After The Season: What you can do Now to be Successful Next Fall

By Ryan Graden

January 10th has come and gone leaving us the lull of a few winter months with nothing to pursue outdoors. At this point, you could stay inside and watch the sun rise and fall. You could watch the ever-slowing hands of the clock as time ticks away. You could replay the greatest events of the season over and over again in your mind. Or….. you could get yourself moving and make preparations for next season!

That’s right! It’s never too early to begin next season’s preparations. There is so much to do and so little time. Why not get a jumpstart on things and begin taking some steps towards guaranteeing your success when you enter the timber next fall.

Where Do I Begin?
That’s a good question. I hope you are bundled up and ready for the answer. OUTSIDE! This late winter season can tell you so much about what is happening in the area that you are hunting. Most likely there will be some snow on the ground. If you know what you’re looking for, you can discover some valuable information regarding areas that your deer herds are frequenting.

Let’s begin with tracks. Tracking is a very important part of post-season scouting. If you take a bit of time to walk around, you will begin to see some traffic patterns of the deer that made it through the hunting season. When you find these tracks, take some time to follow them to see where they lead. Are they ending at a food source? What is the food source? Are they all going one direction? Towards or away from the food? Is it water? Is it cover or timber that the tracks lead to? There is so much to figure out from tracks and that is where your study needs to begin.

If tracks are leading to food sources such as harvested fields, food plots, silage piles, water, or old hay fields, you can deduce that the travel patterns of the deer on that path are probably using it in the evening hours. If the tracks are leading away from food sources into timber or cover of some sort, then you can probably guess those travel corridors/paths are morning patterns that deer are using to return to bedding areas.

The size of the tracks will also tell you a bit about what you are tracking. Hooves that are splayed out are showing a deer with some weight. An even heavier deer might also leave traces of his dewclaws as his/her weight is causing them to leave more of a track. Heavier deer translates into a more mature deer. Mature deer lead to old healthy does and large-racked bucks. Pay attention to the direction of your tracks.

You can also tell what trails are their favorite to use! The most commonly used trails will be worn down! In snow, sometimes these trails are showing nothing but dirt. If you can find a trail like this in the area you are hunting, I would make a note of that for the coming fall. It might be a trail that you would consider setting a stand up to watch.

Who’s Still There?
While you are out and about gathering information on travel patterns of the deer in your hunting area, look also for sheds. In case you didn’t know, bucks will shed or “loose” their antlers every spring. The antlers have served their purpose and in preparations for next year’s pair to grow, the current antlers will drop off from a buck’s head. Walking trails and looking for bedding areas (we will get to that!) is a great way to find sheds.

Shed antlers will tell you a bit of information if you find them. First off, they will let you know who is still around. Who survived the multiple hunting seasons to live another year. Since the sheds don’t usually begin to fall until February or March, the deer that shed them obviously have to be alive.

Sheds can also tell you who the deer are that survived the season. If you know members of your deer herd because of previous scouting or trail camera pictures, sheds will tell you specifically who the shed came from. If you have a buck you are after and you did not get a chance to harvest him during the seasons you had to hunt, finding a pair of shed antlers can give you and confident indication that he’s going to be around for the next season for you to pursue.

Find Comfort and Cover
Another thing to find when the snow is on the ground, bedding areas! As the deer retreat into the timbers during the morning hours, they will be looking for a great place to rest for the day. They will look for a place that provides them with cover, warmth, and protection from the wind. What you’re looking for are those oval shaped “melted areas” in the snow. You will usually find at least a few located close together indicating that more than one deer bedded in the area.

Thickets, brambles, and fallen trees will offer a great type of cover for deer to hide in during the day as they catch some Z’s. If the weather is mild, deer might also find some comfort in a CRP field of tall prairie grass. My family’s CRP fields are always full of deer during the daytime hours. Pheasant hunts have proved exciting when we kick out a pile of deer as we walk through the tall grass that provides all the deer require.

Sunny shelfs on south facing ravines are always a great place to look for deer as they rest through the daytime hours. I have harvested many great bucks while spot-n-stalking these areas during the day. I make sure the wind is in my favor as I carefully approach the edge of areas like this with my gun at the ready!

When Spring Appears
As the winter months melt away, spring will bring new growth. As well as an opportunity for you to offer some supplements to your herds diet.

If you have a way to plant some food plots in your hunting area, spring is the time you need to do it. Take that winter information of travel patterns, bedding areas, and food sources and make a plan.

Study to find out what’s available that would be easy to plant and would provide your herd with some supplemental nutrition leading to healthy growth in both body size as well as antlers. There are some incredible surface spread seeds that will grow a very green and appealing food plot for deer to feed on through the spring, summer, and early fall months.

Hang Out and Observe
Your summer months do not have to be slow by any means. Take a drive with a pair of binoculars and do some spotting! If you have food plots planted, you know exactly where to go. If you don’t have food plots, but have done your homework, you should know where the deer are feeding. Hop in the car and load up the family about an hour before sundown. Grab some snacks and head out to observe what emerges from the cover.

At this time in the summer, deer will be routine in their daily schedule. At dusk, they will come from the cover to feed through the night and socialize. Fawns will stretch out their legs in playful exercise. Bucks and does will feed in common areas and you will get a chance to see who’s in the area.

As you repeat your scouting outings, you will get to know certain deer. It’s at this point you can start to make your “hit list” of deer that you plan to chase in the upcoming fall months. Continue to watch them, take notes, and begin to put all your information together to make a plan when it comes time to get into the blind or stand.

Put all that together and you’ll have a busy year! There is something to do in every season to prepare for the next hunting year. For me, cabin fever doesn’t happen too much. I can always find an excuse to be in the timber.

So take this time to plan the rest of your year. Set aside some weekends to get busy preparing for the upcoming season. Gathering information, practicing your shooting, and making plans will lead you to great success in the future. Yes, it can be a lot of work. However, once you’ve bagged the buck that you’ve been eyeballing through the offseason, you’ll find out that the work was worth it. I haven’t ever met a hunter that has regretted his prep time when they harvest a deer that they are proud of.

Keep yourself busy! It will pay off in the end. Good luck!