If you are tired of getting beaten by big bucks, you need to start "walking 'em back". To consistently take good bucks, you have to learn the property you are hunting, and how deer use it. The best time to learn how deer use your hunting property "works" is early winter, a few weeks after hunting season ends. Deer sign is generally easy to find this time of year as the ground is soft, the trees are rubbed, scrapes are in evidence and feeding and bedding areas are readily identified and, you just might get some tracking snow to boot. Best of all, the sign you're seeing was created under hunting conditions so the puzzle is all there waiting to be put together. Post season is a great time to put the deer puzzle together on your hunting property.
Walk 'Em Back
|Try the path less traveled this time of year — you never know where you'll find a big buck.|
The secret to post-season scouting is to "walk 'em back" — something we've been doing for over 20 years on our hunting property. The concept behind "walking 'em back" is pretty simple. You grab an aerial, a Sharpie and maybe a topo and head for you hunting haunts. You slip into your hunting areas, find a good set of tracks start walking them backwards. Your goal is to find out how he beat you at your own game (or was it his game) or if you got lucky, why you won this time around.
The first thing to do is find a good set of tracks to work with. Mature buck tracks are usually a good deal larger than doe or young buck tracks and the strides are longer as well. Mature bucks with thick necks and chests also "stagger" when they walk. Their front tracks are separated by 4-5 inches and their rear tracks also show dew claw imprints.
We have noticed over the years that some of our best deer had their own way of doing things. They rub different trees, hook brush differently, and definitely travel different trails than most deer do. We like to key on faint trails in the thick cover; especially if you can see where a good buck hooked his horns on some brush or rubbed a larger than average tree. Over time you will develop a good eye for rubs or other sign made by larger-than-average bucks.
If you're trying to find "old big boy," don't be fooled by well-established trails showing lots of activity. That's the one used by the does, fawns and young bucks. Look for the road less traveled — older deer (especially mature bucks) will often take their time in the woods moving from point to point using heavy cover and their nose to avoid danger. They will often drift along 30-50 yards downwind of a major deer trail checking it for estrus does. Find these locations and mark them on your map. You have a better chance of connecting with a mature deer on the "trail less traveled" than the "cow path" to the feedlot.
A number of years back, I took a fine old buck off of a snow-covered food plot on a late season hunt. The next day, my son Neil back tracked him in the snow and discovered that the buck had checked out three separate stands before coming into the open. These stands had been bowhunted periodically for a number of years preceding the kill, and the old buck was obviously wise to them. They don't get big racks and worn teeth rushing into the open without first checking things out. What he didn't know was the muzzleloader I was using could reach out and touch him at 100-plus yards, and I was hunting him from a stand he was never hunted from before. A little snow and some back tracking taught us how he managed to stay beat us all those seasons.
Take a close look at the trails around food plots or your stand locations. How did the majority of the deer approach the area? Where did they come from? Where did they scent you from? Have they figured you out? How can you change the set-up to beat them next year? Go to the areas they used for late season feeding and "walk 'em back." Take the track backwards to see what they are up to. "Walking 'em back" is a great way to learn about how deer are interacting with their environment. How do they approach a given area in a given wind? Do they change approaches with the wind?
Identify Bedding Areas
Be sure to learn where deer are bedding on your property. Bedding areas are most often used during the day when deer seek out cover to lay up in while digesting their food and getting some sleep (or at least rest). These areas usually have the heaviest cover around. It's not enough to identify a few bedding areas and call it done. You need to understand which bedding areas are used under what conditions. This is where "walking 'em back" can really help you.
Most bedding areas are wind specific. Deer almost always choose a bedding area based upon the wind. They want to smell danger long before it gets to them — especially danger from behind. Keep this in mind when locating bedding areas and note it on your map. Deer often bed on high spots which afford them a good view of their downwind location while the wind protects them from behind. You typically find plenty of droppings in bedding areas as they generally evacuate when they rise from a bed. Three to four foot compressions in leaves and grass are sure signs of recent bedding and beds in the snow are easy to identify. Melted snow generally means they've spent some time in that bed. It's a good idea to look for out-of-the-way places where big bucks can hole up to avoid pressure. These come in handy when the pressure is on and the old boys go to ground.
If the deer using your property do not bed on your property, get busy and start building them some bedding areas closer to home. You don't want them walking through 3 sets of neighbor's posters just to get to your food plots do you?
Identify Feeding Areas
You need to understand where the deer you are hunting will be feeding through the entire fall hunting cycle. Once you find them start "walking 'em back" to see how they got there and where they go when they leave. Locating hard and soft mast producers and understanding when and if the mast will be available is a key part of scouting. The same goes for crop fields and food plots. Food plots and crop fields are easy to identify as food sources. Mast and browse sources can be a little tougher. The key is to know which ones the deer are using and when.
The trick to hunting areas where deer regularly feed is not knowing if they will show, but knowing how they will approach the food source. Deer have an uncanny ability to zig when you think zag and visa-versa. This is where some post season walking 'em back will really pay dividends. We often notice older-aged deer circling fields and then entering the field with the wind at their back. That's one reason why so many trophy bucks show up late to the table and why we often set stands 30-50 yards back from the edge of a field. It's pretty tough to arrow a buck in a 5 acre field but 30 yards back in the woods is a different story.
Adjust How You Hunt 'Em
Once you know how your deer are beating you, you can adjust accordingly. The post season is the best time to adjust your set-ups from the old ones that didn't work to new ones that will. Deer learn you just as you learn them. Mature deer are incredibly adept at figuring you out and beating you at your own game. Changing how you hunt will give you a leg up, at least for a season or two, after that, it's game over, and you will need to adjust once again. That's the beauty of hunting mature whitetails.