By Josh Honeycutt
Whitetails hold the innate ability to captivate the heart of a hunter. Once you get that first taste, that first experience, it gets in your blood and becomes a part of who you are. Whitetails for many, is a passion, an obsession. It only makes sense to take that obsession to the next level, make the most of your time right now, and implement early spring scouting into your game plan.
Scouting in the spring time has several advantages. One of those being that you can avoid the perils of procrastination. Laziness and procrastination are no longer an issue if you can discipline yourself to get the homework done now rather than later. Secondly, when scouting now, the pressure isn’t applied to deer during the fall months and it allows you to get away with plenty today without hurting deer movement during the season. Scouting early on can also give a hunter a pretty solid idea as to what the deer will be doing from mid- October through the late season. Whitetails are creatures of habit, so long as human interaction does not intervene, deer will carry on with very similar habits from year to year. That said, now is the time to hit the woods to do some scouting, and here are several key things to keep an eye out for in the spring time woods.
Don’t write this off as anything short of a phenomenal time to look for rut sign. As mentioned already, with the melt of snow, you can now see sign from last fall which is a clear indication of what bucks may do again this coming hunting season.
Things to keep an eye out for obviously include rub lines and scrapes. Scrapes will be much less noticeable now, but if you get out there early and before green up, you should be able to identify some. On the other hand, rub lines are definitely still fresh enough to find. Once these rub lines are found, walk them thoroughly. Rub lines often lead from a frequently used bedding area to a heavily used food source, or can also sometimes connect two doe bedding areas. It just depends on the terrain and the topographical situation. Either way, find them, and remember them.
On the topic of rubs, it is a common misconception that small bucks make little rubs and big bucks make large ones. In reality, this is only 50 percent correct. Small bucks generally always make small rubs. However, large bucks are capable of both small and large “postmarks.” So do not immediately credit a small rub only to a young deer. In contrast, it is safe to bet that a large rub belongs to a more mature whitetail.
While out scouting at this time, it is also good practice to keep an eye out for certain geographical land features. Bottlenecks, draws and pinch-points are all things to look for. Deer obviously like to feel secure and these land features act as natural funnels for deer to safely travel through, making these areas excellent stand locations.
An example of such a land feature would be a large block of timber that pinches down to a very narrow strip of woods before leading into yet another big block of woods. Deer will use this “pinch-point” to get from one set of timber to the other, as that allows them to get from point A to point B without leaving the security the forest provides. Take advantage of such geographical locations by taking note of them now, and eventually hanging a stand there during the rut.
During the spring, bedding areas will also be fairly easy to locate. Bucks will generally bed up in the thickest areas on the property. If need be, a mature buck will travel great distances to get from his bedroom to his dinner table. Therefore, it is crucial to locate (or create) a very thick, impenetrable bedding area commonly referred to as a sanctuary; relatively close to a food source. This will ensure more daylight sightings. Remember to never penetrate these bedding areas during the hunting season. If you do, it’s all for not. That said, if you’re scouting for information to help you hunt the pre-rut or the post-rut, these will be key areas to focus on.
However, if scouting for the rut is your goal, seek out doe bedding areas, as these will be great spots to hunt come that time of year. These doe bedding areas may be slightly less dense and will be much closer to food sources. Mark these areas and hang stands over trails on the downwind side between the bedding area and the adjacent food source. You’ll be in for some great hunts once the bucks start cruising.
The Beaten Path
Spring is a prime time to locate and decipher the network of trails on your property as well. When mapping out trails, the first step is to find the larger, more worn down paths. These will serve as the “highway” for traffic, and will primarily be used by does and younger bucks. After these are located, look for smaller, less obvious trails just above or below, running parallel to the bigger paths. These will be predominately used by the mature bucks in the area.
These “buck trails” will be further back in the cover and will not be in the open quite as much. If traditional wind patterns allow, the best case scenario is to plant a treestand on the downwind side. If resources are plenty enough, place a stand within twenty yards of the food source the trails are leading to. But also hang another stand further into the cover closer to the bedding area the deer are coming from. This allows you to move closer to his bed if he is not making it to the food source before shooting light ends.
Find the Feed
This is arguably the most important aspect in all of deer hunting. Some say the rut. Others say it’s the weather. I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but in my opinion it’s the food.
During the rut, bucks go where the does are. Where are the does going to be? They’ll be on the most palatable and nutritional food source in the area at that given time. Food source use also has a direct correlation to temperature. When temperatures are falling, deer tend to hit grain fields high in carbohydrates. These carbs are crucial and used to generate body heat during colder weather. In contrast, when the temperature is on the rise, deer tend to prefer green fields and broadleaf food plots.
That said, now is the time to scout and determine which food sources are available and/or hit the hardest in your area. Not only are you observing what fields were the most utilized last fall, but also what trails leading to them received the highest traffic. The key is to pin-point the areas with the highest utilization and mark them. You’ll also want to keep an eye out for isolated food sources such as apple trees, persimmons, or lone oak trees. These can be dynamite to hunt.
Finally, while out scouting in the spring, you can also do double time by looking for shed antlers. Shed hunting is a vast topic to discuss and another full length article would be needed to completely shake it all down. So I’ll keep it brief. Shed hunting is a very important part of any sound management system and scouting effort. The discovery of sheds allows the hunter to discover bucks that may not have been caught on camera or witnessed in person during the season. It also can provide an idea as to what bucks actually made it through to the new year. Additionally, getting an antler in your hand will also make it easier to understand the size of the buck and future potential.
You should certainly keep an eye out for antlers while scouting, but if you want to specifically seek out sheds here are a few places to consider. Keep an eye out for antlers at fence crossings, within dense cover with low-hanging branches, on the outskirts of food sources, heavy trails to bedding areas, and the bedding areas themselves. It’s also a good idea to bring along binoculars to help spot those distant antlers. If you’re purposely looking for bone, it is important to grid the area off and comb it thoroughly when shed hunting. If you have shed hunted a property before and had luck while doing so; keep your efforts similar to past patterns. A buck will often shed in the same relative location from year to year.
If you’re looking to consistently kill mature whitetails, it’s crucially important to develop a spring scouting game plan. Once you’ve done your scouting and have pin-pointed key areas to concentrate on, hang stands and place ground blinds early. Getting the grunt work done now will ensure that you do not pressure that trophy whitetail this fall. The advantages to spring scouting are many, so hit the woods now to solidify your chances of filling your tag next season!
– Josh Honeycutt