Winter Scouting for Whitetails

Put your boots to work, read deer sign this late winter and spring, and learn more about where whitetail bucks will be next fall.

Winter Scouting for Whitetails

Post-season scouting in the late winter and early spring months is my most impactful time in the woods without question. The sign is fresh; the landscape is a 3-D map; it’s time to wear out the boot leather. With time and sign visibility on your side, finding bedding, primary scrape areas, and secluded staging areas where bucks spend most of their time in daylight has drastically improved my success rates in the fall. Now is the time to dive in deep, forget pressure, get dirty, go where you’re not “supposed” to go and learn more about the bucks in the areas you hunt than ever before.

Spokes on a Wheel

One of my hunting influences is Dan Infalt. If you’ve never heard of Dan, look him up. He’s a blue-collar, diehard DIY deer hunter from Wisconsin. Commonly referred to as “The Big Buck Serial Killer” in DIY circles, his reputation speaks for itself. His proven tactics and wall of giant whitetails are more than enough to back it up. His nickname was earned through decades of hard work to scout effectively and hunt efficiently. It was Dan that coined the term “Spokes on a Wheel” that defines his scouting mentality, which I utilize more than any other to find mature buck hiding places and carry out my post-season scouting efforts yearly.

Infalt’s theory centers on deer bedding, where bucks spend most of their time during daylight hours. Imagine a bicycle wheel with the hub of the wheel being a buck bedding area; its spokes the trails, travel corridors and routes that lead from the bedding area; and finally the wheel being feed and water.

The spokes leading to the hub need to be well defined, as they’re crucial to determining how close to the hub you can get to hunt the bucks on your property. I try to consider every reason why a deer might be using a particular route. Terrain, wind and sight advantage are just a few of the questions and scenarios I process throughout the backtracking process. To identify these hubs/bedding areas in the offseason, if I haven’t spent much time on the property, I like to start from the outside and work my way inward. This usually means starting around food sources. Even though it’s fun to see beat-down, intersecting trails and high traffic areas, this really isn’t what I am looking for. Sure, you can find some great ambush spots in and around the rut, but I spend most of my time looking for the thicker cover around these main trails. This thicker cover is usually where concentrated buck sign and interior travel routes exist. This transitional cover allows bucks to follow and scent-check doe groups around the rut and offers them security throughout the season.

Marking sign using an app is always a good idea and will pay dividends down the road.
Marking sign using an app is always a good idea and will pay dividends down the road.

Food Sources

Start by identifying a few main trails leading to the food source, preferably from the predominant downwind side. Backtrack these trails to determine where they came from. If the property you hunt doesn’t have much for food, try to determine where the nearest food source is in relation to your location and start with the travel routes leading to it, backtracking them from there. Along the way, drop pins or make note of rubs, scrapes and locations where trails intersect. These aren’t necessarily ideal locations to hunt, but it’s important to identify specific routes that have bucks using them.

Once I begin to determine the best or most used trails for travel, I start excluding the ones mature bucks are least likely to use. I discard trails in the open that offer little security cover or potential terrain advantages for thermals and wind to a traveling buck. One effective way to save time and boot soles after the direction of travel is determined is pull up your map app of choice and look ahead of your route to see if it leads to any thick transitions, cover or potential bedding areas. It isn’t always possible to identify these from a map so you will need to walk some out completely, but it is an effective way to narrow your search.

It’s also important to consider and note the current food source types and changes you need to consider for the upcoming season. For crop fields, think about crop rotations and how that shifts throughout the year. Note preferred natural vegetation types and heavy concentration of browse. If there are oaks or other mast-producing trees, be sure to keep in mind how wet or dry the approaching spring and summer are; it will be imperative to check back and see if they produce later in the summer. Once you’ve determined the most preferred routes of travel with good transitional cover and sign, track them all right to the bedding areas. Now it’s time to slow down and analyze all the details.

Understanding terrain features and studying deer movement within those features allows a hunter to establish productive ambush sites.
Understanding terrain features and studying deer movement within those features allows a hunter to establish productive ambush sites.

Bedding

Studying how and where mature bucks bed is one of my favorite challenges of chasing whitetails. It’s a total mental game, every detail must be carefully considered and there’s no better time to tackle it than early spring. We could talk for days about buck bedding and strategies related to it, but in terms of post-season scouting, bedding areas are the most vital piece to the puzzle. Scouting this time of year is as good as it gets. It’s our one free pass to dive in and turn over every leaf and blade of grass to understand how and when mature bucks are using their beds. What the habitat and terrain provide for desirable locations, how the wind determines likely positioning within a bedding area and how bucks navigate to and from bedding, are all essential to getting close. Yes, it’s a lot, but don’t let it be overwhelming. Take it slow; keep it as simple as possible and enjoy the process.

Mature bucks love to bed in thick cover, which means there will be a transition type at the edge of the bedding area. Start at the transition line where the thick cover meets more open habitat. Work along the transition looking for buck sign and big tracks. Once you find a trail correlating with this sign, follow it into the bedding area. The goal here is to find individual or clusters of beds. When you find a bed, kneel or sit in it. See what the buck sees from his perspective. Pay attention to how far he can see; this is key for approach and stand height. You want to be just out of sight or detectability of the buck’s bed. It can vary by terrain and habitat type, but bucks commonly bed with thicker cover to their back. Their strategy for a bed location is cover to their back with the wind blowing from behind them. This situation allows them to smell behind them and use their eyesight to scan in front of them. Of course, it’s not an exact science and deer are wild animals that do things we can’t explain, but this is a consistent scenario I have seen for years.

Take your time and study how bucks enter and exit these bedding areas. Access is almost always wind-based. They will often circle and approach downwind of the bed and enter with the wind in their face to confirm the bed is safe. When they exit, the wind is less critical depending on cover. Depending on how long they stayed bedded and how often they use a bed or bedding area, they will be more confident leaving it for some distance. This bubble of security around the transition or edge of a bedding area as they enter or exit is your zone of opportunity. This zone is where you want to set up for your ambush. Find the routes in and out of the bedding area with the best sign and start hunting them down.

Establish Ambushes

Identify stand options based on wind directions and the access routes that you’ve already determined from working your way into the bedding areas. Mark these locations so you can continue to analyze and understand them from your map as fall approaches. Once you’ve selected your stand sites near bedding areas, stay out until it’s time to hunt. Your presence and multiple visits only decreases the quality of a bedding area, regardless of the time of year. The goal is to establish as many of these setups for different bedding areas as you can for the season. You most likely won’t get more than a hunt or two at each one before he’s on to you, so stay adaptable. 

Studying maps are incredibly productive, sure, but nothing replaces physically getting out there. Boots on the ground, miles of walking and hands-on research with no risk of bumping deer during these post-season months is the best education deer hunters can get. Read the sign from last season, keep careful notes and put serious time in now. You’ll be amazed how taking your approach to the next level for next year’s buck — months ahead of the season — can yield incredible success.

Nothing impacts deer movement more than hunting pressure. If you share permission on property, you must understand how — and when — other hunters use the land.
Nothing impacts deer movement more than hunting pressure. If you share permission on property, you must understand how — and when — other hunters use the land.

Sidebar: Scout for Hunting Pressure

Hunting pressure influences deer behavior more than any other factor in the woods. As you post-season scout for deer sign and behavior, whether on private or public property, it’s equally important to keep track of sign from other hunters. If you’re hunting public land, take note of worn trails, access routes, tree tacks, bright eyes or flagging that indicate a hunter is using an area. If you’re sharing a piece of private or have neighbors that hunt, keep track of any treestands or blinds that may have been left or are close to the property line.

Try to stay away from these exact spots. Think about how you may be able to use their impact to your advantage in terms of deer travel and be on the receiving end of other hunters pushing deer to you or affecting the way deer navigate the property.

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