January 27, 2023
By Clint McCoy, DVM
I’m a total DIY deer hunter. I’ve been that way since boyhood when my Uncle Michael helped me tag my first deer by loaning me his Ithaca Model 37 Deerslayer and three slugs. He once pointed to the ten-ring on a photograph of a buck in this very magazine and said, “This is where you wanna aim.” A lesson on field dressing came later, and that was about all the formal education I had on the subject. But I was hooked as a kid, and I thirsted for big buck knowledge.
Present day 42-year-old me hasn’t changed one bit. Yes, I’m slower and a bit more weathered, but I still feel that same pull. I still want to better understand deer, and the learning curve never truly ebbs. I enjoy being a student of the woods, and there is one area of study that I take almost as seriously as hunting during November: winter scouting. When our season closes here in the Midwest, the war of winter work and study begins.
Bitter winter weather makes it easy to sleep in on a day off. But if I want to take a trophy buck next fall, I need to define my priorities. I only want to sleep in where it is warm, but I may need to adjust stand positions. I may need to know more about a particular buck I didn’t tag, or perhaps investigate an area that housed one I did. Sometimes, I should shoot my bow more, or perform maintenance on my firearms. The winter off-season is a great time to complete these tasks.
In my home state of Illinois, there are 257 days between the close of January deer hunting and its opening again in October 2022. That means 70 percent of the calendar year is the off-season! We’ve all heard that old phrase, “scout more than you hunt.” The simple math here makes this sage advice statistically significant for the would-be trophy taker! Therefore, my wintertime priority is scouting the timber for next fall as soon as season closes.
A Word On Shed Hunting
Every year on social media, I am floored by the number of posts made by folks out shed hunting in January and early February. If your priority is finding as many sheds as you can each year, there is nothing wrong with that.
My personal take on early shed hunting is simple: It is folly. No doubt, if one finds a huge, shed antler, it’s proof that the buck carrying it lived up until the antler dropped. That doesn’t mean the animal will see next fall. I find one to two dead bucks with open skull pedicles nearly every winter. A fallen antler is just one data point toward where a buck chooses to live, and that data point is often discovered in open fields where bucks frequent to feed. In my area, almost every ag field has one or two sets of ATV tracks tracing the perimeter of hardwood timber by the middle of February. This tactic may add to a shed pile, but it adds little to my useful hunt knowledge. I choose to separate scouting and shed hunting into two separate activities for best results. The first four to six weeks of the offseason, I usually spend scouting; and then I’ll shed hunt hard until spring green up.
Gear For Winter Work
With vacation time used up in the rut, my days removed from the office need to be utilized to their fullest. And there is no gear element more crucial than a proper pair of footwear. One can’t comfortably scout winter habitat with cold, wet feet, so I typically use a 16-inch pair of top-quality insulated rubber boots. If brutal cold but dry conditions prevail, my boot of choice is the lace up Kenetrek Northern pac boot. Regardless of my footwear selection, a proper sock is always in order. And I prefer a knee-high sock with a light merino wool blend to prevent blisters.
Next on the winter whitetail gear list is a pair of Dan’s Brush Buster briar proof chaps for my legs. These help me slide through the plethora of multifloral rose thorns and green briar while keeping my legs free from cuts and jabs. If I’m diving into thick cover, I use leather gloves and eye protection. A light pair of base layers, a hearty, briar-proof vest, a billed hat and a neck gaiter round out my wearables for cold weather work. The idea here is simple: stay dry and warm without sweating, and keep my hands and feet happy. If I am comfortable, I am focused on my whitetail scouting.
Another essential piece of my winter scouting gear is a good pair of binoculars, and I wear mine in a chest harness. The rig houses not only my field glasses but also my smartphone and a small battery charger. I usually throw in a pair of ratchet pruners to help trim out access trails if I find a spot that needs it. The harness also holds some reflective tacks to place in new mobile hunting locations. This helps me find them when the foliage of next fall makes everything look different. It may sound strange, but I always pack a small bottle of kid's bubbles to use as a high-volume wind checker. These little bubbles can help me understand how the wind flows through an area. If snow is on the ground, a small tape measure is included to size-up width and stride of suspected buck tracks.
My chest harness also has room for a small pair of headphones and ear plugs. They seem to help my brain focus on digesting the sign around me instead of listening to sounds that may distract me from it. Finally, if I wear my day pack, it contains a large bottle of water, a snack, a hand saw, sturdy knife, fresh AA batteries and SD cards for trail camera maintenance, a thermal head cover and a dry pair of wool socks. This all may seem like overkill for a winter hike, but I know each piece serves a purpose.
Exploring The Winter Woods
The winter woods are full of info that is more discoverable than any other time of year. Well-used deer trails are worn to bare earth or appear as trenches in the snow. Bedding positions are easily seen as deep depressions in the leaf litter or snow. Natural browsing activity is extremely notable in native browse species that have been nipped off by hungry whitetails. Oak flats that had a good mast yield will be littered with empty acorn caps.
Don’t be surprised to bump deer out of thermal cover in low areas of south facing slopes or thick cover sheltered from winter winds by cedar or pine trees. Frequented creek crossings or fence jumps will be notched or dented into the ground more than those used sporadically. Transition trails from bedding cover to destination feeding areas are very visible and, with no foliage on the trees, you can observe how they bend around contours.
There are three specific pieces of sign that really get my attention. The first is a large, singular deer bed with typical buck bedding structure and perimeter rubs. This assuredly is an antlered animal’s bedroom. Whether the sign belongs to a mature buck remains unknown. And if a snow is on, track measurements can help size-up the animal, so can measuring the size of the bed itself. The second hint a mature buck lurks in the area is what I call a “rub yard.”
A rub yard is a small, square area of timber that is unusually concentrated with fresh rubs from the current season with antler scars from seasons past. These areas of sign need to be taken with a grain of salt, because the area may simply be a communal travel corridor that’s visited annually by many bucks during the rut. But it could also be the subway tunnel a monster buck has used for years to get between his bedding locations, especially if these trees are large in size or if they are aggressively shredded. Another winter scouting find that gets me excited is locating a huge communal scrape in the timber. I go crazy over these! I use them not so much for hunting over, but for inventory in the timber with carefully placed trail cameras. During winter, if I find a bare dirt scrape the size of a manhole cover, free of all leaf litter, with one or more twisted up licking branches overhead, I bust out my cell phone and go straight to taking notes.
Take Thorough Notes
Back in the day, I had to remember all this information until I got back to the house. A local print shop made me a large map of my hunting area and laminated it. This allowed me to draw on it with a dry erase marker, and I’d write scouting notes in a notebook. Twenty years later, it’s all in my pocket. I use my smartphone and the onX hunt app to do this now in real time wherever I’m at.
I can drop a GPS specific “pin” for certain types of sign and make notes on the area. I’ll use this app to map any sign of interest. Where I put a tree stand “pin,” I’ll put a reflective tack in a tree (where allowed), so I can find it easily in the dark. I’ll map potential new trail camera locations and revisit them next summer or early fall. One new smartphone tool I’ve used in the last two years is a voice recorder. I’ll talk into it as I find very strong winter sign and dictate some of the finer details of what I put onto my onX map. At the end of the day, I’ll name these audio clips under one single file for each location, date it, and revisit as needed next summer or fall. This helps to connect the pinpoints and notations, especially months after making them.
Take Early Action
Why wait for the summer heat and full foliage to do your deer work when it can be done in the winter? Some winter days, I’ll work on pulling tree stands or doing other grunt work like trimming out a creek bed for a sneaky entry route. Other days, I’ll take a slower approach, and I’ll scout and map the important sign in as pragmatic a pace as I can muster.
If I plan my days off properly, I can usually get two days a week to devote to winter work, so time management is an obstacle. But when I find myself trying to do too many things at once, I must mentally push pause and simply revert right back to prioritizing.
Winter scouting can pay big dividends when you become a student of the woods. Yes, it’s cold. Yes, it’s work. But this past fall, I scored on a mature buck with large brow tines in a narrow, wooded draw that I had scouted last winter. The work I did in and around that little patch of cover on a single-digit day in February 2021 proved pivotal.
I measured a set of big buck tracks in the snow that led out of the draw to the north that day. I backtracked them to a buck bed. Then I picked out a scrubby little tree to climb that would cover three main trails near it in tight cover. In November, I hung a stand in that same tree using map pins and notes from about eight months earlier. And the first morning sit produced a close range shot on the buck just after sunrise on our firearm opener.