For the deer hunter, winter is a long period of nothing but waiting. The fall hunt is over and there is little activity related to hunting deer, plus it seems like the new season is such a long way off. Around here, winters are tough, so even the fun stuff like getting out and shooting the bow or going to the rifle range is out of reach.
There is one thing winter is great for, and it is a way to stay connected to your favorite hobby. Winter is the best time to get out and scout to see what the deer have been doing at your hunting spots. Winter scouting is much less disturbing to the deer herd than going out and scouting just before the season opens, unless the weather is so bad that the deer are yarded up and in survival mode, in which case they should be left alone.
If your idea of scouting is going out right before the season, chances are you are not helping matters any. Tramping all over the woods and spreading your scent around isn't a good idea. Scouting in the winter after the season is over and the disturbance won't matter, makes much more sense.
This is especially true when it comes to trying to narrow down the movements of a big buck. If you go through their bedding area and disturb them during the season the chances of seeing a big buck from the stand become far less. In areas with a fair amount of hunting pressure, a big buck will tolerate very little in the way of human disturbance before they hide out somewhere else.
If you do your scouting when the snow is on the ground, none of these problems exist. Even if you spook a buck out of his security cover, it won't bother him when the next season starts. Winter is the very best time for trying to find the clues that are needed to pattern the movements of a good buck and to check out possible locations for new stands. It is also a great period for checking out a property you haven't hunted yet.
Winter makes it easy to find the runways and travel routes that deer are using to go from feeding and bedding areas. Snow on the ground makes it easy to spot these runways, even in the densest cover. These heavily used runways and trails will change somewhat once the deer season starts because the availability of food in winter is quite poor compared to the rest of the year, but the basic trails they are using as they leave bedding cover will not. Setting up stands as close as possible to the bedding areas without spooking the deer yields a lot more opportunities at bucks than simply hunting over food sources once the season starts.
Other good clues can be found in the winter months. Bucks leave a variety of signs in the woods, but none is much more obvious than a buck rub. Bucks make a lot of rubs as they polish their antlers and practice their sparring for the breeding season. The quantity and quality of these rubs tells a lot. For example, we just found a location where there were about 20 rubs all in the same spot, and one of the rubs was on a tree that was about 6-inches in diameter. That says a lot about the buck that made them. This location is where a buck has been bedding. They make a lot of rubs near their beds, rubbing their antlers before they go off to feed or chase does. In addition, the big rub indicates that he is probably a good buck for this area.
Rub lines are another indicator. A rub line shows a travel route that a buck or multiple bucks take regularly. A good rub line is a great place to have a stand ready for the season.
Buck rubs point out both where bucks are likely to be bedding, and where they move through cover. Finding these clues is a lot like finding that special spot in a stream that always holds a big fish. Buck bedding areas often get taken over by other bucks, thus they are the honey hole and will produce for years under the right conditions.
If your scouting has yielded some good locations for treestands or ground blinds, winter is the best time to get these stand locations set up for the coming season. Deer know every inch of their home range and making big alterations just before the season can change their movements. Cutting shooting lanes is something best left for winter, as it gives the deer plenty of time before the season to get used to the alterations in the cover.
I have a lot of trees on my property, and for trimming shooting lanes I use the same pole saw that I use around the house. It is easy to clip high branches with the pole saw and get them out of the way for the upcoming fall hunt.
Cutting shooting lanes isn't restricted to archers, either. One of the areas that I hunt has gotten pretty thick and without going in every couple of years and cutting out some shooting lanes, shots would be pretty short, even during the rifle season.
In some areas of the country you can pick up shed antlers during the early part of the winter, and even into the spring snowmelt. Where I live, it is pretty rare to find a shed antler because they are eaten up by rodents in a hurry. The mice and other rodents seek out the calcium they contain.
The other great thing about scouting during the winter is that it can be combined with other activities. If you have to get out and cover some territory, strapping on the cross country skis or snowshoes will help the travel in the deer woods and it makes for a pleasant day outside. It is also fun to take along a camera as you never know what you are going to see in the woods.
Here in the north country winters are long. Finding a way to get out in the woods and staying connected with your deer hunting can make the winter months a little more bearable. Plus you will get some badly needed exercise as well. Heading out to your hunting area to trim a few shooting lanes or find a new spot for a treestand will certainly shorten the long wait until next deer season!
Robert Streeter is a freelance outdoor writer from upstate New York.