For most hunters, deer season lasts anywhere from a handful of days to a couple of weeks. After the season, guns and gear are stowed and outdoor excitement comes only vicariously through magazines, videos and television shows. For me, deer hunting is a year-round activity–I can’t get enough of it.
Though I may only spend two or three months pursuing whitetails with a rifle or bow, I spend the entire year “hunting” them. My wife claims it’s an affliction. I consider it a blessing. By turning my obsession into a year-round activity, I have learned lot about the habits of whitetails, and in so, doing, I have significantly improved my odds of success during the hunting season.
My annual deer–hunting calendar consists of four periods that include Preseason, In-Season, Postseason and the Doldrums. Each is distinctly different. And each–even the Doldrums period–offers me an opportunity to learn something about deer that I wouldn’t have discovered by staying home. But the key to getting the most out of these four periods is in spending time wisely. Here are some points to consider if you hunt deer 365 days a year.
Since spring has sprung in most parts of the country by now, it makes sense to begin our look at; year-round deer hunting with the period I call the Doldrums–spring and early summer. This is the time when deer hunters spend the least amount of time in the woods, and that’s a mistake because a lot can be learned at this time. In northern states, receding snow in March or April will reveal a wealth of information. Deer trails are once again exposed, and shed, antlers again become easier to find. And deer are more likely to be found out in open fields and clearcuts as they feed on the first new shoots of green vegetation.
Surprisingly, May can also be one of the best months to look for deer sign. I learned this several years ago while scouting for turkeys. Wherever I went, I kept finding what looked like scrapes–freshly pawed earth under overhanging tree limbs. At first it made no sense. Why would deer be scraping in May? I thought. Then I figured it out. The chemical changes that control deer behavior are driven largely by the photoperiod–the length of daylight.
Where I hunt, the amount of daylight in May is about the same as it is in early October, which is when bucks begin scraping. Perhaps a little surge at testosterone is responsible for this errant spring scraping. You can’t hunt deer in the spring, of course, but scrapes are often made in traditional spots and, come fall, bucks will return to such locations and continue scraping.
Midsummer is when I do the least scouting. Because of steps I take later in the year, which I’ll discuss in a bit, I already know roughly where I will begin more aggressive scouting in a month or two, and finding deer during this period seems to be of little use. Midsummer is, however, when I do much of my stand preparation. With several months remaining before the hunting season, I’m not so worried about disturbing the local deer population. I find this to be a good time to put up stands and cut shooting lanes.
The Preseason period is when most serious deer hunters do their scouting. Depending on where, how and when you hunt, this could take place any time from August to November and usually consists of checking last year’s hot spots, looking for fresh sign and finding new stand locations. But there’s actually a lot more that can be done during this time.
Late summer is probably the best time to size up your quarry. During the heat of late summer, deer movement is fairly casual, and most activity takes place during the cool hours of twilight and under cover of darkness. It is now that a deer’s diet consists largely of herbs, grasses and forbs. Thus, deer are often most visible at twilight as they feed in open fields.
This is a good time to drive back roads in search of feeding deer; I consider this passive scouting. While searching for deer in this manner, I often carry binoculars and a spotting scope. I can glass undisturbed deer from a distance and see just what this season’s crop has to offer. And I hope to use this time to locate mature bucks. Bucks are usually still hanging out in bachelor groups, and if you find one, there’s a good chance several more will be nearby. You may even be surprised to learn there are some real wallhangers in the neighborhood.
Unless you are within a few weeks of the start of hunting season, don’t be too concerned about the specific location of such bucks or groups of bucks, just the general vicinity in which they are spending time. In most cases, by the time hunting season rolls around, the deer’s diet will have changed and they will have begun feeding and bedding in new locations.
Another aspect of passive scouting is remote sensing. This involves the assimilation of resources such as topo maps, aerial photos and, most importantly, previous experience. If you know how to read and interpret maps and photos, you can do a great deal of scouting in your own living room. This not only saves time and effort but prevents you from disturbing deer with your presence in the woods. The less time you spend in the woods prior to hunting season, the better off you’ll be.
The next phase of the Preseason period, and the one most hunters are familiar with, is active scouting. Sooner or later, you’ll have to head to the woods. The closer you are to hunting season, the better. Again, this varies, depending on where you hunt and what you use to hunt with. The key is to minimize disturbance.
In many states, bow seasons start in September. In August, deer are, for the most part, still in a summer mode. But this is a period of transition. Usually sometime in late August or early September, decreased daylight hours trigger an increase in testosterone. Blood circulation to the antlers is cut off, velvet dies, and it won’t be too many weeks until the bucks begin to rub, which makes it a good time to look for such sign.
There is still much conjecture on the meaning and significance of rubs, but there are some generalities that seem to hold true. First, not all rubs are created for the same reasons. A lot of rubbing takes place while bucks are sorting out a pecking order. Bucks use this “display rubbing” as a way to avoid combat. They show off their prowess by beating the heck out of local vegetation rather than each other. Most rubs of this type occur at random, and often where two rival bucks just happened to cross paths. They are of little value to the hunter, except as evidence that there are bucks in the area.
As September yields to October, bucks are beginning to settle into their autumn routines. During this time of the year you’re more likely to find a series of rubs, usually along a well-used deer trail. These rubs are more indicative of the regular travel routes of a resident buck. When you find these rubs, refer to your topo maps and see how they relate to bedding and feeding cover and terrain funnels.
This is also the time to look for feeding areas. With increasingly shorter days and nighttime frosts, herbaceous vegetation ceases growing and eventually dies, losing its nutritional value. So deer will begin to look for different food sources.
Mast, if available, is a favorite. A good stand of white oaks is a treasure. Deer prefer the sweeter acorns of this group over the more acrid red oaks. Also, with enough moisture, white oaks will produce acorns annually. Acorns of more abundant red oaks also attract deer, but their availability is somewhat less reliable. Under ideal conditions, red oaks produce acorns only in alternating years and may go barren for several years during prolonged drought.
If you hunt the same area year after year, you can use this knowledge to your advantage. Several years ago there was a tremendous acorn crop in our hunting area. The woods were full of food, suppressing deer movement and making them less visible. By noting which stands did not produce acorns, I was able to hunt the most productive areas during the following season when they did produce acorns and acted as deer magnets.
Impending winter also urges deer in search of other high-calorie foods such as grains and fruit. If you hunt in an agricultural area, look for trails where deer leave crop fields or orchards and enter the woods. Until they are disturbed, deer using these paths will often enter and leave such feeding sources with some routine.
Without question, the best time to scout for deer is during hunting season. Last year I was fortunate in that a 180-pound nine-pointer ended my pursuit only eight days into the rifle season. Since I do most of my hunting from tree stands, tagging out early allowed me to go mobile and learn more about the behavior of the bucks in my area during hunting season.
Even if you haven’t filled your tag, you can still spend some time scouting as you hunt. Deer movement patterns change throughout the year. An area that once held bucks two or three weeks earlier may have been abandoned once hunters invade the woods. This is the type of information you can gather when you have the time to scout during hunting season, and you probably wouldn’t realize it without doing a little searching.
Likewise, spend as much time in the field as you can. Heavy rain or snow will often push deer into dense cover. Many hunters stay home and wait out a storm. If your time is limited, you can’t afford to miss a day’s hunting, particularly if the storm falls on a weekend. If, on the other hand, you know where the deer will be holed up during a storm, you can go directly to them.
Last year a friend of mine successfully used this very strategy. Because of work requirements, he is able to hunt only on Saturdays and an occasional weekday afternoon. The forecast was for a heavy snowfall starring Friday and lasting all day Saturday. Through scouting during the previous season, he had found a dense stand of evergreens that was largely ignored by deer except during snowstorms. With only an hour to hunt, he went straight to it on Friday afternoon and came Out 45 minutes later with a 185-pound nine-pointer–one of six deer he had seen that day.
Scouting during the Postseason period offers several advantages. With hunters out of the woods, deer return to a more relaxed pattern, and you should be able to find fresh sign that can aid in next season’s success.
Shed antlers provide a great census of which bucks made it through the hunting season. In northern states where deer yard up, the task of finding sheds is somewhat easier. In regions with open winters, deer still move to sheltered areas to get out of the wind and cold. Softwood thickets, river bottoms and south-facing slopes are the best places to search for this type of sign.
Many hunting seasons occur around the time of the rut, when bucks are most active. Not all does are bred at this time, especially in areas of high deer density with lots of young bucks or with poor buck-to-doe ratios. Even in a well-balanced herd, most yearling does are not bred during the first rut. Unbred does will come into estrus again roughly a month later–usually after the season has ended. Rutting activity picks up again, although at a somewhat subdued level. If you didn’t have time to scout during the season, now you can once again look for fresh buck sign.
Once the rut is over, deer return to pre-rut patterns. If the weather is still mild, they’ll often be feeding and bedding in the same areas as they did in early fall. Bowhunters especially can use this information for the following season.
If you’re like me, you can’t get enough deer hunting. Making “deer hunting” a year-round activity will increase your odds for success. Use your time wisely.