The 2017 deer season has ended. It was a long and grueling affair. You’ve spent countless hours on the stand this past year. Maybe it was a banner year, maybe it left much to be desired
Time to move on to predator hunting? Ice fishing? Just kick back, relax and recharge a bit knowing the 2018 season is 10 months away? Yes to all of these and the many other options that are open to outdoors men and women during the winter months. But still at the top of your list should be getting ready for the 2018 right now.
January through early spring are some of the most critical months to get out into the woods to kick off your next deer hunting season. The time you put in now can put you leaps and bounds ahead as opposed to waiting for late summer/early fall. The following are key variables that I focus on, especially with State Land hunting. Even if you hunt private, much of the same can be applied.
Most hunters likely will have left sign from the previous season. That can consist of tree stands, pop up blinds, ground blinds made from debris, and unfortunately trash.
When hunting State Land, one of the most critical factors to finding a good area where deer won’t feel as much pressure is figuring out where the hunters were and likely will be again. Come late summer through the fall, you should keep wandering on your areas to a minimum. But now is the time to start canvasing the property in more detail. This is when you get a better idea of who else may be hunting in the area and where. I rarely see stands removed during the season or even just after the season is complete. Seems most people are content to either leave their stands up until March 1 (which is the legal last date to have stands left on state land without considered being abandoned property) or unfortunately all year round.
If you’re looking over a new area, this is a first indicator of how good it’s going to be. If it’s loaded with stands, you should likely move on until you find areas that don’t show that sign. I have a couple of properties already established as my focused hunting areas, and if you have this nailed down, this is when you find out if anyone else has moved into your area or where around the fringes they are. Knowing these locations is key as you either learn or reaffirm the deer habitat, travel routes, bedding areas, etc. Assume these hunters are the ones that hunt stands no matter the wind, no mind to entrance and exit routes, and don’t take sufficient precautions such as scent control. It will give you an idea of how the deer may avoid those areas. If the hunter is actually more cautious than that, then that’s good for everyone.
I love to run cameras during the winter months. My #1 priority in doing this is to hopefully see what made it through the season. This time of year human activity is incredibly reduced and thus hunting State Land, the risk is much lower for your cameras to be tampered with. Knowing what bucks have made it or finding other bucks you’ve never seen before can give you a huge advantage for the upcoming season.
This guy was the most regular on camera during the 2017 season. He was a nice 10 that had I gotten the chance, I’m not sure if I would have been able to hold back the trigger finger. Thankfully he made that decision easy for me since I never saw him on the hoof. I did have his core area pretty nailed down. Getting pictures of him in Feb 2018 will allow me to hopefully hone in even further this season. And I can’t wait to see what kind of a jump he makes!
January of 2017 I targeted a new area via overhead maps. As I started running cameras, it seemed evident by the pics I was getting that there seemed to be nearly a 1:1 buck to doe ratio. The following Fall did not disappoint as I hung 2 stands in early September in that area and only hunted those two stands 4 times combined. I ended up shooting a decent 8 the first hunt in one stand and a thick mature 9 point the second time I hunted the other stand.
Hunting sheds is hard enough on its own. Bucks drop their antlers differently across the entire state. With camera pics you can get an idea of when they are dropping and focus your antler shed efforts accordingly.
When you have a nice white canvas of snow across your area, nothing is better than really understanding deer movement by seeing the carved trails in the snow. It’s amazing the trails you find that you otherwise never knew were there!
Without the cover of snow, if you don’t walk exactly across the trail, you’ll likely not find it. Several days after a fresh snow from certain vantage points it’s very clear where the main highways are. When you link those trails with food sources, bedding cover and terrain it can put together the final pieces of the puzzle for a solid stand location.
Crash Their Bedrooms
The last thing you want to do come late summer or early Fall is dive deep into bedding areas. This is the time when human activity is ramping up and mature deer will not tolerate such disturbance. It can quickly blow up any previous well laid plans.
Winter is the time of year where there are virtually no off limit areas to your scouting unless you have private managed sanctuary areas. The deer have not seen pressure for a while and are settled back in to their areas that they feel safe. Studying trails to and from suspected bedding areas and going in to investigate can verify or change your perspective of where you thought or think deer are bedding.
Going in and locating those lone large beds and then hopefully seeing some heavy buck sign in rubs can boost your confidence going into the upcoming season. Of course finding the doe bedding areas is key as well. Locating both buck and doe bedding areas in conjunction with the rut can put you right in the sweet spot.
One new location I had scouted in January of 2016, I jumped a very nice 8. Knowing this is where he was midday only a couple of weeks after gun season ended, I surmised this was his safe zone and hung stands accordingly. Fall of 2016 I hunted one specific stand 4 times and seen him 3 of those times. Had I kept my wits about me, he would be on my wall right now as he gave me a shot and I went over his back.
Many would think and argue that looking for good sign immediately following the season is a wasted effort. After all, the buck(s) that made this sign could no longer be alive or in the area. I have found differently. Even if the buck that made that sign was harvested, there is a reason he was there. Whether its cover, less pressure, proper food/water source, etc.. Good chance that if he survived he will be there again. If he didn’t survive, another one will move in.
Locations like this where you can consistently find mature buck sign will produce year after year if hunted properly. Once you've found these locations, no need to move in during the winter to disturb those bedding areas except for maybe every couple years to confirm things haven't changed.
If you’re not seeing the sign and not getting the pics of survivors during this time of year, you may want to move on.
For most Michigan hunters, their season is done as firearm season closes and won’t start again until September. There are far too many advantages to kicking off your 2018 season during the cold months of winter. It’s a great cure for some cabin fever and can put you ahead of the curve for the upcoming season. Get your boots in the snow, put your shoulder to the grind and start the 2018 deer season now!