Winter Deer Scouting: Facts & Fallacies 

As a long-time avid shed hunter, I found my colleague’s apprehension over entering the bedding ground interesting.

by Mark Melotik

HuntStand Pro Contributor MORE FROM Mark

Nothing helps you get the drop on next season’s buck like a few serious winter scouting missions. Here’s how to be an effective off-season deer detective.


Last winter I saw a Facebook post from a fellow shed hunter who posed a question on whether he should shed-hunt a certain ridge. The spot in question, a known bedding area, would certainly be a good place to find an antler or two, but was also somewhat of a sanctuary for the bucks on the property. As a long-time avid shed hunter, I found my colleague’s apprehension over entering the bedding ground interesting.

It has never occurred to me to “tread lightly” or otherwise avoid spooking deer immediately after the season ends. And while I do sometimes opt to stay out of the woods, it’s typically for an entirely different reason. Where I live in Minnesota, the winters can have a severe impact on the deer herd, and during hard years when arctic air seems to settle over us for weeks, winter mortality can creep ever higher with each passing, frigid day. During these extended periods of truly cold weather I try to avoid bumping deer around. They are in “calorie preservation mode” then, and it would be pure selfishness to push them all over the woods just to find an antler, or scout for the upcoming season. But to stay out of the woods now in fear of screwing up the hunting in nine months? Kick that kind of thinking to the curb.

Hunters give deer way too much credit for their supposed reactions to pressure. It’s pretty common to run into someone who believes deer experiencing human pressure of any type will leave a property entirely to move somewhere safer. This may be true on a macro level, especially in areas where true sanctuaries exist. But these can be rare.

ScoutMarsh600Some hunters take “low-impact” to a ridiculous level. If you’re scouting just before or during the season, it is a good idea to tread lightly. Right now, the opposite is true. The more ground you cover, the more you’ll learn.

In an awful lot of places there are no nearby parks or large parcels of land that are “locked-up” to all human intrusion. The deer that live in most of the places I hunt don’t have a “secret place” to sneak off to where no one will bother them. The deer simply lay low and hide. There have been quite a few studies done on this behavior over the years, and what biologists find, over and over, is that most deer—bucks and does— simply utilize available cover and hide from us. They don’t high-tail it to an isolated “sanctuary” three or four miles away—they simply bed down in the thick stuff and let us bumble past until darkness falls.

What does this behavior have to do with winter scouting? Plenty. It would be pretty hard for most folks to put enough pressure on the deer herd right now to affect behavior much, and to have any consequences of that intrusion carry-over into the upcoming hunting season is laughable. It’s not going to happen. Conversely, if you miss the boat scouting-wise over the next few winter months, and instead decide to wait until the last days leading up to the new season (or even during the season), then low-impact strategies are unquestionably the way to go. For now, however, my advice is simple: Intrude and scout to your heart’s content.

Winter scouting is all about attempting to decipher what the deer were doing, not what they are doing. When we glass in the summer, or take a quick walk through the woods in October, we are trying to determine, through sign and sightings, what the deer are doing now. Winter scouters need to focus on what the deer were doing a month or two ago. It’s a subtle but critical difference.

ScoutScrape600During years of light snow cover, finding last fall’s scrapes is possible. A thicket with several scrapes may indicate a staging area, or at the very least, a great option to sit during mid-October when the “lull” seems to be in full swing.

Winter scouting involves walking all of those areas you were to afraid to enter during the season. I’ve got spots on both public and private lands that I won’t hunt until the timing and conditions are absolutely perfect. Occasionally, due to a variety of factors that can include my schedule and wind/weather conditions, the stars never align—and I’ll burn through an entire season without hunting a specific spot. This is as “low-impact” as I go.

After I pack up my bows for the year I walk every one of these spots. I want to see if the bucks were there just as I had imagined, making rubs and scrapes. Sometimes I find exactly what I expect to find, other times I don’t. Case-in-point is one of the biggest bucks I’ve ever hunted. In the fall he staged in a thick area of public land well off of a couple of large agricultural fields. He made several thigh-sized rubs during the hunting season, when he ventured out of the neighborhoods surrounding the property.

I hunted the edges for the behemoth, hoping to catch him making a mistake, until the last few days before the gun season opener. Then, in desperation, I moved in closer. But I never caught up to that buck. During the winter, I walked his bedroom and found that he probably saw me far more than I saw him. I never arrowed that heavy-horned Booner and I’d like to think he died of old age, but I’ll never know. I do know that with the help of regular winter scouting I figured out how to kill a few of his buddies, and they were great deer for public land. I consider that a win.

Everyone knows that you’re supposed to look for last season’s rubs and scrapes during winter scouting forays, but simply finding buck sign is not that big of a deal. It’s what the buck sign indicates, and how you read it, that matters most.

ScoutRub600The value of finding several rubs during a winter scouting foray can’t be overstated. These show exactly where bucks chose to spend their time during the heart of the fall season and can tell you an awful lot about where to hunt next fall.

For instance, on pressured ground, the best bet to waylay a mature buck is often deciphering where one is staging. If you can find a thicker area that is littered with rubs, not rub-lines, you might be onto something. Since the woods are currently thin and the topography is easier to read than at any other time, finding a potential staging area should cause you to pause and put on your detective cap. Take a good look around. Does it provide a distant view of the nearest food source? Or is the spot an “interior edge” where the thick stuff meets open woods? There is usually a very good reason for bucks to stage where they do, and there is no better time to figure that out than now.

Rublines are also valuable, but for a different reason. They tell us exactly where a particular buck preferred to travel, and you can often “reverse-engineer” a rub line to find an isolated bedding or feeding area, or both. Preferred travel routes are great places to ambush bucks, and they are never more obvious than when the leaves have fallen and there is a dusting of fresh snow on the ground.

ScoutingRub600Staging areas are identified most easily by several rubs in a small area of thick cover. Usually, you can spin in a complete circle in these spots and either see a distant destination food source, or at least spot a ridge or travel corridor that will eventually lead to the food.

The last, best sign you’ll find are scrapes. There is a window of time between about October 10th and October 20th where I give an awful lot of attention to hunting scrapes. I don’t know what is going on in the deer world then, but I know bucks make and check scrapes heavily during this time period. If there is little-to-no snow during my winter scouting travels, I’ll keep an eye out for several scrapes in a small area of cover. A spot like this can come in mighty handy the following October, when the “lull” is supposedly squelching all mature-buck movement.

If you’re worried about intruding too heavily on your local deer haunts through your winter scouting efforts, it’s time to forget that thinking. Get out there now and walk every inch of ground you can. You’ll add greatly to your education on the unique habits of individual bucks, and the many lessons learned will lead to smarter hunt strategies come this fall.



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