Whitetail season is over. It’s time to pull your trail cameras and hang up the Nikon binos. It’s time to embrace the couch. Whoa! Don’t take that attitude when it comes to whitetail hunting. As your season ends your scouting should resume and winter scouting offers some of the best scouting of the year.
You don’t need a reason to scout before season, but when the temperature dives and the comforter on your bed beckons you need a reason to don the winter clothing and bust through snow, or ice after season’s end.
First, winter scouting reveals what, if any, good bucks made it through the hunting season. As whitetails calm and succumb to hunger pains, they slowly begin to reveal themselves during browsing binges. You have the perfect time to inventory bucks and does to get a count of residents on your property.
Second, across the whitetail range the leafless backdrop of winter provides the best view through whitetail cover. Withered vegetation combined with a snowy backdrop in the north means easy spotting for glassing observation at dawn and dusk.
Third, winter observations, as revealing as they are for deer counts, also may reveal possible problems. Are your deer undernourished? Are predators pressuring your herd? Has the entire group migrated a mile away to the lackadaisical neighbor’s standing cornfield?
Finally, winter scouting sets you up for successful shed antler hunting. Observing where deer are feeding, bedding and traveling is a connect-the-dot map for picking up cast antlers in late winter or early spring. Make good notes and make antler hay when the time is right.
Matt Brunet, a 25-year hunting veteran, is the whitetail and turkey manager at Harpole’s Heartland Lodge in western Illinois. A New York native, Brunet is in his 10th year at the lodge guiding for some of the nation’s biggest whitetails in Pike and Calhoun counties.
“In my opinion winter scouting is as important, if not more important, than scouting at any other time of the year,” notes Brunet. “Winter scouting allows you to investigate areas that you would normally want to stay out of right before season and during season. It allows you to look around your sanctuaries and other prime spots without worrying about messing it up for a hunt. Mind you, this still needs to be done with a little caution.”
Winter scouting doesn’t necessarily require the invisibility of a Northrop Grumman B-2 stealth bomber, but you don’t want to crash the party either. Never let them know you are spying. As a hunter you understand the obvious. You don’t want your presence to change patterns or shift home range. By flying under the radar during winter scouting forays you can be assured the deer you survey will likely stay in the vicinity.
For the utmost in concealment use a long-range approach. Stick to roads and trails on the perimeter of a property and put your binocular to use. A good spotting scope, like the Nikon Prostaff 3 with 48x zoom capabilities, allows you to reach out from a nonthreatening position to monitor deer.
Of course not all properties have easily-viewable terrain. You may need to hike to an elevated position to peer down into food plots or even climb into the loft of a barn to watch a bean field at dusk. When you know deer aren’t utilizing an area, scout on foot and for everything else do the bulk of your scouting via trail cameras.
Just like during hunting season, trail camera placement and maintenance needs to be in the utmost of clandestineness. Total scent control includes winter footwear like the Ariat Incite Thermal hunting boot with its rubber construction, insulation exceptionalism and performance design.
In addition to not leaving a scent trail use backdoor ins and out to access cameras, and minimize bedroom busts. Field-edge setups allow you to capture images of deer as they raid food plots and it gives you easy access to camera SD cards during the midday while deer retire in thick cover.
“I use trail cameras a lot year-round, but especially during winter scouting so I can see what is still alive and when the majority of bucks start dropping horns so I can go pick them up,” shares Brunet. “Most of my trail cameras this time of the year are over food plots and over heavy crossings in ditches, and tree lines heading to the food plots. Very few of my 80 or more cameras are very far away from food plots.”
Now raises the big question. Are the deer you are viewing and photographing residents or border jumpers taking advantage of the spa-like conditions you set up on a whitetail property? You’ll quickly recognize standouts from hunting season — like the drop-tine buck you hoped to tag with your Mathews — but you may also begin to see new faces.
“Most hunters pull their cameras right after season. I suggest changing the batteries on them and setting them up around food sources. Leave them out until mid-March and you will see deer you have never seen before, says Brunet. “Also while scouting in the winter I get to see one or two of the bucks that were wounded in the fall. That usually occurs on a food source and is always nice to see they survived. It allows me to start coming up with a game plan to try and get them harvested in the upcoming year. This is a big help because sometimes after being wounded they completely change home ranges and winter scouting allows me to get back on them.”
There’s no question a well-managed property will attract surrounding deer under stress from neighboring properties. Some of these deer may be living on your periphery and could adjust their home territory to take in some of your property niceties. Whitetails may be reluctant to leave a home territory, but they continually shift around a home area to take advantage of nutrition and refuge.
Leaving the house on a cold winter day isn’t always easy, especially in the midst of a winter cold snap. Bundle up, grab a fresh supply of AAs and your Nikons and get ready for some of the best intel of the year. Hunting season is over, but scouting is just beginning for next season’s trophy.