important not to overlook pockets of heavy and thick cover that are located within close proximity of any remaining food sources. South facing slopes, overgrown clear-cuts, and dense pine or cedar thickets are excellent starting points. Generally, once the gun fire has stopped for the season, mature bucks will try to conserve as much energy as possible by bedding within a short distance of their primary winter feeding areas. Basically, you can bank on the fact that whitetails will automatically gravitate toward the groceries and thick cover when the weather turns bad and temperatures drop.