Under winter snow is frozen ground, and that’s where you’ll find a deer herd’s story. The pieces to this puzzle have been preserved since fall, hidden under snow and ice, blending in against the monotone grays of dormancy: forlorn winter skies and leafless, rangy hardwoods.
But winter is receding and spring is elbowing its way in. Tender blades of new grass are adding color to the landscape, and the forest floor will soon be visible again. This transition, as the season changes from winter to spring, is the time for deer hunters to take what nature’s given them.
“This time of year, coming off the freshest sign from the previous hunting season, is when you can learn the most about your hunting property and the deer on that property,” says Alex Gyllstrom, Whitetail Properties Marketing Director.
The deer sign you find in the spring isn’t old news. It’s historical data and, each year, it’ll typically repeat itself. Things you might consider within those reliable cycles are subtle variations like food-source rotations. For example, the sign around agricultural fields may vary based on the crop. So signs and deer patterns around a cornfield may be quite different than the deer movement and behavior near a bean field. Still, by and large, whitetails are creatures of habit, and unless a notable natural event or spike in human interaction has intervened with a deer herd’s patterns, habits remain largely the same year after year.
Most deer hunters have little trouble locating and walking the trails, and readily recognize deer sign from scat to scrapes. But how do you put the pieces together? And what’s the most effective series of steps to map the patterns and sanctuaries of mature bucks?
As milder temperatures begin to show up on weekly forecasts across the country, most are ready for warmer weather and anxious to get outside. But don’t put boots on the ground as a first step. Instead, sit back down. This is the time for some thorough map study.
You’ll want to focus on three primary features of deer habitat:
- Bedding areas
- Travel corridors
- Food sources
To visualize each feature, think of a bicycle wheel, which illustrates how a deer utilizes a property.
The wheel’s hub represents the bedding area. This is where the deer spends most of its time during daylight hours. This is especially true for mature deer.
Expanding out from the hub are the spokes, which represent the travel corridors or trails. These trails can lead to another bedding area, provide escape routes or they’re used as paths to food sources.
Thirdly, you have the outside rim. And that’s your food sources and also areas where deer spend a significant amount of their time.
To get the full story, use both aerial and topographic maps to pinpoint areas on your property or the property you plan to hunt. Start by identifying cover that looks well-suited for whitetail bedding areas. With aerial imagery, you’ll be able to identify timber, fields, wildlife openings, areas with thick underbrush, roads and structures like old barns and probably most fence rows. But you’ll need the topographic map for detecting the terrain elevations under those features. This piece is critical to fully understand the property you’re hunting.
Gyllstrom relies on Hunterra maps, which blends the two layers — aerial and topo — into a single, seamless rendering, giving hunters a good idea of where terrain lays.
When using your maps to identify areas where bedding may be, ask yourself where deer might feel the safest. This rules out anything that’s open, where an animal can be easily spotted. Look for areas that appear thick and secure: thickets, understory and interior areas of the property. Plus, keep in mind, it’s not a given that mature bucks will always choose the most secluded swamp or thickest thicket on your place.
What’s of equal importance are the other critical features of a bedding area: it must offer a good line of sight, the right wind and a little sunshine. You’ll also want to consider human interaction. Deer will seek out the areas with the least amount of human intrusion and, counterintuitively, those areas could be places next to roads or areas one might not expect. As a rule, if there is a minimal amount of human odor, there’s a good chance of finding deer.
“If you can look on a map and say, ‘this looks like a really good concentration of cover,’ it’s a good idea to start there,” says Gyllstrom. He’s also found, in high terrain, mature deer favor those thick, brushy ridges that come to a point. “Just off of those points is where you’ll find those mature bucks really like to bed and spend a lot of time.”
Once you’ve identified areas on the map that look like good concentrations of cover, it’s a good idea to start there. This approach sets you up to start scouting from the bedding areas, or hub, of your property.
Now that you’ve identified potential bedding areas, move from the hub to the spokes.
To do that, you’ll need to walk the property and determine what specific travel routes deer are using to and from those areas. Start taking different trails and targeting different sign. Anytime you can see a cluster of rubs or a primary scrape area that looks like it’s been used time after time or a licking branch that’s broken off a bunch, you’re adding pieces to the puzzle.
Next, hone in on the specific trails used the majority of the time to come in and out of those bedding areas.
The final and critical piece is our outside rim or food sources. This element brings the entire picture together so the full story is clear. Now you’ve got the final destination: the food sources. The travel routes to and from these sources mark the transition areas and trails and, finally, the bedding area where they’ll spend the majority of their time during daylight hours.
This model, working from the center out to the food sources, works whether you’re hunting a 40-acre property or 4,000-acre property. Consider which of these three elements — bedding areas, travel corridors and food sources — your property offers. If it offers all three, outstanding. If it only offers cover, build your plan from there. If you just have the food, think about when deer will be spending the most time there and create your plan with that in mind.
“If you have a good understanding of those three components, you’re going to have a great idea of how to best set up on the deer for this coming hunting season,” says Gyllstrom.
Featured photo: Hunterra