Photo by Charles Asheimer
If you have just one chance to scout before next deer season, do it now, in early spring. The legwork you put in during March and April is the most valuable of the year, for two reasons: First, there’s no other time when so many clues about local deer behavior are laid so bare before you, and, second, spooking bucks is a nonissue so far in advance of fall. For many of us, this is a time when snow is here and gone—and sometimes here again—and in this muddled transition from winter to spring lie the secrets to what deer are doing right now and what they were up to last fall. It’s an opportunity you can’t miss. So lace up your boots, and I’ll walk you through my own two-step plan.
When you have snow, every step a deer takes is public record, and nothing gives you a better big-picture view of how deer use your property than following hoofprints. Go cut a track and concentrate on the following:
Changing food sources affect deer movement to a point, but terrain and cover primarily dictate the ways in which deer navigate the landscape, and these stay largely the same. Now is the perfect time to identify funnels, pinch points, and other travel patterns. Note if the track you’re following swings around the head of a wash, sidehills a particular ridge, or slips through a certain saddle. Deer may not always be moving through that area, but when they are, they’ll use the same corridors.
Beds are never easier to find. Just stay on that track, and you’ll discover one. (Ignore beds in obvious feeding areas, which are made at night by foraging deer.) Once you find a daytime bed, mark it on a map and cut a new track to find another. Your job is to take an inventory of all the consistent bedding areas on your property. Yes, deer commonly switch bedding areas through the year. But this way, when you find a hot food source in the fall, your map will show where deer are most likely bedded in relation to the grub. And that will enable you to formulate a high-odds hunting plan.
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An early-spring thaw uncovers last fall’s deer sign, perfectly preserved. It’s like reading a history book hot off the press. Look for:
Whereas off-season tracks reveal general travel patterns, rub lines reveal specific routes taken by bucks during the hunting season. Follow every rub line you can decipher, making note of funnels and pinch points along its path. Watch for clusters of rubs that indicate high-use spots such as bedding and staging areas.
Last fall’s scrapes are plain to see now, and it’s important to categorize them quickly. Small scrapes and those near food sources were made at night or on a whim. Instead, focus on large scrapes and concentrations of scrapes located in the timber, under a licking branch or branches. Then pick out and mark a good stand tree, and keep it in mind for next fall, just prior to the rut.
Mature bucks don’t leave rubs and scrapes everywhere they go, and they commonly travel off the beaten path. Keep a sharp eye out for faint trails that intersect main trails near a food source, or that veer 30 yards downhill from the obvious runway on the ridge top. I walk every minor trail I can find now and inevitably discover a covert route I’ve been missing for years, even on familiar ground.
Of course, you probably have fish and turkeys on the brain. I do, too. But when I gaze at the bucks on my wall and remember that two of my three gross Booners were taken from stand locations I chose in March, I get my deer maps out.
Of course October and November are the peak months for scraping activity, but whitetails (both bucks and does) visit and work scrapes year-round, and, in my experience, it’s these perennial scrapes that receive the most attention come fall. You can kick-start a scrape’s allure right now, in spring, by working up dirt and adding any leftover commercial scent from last fall. (Don’t worry if it’s stale or funky; the bucks don’t care). I also like to tweak the overhanging branch by zip-tying a fresh branch (cedar and pine are fragrant and seem to attract attention) to the existing limb. As a finishing touch, I add scent to the branch. There’s nothing wrong with using urine for this, either. Trust me, bucks don’t ponder for a second how a doe peed on a limb as high as her head; they just sniff and lick it and come back for more. And speaking of trusting me, I can tell you this from personal experience, many times over: The scrapes you freshen now can pay off big next fall.