Last fall, after spending most of my time hunting public land in a few different states, I came to the realization that deer hunting is more like elk hunting than I’d previously thought. For starters, let’s say you’re headed to Colorado or Idaho to try your luck on public-land bulls. Without question, you’ll have company in the woods with you. You’ll also only have a productive hunt if you’re around lots of fresh sign. It’s that simple.
With whitetails, the same rules apply, but on a smaller scale. Where it gets tricky is when you talk yourself into hunting a spot simply because the sign is “good enough.” This might be a few field-edge rubs or scrapes, or the random one-off bits of sign you might encounter in an accessible area.
To set up in an area with plenty of deer, and hopefully plenty of bucks, you’ve got to be on top of a concentration of sign. What does this have to do with winter scouting? Lots!
Where They Were, Is Where They Might Be
The winter whitetail woods is a “blabbermouth.” Due to the disappearance of foliage and the bareness of it all, last season’s buck sign is a story written on the landscape. Now, if you’ve got snow to deal with, you might be out of luck with scrapes, although you can usually spot licking branches if you’re paying attention.
Rubs and terrain-based trails are a different story. These will show clearly — snow or no snow — and they’ll tell you a lot. A collection of rubs is my favorite type of sign to find, but only if located in security cover. If this is the case, it tells me that the local bucks probably spent a decent amount of time in that area. One spot like this is nice to find, but stringing together several on the same property, or multiple properties, is the ticket to success next season. The whole goal is to give yourself a foundation of knowledge on where the bucks prefer to hide out when the hunting pressure gets to them, and they aren’t willing to show their faces in the open during shooting hours. Those spots will almost always draw deer from year to year, but it’s important to remember that you can easily ruin them within a couple of sits. This is the nature of public-land hunting, and it’s the reason that you want to find multiple spots that show a concentration of good sign.
Bigger Is Better… Sometimes
There isn’t a whitetail hunter out there who doesn’t like finding thigh-sized rubs. I do, but I also seem to find them on field edges and the corners of woods, which makes me question when they were made. Put another way, a lot of the huge rubs I find leave me thinking they were produced at midnight, not 5:30 in the afternoon.
I’ve also been fortunate enough in the past few years to watch quite a few bucks make rubs, and I’ve come to the conclusion that their location matters more than their size. I watched a legitimate 160-inch Wisconsin bruiser on public land make a tiny rub two seasons ago. In fact, I’ve seen several really big deer make pathetic-looking rubs. This experience leads me to look at the quantity and location, instead of the size of the rubs. There is no easier way, or better time, to find these signposts and decide if they are worth hunting next season.
Locating an area that is littered with last season’s rubs is exciting, but it doesn’t do you much good if you can’t access said spot correctly come fall. This might be one of the biggest headaches faced by public-land bowhunters. You can’t just cut a nice trail to the places you want to sit, which means you’ve got to sort out possible routes to your chosen areas and summon your inner Ninja to get to them. While the woods will look different in the winter versus October, you’ve at least got to start looking at the ways in which you’ll access the areas with the most sign.
It pays to take this a step further by trying to identify the best trees for certain wind directions, and to be honest about whether a spot will actually be huntable. Some of the best spots I’ve found are along swamps and other wetlands that just don’t lend themselves to easy hunting, which is why the bucks are there, of course.
In these cases, you sometimes either have to go full on kamikaze during the fall for one risky sit, or write off the spot as a winner for the deer — and a loser for you as the hunter. This, again, is one of the main reasons for putting on the miles now to build up a long list of such spots to work with come fall.
Winter scouting might not be a huge deal for private-land hunters who can rely on low-pressure deer and food plots, but that’s not the case for those of us restricted to only hunting public land. The more information you can gather on what bucks do when they are getting hunted every week, the better your chances for catching up with one throughout the season. And that research has to start right now!
Winter Scouting Gear
I shudder to think about life as a public-land bowhunter before the creation of onX. Not only is this app the perfect choice for finding ground, digging in with satellite imagery, and keeping track of stand sites, but it’s also a huge asset for the winter scouter. Drop waypoints on the best sign or use them to label potential stand trees and access routes, and you’ll be much better off by the time summer dulls your memory and the next deer season is quickly approaching.