It was March, and I didn’t have time for “goofing off in the woods.” I just didn’t, what with job commitments, the house I was building, and family obligations.

And yet… I’ve long known that when I first notice the days are starting to get longer and there’s a bit of warmth to the sun and new scents in the air, there’s something that pulls me to the whitetail woods. I can’t resist.

So on a beautiful Saturday morning I drove to an intriguing area of big woods and swamps with a few scattered farm fields in between. I felt I knew it well, though in truth I’d never been there. It had caught my eye when I perused some maps before the turn of the year, and the more I looked at the property, the more it looked like a piece of ground designed for deer hunting.

Once I set foot on it, I started to get excited. It was public land and huntable, but I detected no sign that it got much pressure. I started to note travel patterns and bedding and feeding areas.

I laid my plan and prepared a stand site. And when opening day came the following September, all the work paid off. I simply sat in the stand and enjoyed the scenery until a big buck sauntered up the trail and crossed paths with my arrow.

Why Scout Now?

Far and away, spring is the best time for scouting. For me, in the Midwest, all of last autumn’s deer sign has accumulated and been stored in ice, figuratively speaking, under the mantle of snow cover. Soon after it melts, the sign is obvious. On top of that, regardless of where you live, there are shed antlers to find, sure indicators of which bucks made it through the orange-coat invasion and will be back, and bigger, next fall. You can get a much better idea of how your hunting terrain will look next November than you will during the summer and early fall. You don’t have to worry about spooking deer, so you can scout thoroughly and not worry about leaving your scent behind. And there’s a lot less to do as a sportsman this time of year with most of the hunting seasons closed, so usually a lot more time and enthusiasm to get out there.

Research First

Ideally, you’ve already started scouting for next fall. There are fewer more satisfying pastimes on a cold winter’s eve than settling down in front of the fireplace with a map, studying and dreaming of the deer that live where you hope to hunt.

I cover a lot of ground in my whitetail excursions, and consequently I like to start my scouting forays by reviewing the whitetail record book map compiled by the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA). This map ranks each county in the U.S. for the number of Boone and Crockett (B&C) and Pope and Young (P&Y) whitetails registered. Lately, I’ve focused on the top counties.

After I’ve identified the county I want to scout, I get a plat book for that county. A plat book is a tool vastly underutilized by hunters, I feel. Plat books precisely map ownership of all land in a county. It helps a hunter contact landowners, but more so for my purposes, it identifies public lands that other hunters might not know about. For me, there’s nothing that beats having my own private public land!

I highlight properties on the plat map I want to check further, then find them on the appropriate topo map (usually the large-scale ones like those found in the atlases published by DeLorme). I look for land characteristics that will suggest what the area’s deer are likely to be doing. Topographical features such as ridges and ravines, woods, fields, swamps and strips of cover tell me where deer are likely to feed, bed and travel. (You can get plat maps from Rockford Map Publishers; and topo atlases from DeLorme Maps; Or check out to order a custom-printed topo map of any location you choose.)

Feet On The Ground

When I’ve got plenty of marked-up maps and places I want to check, it’s time to hit the woods. I usually start by driving around big blocks that encompass the land I hope to hunt. This gives me the “big picture” in terms of remote feeding and escape areas for deer, surrounding landowners and influences they might exert and, most importantly, accesses for me and possibly competing hunters. I also take a close look at cover in the area and surrounding land and determine if it is suitable for bedding, escape or travel cover.

Sheds Tell A Story

My reconnaissance missions in the Midwest began around mid- to late February, by which time most all the bucks should have dropped their antlers. To me, hunting for shed antlers is more recreation than work. You don’t know what you might find, and the anticipation one feels after discovering the shed of a huge buck lasts through the spring and summer.

Naturally, the best places to look for sheds are areas where bucks concentrate during that time of year: feeding, bedding and travel areas.

If I find a large shed antler, and determine that it’s in a spot that the deer is likely to use in the autumn, too, you’d better believe I’ve located my hunting spot!

Scouting Sign

To scout efficiently, you should be looking for several things at once. You’re looking for sheds, sure, but you’re also looking at current travel signs, trying to determine if it’s likely to match travel concentrations in the fall. I find it usually does, though there are changing factors— especially with regard to food sources — that can alter that.

You’re also looking for last fall’s buck sign. Last fall’s rubs and scrapes should still be quite obvious and their location will help you discern probable patterns for pre-rut and peak-rut activity. Pay particular attention to rub lines, as they are often used perennially.

Plot And Prepare

Pull out those maps again. Start plotting your findings on the maps — rub lines, concentrations of scrapes, trails, crossings and food sources. Mark some probable stand sites.

If a good-looking stand site jumps out at you, you can get started right away preparing it. Trim out some shooting lanes; open a “shootable trail” and obstruct surrounding trails to funnel deer past you. Clear the way for your access route to the stand.

If you’ve done your off-season homework well, all you need to do is show up and hunt next fall. And when that big buck comes sauntering down the trail opening evening, you’ll be glad you did.