It happens all too fast… The leaf covered forest floors quickly start to settle, leaving the woods eerily quiet. Streams tend to be covered with a thin layer of ice, almost as though they are about to disappear completely. As for us bowhunters, every year hunting season comes and goes, leaving us in the dumps, missing the pursuit. Many of us change gears this time of year, taking up indoor archery, but there is still a place for us in the woods. Though we can no longer add large game to the freezer, the best planning for next year, is right now.
Year in and year out, I was a typical late summer scouter. I would find a plethora of signs that time of year. These signs included hard-packed trails, droppings, and kicking up plenty of deer. In the beginning of the year, hunting was good and I would see multiple deer almost every outing. Yet, with all of these signs, every late October, everything changes and the deer aren’t anywhere to be found until the height of the rut. The problem I was unknowingly faced with – a rapid change in feeding patters. In recent years, I have made an effort to scout for the following year as soon as the season is over.
Late-season or winter scouting has many benefits over the typical late summer scouting that most deer hunters seem to part take in. Before spring arrives, it is easy to find trails, rut sign, and even bedded deer. Feeding patterns are also different this time of year, and knowing what they are eating makes for a good gamble next year during the late season. Going out for a scout after a fresh covering of snow can give you many of the answers you seek.
As many of you know, the sport of traditional bowhunting, can test your patience with limited range to harvest your game. Though I wouldn’t have it any other way, I’m always trying to improve my woodsmanship skills to get closer and be on the “X” more consistently. While the overgrowth is down and the tree’s are skeletons, unlike their otherwise leafy alter egos, it’s a great time to locate next year’s trees to set stands on and mark them on a GPS. This will allow you to come back mid-season next year, with no scent or pressure on that area for 6 months or more.
I like to keep track of not only animals, but people. Knowing where “Joe the hunter” crashed through the woods every Saturday morning to get to a tree stand can give you the opportunity of understanding his influence on the nearby environment. Understanding where “Joe” is pushing these animals, will help you set up and ultimately exploit his pressure next hunting season. Keep a close eye out for hang on stands, ladder stands, and trees severely marred from climbing sticks. These styles of hunting, if used regularly, create high pressure and force deer and other animals to change their patterns. This is a highly effective way to hunt severely pressured public lands, much as the ones here in Northern Virginia.
Mapping your finds is also a great way of keeping track of these locations and signs you’ll be finding. There are quite a few free apps out there available to anyone that will aid in managing hunting areas. For the 2017 season, I spent most of my time on HuntStand™. This app gave me the ability to mark maps for routes, sign, and property lines. I was also able to check the weather, which allowed me to pick my hunting area by wind and precipitation percentages.
If you would rather escape the strangling grip of technology, a quick search on the internet before your trip can provide you with excellent topographical maps. Mapping is definitely a dying art, and with some practice you can easily become an efficient navigator by map and compass. Again, the internet is a great place to start. Used book stores and surplus stores will most likely turn up some great military publications that can be among the best resources for navigation.
This time of year, most states still have seasons open for small game. Here in Virginia I am able to enjoy harvesting squirrels and rabbits through the month of February. Being able to not only scout for whitetails and black bears, but also the ability to continue adding meat to the freezer, makes taking the bow and arrows along on a scouting trip a no-brainer. Regular hunting arrows tipped with either normal large game broadheads or small game blunts work great. I recommend using VPA Small Game Thumpers or Zwickey Judo Points. Both of these small game broadheads/blunts are great performers at a minimal price point. They also work well when out stump shooting, as they will not burrow deep in targets, due to their design to limit penetration.
I also enjoy taking the .22lr with as well to brush up on my marksmanship and to poke out to around 50-75 meters when the critters present themselves. With extremely affordable, readily available ammunition and a relatively quiet report, it’s about the next best thing to the stealth, light weight, and fun-factor as traditional archery equipment.
Unlike a typical deer season, none of this has to be done around sunrise or sunset. There’s nothing wrong with squeezing it in between “honey-do’s” during the weekend or after a day at work. These trips are not about finding whitetails or black bear. The intention is to find sign, understand the feeding, movement, and rut patterns.
Keeping minimal gear for these quick trips readily available in your vehicle opens up a lot of potential scouting time during travels. I will be writing an article soon about scouting gear, so be sure to keep an eye out for it. Whether you’re an adventurer always looking for that new spot, a public land owner, or a steady private property hunter, there are signs of next year’s target animals to be discovered around the woods this time of year. Get out there, enjoy the winter weather, and pursue your passion.
If you have any questions about winter scouting, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Enjoy!