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This is an ideal time to develop next year's winning hunting strategy





Keep late-season feeding areas in mind during next year's late hunts. Kenny Darwin photos

March 01, 2008
If you want to increase your chances for taking a buck next year, scouting should be a year-round endeavor. It has been an important part of my hunting forte, helped me to locate big bucks and each winter I spend countless hours stalking Michigan trophy bucks, trying to capture their image on film, learning their habits, hideouts and uncovering secrets. Sometimes I take my photography and post season scouting more serious than hunting because it has rewarded me with big dividends come next fall.

If you want to score on a dandy next year, scout now, when snow is on the ground, prior to spring green up. This is an ideal time to develop next year's winning hunting strategy. Spending time afield during post season can provide the much needed information to help you score on a buck next fall. After all, you only get one chance at most trophy deer and any information that helps it all come together is welcome. Scouting when the woods is quiet, there is no other competition and deer are relaxed, can give you the knowledge and confidence to spend long hours on stand needed to score on a dandy buck. Here are tips regarding what to look for and why this is the best time to scout.

Snow And Ice

Tracking snow and frozen waterways can help you locate deer on post-season scouting outings. Iced over swamps, cattail marshes, beaver ponds, flooded timber, creeks and rivers give you better access to buck hideouts. You can locate runways, determine travel routes used in watery hideouts during season and figure out hideaways used by bucks during the hunting season. Look for major trails, rubs and sign leading in and out of heavy cover to begin planning next year's stand locations. Snow will help you find runways, locate feeding areas and give you an estimate of the number of deer in your area. Large tracks could be from a buck and seeing them is certain to get your heart pumping.

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My Daddy taught me how to track deer before I could drive a car. He was an expert at identifying buck tracks and with fond memories I recall our many deer outings when I'd follow him through the woods as he tracked and killed Michigan bucks. Sometimes he would tell me in advance that the buck was close based on the deer tracks n the snow. I'm no buck tracking expert, although nine times out of 10 when I get on a large track it will be a buck. Truth is, when I get on a track like a hound after a rabbit you can bet your last dollar the track is huge. Three hundred pound deer leave a very big track. Some bucks have hooves that are worn from chasing does and making scrapes during the rut. Others drag their feet in the snow and leave big drag marks my Dad called "Sweepers." Adult bucks tend to leave very large droppings and often their dropping will be one huge turd, almost as big as a human's. Big ol' monster bucks tend to knock snow off trees as they travel through thick brush and they frequently leave antler marks where they feed and bed.

I'm telling you this because I want to get you thinking about bucks and their tracks. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to go outdoors in Michigan, find deer tracks and follow them. Your goal should be to identify the size and number of deer in your area, locate buck tracks, identify buck sign and determine the travel routes used by bucks. Sure, you can simply learn the land, identify the habitat deer prefer, but successful buck hunters put in their time scouting and they develop a hunting strategy that puts them kissin' close to bucks. The only way you can achieve this goal is through the school of hard knocks, you have to spend plenty of time scouting. Ideally, you pinpoint a buck hot spot, set up your stand and drilling a buck will be a cakewalk next fall.

Find New

Hunting Grounds

Permission to go on new parcels of land is more easily granted during the post-season, when folks are not hunting. It is an ideal time to extend your hunting grounds, determine property boundaries and scout new turf.

Let's say you got the word on a big buck honey hole. You talk to the landowner, gain permission to scout and you find monster rubs, big scrapes, big ole drop antlers, and large droppings and tracks the size of a calf. Now is the time to dust off your wallet and consider leasing the new buck spot, but scout first. Perhaps the post season scouting gives you an opportunity to kindle a new friendship and you can expand your hunting grounds without paying cash, the point is to expand your hunting opportunities for next season.

Fact Finding

Missions

Every post season outing should be a fact finding mission, try to cover as much ground as possible. Sometimes it takes several outings to get a clear picture regarding the travel patterns, bedding locations, land configuration, travel routes and hiding locations of deer in your area. Walk every inch of your hunting ground and get an intimate feeling for travel corridors and knowledge needed to score next fall. Each parcel is different, some land takes years to fully learn, other pieces are easy to scout and you quickly determine where to set up for fast results.

Buck Survival

One thing you are trying to determine is the buck survival rate in your area. Some locations have no bucks remaining after gun season, and others have several deer that made it through until New Year's Eve. It is always exciting to find buck sign like: fresh rubs, antler marks in the snow, extra large diameter droppings, huge beds in snow, super wide tracks, breeding tracks, tracks indicating late season rutting activity or find dropped antlers.

I always carry my telephoto camera on post season outings and try to document the deer I see. If I spot a buck I snap his image, review the photo later on computer by enlarging the snapshot and determine the age and antler size of the deer. This gives me a good representation of what I can expect to see the upcoming season. I look forward to post-season outings because I love to catch a big boy off guard, take his portrait and now I have solid evidence to dream about all year. I usually hunt only on parcels of land that have an adult buck in the area.

Buck Strongholds

Post-season scouting can help you unravel the mystery regarding the whereabouts of bucks in your area. Sure, they may have given you the slip during season but now you have time on your side and the woods to yourself. This is also a time when bucks are somewhat relaxed, if they ever are relaxed, and you can get the drop on them. The trick is to find where bucks congregate when hunting pressure keeps them on their toes. Is there a private parcel that is off limits to hunting? Is there a thick swamp, marsh, steep hillside that keeps hunters at bay and offers protection to smart old bucks? To find hidden strongholds you must scout where you did not hunt. The idea is to gain an understanding of where bucks hide during hunting season. If you want to up your odds for next fall seek out buck strongholds and identify travel routes that make good ambush points.

Best Time

Don't plan on learning about bucks in your area in just one trip, plan on making many. Grab your shotgun and cover ground while hunting rabbit or slip through the forest on a squirrel hunt with rimfire rifle. Anytime from January until spring green up is beneficial when gathering data.

Deep snow can make covering a lot of ground difficult hiking and old snow tends to hide deer sign like scrapes, drop antlers and runways used during late fall. I like to make trips following warm weather when deep snow has melted. I prefer a slight layer of fresh snow to outline steaming tracks and help identify recent deer movements. Come spring thaw I combine turkey scouting and deer scouting. Since I'm crazy about capturing deer on film, I make many scouting trips during winter following storms that bring fresh, white snow that helps to see deer.

One trick I use is to purposely rattle deer, jump them at high noon when the sun is bright and follow them in the fresh snow to determine escape routes. Next, I'll circle them, use tall grass, low swamp lands, hills, pine groves to conceal my approach as I outflank them and set up for photos. This strategy has helped me to get plenty of images of deer that are moving toward me, or their attention is riveted on their back trail and they do not pick up on me stalking from another direction. I'll usually get a couple photo opportunities by outflanking young bucks; big boys are much more difficult. If you pressure adult bucks, sometimes they freak and will leave the area for a few days; push them too hard, get in their face and they will completely relocate. The idea of scouting is to learn about bucks in your area but don't chase hell out of them or they will disappear. It is a good idea to let a particular location rest for a week or more between outings.

Sheds Are Exciting

I'm not big on finding dropped antlers like some folks who work diligently at location buck antler sheds. But I can guarantee that when you find a shed on your hunting spot you will smile from ear to ear, especially if the antler is from a big rack. Oh, just want you to know I find most of my sheds around low-hanging pine or cedar trees.

The best time to locate sheds is when the snow melts, the ground is bare and white antlers show up easily against the brown leaves; although sheds can also be found on snow. With Michigan's warming trend March is a perfect month to locate sheds. Add the bone to your other findings and you have another piece of the puzzle that could help you score next fall.

Sheds are proof positive that your buck made it through the season and will be wearing even larger headgear come fall. This eliminates any questions you may have about poachers or did your buck get killed by other hunters or predators. While some shed hunters cherish the old bone, for most hunters it is the memory of the find that kindles a high level of confidence when on stand come fall.

Identify Habitat

One benefit of scouting is it helps you to identify whitetail habitat. Savvy buck hunters are quick to find oak forest that provide acorns come fall, water sources, thick cover, tall grass and ideal habitat that bucks prefer. Sure, you can expect to see a buck just about anyplace during the rut but other times you need to be crafty at selecting stand sites near food, cover or downwind from bedding areas. When you are scouting, following tracks, locate travel routes, ask yourself, "Why are deer using this particular area?" Learn to identify why bucks love tall grass, thick alder brush, low wetlands thick with cattails, crab apple trees and more, much more.

Over the years my whitetail hunting tactics have changed. At one time I did most my scouting come fall but now I scout during winter and early spring and late August when velvet antlered bucks are most visible in bachelor groups. Come the first of September when bucks are establishing their territory I stay completely out of the woods. Let's face it, scouting in fall can be a chore when the forest is full of leaves and more often than not you are simply bumping bucks from your hunting ground to the neighbors. The trick is to learn their home range and surprise them with an arrow or hot lead come deer season. Fall scouting only provides a few small pieces of a much larger puzzle, while post-season scouting gives you the whole picture.

Hope you try post-season scouting this year, it gives you a vivid look at the big picture when it comes to understanding deer on your hunting grounds. Winter or early spring offers the opportunity to see through thick brush, determine travel routes, escape routes, bedding and feeding areas and helps to establish funnel locations for future stands. Just learning the lay of the land can give you a decided advantage next fall. Knowledge gained from scouting is certain to give you a broader view of hunting spots and help you decide where and how to ambush that big buck next deer season. The key to buck hunting success often hinges on one important variable --preparation!

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