By John sloan
As our hunting seasons wind down, it is time to start thinking about post-season scouting. I am continually amazed at how few deer hunters do any post-season scouting. I do not know of a single successful hunter who keys on mature bucks or has to struggle to find deer who does not count post-season scouting among his most valuable tools and the first three months of the year are the key months.
Back in the days when I was serious about deer hunting and hunted for bucks that would make record books, I started my post season scouting a week after the season ended. Some years I would be on the road, scouting in other states for two to three weeks. It is also the number one time to find stand sites on new ground.
Why is this time period so important? Well to start with, you are able find deer travel patterns that are in use when the deer are being hunted. They are not just leisurely meandering about. They are doing what they do during the time you hunt them. That is critical because that is what they are going to do next year unless one of four factors change.
Then of course, if you live in a snow area, you can see so dadgummed well. Those of us who reside in leaf country have a much harder time finding those great trails. It is also a time when you can see the rubs and scrapes easier.
A scrape means nothing to me. It has very little use in terms of the rut. It is a communication device only. When I experimented with mock scrapes, I started most of mine in the spring during turkey season and I used only my own urine. I freshened them in the fall and the deer took over. They were fun to fool with but totally useless as a hunting tool. Rubs were slightly more beneficial.
In post-season scouting, I looked primarily for signpost rubs and traditional rubs. Small rubs mean little to me. Signpost rubs being those that marked things such as road or stream crossings and major trails that were used only during the periods of time the bucks were traveling. Often they marked places bucks paused to scent check for hot does.
Traditional rubs are the ones that showed up on the same trees every year. They were of use in selecting areas to concentrate my scouting. They indicated continued and dependable places for bucks to travel or hang out.
I looked for trees that might provide preferred food and were in thick cover. A white oak surrounded by a cedar thicket could be worth some time and effort if my pre-season scouting indicated a heavy mast crop.
Mostly I hunted private ground. The size varied from 400 acres to 21,000 acres. I would be in the woods from daylight until dark, six days a week. How I relished that time. A couple sandwiches and water bottle, a good compass, my topo maps and notebook and a small can of sterno to build a quick luncheon fire. I never carried a pack. This was before the GPS kept you from getting lost. Heck, it was before cell phones. You had to think and learn. This was when you got the answers to the why questions associated with hunting large game animals. You still can today.
Post-season scouting is when stand sites were found that produced record book bucks later in the year. The first three months of the year is when I found those little overlooked pockets on public ground that other hunters walked by. The half-acre briar patch right behind the convenience store on the edge of the WMA (Wildlife Management Area), that all the hunters drove by and was a sanctuary to a 104”-class buck that slipped out for a late morning snack one frigid morning. I put a broadhead behind his ribs at 15-yards. How about the bent and twisted locust tree that no hunter in his right mind would climb? I made it huntable and at last count, we had killed 33 deer out of it. Post-season scouting revealed those things.
If your land is relatively secure, it is in the post season you break out the chainsaw and clear the good shooting lanes and hang the stand you won’t even use for seven or eight months. I have even used a large lawnmower to clear an entrance path. It is during the post season when so much of the groundwork was done for placing 50-75 stands a year. Or, as it was on one piece of property, 400-500 stands and shooting houses. On one Midwest operation, each of the 60 trees was prepared and ready for a hanging or ladder stand to go in 30-60 days before a paying hunter set foot in the woods. Everything that might spook a mature buck was done long before the buck or hunter was there.
When you hunt mature deer, you either hang a stand and give it two months or hang a stand and give it two seconds. Of the two, I much prefer the two-month method. That way, there is nothing unusual for a deer to see or hear.
I piddle at hunting today. By that, I mean I do not give the slightest thought to a deer with 10-points and a spread way outside his ears. I have had those days and my office walls attest to that. Today I play at hunting. Opening morning of our bow season, I climbed into a stand I had hung a month earlier. I hung it 22-yards from a big white oak that was loaded. Opening morning, I had a 30-minute hunt. The fat doe posed for me.
Two days later, I shot a buck and a doe in 30 seconds from a 10-foot ladder stand that has been in place for nine years. As of this writing, I have killed 25 deer from that stand. I found the spot by blood trailing the first doe I killed on that property. There is not one thing to make a hunter put a stand there except the deer pass by it from every direction to get to or from an organic garden. Post season of that first year, I moved a stand in.
Just 75-yards from that ladder is another ladder. It is my rattling stand and as of Thanksgiving morning of this year, I have killed 13 deer from it. I had to put a stand there because it was just the perfect place to rattle or spar. It is in the edge of a thicket that bordered a small opening. I found the spot looking for a folding saw I lost in the post season. It is just 75 yards from my other stand but I had not looked at it in the right light.
One bitter day in IL, I found a gem. I was walking a dry, steep-banked creek bed that split a stretch of open prairie. I was looking for the crossing I knew had to be there. It was new ground and I had never hunted it. At one point, the black locust thicket on the banks got thick and I spotted a big, fresh rub. I stood stock still said, “Why is that rub there?”
I just kept looking and slowly it dawned on me. This was the hidey-hole. This is where one or more bucks came when the guns started booming because it was almost too thick for a man to walk through and his approach across the open ground would be seen. The rub was sign that marked the entrance. A buck could see it while on the dead run and hit it exactly.
Up went the stand in a miserable tree and the holes were drilled for the bolt steps. A limb here and there came down and the entrance path marked with bright eyes.
I came back before dawn, opening day of firearm season that year. It was raining and blowing and a day upon which I normally would not hunt. I hung my Knight muzzleloader on the hook and toughed it out. The guns began to boom and the war started. At 8:30 I put the crosshairs on the 150-class 10-point and squeezed the trigger. He dropped in his tracks, the benefit of post-season scouting. The sun even came out. In spring or summer or early autumn, I would never have been able to see that spot. There would have been far too much greenery.
So get up off the couch, get out there and start making notes and marking a map. Oh, you can use your GPS if you have to. Make notes anyway. Then a month before your season opens, check back. See if any of the four factors have changed. Food-cover-terrain-structure. They govern absolutely everything a deer does. See them in the winter when the woods are naked. Then adjust if you have to 30-60 days before you plan to hunt. Do not blame me if you miss the Super Bowl…whenever it is.
The largest traditional rub I have ever seen. They tell me this tree has been getting rubbed for at least 13 years. Local guides estimate as many as 20 different bucks may hit it each fall.
Season is closed but this signpost rub is second in a line that indicates just where the bucks come to scent check this small Greenfield for hot does. They can’t see far in the thicket so they need to get close. Might be a good place to hang a stand next year well in advance of when the bucks would be scent checking.
I found the spot in the thicket behind me on a bitter afternoon when the wind and sleet blew across the prairie. I knew when the guns started booming on opening day, a buck would come to hide. I beat him there.