Deer Season’s Over. Time to Start Scouting

The period just after closing day is the perfect time to take an inventory of bucks and gather intel for next season

Trail cam image of deer in snow
This late-January trail-cam photo told the author that this heavy 8-point buck survived another hunting season.Scott Bestul

Deer season may be over, but now is not the time to relax. Okay, relax a little. Maybe spend a few days in front of a fire or under a blanket to completely thaw out from those brutal late-season vigils. But then get going. Now is the time to find out which bucks survived the season, and if there’s snow on the ground, you won’t find a better opportunity to figure out exactly where your deer eat, sleep, travel, and hole up—invaluable information for filling a tag next winter, before the season ends. Here’s what to do right now.

Take an Inventory of Survivor Bucks

It’s not too early to get pumped up about next season, and the best way to do that is to keep your trail cameras running. As soon as the season is over, I pull all of my cameras that were on non-food-source setups and bring them home for some basic maintenance. I download any new photos and clear the cards, and then I replace all batteries with fresh ones, as I know my cams are in for some extended cold-weather service. The next step is to get as many cams on hot food sources as possible. If baiting or feeding is legal in your area, those are no-brainer camera setups. If that’s an option for you (it’s not for me, either), put some cameras in a pack and put on your hiking boots.

Odds are you already have a pretty good idea of which food plots and fields are most likely to attract winter deer, but you need to verify it. Winter deer key in on certain food sources for a variety of reasons, including proximity to bedding, snow depth, exposure to humans, and more. The only way to know for sure which ones the deer are using now is to go check for sign. By the way, keep an eye out for sheds as you scout, as some bucks can drop early. If you have wireless cams in your arsenal, place them on the most difficult plots to access (for you) or the ones that you know are close to bedding/security cover, so that you’re not repeatedly bumping the deer you want pics of.

Collage of trail camera photos of deer in snow.
A selection of post-season survivor bucks from the past several years.Scott Bestul

If food plots and farm fields aren’t in play where you hunt, head for mast, winter browse, and any available green forage, such a honeysuckle leaves. Here again, you’ll need to scout in order to find the best sources, but it’s a safe bet any leftover acorns or apples, or regenerating clear-cuts or burns are going to receive some serious feeding attention. If there’s snow on the ground, it’ll be a piece of cake to identify the hottest grub, and the places to hang cameras.

Then it’s just a matter of checking them to learn which deer made it through the season, what they are up to, and even when to go looking for their sheds. This gives you something deer-related to do in the offseason, and knowing that some of your best bucks will likely be around next fall will make the time off easier to bear.

Follow Winter Deer Tracks

But you’re not done yet. Getting buck photos on food sources is great, but when it comes to consistently ambushing deer during the season, nothing beats an intimate knowledge of how whitetails move through the landscape of your property. Think about it: Many top food sources—ag fields, oaks, soft mast—can be on fire one year and duds the next. This fall’s hot rub or scrape line can evaporate next season. But if you know exactly the trails and funnels that whitetails use to travel between food and does—which remain largely consistent from year to year—adapting to these ever-changing seasonal attractions will becomes a snap.

This heavily used trail reveals how deer move through your property.
Winter deer trails like this one reveal how deer move through your property.Dave Hurteau

If there’s snow on the ground, this is the perfect time to get a handle on those travel routes, as every track is positive proof. Sure, you’ll find a certain amount random movement that you may or may not be able to decipher. But the majority of the deer tracks you follow—whether they were left by a buck moving naturally or a doe you’ve bumped from a bed—will tell you exactly the kind of story you need to read. When deer navigate a ditch, is there a subtle crossing you were missing? When they follow a ridge, do they stick right on top, or do they feel safer side-hilling?

Maybe most important, you’ll find deer beds—surefire evidence of a place where deer feel safe and comfortable. In my mind, there’s not much intel that’s more important to know than where a buck starts his day. Naturally, you won’t get a handle on all seasonal bedding spots (summer and early-fall bucks will often bed on cooler, north-facing slopes that aren’t popular now), but with some hard walking you can nail down a bunch of places were winter deer lay-up, and that will come in very handy during the late-season next year. Plus, the more ground you cover, the better your odds of picking up a shed or two.

Shed deer antler in the snow.
Keep an eye out for early-cast sheds while your scouting.Deposit Photos

So yeah, the 2019 season is history for most of us. But the 2020 hunt is just a few short months away, and the weeks ahead are the perfect time to get all the information you need to arrange a meeting with a monster.