For most deer hunters deer season starts in the fall, but it seems that the hunters that have the most success begin their season in the spring and some even sooner. I never consistently harvested decent bucks until I began to put the pieces together in the off-season.
It’s not easy to keep your passion going once the season ends, but my fire stayed lit due to failure. I was always able to kill bucks, but killing “good” bucks seemed to be out of my league. So my lack of success powered me to start my season eight months in advance. And once my post-season efforts started to pay off, all I wanted to do during the winter and spring is use that time to become a better deer hunter and prepare for the upcoming season.
KEEPING THE FIRE BURNING
The biggest challenge I see for deer hunters is keeping the fire lit once the season is over. It seems like once the new year arrives, many hunters find themselves catching up with life. Whether it’s projects around the house or winter sports. You still have to make time for the whitetail woods. My desire for the post-season is the same desire I have for November. Even though I can’t punch a tag, I can gather more knowledge and intel from this time of year over any other. Knowing how crucial post-season scouting is what really keeps my fire burning. I don’t want to miss out on what I can gain from it.
The first thing I like to do whether I’m scouting a new area or improving on my usual stomping grounds is to get to know it better. I want to know that piece of woods as if I lived in it myself. As if it were my house! Cause that’s how a mature buck knows it. Getting to know all the bedding covers, food sources, water sources, travel routes, access points, access points from other hunters, etc.
You can go into an area this time of year and literally make a mess and it won’t have the same effect as if you did it in September or October. It’s kind of like a married man tearing his house apart and not cleaning it up. His wife will be angry and things won’t be the same in the house for quite a while, but give it a month or two and everything will be back to normal. The deer are no different! So this is your only chance where you can make a mess in their house without disturbing your success next season. Take advantage of it!
Sometimes I go into areas not looking for anything in particular, but I always come out with knowledge gained. In a big woods setting, things will change from year to year. One year the white oaks may only produce and the next year just the red oaks produce. If those oaks aren’t sharing the same ridges, that’s going to completely change the feeding pattern. You may encounter drought conditions the next season, where mountain springs dry up and cause the deer to shift lower, closer to water. If you know an area as good as the deer do, you can shift and adapt to their changes ahead of schedule. These winning moments as a deer hunter are only collected from post-season scouting, and really getting to know and dissecting areas.
LOCATING BUCK SIGN
I pay a lot of attention to buck sign when I’m post-season scouting. Always remember that buck sign will not be as evident during spring green up. But when trees and plants are dormant, the sign is still very visible.
I’m more interested in why that sign was made vs. just using it to tell me there’s bucks in the area. When I see big rubs, I’m trying to figure out when and why they were made. September to mid October rubs are generally closer to buck bedding. Late October to November rubs are usually found in rut areas. If this sign is located near thick cover, I will go in the thicket and look for buck beds or clusters of doe beds. What I’m trying to gather is when I can expect that buck to return to that area the next season. If I find buck bedding, it’s likely an early season location or even post-rut. If I’m finding doe bedding, then I’ll note that spot down for a rut location. If I find big buck sign around a food source, I will go back to that area late-summer and see if that food source will be productive in the upcoming fall. You’ll come to another level as a mature buck hunter when you can determine when and why that sign was made.
I also like to locate scrapes at this time. Especially in or around thick cover. And scrapes near both buck and doe bedding. I note down the key scrapes I locate in the post-season, and place cameras on them as early as the upcoming spring or summer. It’s not a bad idea to carry cameras with you and set them up on these scrapes during the post-season. The earlier you get these cameras out, the more deer will have time to get used to them.
A lot of my post-season scouting is reflecting on areas where I feel I needed to improve. These are generally places I have not hunted much. There’s a good chance I have already done a thorough walk through of the area during the prior post-season and if my game plan failed, I will go back into that area and fine tune my strategy for the upcoming season.
I find one of the biggest challenges is predicting hunting pressure and also patterning hunters. It’s much easier to predict where deer will be than other hunters. It often takes at least one hunting season to figure out how the hunting pressure affects the deer movement and patterns in that area. So during the post-season I will go back into that area and fine tune where I believe I can get away from pressure.
I also have areas where I may not have hunted, but I ran several test cameras during the prior year. Now is the time I go in and fine tune those areas based on camera intel from the past season.
A YEAR ROUND APPROACH STARTS IN THE POST-SEASON
I don’t see a lot of other hunters hitting the woods in the post-season, but I encourage you to do it. When I look back on my success as a big woods deer hunter, having a year-round approach to deer hunting has been the ultimate key. And post-season scouting is at the top of my list.
Author: Exodus Black Hat Team Member Steve Sherk of Sherk's Guide Service