I started acquiring and wearing Sitka gear camouflage clothing three seasons ago. Initially, I felt a bit overwhelmed by the number of items in the
In this article, I have compiled 10 proven post-season deer scouting tips. I based these post-season deer scouting tips on consistent themes that have emerged during my podcasts with some of the greatest DIY public land hunters in the game today: names like Dan Infalt, John Eberhart, and Jordan Kurkowski. Check out the tips below, including what to look for and why to kickstart your post-season scouting this Spring!
E-scouting is the foundation upon which efficient post-season scouting is built. Benjamin Franklin famously said, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” Post-season scouting, without extensively e-scouting an area first, is preparing to fail (or at least preparing to be inefficient). On a typical property, e-scouting allows me to effectively rule out 80% of any given parcel and focus on the 20% of the parcel most likely to have deer activity. Where there is deer activity, there is deer sign that we can interpret during the post-season. Dan Infalt takes this concept even farther. In Podcast Episode #3, Dan says he can rule out 95% of the area on most properties with e-scouting alone.
Why does e-scouting and the 80/20 rule matter? One Word. Efficiency.
Here’s an example to drive home the point. If I visit a 100-acre property that I have already e-scouted, I will focus on the 20% of that property most likely to have deer activity, or 20 acres in this example. I will thoroughly scout those 20 acres and then move on to the next property and repeat. Let’s imagine another hunter, one who does not e-scout, visits that same 100-acre property. He might wander the whole 100 acres, spending much more time scouting the same property. By only e-scouting the best looking 20% of each property, I am able to scout a property five times faster or scout five times as many properties in the same amount of time. Efficiency!
What to Look For – Need some help deciphering maps and other less well-known e-scouting resources? Check out my detailed guides on e-scouting tips and next level e-scouting with Lidar Mapping to home in on key terrain and vegetation features via e-scouting resources.
Hunting buck bedding is one of the best ways to kill trophy class bucks. Dan Infalt of The Hunting Beast popularized this tactic. Episode 3 of my Podcast with Dan Infalt is a master class in buck bedding. Hunting buck bedding is akin to swinging for a homerun on every pitch. It’s not often you connect, but when you do, it’s usually big.
Why does it work?
By nature, deer are a crepuscular animal. Crepuscular is a fancy word that means: appearing or active in twilight. Deer have evolved to spend a majority of daylight in bedding areas resting and processing food intake from the previous evening. As a result, they don’t travel too far from their bedding areas during daylight. Add in hunting pressure, and they might not make it far at all, possibly 100 yards or less before daylight fades. That’s why finding bedding areas is my number one goal while post-season scouting.
What to Look For – Buck bedding can be found in a lot of different areas, but these areas usually have a few things in common: security cover, a wind advantage, a visual advantage. Common locations for buck bedding areas include: brushy points in swamps, islands in swamps, oxbows, points in hill country, CRP fields, thick draws in otherwise open terrain, and abandoned homesteads.
I read an article once that said something along the lines of “it is easier to come up with a list of plants deer will NOT eat, than a list of plants they will eat.” I am not trying to identify everything a deer could possibly eat on every parcel of land I scout. During my post-season scouting, I identify the preferred food sources. I want to located the preferred food sources, so I can reliably predict movement patterns from bedding areas to feeding areas.
What to Look For – Preferred sources will vary widely across the U.S., but good places to start are agriculture fields (soybeans, corn, alfalfa, etc.), mast trees (apples, pears, persimmons, white oaks, red oaks, beech nuts, etc.) and preferred browse (dogwood, green briar, jewelweed, brambles, ragweed, snowberry, honeysuckle, etc.).
I am also looking for preferred food sources in close proximity to bedding areas. Food sources in secure cover, near bedding areas, have the highest odds of a buck visit during shooting hours. These are great areas to setup for evening hunts. When I find a food source near a bedding area, I meticulously plan my access route, select the tree I will place my stand, and try and setup on the side of the food source opposite the bedding area, but still in shooting range of the food source. Check out Podcast Episode 9 with John Eberhart to learn more about how John sets up on apple trees in security cover.
In my opinion, rubs can tell us a lot. However, don’t be discouraged if there is a lack of rubs in your area (as long as other sign exists). That may say more about that habitat than about the presence (or lack of) mature bucks. I’ve seen some of the biggest buck of my life in areas with few or no large rubs.
First, let’s back up. What kind of trees will deer rub? Deer will rub a wide variety of tree species. However, scientific studies have revealed that bucks generally prefer smooth-barked and aromatic trees like white pine, alders, sumac, red cedar, and cherries. They generally avoid lumpy barked and thorny trees like box elder and hawthorns. An area devoid of preferred rubbing trees will have less rubs, if everything else is equal, and an area with an abundance of preferred rubbing trees will have more rubs, if everything else is equal.
What to Look For – What kind of information can we gather from a rub during the post-season to indicate the presence of a mature buck?
Rub Height – In my opinion, the number one indicator of a mature buck rub (but not necessarily a trophy rack) is rub height. Tall rubs get me excited! Mature deer have physically larger bodies than 1.5- and 2.5-year-old bucks. Larger, taller bodies, result in average rub heights that are relatively higher when compared to the rub heights from 1.5- and 2.5-year-old bucks. The presence of relatively tall rubs is a great indicator a mature buck passed through the property at some point.
Rub Lines – Rub lines are most often placed on routes to preferred food sources or placed on routes between doe bedding areas. If I find a rub line that terminates at a food source, I will try and backtrack the rub line to a bedding area. If I find a rub line between two doe bedding areas, I will try and find a location to setup a treestand that has a good, clean, access route, a wind advantage for my stand location, and preferably, some sort of terrain or vegetation funnel to pinch deer down into bow range.
Rub Clusters in Security Cover – I generally find rub clusters in three main areas: on the edge of food sources, around buck bedding areas, and around doe bedding areas. In pressured areas, I usually ignore any rub clusters on the edge of food sources as they are almost always made at night. However, if I find a cluster of rubs in close proximity to a very secure bedding location, this tells me a buck actively and regularly used the bedding area the previous season. If I find a cluster of tall rubs near a doe bedding area, this tells me a mature buck visits that bedding area.
Ah, the ol’ pee pits. Scrapes generally come in two varieties, the “one-time use” and the “community” or “primary” scrape. There is good news for post-season scouters. By the time Spring rolls around, most of the one-time use scrapes have been obscured by leaves or other vegetation. These scrapes are normally found in more random locations throughout the timber and along field edges and generally have only one licking branch above them.
By contrasts, primary or community scrapes are almost always still visible prior to Spring green-up and they usually have multiple licking branches. On Podcast Episode 9 and Podcast Episode 10 with John Eberhart, John explained that, in his opinion, primary scrapes are always found in areas of high doe traffic. Check out the podcasts to learn more about John’s legendary scrape hunting tactics.
On Podcast Episode 13 with Dan Infalt, Dan discusses hunting early season scrape areas. Dan believes early season scrapes occur in areas where two or more mature bucks’ territories overlap. Dan says he has killed his biggest and most mature bucks over these early season scrape setups.
What to Look For – Large scrapes with multiple licking branches and the appearance of year-after-year use. Try and decipher whether the scrape is located in an area of high doe traffic or overlapping buck bedding. Hunt the scrapes in doe traffic areas in the first few days of November and the last few days of the rut. Hunt the scrapes in overlapping buck bedding areas as early in the season as possible under favorable wind conditions.
Tracks are arguably one of the most underutilized resources by modern hunters. Let’s start with the basics. First, tracks are the only sign a deer leaves literally everywhere it travels.
Second, fresh buck tracks during post-season scouting tell us something very important; a mature buck survived the season in that area.
Third, big tracks almost always mean a big bodied deer, but not all big bodied deer have trophy class antlers. Additionally, not all large antlered deer have big tracks. Read that again. Big tracks = big bodies but not necessarily big antlers. Large antlered deer sometimes have big tracks but not always. Like all of the deer sign mentioned in this article, tracks are one clue, best viewed through the lens of all of the signed combined.
What to Look For – First, deer have larger front hooves than rear hooves. As discussed with rubs, a mature buck has a much larger body than a juvenile buck or doe. Along with this larger body comes a wider chest. One method I use to decipher buck tracks from doe tracks is the width between the front tracks (remember, front tracks will be larger). If the width between the front tracks (the width between the left front leg and the right front leg) is wider than the width between the rear tracks, I am looking at a set of buck tracks. Also, as bucks age, their front tracks will often start to splay (turn outward). Another subtle tip to look for is tracks that swing wide to avoid narrow areas. For example, when I see large tracks skirting an area such as low tangled brush, I am looking at a big buck track that most likely sports a big rack. If the track sinks deeper in the same type of soil as other tracks, I am looking at a heavy (and likely mature) animal.
Second, look for walking tracks. Fast moving or running deer leave deeper, larger tracks that makes accurate interpretation much more difficult than walking tracks.
Third, mature bucks and their bigger bodies also give away another clue when it comes to tracks: stride length. A mature buck will have a longer stride length (i.e., covering more ground with each step or covering the same amount of ground with less steps). When I look at tracks, if I see wider front tracks than rear tracks and a longer stride length relative to what I normally see, then I know I am looking at a set of mature buck tracks. Large track/hoof size on top of all the previously mentioned clues is icing on the cake.
Finally, look at as many tracks in your area as possible. A big buck track in Florida looks a lot different than a big buck track in Iowa. The size of the track relative to the size of other tracks in your hunting area is the best discriminator between tracks there is.
Shed antlers can tell us one of the most important pieces of information that we can gather, whether or not a target buck is still alive in the area. A buck that makes it through the hunting season has an extremely high likelihood (95%+) of survival according to Duane Diefenbach, Research Biologist, at Penn State University. Duane Diefenbach provides a treasure trove of facts on whitetail behavior gleaned from years of GPS collar study on wild, free-ranging deer, in Pennsylvania in Podcast Episode 5. One critical point to remember, deer shed their antlers during winter, and tough winters can drive bucks out of their home ranges to the best available food sources. Finding a great set of sheds, while super exciting, can also be misleading. Those sheds may have come from a buck that spends his Octobers and Novembers several miles away.
One of my main objectives during post-season scouting is to investigate terrain features found while e-scouting. Specifically, I am looking for the presence of buck sign in and around terrain features (e.g., benches, saddles, draws, points, etc.).
What to Look For – All of the sign previously mentioned in the article in or around terrain features. Look for rubs, scrapes, large tracks, buck bedding areas, and preferred food sources. The terrain features on the property will be what connects these points of interest together, and where I look to setup stand locations. Speaking of stand locations…
Every time I find a great looking terrain funnel, bedding area, preferred food source, or some other area I might want to place a stand, I really spend time in that area trying to locate the ideal tree.
What to Look For – What does the ideal tree look like? It depends. I know, I know, what a lame answer. Here are some factors I consider. If everything else is equal, in the early season, I try and find a tree with good back cover, meaning leafed branches and more leafed trees behind me. When possible, I try and find a tree that allows me to place my stand facing north. The north side of a tree always offers the most shade, and it decreases the odds of having to make difficult shots into the direction of a setting or rising sun. I prefer larger trunked trees over trees with smaller trunks to help break up my outline. I prefer multi-trunked trees over single trunked trees for the same reason. If I know I will be hunting an area after leaf drop, I prefer a tree that will allow me to climb unobstructed to a height of at least 20’ (no large branches before 20 feet up).
Access routes are one of the most critical and overlooked aspects when it comes to bowhunting trophy bucks. There is a reason I listed bedding areas as the first item I look for after I complete my e-scouting. Knowing a property’s bedding areas is imperative for planning access routes for evening hunts. Of equal importance is knowledge of a property’s food sources. Morning access routes must avoid preferred food sources where deer will be congregated. Once I have located the best sign on a property and identified my kill trees, I like to make a second visit to promising properties to plan my access routes. I save a GPS track of my morning access routes to ensure I take a quiet path and enter on the backside of bedding areas.
What to Look For – For evening hunts, I look for access routes that avoid bedding areas. I also want to avoid access on the upwind side of bedding areas that could ruin my hunt before it even begins. Sometimes, the best access route takes some creativity. For example, in Podcast Episode 2 with Jordan Kurkowski, Jordan talks about how he regular uses his kayak for a scent free and stealthy approach on Wisconsin marsh bucks.
For morning hunts, access routes that avoid preferred food sources and deer travel routes between preferred food sources and bedding areas. Well planned access routes that avoid crossing deer trails between feeding and bedding areas
When available, I use terrain and vegetation to conceal my access. Using ditches, creeks, stands of thick conifers, and standing corn are all great ways to stay out of sight of a target animal.
I cannot stress the importance of this tip enough. I have accumulated hundreds of waypoints over the past 15 years. Spend the extra 30-60 seconds at each point of interest discovered during post-season scouting and take some notes, pictures, videos, or all three! You will thank yourself later. I like to take a few sentences of detailed notes. Some items I like to note include: how many climbing sticks will I need, the best wind(s) to hunt that location, any observations on when that location might be best to hunt (early season, rut, late season), sign of other hunters, signs of a mature buck alive in the spring (tracks, sheds, late season trail camera pictures), potential trail camera locations, and how long it will take me to reach my stand location from truck.
It is also very beneficial for me to take a picture of the actual tree(s) I plan to set my treestand in, especially for morning hunts. Things almost always look different in the dark. I also take pictures of every primary scrape I encounter. These are great locations for trail cameras, but they are often difficult to relocate in July or August when Summer vegetation is in full force.
Leave a comment with your favorite post-season scouting tips below!
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