January 31, 2023
Deer season is over and it’s time to look toward next fall and winter. Deer hunters who consistently experience success don’t merely get lucky. They put in the time and effort it takes to fill tags each year. More specifically, they spend time postseason scouting for deer.
February is an excellent time to complete such efforts, mostly because you no longer need to worry about pressuring deer. Some bucks made it through the season, and now is a great window to learn as much about them and their core areas as possible. It’s time to put the pieces of the puzzle together, so you have a clearer picture of your hunting areas and target bucks next season.
Here are 15 important tips you should know.
1. Shed Hunting
Begin the process by scouting digitally. Search for high-odds locations, and then rank each area by importance — eliminating the “dud areas” in the process. This will help you hit the best areas, especially if trying to cover a lot of ground and green-up arrives before you finish. Apps like onX and HuntStand will further help you avoid areas that aren’t worth pursuing, saving you time in the process.
2. Use Trail Cameras
Leave your cameras running beyond the end of deer season. Doing so will allow you to continue capturing images/videos well into the postseason, so you can gain more intel as to which bucks might still be alive, and where you might find a good buck during the colder months next season.
3. History Repeats Itself
As you begin postseason scouting, remember past intel that can help with this process. Camera photos, sightings during the season, discoveries from past years, and more, are all excellent things to make note of year after year.
4. Check Hunter Hotspots
Those who hunt public lands and with shared permission on private ground should remember where they saw concentrations of hunters during the season. Those hunters were there for a reason, and you need to know why. Even if you don’t hunt those same spots, it’s good to know what’s going on throughout the general area.
5. Check Recent Sign
As you walk the land, look for beds, droppings, rubs, scrapes, tracks, and more. Finding these things will show how the local deer are using the property. Of course, doing this with snow on the ground makes all the aforementioned sign much more visible.
Food drives most all deer activity, but especially so during the late and postseason. Good areas to cover will have quality wintertime food sources, such as harvested crops (waste grain), standing crops (soybeans and corn), brassica plots, wheatfields, remaining mast, woody browse (buds, stems, and leaves), and more.
7. Cut Some Tracks
Finding deer tracks is great. But cutting a set of mature buck tracks is a true blessing. If that happens, follow those hoofprints everywhere they go. Doing so will often lead you to hidden beds, as well as desired food and water sources.
8. Follow Tracks to Beds
Follow all tracks and trails back into bedding areas. This will help you chart exactly where deer are spending their daylight hours. Sit down in the beds and look around. Understanding these locations and knowing what deer see from them is the foundation of a hunt plan during the season. It will tell you how close you can get without spooking deer.
9. Isolated Water Sources
Most deer don’t like to drink at loud, running water sources. Large bodies of water are also undesirable. Instead, find isolated water sources that are small, potentially stagnant, and within or on the fringe of bedding cover.
10. Pinpoint Funnels
The rut is an excellent time to see a mature buck. Oftentimes, at that time of year, deer can be intercepted along funnels and pinchpoints. Some of these include saddles, narrow strips of trees, fencerows, fence gaps, creek and ditch crossings, benches, ridgelines, and other areas that force or encourage deer movement into a narrower area.
11. Shed Hunting
Postseason scouting is mostly about finding sign and understanding how deer are using the area. That said, it’s also about shed hunting. These dropped antlers will tell you whether or not the buck’s you were after made it through the season. Of course, sheds won’t tell you where to hunt during the early season, pre-rut, or rut, but they will reveal potential late-season hunting opportunities.
12. Habitat Improvement Projects
For those who own or manage private land, now is the time to work on improving the habitat on your ground. Some suggested habitat-improvement projects to consider include hinge-cutting, creating bedding areas, clearing new food plots, installing waterholes, creating access routes, and more. Do these “chores” immediately following your postseason scouting efforts.
13. Mark Potential Stand Locations
As you’re scouting, it’s important to note potential stand locations on your app or map. Doing this will help you remember them during the season to come. Placing a marker on the exact tree, and not the general area, will make it easier for you to find — even in the dark.
14. Identify Possible Access Routes
Treestands are worthless if you can’t travel to and from them without alerting deer. While in the field, it’s paramount to future success if you can first find ambush entry/exit routes, and then decide whether or not they’ll work.
15. Paint a Picture
The best thing hunters can do is use technology to highlight scouting intel. Using a good hunting app, record all findings while postseason scouting. With the “Trace Path” feature turned on in the app, walk every trail on the property. If you need to get off a trail, pause the feature to prevent false trail lines. While doing this, drop relevant pins for all sign discoveries (beds, droppings, rubs, scrapes, tracks, etc.). Do the same for deer sightings, big-buck camera photos, and any other intel of interest. Then, with all postseason scouting information highlighted, you will eventually paint a picture of how deer are using the property — further simplifying things come hunting season.
Now is the time to get the job done. Put in the work, and I promise you’ll be glad you did this fall.
The Timeline Antithesis
Some hunters prefer not to wait until the postseason to begin their wintertime scouting. They begin as soon as they finish hunting and filling their tags for the year. Their hope is to find the freshest sign possible. Public-land hunters, in particular, tend to do this. I don’t like this concept for several reasons. Other hunters are likely still in the field. It’s incredibly selfish and rude to tromp through an area just to meet your needs. Treat other hunters with respect. You push deer around when scouting, possibly putting them in the laps of your hunting brethren (it’s ok to be selfish when following this rule). There is still some sign left to be laid down by deer. Wait a little longer for the remainder of it to be placed on the landscape. Most deer don’t begin dropping antlers until February/March. Scouting too soon will cause you to find fewer sheds. The later it gets in winter, the more open the landscape becomes — making it easier to spot what you are looking for.
There are many mistakes to avoid during the late season. Some are minor, while others could potentially hurt you in the long run.
- Starting too late: Waiting too long can give other hunters and critters time to recover sheds first. Waiting until the landscape begins to green-up also starts to hide important sign like rubs, scrapes, sheds, tracks, etc.
- Covering too little ground: The more ground you cover, the greater the odds of finding what you’re looking for.
- Avoiding bedding areas: Now is the time to find exactly where deer are laying down. Find the bedrooms postseason, and then set up accordingly before the next season opens.
- Expecting deer to be in the same location all season: Deer move about their home ranges based on their needs throughout the year.
- Not scouting sanctuaries: Some hunters don’t invade sanctuaries during the season, which is a concept many subscribe to. But even these hunters should scout sanctuaries during the postseason.
- Putting too much stock in old sign: Make note of rubs you find from two or three years prior, but don’t rank them as highly as those you found most recently.
Why You Can't Find Sheds
- Hunting areas where late/postseason deer don’t spend time: Hunters won’t find sheds where deer don’t frequent around drop time.
- Searching too early: Shed hunting isn’t productive until deer lose their antlers for the winter.
- Searching too late: This gives other shed-hounds and critters time to find the antlers before you.
- Scouring the wrong places: Look near high-odds locations first, such as bedding areas, travel routes, water/food sources, fence crossings, etc.
- Not using your eyes correctly: Unless glassing an open area, spend most of your time scanning the ground within 30 yards of your position.
- Thinking too big: Don’t look for an entire antler. Instead, look for the tip of a tine. Think small, and you’re more likely to spot antlers.
- Not glassing enough: Binoculars are excellent tools for finding sheds, especially when you see something that looks like a shed but aren’t certain.
- Covering too little ground: It takes a lot of walking (or riding) to find many sheds.
- Getting distracted too easily: Stay focused on your goal.
- Not recruiting help: Bringing others along can up the odds of stacking sheds. Just remember to return the favor.
- Failing to use a dog: A canine’s nose is much better than yours, so let your four-legged “bestie” do what we can’t.
- Going with no plan: Always have a strategy in place. If it’s not working, then adapt accordingly.
Postseason Scouting Gear
- Trail cameras for inventory.
- Good boots and socks to prevent blisters.
- Layered clothing to avoid thorns.
- Chaps to prevent leg injuries.
- Turkey vest or pack to hold sheds, trail cameras, etc.
- Quality optics.
- A good hunting app to record findings.
The author is an accomplished outdoor writer, photographer, and videographer with work appearing in more than 80 hunting magazines and websites.