By Mark Fike
Photos by Mark Fike
Now that nearly all hunting seasons are over and the deer have fallen back into their routines, it is time for deer hunters to get their bibs and boots back on and hit the woods! February is the best month to do your scouting for next season’s deer. The lack of hunters in the woods has allowed deer to resume their normal activities. But why would February be the best month to head to the woods?
The lack of foliage would be the top reason to scout now. Hunters and nature lovers can see a lot farther in the woods than they could in the fall. That means not only will you see deer in the distance, but you can also see rubs on the trees that are left over from the fall rut much better. The low angle of the winter sun cutting through the bare limbs reflects off rubs quite well and they stand out. With no leaves to break up your view, finding a rub or rub line now is so much easier. Knowing where a buck left his calling cards gives next fall’s hunters a great place to start planning a stand location.
This is also a good time to remove tree limbs that may be in the way and create a shooting lane if you determine a good stand location. Tree limbs are much easier to remove when there are not a lot of leaves on them. Additionally, removing limbs now is better when you do not have to be worried about spooking the deer you intend to hunt in the fall. Be sure to remove more limbs than you think you need to as spring and summer growth is often more aggressive than we anticipate. Going back in the late summer to check your trimming is a good idea too, particularly if you bow hunt.
Another motivator for doing some post season scouting this month is that there are few, if any, insects or copperheads to deal with and the woods are much easier to traverse when you can see everything much easier. Hiking and walking in February can be invigorating, but not as tough as hiking in the sauna like humidity of summer and early fall. When walking ridgetops, one can see quite a distance, and even further with binoculars. This cuts down on unnecessary travel to areas that you deem poor habitat.
On the other hand, being able to see so far and easily walk property you wish to hunt in the fall will allow you to explore new areas and “put the pieces together” better. For instance, one late winter day I scouted a property that I had hunted for years. I thought I knew the property very well, but when I decided to explore a ridge and gully that I had always bypassed, I discovered that it was a main travel corridor that led to an oak flat that I frequently saw nice bucks feeding through. I found numerous droppings, plenty of tracks, rubs, old scrapes, and a major deer crossing over a small creek.
My little detour of a few hundred yards allowed me to situate a stand and take a number of deer for years in that bottom that I would have never known about had I not seen it easily in the winter months and decided to take a stroll to explore.
By February many bucks have dropped or shed their antlers due to a decrease in testosterone levels. One of the best areas to look for shed antlers is in thickets and bedding areas. Dense cutovers are also great places to look for sheds. A third area to look for sheds is where there are lots of overhanging branches. It does not take much to knock an antler off when the time is right.
Check on both sides of fences where deer trails appear to intersect. When deer duck under fences or jump over them, antlers can jar loose and fall off. Creek crossings or logs lying across trails are good places to look too.
Finding a fresh shed that has not been gnawed on by mice or squirrels will tell you that a buck survived hunting season and with some luck, will be available for the upcoming season. If you find a shed, you likely found the place that the buck goes when the hunting pressure squeezes him since hunting season just ended. Keep that in mind, drop a “pin” on your phone, or mark it on map for next year.
Four Tips for Post Season Scouting
Don’t overlook scouting on rainy days. Damp conditions and consistent light will make antlers and white wood on rubs stand out as leaves and bark tend to be darker when wet.
Use binoculars. Binoculars can help you check out white or light-colored objects from a distance. Sometimes things we think are nothing end up being the tip of an antler covered up by winter’s wind-blown leaves! If in doubt, walk over and look closer.
Take a friend, your spouse or your kids. Taking family and friends is just another great way to spend time together and bond more. Two sets of eyes are much better than one set of eyes!
When scouting a property you already know, walk through it differently than you normally do when hunting. In other words, go backwards or not using the trails you normally use. This forces you to examine new areas, see things from a different perspective, and probably learn a lot more about the property and the habits of the deer there. The walking is much easier now, so don’t be lazy. Pay your dues now and reap the rewards next season!