Think fast: When’s the best time to scout for whitetail deer? If you answered “just before the season,” guess again. There’s no denying that heading afield in September and October can add a measure of predictability to a November hunt, but deer drop several clues in winter that you’ll never find if you wait until a month before the opener.
First, a word about winter whitetail behavior. Once deer finish breeding, does allow their fawns from that spring-the offspring they abandoned when estrus set in-to rejoin them. In the North, food availability is nearing its annual low at this point, and many of these doe units herd up and travel significant distances each day to the few remaining concentrated food sources. Meanwhile, bucks, now that their testosterone-driven aggressiveness has subsided, begin assembling in bachelor groups that will remain intact throughout the following summer. On occasion, these male groups will even commingle with large doe/family units, not for social interaction, but simply because they too are drawn to the same food sources.
The most obvious change of the season, though, is physiological: antlerless bucks. It is widely held that in December a combination of shortening daylight hours and dropping temperatures causes an abrupt reduction in the activity of the deer’s pituitary glands, which in turn halts the production of testosterone. The physiological chain reaction continues into the new year with the gradual deterioration of the layer of calcified bone cells that bond the antler bases to their pedicels on either side of the skull. When this mortar-like material granulates, the slightest jarring causes the antlers to separate from the skull and drop, often within hours-or even minutes-of each other.
In the Field
Despite these changes, in February and March whitetails are still locked into the fall/winter feeding patterns that prevailed during hunting season. Generally speaking, the trails, bedding sites and available foods they’re using now can be counted on to produce once again next fall and winter.
That’s an important point to remember. In September and October, when most hunters do their scouting, whitetails are making the transition from summer to fall/winter behavior patterns. During this period, the information scattered about the woods is not necessarily indicative of what will happen in November. Sometime around the occurrence of the first hard frost, deer begin using different trails, bedding areas and feeding grounds. They make the switch practically overnight. If you conducted your scouting before this transition, you’re faced with the task of rescouting the terrain and relocating your stands-and fouling your hunting area just before the season begins.
There are other advantages to scouting in late winter. With green-up still weeks away, and at least occasional traces of snow on the ground, deer sign receives a highlight treatment in February and March. Heavily used trails, practically indistinguishable in October, jump out during the waning weeks of winter. So do bedding areas. When a skiff of snow blankets the ground, body heat melts the white stuff and deer beds stand out as stark, dark ovals that can sometimes be located from afar using binoculars. When you locate a bedding area, also note the exit route the deer are using and, more importantly, interception points where stands can be placed for next fall.
Last year’s scrapes and rubs are also valuable. Given the habitual nature of deer, the places where whitetails rubbed and scraped last year are likely to sprout fresh rubs and scrapes next fall-often on the same trees and under the same licking branches. So make mapped, or at least mental, notes of these precise locations.
Finally, there’s winter scouting’s biggest benefit, the one that comes after the deer is down and you get a chance to comparee his intact antlers with the sheds you found the previous winter. If the antlers show a distinct similarity, there’s a good chance that the deer at your feet is the same buck you got a line on eight months before. And that’s satisfaction that last-minute scouting can’t offer.
HERE A SHED, THERE A SHED
Sheds can be found anywhere in the woods, but there are certain places where they turn up more frequently than others. Because antlers are usually jarred loose, check the shoulders of ditches and gullies that are narrow enough to allow a deer to cross in a single bound. Also walk along fencelines, keeping an eye out for low spots where deer hurdle the wire. And because wintering deer spend most of their time laying up in heavy cover to conserve energy and body heat, you might find sheds in and around bedding areas.
When the first antler falls, deer feel the imbalance of the remaining antler’s weight and try to dislodge it, usually by kicking it off with a hind foot or knocking it against a tree trunk. So if you find one shed, comb the immediate vicinity for its mate.