It’s an oft-preached, little-practiced whitetail strategy. Yet, winter scouting might be the single best way to understand the comings and goings of fall whitetails. I’ll admit that for quite a few years I didn’t fully grasp the benefit of spending time in the immediate postseason, trying to divine the secrets of the past season’s bucks.
It wasn’t until I felt like I had a shot at an absolute giant public-land buck that I started to walk my hunting grounds in the months sandwiched between deer and turkey season. What I learned that year was that the buck I was after staged on a certain ridge on the property, as was evidenced when I found one of his shed antlers. The buck also spent part of the winter on that public parcel.
What was most impressive to me, though, was what was written throughout the woods in his chosen neighborhood. It was a story of a buck that would have easily made Boone & Crockett, and how he navigated a property with intense hunting pressure. His thigh-sized rubs, dished-out scrapes, and etched trails through the swampy lowlands were the breadcrumbs that showed the clear connection between his backyard sanctuary, and the land on which I could hunt him.
I didn’t kill that buck, but I did arrow his buddy the following October. If it weren’t for hours spent hiking through the winter woods, I’d have never filled my tag on that particular deer. Since that experience, I’ve devoted much of my winter free time to hiking through the deer woods. It’s a strategy that has paid off in several whitetails for me, and honestly, it has taught me more about deer than I realized I had left to learn.
The reality is that there is no better time to figure out last season’s sign and determine why and where it was made than winter. The terrain is laid bare, rubs are highly visible, and you’re not afraid to walk through bedding areas and other off-limits, in-season cover. Where I live, some of the best deer ground is covered in swamps and other wet obstacles, which are frozen during the winter. That means I can hike right into the places that are an absolute pain to get to during the season.
The key to winter scouting is not simply to take a walk and ogle the rublines of the previous fall, but rather to use what you find to make a plan. I like to identify and mark stand trees whenever possible, and to run a few cameras to take inventory of just what bucks made it through the season. Knowing that a few deer survived the season and will likely be around next fall makes winter scouting much more enjoyable. It also allows you to guess at who made what sign, or just which buck will claim the best areas.
Winter scouting, along with postseason inventory, requires a few items that will help you put everything together. The inventory part is fairly easy, because it involves running some cameras. To get my whitetail fix in the postseason, I’ve started using some of the wireless cameras that are available.
I’ve spent the most time with HCO’s Spartan GoCam ($380–$470). Setup with the GoCam is a breeze, and I’ve had excellent battery life even during January and February, when winter weather tends to sap the life out of a fresh set of AA’s. New for this year, HCO is offering U.S. Cellular and Sprint models to add to their existing line, which already includes AT&T and Verizon offerings. These pay-as-you-go cameras are crazy addictive, and can be a ton of fun when placed over a winter food source to see which bucks survived the gauntlet throughout the fall.
Moultrie has created a truly economical way to go wireless, with their new Mobile Field Modem MV1 ($200). This system is compatible with most Moultrie trail cameras that were created in 2015 or later, and it works with the new Moultrie Mobile website so that you can download the free app and then log in to check out your images. The system also sends you an e-mail or a text to let you know when you’ve got new images. With the app, you’ll also be able to check and change the settings on most cameras.
Bushnell has a great inventory option as well in their Trophy Cam HD Aggressor Wireless ($515). For this year, the wireless camera uses True GPS to send the camera’s location as soon as it’s turned on, which is a great way to track down unscrupulous individuals who might steal your camera. The HD Aggressor also features a lightning-fast, .3-second trigger speed, takes 14MP images, and can be operated off of a free app.
Feeding deer is a no-no in most places where I winter scout, so I don’t bother. That’s not the case for everyone, of course. If you can stay on the right side of the law and feed your local herd, there is no better way to take a true survivors’ inventory. Redneck Blinds offers up a perfect choice in their T-Post Gravity Feeder ($100), which is made to hold 80 lbs. of corn.
Inventory is fun, but it’s the boots on the ground that will help you understand deer habits better. For this stage you’ve got to, well, put some boots on the ground. Rocky’s Stratum Footwear ($100–$140) is up to the task with its athletic-shoe fit (so important), rugged outsoles for tricky or icy terrain, and guaranteed Rocky Waterproofing. These boots are uninsulated, which may not sound like the best choice for winter scouting in northern haunts, but scouting is not hunting, and when you’re on the move, a good pair of socks and boots like the Stratums are all you’ll need.
Winter scouting involves a lot of brush busting, sort of like when hunting late-season pheasants without a dog. You have to go into the thick stuff, and that requires pants that can handle prickly ash, raspberry tangles, alder thickets, etc. Cabela’s new Instinct Backcountry Packable Super Warm Down Pants ($200) feature a waterproof seat and knees, will keep you plenty warm, and can be stuffed into a pack when not being worn.
Another packable part of my winter-scouting ensemble is NOMAD’s Integrator Shell Jacket ($125). This outer shell is 100% waterproof, which is important because if you spend enough days tromping through bedding areas in March, you’ll get rained, snowed, or sleeted on at some point. This high-quality jacket can be rolled up and stuffed into a daypack as soon as the skies clear.
Browning Outdoor Clothing has released a killer lineup of apparel that is ideally suited for trekking through the timber, with their Hell’s Canyon Speed Hellfire Jacket ($260) a personal favorite. This breathable, insulated, water and wind-resistant jacket is fitted with a variety of pockets, and it’s offered in sizes ranging from S–3XL.
Along with a good jacket, there are two other things I carry in my pack for every wintertime trek. The first is a good saw, like the new Freescape Camp Saw ($59) from Gerber. This saw folds flat for transport, features 12″ of cutting surface, and weighs less than a pound. When I find a spot on private ground where I want a stand next fall, I don’t wait to cut shooting lanes and entrance and exit routes. I get it done now, and then sneak back in early summer to do a touchup job. This makes the process of setting up a quality ambush site much easier.
The other thing I always carry is a package of White Reflective Trail Tacks ($2) from Hunters Specialties. When you find a tree that is perfect for a stand, you think you’ll remember its exact location. Come summer, the woods will look completely different, and that no-doubt tree might be lost in a forest of similar-looking options. Reflective tacks are cheap insurance against stand-spot amnesia.
Of course, while we tend to think of winter scouting in terms of cruising through a property we are already familiar with, there is the real possibility of finding new deer ground and walking it in the postseason. OnXmaps Hunt ($15–$100) is one of the best resources for using the latest in technology to identify both private and public parcels, and just how to access either just by gazing at your smartphone, computer, tablet, or GPS.
ScoutLook (free) is another tool that has become invaluable to me. I use it throughout the season to check wind direction and weather updates, but I also use it in the postseason to mark potential stand sites, sign, entrance and exit routes, and anything else that might help me come fall. It’s like taking detailed notes of each winter-scouting discovery that eventually paints the entire picture of your deer woods in a way that will change how you scout and hunt.