March 02, 2017
By Tony J. Peterson
If you're into the outdoors, March is pretty much the worst month of the year. At least it is for me. Small game seasons where I live are shut down, good fishing is at least a month away, and there just aren't too many options outside of shed hunting. This is one of the reasons why I dedicate as much time as possible right now to winter scouting.
Naturally, there's more to it than that. March does provide the right weather for winter scouting (sometimes), and since we're weeks away from green-up, the conditions in the woods are ideal for reading last year's sign. But winter scouting isn't simply about taking a stroll in the whitetail woods. It's about trying to learn. Or more importantly, recognizing what you missed last season in your favorite woods.
If you're on the hunt for some new deer ground, or have a fresh property worth checking out, winter scouting is a must as well. Nothing paints a picture of what the deer like to do, and what they don't, better than burning boot leather in a new spot this time of year. This is beneficial, of course, but will be much more beneficial if you avoid some of the pitfalls winter scouters often fall into.
Here are five to avoid.
I look at winter scouting like I look at trail cameras - neither does you much good if you use them to tell you what you already know. In other words, if you spend your March scouting spots you already hunt and understand, you're probably not learning much. This is no different than hanging a camera on the edge of a beanfield and getting pictures of buck eating soybeans. You probably already knew they did that, and you probably already knew where they'd eat.
When it comes to winter scouting, you've got to go places you don't normally go. For me this is thickets, little tucked away areas at the far edges of certain properties, and sloughs. In my neck of the woods, cattail sloughs are everywhere as are general wetlands. With little snow and frozen water, I can walk into islands of alders easily now, when in a month or two I'll be slogging my way there. Figure out now if it's worth it to hunt those hard-to-reach spots instead of wondering later in the year when the conditions aren't nearly as conducive to checking them out.
One New Spot
Hunting spots come and go. It sucks, I know, but unless you own some ground that's the nature of it all. This is one of the reasons why I bowhunt public land so much. Even though it's more difficult than private ground, it's far less likely to go from land I can hunt to land I can't, although there are political forces out there that would like to change that (and who need to be stopped).
Beginnings of a rant aside, I find I sleep much easier at night knowing I've got a backup spot or two. This is one of the reasons I make it my goal to learn one new spot each winter. This year, that spot is in north-central Wisconsin. It's about two miles from my last backup spot, which yielded a great public-land buck for me last October. The new property, is several hundred acres of cookie cutter woods but there is one thick ridge with a gully leading up to it. That gully is covered in big rubs. I found this while grouse hunting last year and have returned to really decipher what that big boy was doing in there and to figure out just how we can meet up some time next season.
It's a long shot, I know, but now I've got a new place to hunt. That means a lot to me, even if it is public.
I just mentioned that I found an interesting new spot while grouse hunting, but didn't start to learn it until I returned on a shed hunting trip. This is because when I'm chasing upland birds, or focused on sheds, I'm not doing much winter scouting. Sure, I'm always keeping an eye open for antlers but to winter scout you've got to pay attention. Keeping your eyes glued to the ground for a little bone is no way to learn the lay of the land and spot last season's rubs.
I have to add a disclaimer here, however. I feel like we are supposed to be so serious when it comes to killing big bucks that we can't rightfully enjoy the scouting, hunting, and anything else that goes along with it. While I promote a level of focus when winter scouting, that doesn't mean I don't let my adult ADD (undiagnosed, but probably real) kick in. Part of the benefit to winter scouting is going where you're instincts take you. It's kind of like hunting a giant CRP field behind a good pheasant dog. You can force the dog to go where you want to hunt, or you can let the pup take the reins and start following that whipping tail through the sea of grass. Odds are, the dog will lead you to plenty of ringnecks because that's what good dogs do.
Where To Set Up?
In my opinion, one of the biggest mistakes we make while winter scouting is finding an area we like and calling that good enough. It's better to find the actual tree you should set up in. Plan for wind direction and approach, and pick out your tree. I tend to even pick out which side of the tree I'll hang my stand on.
Mark that tree, and your route, with flagging tape or reflective tacks if you can. If you can't, like on certain types of public land, mark the location with a GPS or your phone. I tend to use my phone these days, and not only do I drop a pin on my map, I'll take a few pictures of the area so when I return, I can find my chosen tree. This step, while maybe not appearing to be overly important in March, will save your bacon either in the summer when you return to hang a stand or in the season when you walk in to hunt. If you think you'll remember where the best tree for a setup was after three months or six, you're fooling yourself.
Winter Sign Versus Fall
Lastly, it's important to note that it's very easy to fall in love with winter sign. Those trails cut deep through the snow that lead from bed to food seem like no-brainers, and some of them might produce in the fall. Some won't, though.
To me, the best way to figure out fall sign during a winter's walk is to note rubs and terrain. Deer use terrain all year - and season - long to travel. Terrain often only comes up in rut-hunting conversations, but that's silly. Deer use pinch points, funnels, ridges, creek crossings and a host of other terrain-influenced travel routes all season. And they are visible now.