When we scout and hunt a property for deer from September through December, we poke around and look for rubs, scrapes and tracks. But we are reluctant to walk around too much or penetrate too deeply into the woods for fear of bumping deer. That’s good, but trouble is, by working only the perimeters of a hunting area, you only get a glimpse of how and where the deer, and bucks, live and travel.
But in the spring, you can walk freely in the woods and investigate every ridge, bottom and thicket for signs of deer. Why not kill two birds with one stone and combine your scouting with your turkey hunting in April and May?
At daylight, listen for a gobbling bird and go get him if you can. Midmornings, when the turkeys go quiet, start walking. Cover every ridge, draw and creek bottom on the land. Check out every edge, thicket or swamp. You’ll bump a few deer, but who cares? You won’t be back to hunt them for another 5 or 6 months.
As you’re walking along pause every few hundred yards and cast a few yelps and cutts, hoping to strike a gobbler whose hens have left him for the day. If no luck with that, cut every deer trail you come across, follow it a ways and see where it goes. Trails the deer use now will be fresh and muddy, but old worn trails they used last fall and winter will still be visible. Those old trails are the ones you need to find and follow, since those are the ones a buck used back in hunting season, and the ones he’ll use it again this fall.
Main trails will fork into secondary trails that link more food sources and cover thickets. Walk those too, and key in on pockets of deer sign. When a trail cuts across a creek, veers around a ridge point or drops into a ditch, take note because those funneling points are great places for trail cameras and tree stands next fall.
As you hike, look for feeding areas you might have missed or never knew about—white oaks on a ridge, a patch of greenery near a swamp, persimmons, old apple trees… Same goes for small or large thickets, cutovers, weedy ditches and the like that serve as satellite or major bedding areas.
Rubs and scrapes from last October and November are easy to spot in the spring woods. Look for “signpost” rubs–large, scarred trees that mark some section of a buck’s core living area. Missouri whitetail scientist Grant Woods points out that while mature bucks blaze the big rubs, many deer interact with them. “They act as communal pheromone wicks and are located in areas with high deer traffic,” he says. That would be an obvious spot to scout further and hang a stand this fall.
Woods has found a correlation between the number of rubs in an area and the number of older bucks that live there. On a management property in Tennessee, he’s observed an amazing 5,000 rubs per square mile, or 7.8 per acre. If you find a piece of woods lit up rubbed trees like that, start looking for stand sites for this fall.
Whitetail bucks are habitual, and scrape in the same general areas year after year. As you walk and turkey call, look for three old scraping patterns, and make a note to come back and check them again as bucks start rutting this October:
–A cluster of scrapes at the intersection of 2 or 3 trails, with big rubs nearby. This is a “rut junction” and a great spot for a trail camera.
–A scrape line on the edge of a linear honeysuckle thicket or a row of pines or cedars. Bucks run these edges frequently in late October and early November. Another good spot for a trail camera.
–A heavily scraped spot on a ridge 100 yards or so off a corn or bean field. If the acorn crop is good again in the fall, bucks will stage and scrape there again.
I hope you get your turkey this spring, but if not all is not lost. The more you roam and learn the woods, and the more old buck sign you find, the better you’ll hunt this fall.