POST SEASON SCOUTING FOR WHITETAILS: WHAT, WHY, WHEN, AND HOW
Winter will soon be giving way to daydreams of white gold. Shed antlers are often on my mind this time of year—but I’ll stop there. This article isn’t about shed hunting. It’s about your best opportunity to hunt with confidence this fall.
Now is the time to develop a plan to put your woodsmanship skills to the test. You may have experienced the feeling of burnout from a tough season, but now that feeling is beginning to fade. The itch to fill your lungs with fresh air is escalating. It's time to get out for the first post-season scouting mission of the year.
THE WHAT OF SPRING SCOUTING
Subtle signs made by deer are most prominent during this spring scouting timeframe. The woods will be bare and reflective of an October through November scene. Your efforts to decipher that sign during the post-season will directly impact your next hunting season.
It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s that I read about scouting in the spring. Take a step back—I probably read about it before. I just never did it. The idea took a long time to click in my mind. For most of those early years, I didn’t find much of a need to scout since I spent most of my time on private land that I knew well.
Spring scouting is a fresh start—it’s all about paving the way for your fall hunting season. Once you’ve done it, you’ll soon recognize the amount of time it will save you in season for years to come. You’ll also appreciate more consistency with mature buck encounters and successful kills.
WHY YOU SHOUDN'T WAIT FOR FALL
Fall deer sign and in-season sign together complete a “big picture” for any given hunting location. Post-season scouting is a glimpse of sign made through all phases of a deer season; therefore, spring scouting imparts the broadest understanding to creating a hunting strategy.
There are many reasons you’ll want to be out in the post-season. Here are just a few:
- It won’t matter if you spook deer! What you do in spring will have no ill effect in October.
- Almost all deer sign is as visible as a road map during the spring. Snowpack makes trails more pronounced, and the complete lack of foliage makes rubs and scrapes stand out.
- The senesced vegetation in the woods matches what you will see in the fall. Mentally note it because when you hang cameras in June or July, the same woods will be a different world.
- Shed antlers. I find I’m more effective at shed hunting and scouting when I focus on one at a time. But there’s still a chance to pick up one or two even when you’re not trying.
WHEN SHOULD YOU BEGIN
There’s no rhyme or reason to when you should start post-season scouting. If the snow is waist deep, there’s a good chance that I’m still going. That said, when we’re talking time specifics, the last few days of February until about the second weekend of April are perfect for distinguishing deer sign made year after year. Be observant of repetitive history; it will provide valuable clues to the habits of deer in the area you’re hunting.
The second week of March is an excellent time to scout, and by some happy coincidence, is the best time of the year to find shed antlers. The ideal timeframe for scouting and shed hunting is simultaneous, but, again, it’s a good idea to separate your focus. Work harder to scout one day and shed hunt the next.
HOW TO APPROACH SPRING SCOUTING
First, start with your weapon of choice—OnX, Spartan Forge, HuntStand, Hunt Wise, you name it. Pick an app and get digging! If you’ve not been much of a scouter before but want to pick up the habit, start small. Three locations will suffice.
On each parcel of land, identify classic terrain features—saddles, main ridge points, food plots, swamps, oxbows, etc. Follow that by locating obscure terrain features that relate to the classic features. Spur ridges, hidden creek crossings, undefined islands of vegetation in swamps, and secondary growth adjacent to the edge of clear cuts are all excellent examples of “hidden gems.”
To be effective in your scouting missions, you should create a list of priority locations. Follow your list by in-person scouting and picking apart the most prominent terrain features first. Identify high-quality deer sign, then follow it towards the direction of least human intrusion. Thoroughly examine the areas you find, narrowing it down to the areas with the most deer movement. Proceed to your next chosen location when you've seen enough sign to get your spider senses tingling.
If you’re a working-class person working with limited time, don’t be afraid to stick to one area that you’ve learned well.
Spring scouting is like buying a house. If you walk through the front door and your first thought is, “this sucks,” there’s no harm in calling off the showing to go somewhere you believe is more promising. However, if you decide to look despite the negative feeling, you may find areas beyond the living room that check all of your boxes.
Author: Aaron Helper, Exodus Black Hat Team Member