It was a gray, bone-chilling evening, one of the last of the New York muzzleloader season. Craig Dougherty was fixing to climb down from his stand and call it a year when he looked up and saw a 150-inch brute standing in a plot of brassica greens. Boom! Craig’s .50-caliber roared and he tagged the biggest buck he’d ever seen on his farm.
The more Craig pondered his good fortune that night a few years ago, the more curious he became. That was the first time he’d ever seen the big buck on his land. Where had he come from? How had the deer approached the plot? Where had he been living, eating and bedding all those years? The next day Craig went back out to the kill site for some answers.
He picked up the buck’s track in the snow and followed it. He saw how the animal had walked toward the plot with his nose into the northwest wind. Craig marveled at how the deer had approached the greens without exposing himself once in the timber. The 10-pointer had zigged, zagged and used ridges, draws and the last standing brush to stay hidden all the time. Craig found several spots where the deer had stopped, hung out for a while, looked out into the plot and sniffed some more for danger.
“From the looks of his tracks and how they circled back and forth into and across the wind and cover, I’m sure that old buck had pulled those tricks many times before,” says Craig. “He knew every inch of his core area, and he had the smarts to survive under my nose for five years.”
You learn stuff like that with a few days of post-season scouting in the winter, right now. Go back out to the stands you hunted last fall, walk out from them in an ever-widening circular pattern and look for old clues. See and envision how deer used the terrain, structure, cover and wind when traveling from bed to feed months ago. You will find spots where bucks rubbed, and scraped and staged, etc.
You will learn if you need to move your stand 50 to 100 yards…or maybe you’re in a good spot and should stay put. All this will increase your chances of whacking a big buck when you come back to hunt 8 or 9 months from now. Here are things to look for.
Walk out from your stands, cut deer trails and follow them. They will all lead, if in a roundabout way, to food sources and bedding sites. The freshest trails in the leftover snow, mud or leaves come and go to late-season food sources. But the older, drier, fainter trails are perhaps more important. They lead to and from food sources that deer hit back in the rut, when most of your hunting took place. If you missed those trails by 100 yards or so when you hung your stands last fall, move them closer before next season.
As you follow the trails, note how they hug brush, cut through low spots, curve around fence corners—all potential funneling spots for stands next season. Also, use a map, compass and your imagination to visualize how the deer walked those trails into the predominant wind, especially the closer they got to food sources and bedding areas. The more you can nail down how deer use the common winds in your area, the more bucks you will see and shoot.
Some old advice is still good advice: Make a mental note of every “signpost” you run across either close or far from your stands. A dominant buck blazed that monster rub last October or November. A cluster of rubs as thick as your calf is really what you want to find. It’s sight that the rubber spent a lot of time in a core area close to your stands. He or another mature buck should be back in there this fall.
I’ve noticed that in some parts of the country, notably the Midwest and Southeast, bucks show a preference for rubbing aromatic cedars and/or pines. Look for trends like that. For example, if you find that 70 percent of last fall’s rubs were on evergreens, you’re on to something. As you scout, veer over to investigate every green patch or strip, especially those near crop fields, oak flats and creeks. You’ll turn up more and more rubs in those spots. You’ll know where a lot of bucks will hang out and blaze new rubs this fall, and you’ll want to hang some stands there.
Look for a “rub location” pattern, too. Suppose you find twice as many scarred trees on the tops of ridges than on the sides or in draws. Well, the resident bucks are “ridge toppers,” and it reveals a travel pattern they’ll use from September through the late season. Work that into your plan and set some stands on ridges and hilltops.
In moderate climates and after the snow melt up North, old scrapes are visible into early spring. Find scrapes and walk about them. Put yourself in a buck’s hooves. Scan the woods up ahead and visualize how he prowled for does. See how he worked the wind, hugged brush, cut around points, skirted fallen logs, etc. You might find great new spots for stands…or get a better idea of where to watch for bucks coming and going out of your same old stands next November.
As you hike on the freshest, muddiest trails between winter feeding areas and bedding sites, look for just-cast antlers. Find a big chunk of 4- or 5-point bone (and both sides if you’re lucky) and you know one thing—a shooter that you saw last season (or maybe you didn’t see him) survived the hunting season, and if doesn’t get hit by a car over the summer, there’s a good chance he’ll be on your land next season, at least in hte late season.
It gives you something to dream about as you analyze all the old sign you just found and work it into a fresh hunting plan for the fall of 2016.