For deer hunters, late winter can be a bleak time of year. Deer season has closed across much of the country, and the cold weather makes the spring turkey season seem like an eternity away. For the diehard hunter, this is no time to kick back in the recliner and watch reruns on the Outdoor Channel. Instead, there is no better time than now to begin preparing for next deer season.
So why start scouting seven months before the season even opens? For one, this is one of the few times of the year that you can get out and really spend a lot of time looking over your hunting areas, without being concerned about running deer out of the area. If you do jump a nice buck, he's got several months to forget all about it. In addition, with the leaves off of the trees, deer sign such as trails, rubs, and scrapes stand out this time of year like Ted Nugent at a PETA rally. With all the knowledge from the recent deer season still fresh on your mind, it is a great time to get out and try to fill in the missing pieces with some post-season scouting.
Deer are basically creatures of habitat, spending the majority of their time in one of three places: a bedding area, a feeding area, or on a trail somewhere between the two. The purpose of post season scouting is to identify these key locations, try to figure out how and when the deer were using them, and then use that knowledge to determine the best place to hang some stands well before next season rolls around (piece of cake, huh!).
While post-season scouting in an area with abundant sign, always keep an eye out for possible stand sites.
Before you head out to your favorite hunting spot, it would be a good idea to have a topo map, or better yet, an aerial photo of your hunting property. You can use this to keep track of all of your findings while you scout. If you don't already have one of the two, then a visit to www.topozone.com  or www.terraserver-usa.com  will get you on the right track. With those in hand, it is time to get started.
Food sources are a great place to start your post-season scouting session. Since food can be quite limited at this time of year, deer tend to concentrate on a few key sources. In agricultural areas, this may be a cut cornfield or a field of winter wheat. In wooded areas, look for green foliage such as honeysuckle or greenbriar thickets. You will also want to keep in mind the locations where you seen deer feeding during the season. Any of these can provide a good starting point.
Green fields like this one tend to concentrate deer in the winter and
are great place to start your post-season scouting efforts.
Once in the field, it should become quickly evident if the deer are keying in on a particular food source. A concentration of tracks and droppings are a sure sign that you are in the right place. Once you have located a popular feeding area, then it is time to focus on how the deer are getting there.
Trails that may have been obscure during the fall stick out like a sore thumb this time of year.
Start identifying trails that enter these areas one by one, carefully marking each on your map for future reference. After making it around the entire feeding area, start with the trail that seems to be carrying the most deer traffic and follow the trail to see where it leads. Take your time and be very methodical in your search, mapping each trail as you go. Chances are that many of these trails will branch off multiple times, heading in various directions, and it can be a very time-consuming process to follow and document them all. Some of these trails will lead to other feeding areas, some to other trails, and some should take you into the deer's core bedding areas.
During this entire process, be sure to note any clues of deer activity along the way, such as scrapes and rubs, as well as any additional food sources, such as oak trees, fruit trees or "green" areas. You will also want to be sure to keep an eye out for any antlers that the deer may have shed. Not only do these give you an indication of what kind of bucks should be in the area next season, but they also make pretty good decorations for the den.
Take the time to mark your post-season findings on a map, or if you have one, with a GPS unit.
Depending on the size of the property that you are hunting, the entire scouting process could take anywhere from a couple of hours, to a couple of weeks. Fortunately, with deer season several months away, time is one thing that is definitely on your side.
A great way to extend your scouting efforts in the post season is with the use of trail cameras. These high-tech gadgets can be set up along heavily used trails and key feeding areas, and the pictures that you get will really compliment your on-the-ground efforts by giving you an idea of just how many and what types of deer are using a particular area.
If you already have some of these trail cameras at your disposal, then you might as well have them out there doing your homework for you. If you don't own one yet, then you may want to consider taking the plunge. There are a multitude of makes and models on the market, so you may want to do a little research before plunking down your hard-earned money. Be sure to compare features like formats (film vs. digital), battery life, resolution, sensor and flash range, security features, and of course, prices!
Once you've completed the initial ground work, along with some trail camera reconnaissance, then it is time to sit down with your newfound knowledge and assemble all the pieces of the puzzle. Look at the map you have created and compare it with what you experienced during the season. Which trails did you see deer using at specific times during the season? Where did the rutting activity occur? Which bedding areas were the deer most likely using? And which trails and areas did you fail to key in on?
So if you're a diehard deer hunter looking for something to fill the void between the Superbowl and March Madness, then get up off that sofa and head for the deer woods this February. You'll get a breath of fresh air, some valuable information for next season, and if you are really lucky, a nice big set of sheds to make all your hunting buddies green with envy.
Brian Grossman is a wildlife biologist, freelance writer and avid outdoorsman from Mt. Washington, Kentucky. You can visit his web site at www.PoorBoysOutdoors.com .