The pungent smell was familiar, and got my heart pumping. I’d been watching bucks file by my stand all evening long and although I did not choose to shoot one of them, I felt rewarded that they had read my script. One of them in particular was really rutted up and stunk something fierce. The wind was swirling but I hunted with confidence that my ScentBlocker gear and scent control routine would help me get close enough to kill. Unfortunately the big buck I was after never showed up that night, but I still left feeling very satisfied.
To most people, hunting is a hobby; a time-honored tradition they partake in each fall with friends and family. For others, us “whitetail 365” guys, it’s an obsession. I think about deer hunting every day of the year and don’t like it when I am not doing something hunting related. While most are nursing their “hunting hangovers” in late winter, my season has already started and I’m out working toward my next buck.
Once the season ends, I contend that the most important thing a deer hunter can do is get outside and scout. Late winter is a great time to scout because sign from the past season can still be seen before everything greens back up again. I’m reluctant to invade a bedding area during the season because I know that the fence line will be lined with neighboring hunters, but this time of year, everything’s fair game.
When scouting time hits, I like to dress light but warm, making sure my outer layer is ScentBlocker Recon with ripstop fabric to bust through thickets and thorns, throw on my 17” Boa Dream Season boots, and hike all over my hunting properties. Just to be safe, I also saturate myself with ScentBlocker Ti4 Titanium spray to make sure I am leaving no trace of my human scent. My memory isn’t the best so I usually bring a map and write down everything I notice. I’m looking for trails, bedding areas, food sources, escape routes, possible stand sites, etc… anything that is deer related gets documented on my map.
My goal is to learn exactly what the deer were doing during the season. This is challenging at times because the preferred food sources will change from October 1 to January 1. Keep in mind the deer do alter their patterns throughout the fall, so an area that may have been smoking hot in October, say an oak flat, might not show a lot of sign come March. Either way, a scouting mission should be a learning experience, so any information gathered will be better than none. Later in the year when hanging stands, I reference the map for a refresher of the property.
Winter is also a great time to get out the old chainsaw and dust it off. I heat my home with wood and quite often cut at my hunting properties. Before cutting any trees, make sure to discuss ideas with the landowner and get their blessing. I like to blaze wide, really obvious trails for the deer to use. These trails will often become deer super-highways, so be on the lookout for potential stand locations. I’ll connect bedding and feeding areas for the deer, and also create access and exit routes for me to use. If I have located a great stand site, I’ll also cut shooting lanes. It’s really important to cut very wide in in the winter. Mother Nature has an amazing way of re-growing and making sparsely-cut winter trails non-existent come October.
Deadly funnels can also be created in this time of year. The hunt I described above happened near one of my funnels. There is a heavily used trail at one of my hunting properties which logically runs downwind of a thick, nasty, doe bedding area. The problem is that there are no safe trees to use for stands anywhere near the trail. So, last winter my dad and I went in and dropped a few trees over the trail. The entire endeavor took us about 15 minutes and the end result is that the deer using that trail now have to go around those trees, and walk through one of my shooting lanes in order to get back onto the main trail. It’s a slick setup; as the bucks cruise downwind of the doe bedding area, I’m downwind of them. Tree dropping is simple and effective. The bucks I was watching were downwind of the doe bedding area and were forced to walk toward my stand to get around the trees.
Funnels can be created in all sorts of ways. Another funnel I like to create is by blocking access to a food source. For instance, if I have a food plot that I plan to hunt, I might drop trees or stack brush all around it except for a few places. Naturally the deer will have to enter and exit through those specific openings, creating a perfect stand location and ambush site.
Winter is also a great time to create or enhance bedding areas. Generally I find a bedding area and add to it, but sometimes I’ll simply create one. The objective is to thicken the area and provide screen cover for the deer. To enhance a bedding area, I’ll fire up the chainsaw and “hinge” cut any undesirable trees or bush. To hinge cut a tree, I simply start about waist high and cut about three-fourths of the way through it, so the tree will fall to the ground but not be cut completely. By not cutting it all of the way, I allow the tree to live and send several precious shoots of new growth skyward each year from that point forward.
The logs, brush, and treetops will create bedding cover. The new growth will also create cover, and provide browse for the deer to eat. The desirable trees, such as hardwoods and fruit trees, will be left to grow tall and strong with little competition from the scrub I just cut. Eventually, all sorts of vines and berry bushes will grow in as well, offering even more food and cover.
Creating a bedding area takes a bit more time and calculation. Deer need to feel safe and secure where they bed, and wind plays a big factor. They certainly like to have thick cover and plenty of escape routes, but they also need to be able to smell what they can’t see. I like to create bedding cover near food sources. For instance, if I can I will drop all the scrubby trees around the perimeter of a crop field. This will allow the quality trees to grow, and also create a thick mess for the deer to bed near the field, no matter the wind direction. When I create a large block of bedding cover, I’ve had good luck keeping a few open pockets within the interior. These clear, open pockets are great places for small food plots, or tall weeds that will appear naturally. I always notice several scrapes and rubs in these internal openings, and really think the deer feel secure there.
I make it a goal to find a new piece of land to hunt each season and my quest always begins in January. Winter is a great time to start seeking permission for the next season. Obtaining hunting permission is a lot about building meaningful relationships with the landowner. I start by introducing myself, asking what I can do to earn hunting rights, and follow through with their suggestions.
I always call the landowner on a hay farm I hunt in March. He is never baling at that time, but I want him to know well ahead of time that I am planning on baling again that summer, and hunting again in the fall. I also turkey hunt that farm so that helps solidify my presence as the resident hunter of that farm. I always offer to earn the right to hunt. Many people simply ask, and occasionally do get permission. I find it easier to keep a hunting property when the landowner depends on the help I provide. As I mentioned previously, I burn wood to heat my home. Some landowners need wood cut, and fence rows cleared. These types of relationships are really beneficial to both of us. Others may want yard work done, need help with household chores, or simply appreciate someone stopping by to chat now and then. Either way, winter is the perfect time to start building these relationships.
Set some goals
Set new hunting goals for the new year. Try to scout a few extra acres of property. Create some trails, a deadly funnel, or maybe a new bedding area. Stop by that old house and see if anyone hunts out back. Do something productive that is deer hunting related. Remember, although it seems so far away, next season has already begun.
Images courtesy Jason Herbert