By Alex Comstock
Here in my home state of Minnesota, there’s still feet of snow out in the woods. In fact, where I live has seen record amounts of snowfall in February, with over 30 inches of accumulation over the duration of the month. So, you could say my scouting hasn’t been too intense yet. But, if accessing the woods is a little easier for you, and your neck of the woods doesn’t represent the North Pole, then by all means you should be out scouting for whitetails right now. And today, we’ve got a great Q&A interview with Jeff Sturgis of Whitetail Habitat Solutions talking all things scouting and you should be looking for.
Q: When it comes to spring scouting, what is the most important thing to get accomplished in your opinion?
Jeff: In the field while scouting, one of the most important things to figure out is if the sign you’re finding is winter sign or fall sign. Be observant of things such as when finding deer dropping, are the pellets black and somewhat shiny and fresh looking or are they brown and dry looking from the fall? Are you looking at rubs where the shavings are under the leaves which signifies they were made early in the fall or is there good scraping sign near the rubs which indicates they were most likely made during the rut. I’ve even walked client properties where there are fresh shavings from rubs on top of the snow and you can tell those look much fresher than a rub made during the hunting season. So, getting back to the main point of the answer, correctly identifying when the sign was made that you are finding is one of the most important things when spring scouting. Winter sign can be plentiful and extremely misleading.
Q: Do you think most hunters overvalue or undervalue spring scouting?
Jeff: For me, spring scouting can be incredible. I lump “spring scouting” as February, March, April, etc. Mid-winter to that time frame right before spring green up. If you are looking at the right conditions that relate to fall, I don’t think you can undervalue spring scouting. If you are scouting in areas that show a lot of winter sign, and in turn use that information to help plan your fall hunts, then I think you can greatly overvalue spring scouting.
Q: Are you constantly learning new things about a property you’ve hunted for years? How does the springtime and scouting play into this role if so?
Jeff: As part of my job, I scout client’s properties every year. This year for example, I’ll probably hit between 80-90 properties and a large percentage of those visits will occur during the winter and spring. I’m learning something new on EVERY single property. Even when it comes to my own hunting property, I am constantly learning new things. You should always be on your hunting property in the spring and it’s a great time of year to see if assumptions you have are correct. Such as if you think a buck is bedding in a certain area, you can go in there during the spring and figure out if he was or not. If he’s bedding in a certain area, you should be minimally finding a lot of rubs in that location and you can actually find individual beds. I highly encourage everyone to be out scouting as soon as their season is finished and you should always be learning something new about your hunting property.
Q: Do you think there is anything that specifically sticks out in your head that is underrated when it comes to scouting or something that is consistently overlooked?
Jeff: Yes, I do. And to explain that I need to first go over a few things. I lump bucks into two categories. Core bucks and non-core bucks. Core bucks are the ones that live on your property and you get photos of them in late summer, early fall and through the pre rut and rut. They’re consistently in and around your property during legal shooting hours. Non-core bucks are the ones that aren’t frequenting your property, but will come through during the rut and leave a lot of that sign you are seeing while scouting in the spring. Those non-core bucks you will get random photos of throughout the year. I’ve shot non-core bucks that I’ve gotten less than twenty trail cam photos of in a three year period. But they’ve indicated what time of year they’ll be on my property, which usually falls in during the peak rut. He’s told me, even though there isn’t much sign of him, he’ll consistently come through my property when the conditions are right during a given time frame of the year. The key is to identify this area and time frame, which might be just a 7-10 day period during the rut, and then wait until the conditions are right to hunt it. You don’t want to over hunt the stand before the right time of year because if you over hunt it, there will end up being less does around and when he eventually comes through the area, he’ll know something is up and won’t feel comfortable. You have to save these stands, go in when it’s right and make it happen. Getting back to the main point, I feel as though the act of scouring through trail camera pictures in the off-season to help you identify when you have to be in that spot to close on the non-core buck is one of the most underrated forms of off-season scouting.
Q: What other major things are you accomplishing in tandem with scouting in the spring? Habitat improvement, planting, anything of that nature?
Jeff: I’m doing things based on time of year throughout the spring. In late winter, I like to cut bedding areas. The buds haven’t opened up yet, there’s still nice cold temperatures, the ground is still frozen, and this is the perfect time to cut bedding areas and travel corridors to help define deer movement. If I’m in northern areas or in a big woods setting, the cutting is more subtle. In tighter, low cover Ag regions, I’m using a lot higher percentage of cutting, and really trying to detail where those deer will be moving. For example, in northern Ohio flat land, you might have thirty deer packed into a small twenty acre chunk of woods because that’s the only piece of cover a mile in any direction. Once we get into spring green up and the ground is soft, that’s the perfect time to install water holes and let them naturally fill up with rain water, while also allowing deer plenty of time to get used to them. These are some of the things I like to accomplish during the spring months. One thing I do want to mention is I feel as though a lot of people put an overemphasis on habitat improvement and don’t focus enough attention on how they actually hunt the property. If you’re not hunting the property the right way, not paying attention to how you access stands, etc. no amount of habitat improvement can overcome spotty hunting efforts. The more deer that you attract to your property, if you are hunting poorly, you will end up just educating more whitetails and it will hurt you in the long run. Before you even decide about habitat improvement going forward, make sure your structure of how you move through a property and how deer move on it are two separate things, except at the closest point of your treestand location. If you don’t put those two things together, you will end up in a world of hurt.
Q: If someone were to approach you asking for one major piece of advice to help them with their spring scouting efforts, what would that piece of advice be?
Jeff: If you’re just looking at pure scouting, I would go back to the fact that you need to understand if you are looking at fall sign or winter sign. Winter sign is great because it helps you learn winter habitat, cover, etc. but it also helps you realize what deer need in the fall compared to the winter. There is usually a distinct difference in what deer need in the fall compared to winter. It’s very important that you don’t get too excited about the winter sign when scouting for fall hunting.