He’s the guy who arrives at the country general store every year, pulling his truck up to the curb as onlookers peer into the bed. Like clockwork each fall, he somehow pulls a big one out of the swamp and arrives to show off his trophy.
All the while you wonder how the heck he gets so lucky. What’s his trick? How does he do it?
We often assume this type of hunter knows something we don’t, or maybe he’s just born with some special talent or connection to the land. Most times, though, there’s no trick at all. He simply works harder than you.
The great artist Michelangelo once said, “If the people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful after all.”
Michelangelo’s comment about building a masterpiece holds true for the majority of successful whitetail hunters today. Very rarely is there a secret to success, a trick up a sleeve or natural born talent. Instead, it’s simply about hard work.
It’s that year-round hard work that allows successful hunters to land monsters time and time again. And it begins immediately after the last season in the form of postseason scouting.
So if you want to build the hunter’s version of a Michelangelo masterpiece and put a trophy buck on your wall, you need to put in the hard work—starting with postseason scouting. Here’s the best way to go about it.
Why Postseason Scout
Scouting is the most important work you will do all year in your quest for whitetail success. The importance of the information gathered from scouting is similar to that of a set of blueprints for a house. Without blueprints, a builder wouldn’t know the right materials to use, the right location for the walls or doors to be built, and he wouldn’t be able to see how all the materials and pieces should fit together to make a home.
Trying to hunt without the information gained from scouting is a similar exercise in futility. You can head out into the woods and hunt blind, but don’t be surprised when you don’t have the right tools, aren’t in the right place or can’t get a shot at a quality buck.
Hunting mature whitetails—and having consistent success—requires that many different factors all come together perfectly. And to ensure that happens, you need the information gained from scouting to put you in the place where that is most likely to happen.
The postseason is the best time to get this information.
We’ll call “postseason” any time from late winter to early spring—a time frame that’s best for scouting for many reasons. First, you can scout at this time without worrying about the pressure you put on deer. Every time you head into a hunting property, your presence can impact deer behavior negatively. By keeping your scouting focused long before hunting season, you can rest assured that your presence in March won’t negatively impact your hunts in October.
Another benefit to scouting early is that you can still see signs from the previous season. Once snow melts in the early spring you’ll clearly be able to see trails from the past fall, and most importantly, rut related signs will be preserved as well.
Additionally, you’ll be able to tell what rubs are fresh from the previous fall. Even before the snow melts, you can identify tracks, trails and beds uniquely in the snowy conditions, which can all help build a better understanding of the property you’re hunting.
Lastly, you want to scout during the postseason because it’s early enough to preempt “green-up.” Once undergrowth and leaves start growing at full force in the later spring, much of the sign from the previous fall will be covered up and hard to identify.
When To Scout
As mentioned already, there are benefits to scouting with snow and then again just after it melts. For that reason, I’d recommend you do both. If possible, head out right after your season ends, with snow still on the ground. Use this time to better understand late season patterns, follow trails and identify bedding areas in the snow.
And then, once the snow melts in the spring, head out again to uncover signs that hidden by nature’s blankets of white.
What To Look For
Now that we’ve established why it’s important to scout in the postseason—and specifically when that should be done—we need to explore what to actually do when you’re out scouting.
When scouting in the postseason, you’re looking for any information that can help you better understand how deer use your property, which in turn helps you understand how to hunt them.
That said, there a number of deer signs to keep your eye on.
Food is obviously one of the most important pieces of a whitetail’s life, and it controls much of where whitetails travel and spend their time. That said, understanding the different food sources on your property can be one of the most important bits of information to confirm. You probably already know about the obvious food sources on your property, like the food plots or crop fields, but what about the hidden, smaller food sources?
What about apple trees, persimmons, white oak trees, or a clear cut? These isolated food sources can be popular destinations for whitetails, especially if they are hidden back in cover, and for that reason they can make terrific hunting locations. Do your research beforehand and make sure you understand what these different trees or bushes look like. Then make sure to take note when you find one.
Doe Bedding Areas
In addition to food, bedding areas complete the circle of a whitetail movement. Deer, especially in high-pressure areas, spend more time in or near their bedding areas than anywhere else. For this reason, a top goal of any scouting trip should be to understand where these are.
In the case of doe bedding areas, these are most important during the rut. While searching out females during the breeding season, bucks will frequently visit these doe hot spots, which means hunting nearby is a great tactic.
Doe bedding areas will often be found in thick cover, relatively near some type of food source. Cattail swamps, native grasses, grown over clear cuts and blow-downs can all house doe family groups. You’ll know you’ve found a doe bedding area when you find small clusters of oval beds in the snow or dirt. Typically does will bed in small circles or clusters and are almost always in groups of at least three or more.
Buck Bedding Areas
Just as important as doe bedding areas are the areas that bucks use to bed, which are most often separate from their female counterparts.
According to Dan Infalt, who has taken more than 30 trophy class bucks on heavily pressured public or private grounds, buck bedding areas are the most important piece of the puzzle.
“Mature bucks bed in specific places for specific reasons and they will continue to bed in these locations,” Infalt said. “There is nothing random about buck bedding. Outside of the small rut window, we need to be hunting very close to buck bedding because they only move a very short distance in daylight. The best time to find out where they bed and how close you can get is during postseason scouting.”
Buck beds are almost always solitary and away from other deer, typically in heavy cover or in an area that provides superior visibility of the surrounding area. Thick, nasty cover is the name of the game in flat grounds, but in the hills you’ll typically find bucks bedded on the ends of brushy points.
This allows them to survey the situation below and protects them from wind. Seek out these buck beds, take note and then figure out how a buck might enter or exit the bedding area.
Cutting A Buck Track
While snow is still on the ground you can use tracks to identify buck bedding areas and to tell more easily how they are accessing them. Walk the edges of crop fields until you find a large, wide track that most likely was created by a buck. Then walk that track back until you find where he was bedded.
While following the track, pay attention to how and where the buck moved, and then finally where and how he bedded. Think about why he did the things he did and why he ended up bedded where he did.
This exercise can really open your eyes to how bucks use your property, and in addition to identifying a buck bedding area, you now may have a better idea of what other spots hold beds as well.
In addition to food and bedding, deer obviously need water, so be sure to look for isolated water sources. Small streams, springs, ponds or water holes can all attract bucks, especially on hot days or during the rut. These are great secondary hunting locations to have in your back pocket.
Terrain that restricts deer movements into a narrow area are commonly known as funnels. These locations are always hot spots for buck travel during the rut. Find these spots now, and prepare them for the rut. Typical funnels might include creek crossing, gaps in a fence, narrow strips of cover between fields or a pinch point between a road and some other natural barrier like a river.
Speaking of the rut, another bit of rut related sign you’ll want to keep an eye out for are rubs and rub lines. Clusters of rubs can indicate staging areas or even buck bedding areas, so watch for these clues.
Rub lines can also indicate buck travel routes. They should be carefully noted since these routes are often used by different bucks year after year. Take notice of what side of the tree the rubs are on, which can help indicate travel direction.
The final piece of rut related sign you’ll want to uncover are scrapes. These pawed up patches of ground can be great areas to hunt, especially if you find clusters of them tucked back into cover.
Pay close attention to larger scrapes found at the intersections of heavy travel corridors. These scrape hubs are often used repeatedly and can be great spots to check annually. Scrapes can also be great spots to place trail cameras. It’s been found that deer visit scrapes throughout the year and check the licking branches above them.
Potential Access Routes
As important as it is to find signs of deer activity, you should also be scouting for access. That means keeping an eye out for potential routes to enter and exit your stand locations without spooking deer. Creeks, ditches, hillsides, fence rows, or another access route can take many forms, but the key to a good route is one that keeps you out of sight and downwind of deer during your time of travel.
Always be on the look out for possible new routes, and then come back later to prep them for the fall.
Recording Your Observations
At it’s most basic level, postseason scouting involves traveling across a property and taking note of signs and other features that can help educate your hunting strategy. But if these observations are not properly logged, it’s likely many of the details will be forgotten. For that reason, I’d always recommend you build some type of scouting journal. This can be a physical notebook or an online tool.
While actually in the field, I’d encourage you to have an aerial map of your property and label the different types of signs you see during your scouting forays. I like to print aerials out and mark them up while I’m in the woods.
Then when I return home, I’ll edit an online map to include that information and further details. I also like to take photos while scouting. These can be used in the future to improve your plans and are always included in my records.
As the well-known Alabama football coach Bear Bryant once said, “It’s not the will to win that matters—everyone has that. It’s the will to prepare to win that matters.”
We all want to kill a big buck. But the question is, are we willing to put in the preparation in the postseason to make that happen?
Mark Kenyon runs Wired To Hunt, one of the top deer hunting resources online, featuring daily deer hunting news, stories and strategies for the whitetail addict.