Develop A Post-Season Deer Scouting Strategy

Develop A Post-Season Deer Scouting Strategy
(Photo by Ron Sinfelt)

off-season deer scouting
Get a leg up on next deer season by taklng time to scout during the winter. (Photo by Ron Sinfelt)

This winter, try some post-season deer scouting in whatever form you enjoy most. Next deer season, your future self will thank you.

A number of things separate consistently successful deer hunters from hunters who sometimes get the deer they are after and sometimes do not.

Luckily, most of the things really good hunters do anyone can do. One prime example of that is a commitment to doing some post-season deer scouting. After a long hunting season, and the holiday season, it can be difficult to muster enthusiasm for wandering around in the woods on any given winter weekend. It's an easy thing to put off.

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But it's worth planning to do because it can give you a "leg up" on next season by providing some critical information that you can't get during the season.

For example, if you do see deer or fresh deer sign after the season, then you know that deer survived the season.

Not killing a nice buck during the season is a disappointment, but knowing that he is still alive after the season is deeply reassuring.

Studies have shown that outside of hunting season, in years with "normal" winters, healthy deer suffer very low mortality rates after they reach about 90 pounds.

Coyotes can take a significant toll on fawns, but take surprisingly few uninjured adult deer. Basically, over much of their range, adult whitetails only have to worry about getting hit by cars or shot by hunters.

You also know if you see a deer on your property in the winter or early spring, then your property is part of that deer's home range. During the rut, deer may move long distances, but they tend to spend winters somewhere in their home range where cover and food sources appeal to them.

There's a good chance these deer will survive until the next hunting season and at least part of the time will be on your property.

Whatever kind of post-season scouting you do, taking notes during or immediately after each scouting trip will make a difference months later when you are trying to finalize your hunting strategies and stand sites.

Notes are better than memory, and more notes over time are better than fewer notes.

On private land, trail cameras can help you make a survey of the surviving adult deer on your property.

If food sources are conscentrated and your post-season scouting allows you to discover those food sources, you won't need a lot of trail cameras to get a ballpark figure on the number of deer around and their general health.

Trail cameras properly placed can give you a wealth of information about the deer (and turkeys and all kinds of other animals) on your property, and how and when they use that property. And the cameras can do this without you having to stand in the cold.

Thermal refuge and bedding cover are at a premium in the winter. As the year progresses, deer will change their travel and bedding patterns to take advantage of seasonal food sources and changes in cover density.

But good bedding cover in the winter typically remains good bedding cover the rest of the year. If part of your property has thick cover in winter, there's a chance it's also the thickest cover the rest of the year, and may serve as a refuge for deer all year long.

As good as trail cameras are, they don't eliminate all of the advantages of spending some time doing on-the-ground scouting.

As vegetation dies back in late fall and early winter, not only are the thickest remaining bedding areas easier to spot, but deer trails can be seen better as well. It's worth exploring trails leading to food sources that are productive during the hunting season: white oaks, food plots, the edges of agricultural fields, fruit trees and so forth.

Deer may not be using these places in winter, but their trails will reveal they have used them in the past, and assuming you can make a guess about when those food sources will be productive again, you can develop a good idea about how deer will access these areas during hunting season.

Nor does scouting have to be a dreary slog through the cold and wet. While you get more scouting work done if that's your sole focus, you can combine scouting with other activities if you want. 

Squirrel hunting, rabbit hunting, all upland bird hunting (as long as those seasons last) all require walking through areas that overlap with whitetail habitat.

If you keep your eyes open, you'll see sign — and you'll be having fun while you do it. One of the advantages of these activities is that in pursuing them, you will probably find yourself in places that you might not normally look for deer sign.

That can lead to you learning more about where and how the deer use the property rather than simply confirming what you already expected to find.

Ater small-game season a growing number of hunters have come to enjoy shed hunting in the late winter. Although you don't always find nice sheds, when you do you know that a buck is using the property and survived the hunting season, and obviously you have a solid idea of what at least one-half of the buck's rack was like.

Finally, after winter, you might find yourself doing pre-season turkey scouting.

For many serious turkey hunters, deer sign is not something they want to think about during their turkey scouting, but if taking a couple of notes about deer or sign seen doesn't distract you, it's more data that could be helpful next year even if it just gives you a better idea of where doe groups are hanging out.

This winter, whenever time and weather allows, try some post-season scouting in whatever form you enjoy most. Next deer season, your future self will thank you.

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