Nothing is more depressing to a die-hard deer hunter than watching the sun set on the last day of deer season. Regardless of how good or bad of a season it was, you always wish for one more opportunity to sit in the stand. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and once you've accepted the reality of the season's close, it can be real easy to settle into "rest mode" and wait for turkey season. The truth is, though, there is no better time than now to start preparing for the next deer season.
LEARN FROM THE PAST
The first step in finding next season's buck is simple and doesn't even require leaving the comfort of your home. All you need is a pen, paper, maps of your hunting areas, and a little quiet time to reflect on the previous deer season. I know it may sound a bit goofy, but with all the happenings of the recent deer season still fresh on your mind, this is the perfect time to sit down and think about the deer activity that you witnessed, and to consider what went right and what went wrong. Think about the answers to some of the following questions, and write them down or make notes on your map for future reference:
A great way to strategize for next season is to sit down with a good map and aerial
photo of your hunting area and to make detailed notes on them about deer activity
that you have observed, deer sign that you have located, and any potential feeding
and bedding areas that you know about.
These are just a handful of questions you can mull over, but what it all boils down to is - how did this past season work for you and what can you do in the coming season to improve your odds for success? Part of that improvement can come from spending a little time in the field post-season to get a better idea of what the deer are doing in your area, and what caliber of bucks you have to look forward to in the fall. Let's look at a few ways to get this done and still leave you plenty of time to wet a line or chase some longbeards this spring.
INVADE THEIR SPACE
A wise deer hunter knows that a trip into a mature buck's "sanctuary" during the season is a good way to push a buck into full nocturnal mode and kill any chances you have of putting a tag on him. That is why the winter months following deer season are the absolute best time of the year to get out there and stomp around your hunting ground, checking out all of those spots that you avoided during the season. If you bump some deer this time of year, it's not likely to cause any long term issues, as the deer will have all spring and summer to forget about your visit. The best part about post-season scouting is that deer sign usually sticks out really well this time of year - trails are easy to spot and follow, and those rub lines and scrapes are a lot more visible with all the leaves off the trees.
Deer trails, such as this one, really stand out in the post-season,
especially if you can get out when there is snow on the ground.
Since you already have a good idea of what the deer activity was like in the areas where you hunted, you should use this time to check out the areas that you didn't get around to hunting, or may have overlooked during the season. Just take your time and cover the area thoroughly, looking for and making note of any signs of deer activity - specifically those that can be attributed to a big buck. Be sure to mark down what you find either on your map, or on a GPS for future reference.
When scouting after deer season, be on the lookout for signs of buck activity -
especially sign that points to a mature buck, such as large rubs and scrapes.
SMILE FOR THE CAMERA
Another great way to scout in the off season is with the use of trail cameras. While a lot of guys are pulling their trail cams this time of year and putting them away until late summer, I like to leave mine out for a month or two after deer season, just to see what made it through. Not only will this give you a good idea of what kind of bucks should be around come fall, but it can also clue you in to when they drop their antlers, so you can get out and enjoy some shed hunting - which we will discuss in more detail in the next section.
There is no better way to see what kind of big buck potential your area holds
for next season than to actively run your trail cameras post season. If the buck
survived the hunting seasons, then there is a good chance that he will be around next fall.
One of the easiest ways to maximize the effectiveness of your trail camera in the post season and to insure that you see a good representation of what is in your hunting area, is to use some type of food attractant to lure the deer into camera range. What that attractant is has a lot to do with what your state laws say regarding "baiting." If allowed, it's hard to beat shelled corn - it's cheap, readily available, and the deer love it. If baiting or feeding is not allowed where you hunt, then you will have to focus on trails running in and out of available food sources. Focus on natural funnel areas such as corners or pinch points that will increase the odds of the deer having to pass within sensor range of your camera.
Unless you are hunting a really small property, or you have the money to invest in lots of trail cameras, then you are going to need to move your cameras around to really get a good idea of which bucks are roaming on your hunting property. From my experience, two weeks seems to be enough time to get a pretty good representation of what deer are in the area, without your camera spending too much time in one location. You can always bring the camera back to the same spot at a later time, but the idea is to cover as much of your hunting area as possible.
SHEDDING SOME LIGHT
Nothing can fire up a deer hunter about the upcoming season more than finding a set of monster sheds on one's hunting property. Not only is this proof positive that the big boy made it through the season, but you now have a cool souvenir to remind you of that fact during the off season! Not to mention, shed hunting is just a great opportunity to break the "cabin fever," get outdoors and get a little exercise. You can even get some of your hunting buddies together and make a friendly competition of it.
Since you are most likely to find sheds in the areas where deer are spending the greatest amount of time, I tend to start my search at prominent food sources. If there are food plots or cut grain fields on your hunting property, then that is a great starting point, and the open terrain lets you cover a good deal of ground in a short time. Be sure to take along a pair of binoculars to scan those open areas and investigate anything that looks similar to a deer's antler.
From the food sources, search along the trails that lead back to the bucks' bedding areas, paying particular attention to fence crossings and other structures that the deer may have to jump or slip under, as these are perfect places for an already loose antler to give way. Be sure to move slowly and scan your surroundings with each step you take, as even the largest shed can blend in amazingly well with the surrounding leaves and branches.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
The final step in finding next season's buck brings you right back to where you began - in the comforts of your own home. It's now time to take all that you've learned from last season, along with all the new found knowledge from your post-season scouting trips, trail camera pictures and shed hunting excursions, and to begin to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Laying all this information out on a map of your hunting area should begin to reveal some travel patterns, overlooked feeding or bedding areas, or better yet - that monster buck that you never knew existed.
This information, combined with some smart preseason scouting, could put you in the perfect position to fill that buck tag come opening day.
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 .