Spring Scouting For Big Bucks

Mike Hanback, host of Big Deer TV, is one of America’s most respected deer hunters and bloggers. Check out his website at www.bigdeertv.com and follow him on Facebook  and Twitter.

Most studies of wild, hunted deer have found that the average core area of a mature buck in the fall and winter is only 300 to 600 acres or so. That’s much smaller than many hunters imagine. Although big deer surely venture out of these comfort zones on occasion, especially as they run for does in the November, they always come home to spend most of their days and nights in the same relatively small areas. If food and cover remain the same, bucks will live in these core areas year after year and all their lives.

Now is the time for you to crash right into those core areas.

When you scout and hunt from October through December, you find some rubs and scrapes and scratch the surface of a buck’s core area, but you don’t walk around too much or explore too deeply for fear of spooking that bucks and other deer. That’s smart. The trouble is, by working the perimeters, you only get a glimpse of how and where a big deer lives.

But now in the spring, you can freely walk every inch of your woods and investigate. The next couple of weeks are the best time to do it. Go before the woods green up too much, and while the weather is perfect.

Get out there, start walking and cover every ridge, draw and creek bottom on your land, or the public area where you hunt. Stick your boots and nose in every edge, thicket or swamp. You’ll bump a few deer, but who cares? You won’t be back to hunt them for another 5 or 6 months. Here’s what to look for.


Deer Trails

Cut trails and walk, walk, walk to find out how and where they come and go. Trails the deer use now will be fresh and muddy, but old padded-down trails they used last fall and winter will still be visible too. Those old trails are the ones you really need to find and follow, since those are the ones a buck used back in hunting season (and the ones he’ll use it again this fall). Some main trails will fork into secondary trails that link more food sources and cover thickets. Walk those too. Mark the trails on an aerial map, and highlight pockets of good deer sign.

As you hike, note secondary feeding areas you might have missed last fall—a grove of white oaks on a ridge, a honeysuckle patch near a swamp… When a trail cuts a creek, veers around a ridge point, drops into a ravine—you get the picture–take note and mark your map. Those funneling points are great places for tree stands next fall.


Rubs and Scrapes

Buck rubs and even scrapes from last October and November are easy to spot in the spring woods. Look especially for “signpost” rubs–large, scarred trees that mark a buck’s core area. Top whitetail scientist Grant Woods

Mike Hanback with a giant rub.

Mike Hanback with a giant rub.

points out that while only mature bucks blaze the big rubs, all deer interact with them. “They smell and touch them,” says Woods. “They act as communal pheromone wicks and are located in areas with high deer traffic.” That spot will obviously be hot for a stand this September.

Also, Woods has found a correlation between the number of rubs in an area and the number of older bucks (read shooters!) that live there. On one of his management projects in Tennessee, he’s observed an amazing 5,000 rubs per square mile, or 7.8 per acre. If you find a piece of woods lit up rubbed trees like that, start looking for stand sites for this fall.

Studies old and new reveal that whitetail bucks are habitual, and scrape in the same areas year after year. Key in on 3 spots you might run across this weekend and mark them on your map so you can check them again this October:

–A cluster of old scrapes at the intersection of 2 or 3 trails, with big rubs nearby. This is a “rut junction” and a good spot to hunt.

–A line of large scrapes on the edge of a linear honeysuckle thicket or row of pines or cedars. Bucks run these edges frequently.

–A heavily scraped section of a hardwood ridge 100 yards or so off a corn or bean field. If the acorn crop is decent again this fall, bucks will stage and scrape there again.


Sheds can tell you a lot about the bucks in your area.

Sheds can tell you a lot about the bucks in your area.


As you hike around, look for antlers that bucks shed a couple of months ago. They are not only great souvenirs, but they can tell you a lot. Say you run across a 60-inch, 4-point antler glinting in the sun. That’s a tangible piece of evidence. You know a 140-class buck survived last hunting season (figure 60 inches for the other side, and an 18-inch spread). If that 8-pointer is not hit by a car over the summer, he’ll hang out somewhere in the area you just finished scouting. Come back in 6 months and you just might get him.