February 24, 2012
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.
NETWORK YOUR TRAIL CAMERAS
Despite popular belief, the off-season is definitely not the time to store away your trail-cameras. In fact, this is actually when you need to setup every trail-cam in your hunting arsenal to get the jump on a monster for next season. Utilizing multiple trail-cameras within a single area will enable you to quickly locate and pattern the daily routines of a shooter, which will come in handy during next year's late-season. Networking your trail-cameras will also allow you to cover more ground and get an accurate assessment of what deer survived the previous season.
For optimal results, try positioning trail-cameras along the edges of thick-bedding areas and remaining food sources. Major travel corridors that connect winter feeding and bedding locations are also productive places to hang a few cameras. One of the neatest whitetail surveillance tools that I've seen in awhile is the Plot-Watcher Pro, which records up to one million images and lasts up to four months on a set of eight AA batteries. The innovative Gamefinder Software enables hunters to view a 12-hour day of video in just three minutes.
The Plot-Watcher Pro implements time-lapse technology that captures images of an entire area, regardless of how far the deer or subject is from the camera. In other words, you can accurately record all activity that takes place inside of a food plot or agricultural field. The time-lapse settings can easily be adjusted from 1 second to 60 minutes. With the Plot-Watcher Pro, you don't have to rely on a limited field of view or a slow trigger time that can potentially miss the buck of a lifetime.
SUPER SPRING TACTICS & STRATEGIES
After a long winter, many deer hunters are probably starting to think about spring fishing and the upcoming turkey season. For the most part, deer scouting and whitetail hunting have already been placed on the backburner by the majority of hunters.
However, the warmer spring months are actually when big buck fanatics really need to be preparing for the distant fall deer season. In fact, scouting and completing several prep-work projects during the spring of the year can generate a lot more shot opportunities on trophy deer.
Without question, staying in the woods during the spring of the year has undoubtedly increased the amount of bone that is hanging on my wall. The rebirth of spring is a fantastic time to search for monster whitetail sheds and jumpstart your warm-season food plots. Collecting and inventorying antler sheds can give you an idea of what your hunting situation will be like next fall. Plus, getting an early start on your food plotting projects will improve the overall health of the resident deer herd and keep more bucks hanging around your hunting area.
ADVANCED SHED-HUNTING STRATEGIES
As you can imagine, being able to answer the when, where, and how questions of shed hunting is really what makes a difference in the field. Knowing exactly when to start shed-hunting can be somewhat complicated, because all bucks don't drop at the same time. For example, this past year I spotted several bucks still packing both sides of their rack in early April. Ironically, I had also found multiple sheds from other bucks in the same area during the month of February. Varying factors such as age, nutrition, and weather can have a major impact on when a particular buck drops his headgear.
In order to maximize your success when shed-hunting, be sure to thoroughly monitor the bucks in your hunting area with multiple trail-cameras. Once again, placing cameras near remaining food sources, travel corridors, and bedding areas will tell you the best times to start rack hunting. When you begin seeing bucks with one side of their antlers, then you know it's time to start combing the area. Otherwise, you'll be dealing with about a three to four month shed-hunting window that can potentially cause a lot of problems and aggravation.
Next, try to narrow your searches by targeting seasonal high-traffic locations like current food sources, bedding areas, and connecting travel routes. Taking a few friends and family members along during these outings will dramatically increase your chances of finding more bone. On a side note, it's also not a bad idea to strategically schedule shed-hunting trips on bright sunny days, because under these conditions ivory-white antlers seem to glow and jump out at you.
Some serious shed hunters are also utilizing dogs to find and retrieve buck racks during the spring of the year. Both of these innovative tools can really save you a lot of time and take the "hunting" out of shed-hunting. Almost any dog can be trained to do this and, if you like dogs, working with one can add another layer to enjoying the woods in the off season.
0Another deadly big buck hunting tactic during the off-season is to grow warm-season food plots near prime ambush points. Planting shade-tolerant mixes within close proximity of bedding areas or along major travel corridors can pay huge dividends when the fall season rolls around. It's actually possible to modify whitetail movement by growing narrow strips or plot trails that lead away from thick cover. Strategically planting and running these plots through pre-selected setup locations that offer easy hunter access can help pull a long-tined shooter right past your stand.
When you stop and think about it, there really isn't a whole lot to do during the cold-winter and early spring months anyway. This is exactly why spending some time in the deer woods scouting and preparing for next season is such a good idea. The truth is that all of these off-season tactics for deer hunting are fully capable of keeping you in the middle of a target-rich environment throughout the fall. Remember, a small investment in time and work can potentially produce a close encounter with a buck of a lifetime.