Winter/Spring Scouting & Shed Hunting
It’s over until next year and many hunters won’t think about visiting the whitetail woods again until the following hunting season. Those hunters are missing out on learning tons about their herd and the mature bucks inhabiting the realm. A great deal can be absorbed by observing their movements and habits all year long, but the time from February through May can be especially important for several reasons.
Late winter and early spring are my favorite times to go through my spots with a "fine-toothed comb." During this time of year, even the property’s sanctuaries are fair game. If you bump a buck now, he has months to forget the intrusion. If you wish to consistently harvest mature bucks and if you’re serious about managing your herd, scouting during this time of year is important.
Some areas whitetails inhabit year-around, and other territories they move out of and into "yards" or wintering areas. This is famous for happening in the North, but, even here in the South, whitetails will make moves throughout their home range to meet different seasonal needs. For this one reason, I don’t put a lot of confidence in a shed antler leading me to a buck the following season. The buck that owned the antler might be living 20 miles away during hunting season. Then again, if you’re in an area whitetails do inhabit all year long, it’s possible to discover vital intelligence that will put you closer to killing that buck come fall.
This past season was a great lesson-learned for me that sometimes sheds should be taken seriously, other times they don’t mean squat. The buck I killed off my property (left in the grip-n-grin photo) was a "home-body." In 5 years and thousands of trail camera photos, he was only known to have left an area of about 150 acres once. For 2 years running, we found his sheds very near where he was killed. On the other hand, the buck taken by my brother-in-law, Mike Berggren, loved to gallivant and was seen at every camera location we had on the 500-acre property. We’re not sure, but we may have the sheds from Mike’s buck from when he was a 2-year-old, other than that, no sheds from the buck. The sheds from my buck (the home-body) were found in the food plot in the background of the photo, only a short distance from where he was killed. He was 7 years old and much larger during age 4 through 6, and seemed to peak as a 5-year-old when he would have almost made the 170 inch Boone & Crocket minimum.
Some people go absolutely nuts for shed hunting. Most of the time I go for the purpose of scouting and if I happen to run across a shed that’s a bonus. "Shedding" has become so popular that some people have started training dogs specifically for finding shed antlers. I must admit I’ve been considering it and have been looking for a new puppy. Shed hunting is a great way to get your family involved more in the outdoors.
Tom Dokken and his Oak Ridge Kennels have probably done more to "mushroom" this sport than any other. Tom has his own line of dog training tools specifically relating to shed hunting. There are contests throughout the country and trials specifically for "shed dogs."
I love to bring my daughters with me. For one, because it’s fun! Also, their eyes are far better than mine. It’s like "CSI," Cast Shed Investigators. We treat it like a game and it gets us all outdoors together. They’ve already learned to spot the subtle signs that an antler might be present better than I.
Trail cameras are still very useful after the season. During the colder winter temperatures, I use a small, rechargeable 12 volt battery in my trail cameras (on the models with this option), rather than the batteries they normally use. This saves me hundreds of dollars on batteries. Cameras are especially important to me this time of year so I can learn for sure which bucks made it through the season and what management decisions need to be implemented for the coming year. I will pull my cameras in March and put them back out again in July, when their antlers are large enough I can begin to see the differences in specific bucks again.
March through May is my favorite time for that "boots on the ground," in-depth type scouting. I want to learn every little detail now so, when the season draws nearer, I don’t have to pressure the spot. With the foliage off the trees, rubs you’ve never seen before start to pop out. I do put a lot of confidence in these. Travel routes, direction of travel and size of buck can be told, and this sign was most likely made during the hunting season.
Even though the season has ended, glassing can tell you how your density fared and the overall health of your herd. Some argue, "With their antlers gone, how do you tell what you’re looking at – is it a buck or a doe?" These are usually the same people who won’t step foot in the woods again until next hunting season. When you see the body of a mature buck, there’s no mistaking it. There can be exceptions to the rule, but, for the most part, you know a "shooter buck" whether he’s carrying antlers or not. After years of observing whitetails, you can begin to tell the difference between bucks and does just by the way they walk, run, stand or act around other deer.
Whitetails definitely don’t move as much during the winter months, but their stomach and their need for food will still make them travel, and if you time it right you can learn a lot. If you anticipate the weather changes or wait until bad weather breaks, it sometimes seems like the "whitetail flood gates" have opened. Just before or just after a major cold front, when we get a warm up after several days of severe cold temperatures or after a long period of harsh winds, are good times to stake out near a food source like brassicas or corn.
I mentioned I don’t worry as much about spooking the animals this time of the year, but why let them know you’ve been there if you don’t have to? I always take the same precautions with scent elimination anytime I enter their turf. Rubber boots, trapper’s gloves (or clean, cold weather gloves) and Scent Killer are my most important scouting tools. I really like the new Scent Killer Gold – like all Scent Killer Sprays it has "Hunt Dry" technology and will work for days after it’s dried into your clothes. In the cold winter temperatures, who wants to be wet? Not only do we have to pay attention to the odors we carry on us, but also the ones we may leave behind. A mature buck can imprint on your mistake, so these steps and tools are important whenever you enter your hunting area.
Just before and during the actual hunting season, I back off of an area and observe from the edge and let my cameras do their job. If you have a good understanding of an area from your winter/spring scouting, why mess up your chance at a potential trophy? I have no doubt you’ll find scouting during this time of the year will help you put a buck in your sights during the up-coming hunting season.
Todd Amenrud is the Director of Public Relations for Mossy Oak BioLogic, Editor-in-Chief of Gamekeepers, Farming for Wildlife magazine and a habitat consultant.