- Finding Next Year's Target Buck This Winter | Beau Martonik's Big Buck Scouting Tips
Finding Next Year's Target Buck This Winter | Beau Martonik's Big Buck Scouting Tips
By: Beau Martonik
To be consistently successful at killing mature white-tailed deer every year, you have to look at deer hunting as a year-round approach. The phrase “There’s No Off-Season” is used in professional sports and any situation where people perform at a high level.
When it comes to hunting, this couldn’t be more accurate.
My favorite time to learn a new hunting area or hone in on an old-faithful spot is in the spring when the snow melts before green-up. This time is ideal because I can see the scrapes and other sign left from the previous season.
However, there’s much to be learned during the winter months when looking for success in the upcoming season.
Use Snow to Your Advantage When Whitetail Scouting
Scouting with snow on the ground can teach you a lot about deer movement and how they’re navigating the landscape. Deer trails are easy to see and give a clear picture of how the animals are traveling to and from the primary food source, what they might be browsing on and where they like to bed that time of year.
Bedding doesn’t always line up to where you’ll find the deer bedding in the fall due to the change in foliage and cover, but it will teach you about the type of bedding areas these deer like to use. It will teach you if they prefer a wind advantage, thick cover, unobstructed visibility, terrain advantages or a combination of a few of these.
The snow will give you the ability to do less guessing and more confirming of previous assumptions.
It’s essential to focus on learning from the sign you’re seeing, logging that information and using it to your advantage. I prefer to log that information in the Spartan Forge app using the Journal feature to track weather data and other pertinent information relevant to your scouting.
Look for the What The Deer Are Feeding On
Find the food sources, and you’ll find where the deer are in the winter months. Cold weather makes deer rely on food more than any other time of the year. Good food sources will congregate deer from all over these areas. I mainly hunt public land in big wooded areas where I don't have the luxury of crop fields or food plots to draw deer into a specific location. These fields and food plots can be a great place to start looking in regions with agriculture.
You have to dig a little deeper in the big woods to find those primary food sources that might not seem so obvious. Acorns left on the ground will get hit as hard as anything this time of year. In addition, I look for newer logging cuts with ample amounts of browse for the deer to feed. These more recent logging cuts will have a plethora of new-growth sprouting and grasses for the deer. Walking these areas will give you a starting point on where to go next, working backward towards bedding.
If it’s been a rough winter, I’ll only scout the food sources and not put any additional stress on them within their bedding areas. These winter food sources will often be the same ones that the deer utilize in the early season. I used this tactic in 2021 to kill my target buck on opening day of archery season.
Utilizing Trail Cameras
Trail cameras will help confirm your suspicions and allow you to know what bucks made it through last hunting season. If you’re only scouting in the spring, you might find big sign from a deer that could already be dead. When hunting a specific deer, knowing that he made it through is critical to ensuring you aren’t chasing a ghost.
Trail camera placement is different this time of year compared to where you want to use them in the fall.
Placing cameras around food sources and trails leading to and from food sources will give you the most bang for your buck.
Leaving trail cameras on primary scrapes you utilized during the fall can still provide good information since they’re used year-round, but they aren’t the best option due to the lower frequency. When cameras are placed on trails, I like to leave them in 15-second video mode to capture the travel direction and movement.
If they’re on a food source that might generate many photos, such as crop field or bait, using images will save battery life, memory card space and time spent viewing the card. I think it helps to use lithium batteries year-round to get better battery life out of your cameras, and they perform much better in colder weather.
In the winter of 2021, I placed cameras on trails surrounding a newer logging cut and learned that my target buck preferred to use one specific trail more than the others on a particular wind direction. By learning from this data, I hunted that trail on the opening day of the Pennsylvania archery season due to the wind direction being suitable for the buck.
The buck came in soon after daylight, like he did the past winter, allowing me to kill him from my Tethrd Phantom Saddle.
Besides trail cameras, finding sheds is another way to confirm that your buck made it through the deer hunting season. I don’t want to push into the bedding areas too early and risk spooking or pressuring the deer in the wintertime. I will go into these areas during the springtime, but that doesn’t mean you won’t pick up some sheds early in the season if you focus on different tactics.
Prioritizing the food sources that I mentioned earlier will give you the best odds of successfully finding the shed antlers you’re looking for. If you think about it, deer spend most of their time either bedding down or eating. Therefore, to maximize your efficiency, spend the most time scouring the entire food source in these areas. Typically, this means grid searching (walking back and forth in a grid pattern) the food source and attempting to cover every square inch.
Usually, the deer are bedding during the day when you’re walking around, which reduces the risk of bumping those deer.
There are no shortcuts for deer hunting in the big woods or just deer hunting in general. I’ve interviewed hundreds of successful hunters on the East Meets West Hunt podcast, and they all have a few things in common – persistence and time spent in the woods.
So don’t write off winter scouting if you’re looking to tag your target buck next hunting season.