By Steve Sorensen
Attention all hard-working, salt-of-the-earth,
Will your financial resources buy you access to trophy whitetail habitat? Do you have the land and equipment to plant a network of perfectly-placed food plots? Do you have the time and money to travel to the best hunting states?
For most of us, the answer to these questions is “No.” But I have good news. If you’re a hard-working, back-forty, salt-of-the-earth, grass-roots hunter, you’re not a second-class citizen in the hunting world. You can still succeed if you have a plan.
Here are four steps you can take to increase your knowledge and confidence – and lead to your next mature whitetail. Two steps today, and two steps next time.
Step 1 – Begin a Winter Scouting Program
Even though what I call “shooting season” (the dates your state game agency sets) is over, make up your mind that “hunting season” (the whole rest of the year if take your sport seriously) is not. So, even though shooting season is over, it’s still hunting season.
Look at it that way, and hunting season isn’t regulated by anyone. It lasts 365 days. Just as football players aren’t ready to walk onto the field on opening day if they haven’t been doing drills, learning the playbook, and improving their skills, hunters plan for success by learning and studying, and improving their skills, whether in the woods or at home.
Winter is a great time to do that. Go for a weekly hike. It can be for a couple of hours, or all day. Take a lunch and something warm to drink. Take binoculars. Photocopy a topo map or take a GPS and mark down notes about what you learn. The information you gather is valuable.
During winter, wildlife routines aren’t interrupted by hunters. You can see deer trails more clearly than ever. You can see how they snake across the landscape in the bare woods. You’ll find places where, standing in one spot, they’re visible for a hundred yards. You’ll even find secondary trails downwind of main trails. Note them because they’re often used by bucks.
Your winter scouting will also show bedding areas. Don’t worry that you might boot deer from their beds—you’re only one guy and they have plenty of time to get over the disturbance. At any other time of the year, bedding areas are so much more difficult to find. In winter they’re easy to read, especially if you have snow on the ground. Analyze them. Is there just one? Very likely it’s a buck. Are some smaller than others? Probably a doe family group. Are they all the same size? You may have found a secure hideout a buck bachelor group is using.
Also look for recent rubs, old scrapes, areas where deer have been feeding, and trails that funnel down to narrow places. Look for trees that might make good ambush sites for tree stands. Mark them with a reflective tack to help you find them later. You don’t have to decide on the exact tree you will hunt from, because in the fall when trees are leafed out everything will look different. But these spots will be good as gold come next shooting season.
Step 2 – Use Trail Cameras Early
Trail cameras will lead to more success than a new rifle and scope, or a new bow all decked out. I suggest using at least seven. That many allows you to scout multiple locations and gather a lot more information than one camera can. Put six out and carry the seventh when you check them. It will make you more efficient when you relocate a camera.
If you’re going to run a serious trail camera program, start early. Putting them out in late summer and fall isn’t enough. Start in the winter. You’ll get pictures of post-season bucks, and that will help your boots-on-the-ground scouting trips. It can also help you find more shed antlers (that’s Step three, to come), because pictures will tell you where to concentrate your search. But there’s a bigger reason to use them in the winter. Most hunters may not realize it, but bucks are acting like bucks all year long.
Every buck is part of a club, and you can take inventory on them even when they don’t have antlers on their heads. That’s because a primary way bucks communicate with each other is by means of a secretion from the pre-orbital gland. That’s a main function of licking branches—which they use 24/7, all 12 months of the year. They’re either gathering scent placed by another buck, or depositing their own scent. The licking branch is like the bulletin board at the local diner where every businessman who stops for lunch posts his business card.
Don’t worry about making mock scrapes below the licking branch. Bucks do that mainly in the late pre-rut and the rut. But they use licking branches every day. So, you need only one thing besides the camera—get some pre-orbital gland lure. It’s as irresistible to bucks as catnip is to cats. You can get it from various places; I order mine from Smokey’s Deer Lures.
I’ve talked to hunters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, New York, Wisconsin and Iowa who apply pre-orbital gland lure to licking branches and they’ve all been getting great photos.
I strongly advise using lithium batteries. They’re expensive, but in the long run they’ll definitely save you money, and they’re much more reliable. In my cameras (I use Bushnell and Moultrie), I’ve had a set of lithium batteries last from late winter to late fall, and even longer.
Begin your off-season plan with these first two steps, and you’ll be ready for the next two, coming in the next post.
About Steve Sorensen
Outdoor writer and speaker Steve Sorensen is the author of Growing Up With Guns, writes an award-winning newspaper column called The Everyday Hunter®, and edits content on the Havalon Sportsman’s Post. He has also published articles in Deer & Deer Hunting, Outdoor Life, and many other top magazines across the USA. Invite Steve to speak at your next sportsman’s event, and follow him at www.EverydayHunter.com.
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