Scouting in Spring—a Shortcut to Productive Fall Scouting


In a few days my sons and I will head north to do our annual spring scouting (started in 1980). Most of our time will be spent searching for and measuring various sizes of fresh deer tracks and droppings—absolute evidence of the existence of various sizes of deer of both sexes that currently live our hunting area. We normally scout in late April, right after after snow melts, before sprouting leaves begin to make deer signs difficult to find and before blood-crazed ticks, mosquitoes, gnats and black flies become numerous. This year, we have to wait a bit because eight or more inches of snow still covers the ground in our hunting area. Because we hunt mature bucks only, the fresh tracks and droppings that most interest us are those made by mature bucks—signs that reveal these deer are now resettled in previously established home ranges or newly settled in ranges of bucks we tagged last fall. Fresh tracks and droppings made by mature does are not ignored because, like those of mature bucks, they reveal does have resettled in their previously established home ranges (4–5 per square-mile) where they’ll be located while in heat in November. In spring we can find the deer signs we search for rather quickly because we know where to look for them: in previously identified whitetail home ranges, in bedding areas and feeding areas, at previously used watering spots, on certain deer trails and at sites of interest discovered on a recently made aerial photograph of our hunting area. Such range elements rarely change in location from year to year except where logging has occurred. After two days of spring scouting and placing long lasting cattle-type mineral blocks where they will benefit mature bucks, we will again return home knowing exactly where to concentrate our efforts next fall while engaged in our most prolonged, most difficult, most important and most productive pre-hunt scouting and field preparations.

Locating big bucks in spring generates excitements that lasts all summer. It makes my sons, grandsons and I much more thorough while preparing for the coming hunting season. That’s good, but as opening day draws near, it also causes us to daydream more and more and make it increasingly difficult to fall asleep at night. When you think of the few things in life that can make these things happen, you have to reaize taking a big buck is something pretty special, well worth some extra effort, scoutng in spring, for example.


Blasting a Long Held Belief About the Rut

About 85% of whitetail fawns are born in May, beginning about the 23rd. The gestation period (the period between the day a doe is bred until its fawn is born) is 201 days. This means about 85% of does are bred during the first two-week period of the whitetail rut beginning about November 3rd—always triggered by a specific, annually recurring ratio of darkness to sunlight. This means breeding is not in progress when about 90% of antler rubs and buck ground scrapes are being made between mid-October and the first days of November as many hunters have long believed. Deer are not “really ruttin’” until early November. During the 2–3 weeks before breeding begins, all antlered bucks are merely establishing or attempting to establish intended breeding ranges by marking them with easy-to-spot, musk-laden rubs and scrapes. By the time does begin emitting the pheromone that announces they are in heat, the most dominant of bucks will have forced lesser antlered bucks (bucks lower in their pecking orders) to flee off range and remain off-range until breeding ends in mid-November (some of which will attempt to sneak prematurely, sometimes often, especially yearling bucks).

About 10% of fawns are born in late June, meaning their mothers were bred during the second two-week period of the whitetail rut beginning about December 1st—triggered by the same specific ratio of darkness to light. The remaining 5% of fawns are born in late July, meaning, their mothers were bred during the third two-week period of the whitetail rut beginning a few days before January 1st—after which the triggering ratio of darkness to sunlight comes to an end until the following November.

All of the above dates are likely to occur a few days later in southern U.S. states. They may occur earlier in northern Florida, a month earlier in south-central Texas where whitetails are on a different biologic clock and may occur a month earlier in Virginia following a bumper crop of white oak acorns.

Bucks With Antlers in April

It’s mid-April and some whitetail bucks still have antlers. This is normal for yearling bucks, the last of bucks to shed their antlers. Ordinarily, the first to lose their antlers are the big trophy-class dominant breeding bucks, 5-1/2 to 6-1/2 years of age (few survive their 7th winter). In my northern Minnesota study area, this generally happens shortly before whitetails stage their annual migration to traditional wintering areas, about the beginning of the fourth week in December. Early shedding probably reflects their worn-out physical condition. If not most dominant, bucks 2-2/2 to 4-12 years of age drop their antlers January through March in wintering areas. Though I have occasionally found pairs of antlers close together that were obviously from the same buck, most are shed several days apart at scattered locations. I have watched bucks with single antlers (see 2-1/2 year-old buck above), apparently anxious to finish shedding, bang their remaining antler repeatedly with great effort on tree trunks. Interestingly, from almost the moment a buck sheds its antlers, it becomes docile (non-combative) and no longer has an interest in breeding. This allows mature, less dominant bucks to breed the few does in heat (5%) during the third and final two-week period of breeding begining a few days before January 1st. I have watched yearling bucks actually charge antlerless dominant breeding bucks at this time, forcing them to turn tail and flee (revenge?). Later in winter, antlerless dominant bucks do occasionally battle with other dominant bucks—pummeling one another with fore hoofs while nimbly dancing about on their hind legs. Once snow melts in spring, mice, squirrels and porcupines begin devouring much relished sheds.

How to Make a Hunting Stool

Though you may not realize it yet, the most productive method ever created for hunting mature bucks is mobile stand hunting at ground level. While using this method, the hunter takes quick advantage of very fresh tracks or other signs made by older bucks, changing stand sites every day or half day to keep near them. Frequent changes in stand sites is necessary when hunting older bucks for two reasons: 1) from mid-October until the end of the year, older bucks are seldom active in one limited vicinty much longer than a day and second, today’s mature bucks are “stand-smart,” meaning they generally find, identify and begin avoiding a stand hunter within 1–30 hours after the hunter begins using one stand site. A backpacked stool enables the hunter to quickly and quietly change stand sites and always sit well hidden by natural cover near trails and sites currently being used by older bucks today, made evident by very fresh mature-buck-sized tracks and other signs, or will be used later today and/or tomorrow morning if not alarmed there meanwhile. For all these reasons, no hunting aid can keep a hunter close to big unsuspecting bucks throughout a hunting season as well as a folding, backpacked stool.

To date, the best backpacked stool I have ever used is one I made myself in 1991. To see how I made it, as is often asked, go to my website, http://www.drnordbergondeerhunting.com, click on the “Articles” button on the left side of my home page and then scrool down to the bright-blue-lettered title, “How to Build Dr. Ken Nordberg’s Portable Hunting Stool.” Once you build one and become accustomed to using it properly, you will consider your stool to be your most valuable tool for hunting mature bucks and/or other deer.

Amazing Spring Scouting

Beginning in 1991, to prepare for the days I would lead my students from all over America afield for instructions in my early May buck and bear hunting schools in the wilds of northern Minnesota, I scouted up to a week right after snow melt. It was then I discovered signs made by whitetails such as antler rubs, ground scrapes, evidences of browsing (see photo) and favorite deer trails were as fresh in appearance as when they were made or used during previous fall hunting seasons. When the ground is damp and soft in early spring, and before leaves begin growing on trees, shrubs and grasses, these deer signs plus freshly made tracks and droppings are easier to spot over greater distances than at any other time of the year. Newly made tracks and droppings then provide absolute evidence of the existence of mature bucks and other deer that will available to hunt in fall (not including yet unborn fawns) and at this time they are using the same trails, cover and range elements they will use after leaves have fallen next fall. During this one brief period in spring, before ticks and blood-thirsty insects become abundant, everything you need to know about where to stand hunt during the first days of the coming hunting season is laid out in plain sight.

Our Northern Whitetails are now Desperate for Food

Our beleaguered northern whitetails, now trapped by deep snow in browse depleted wintering areas, need a snow melt soon. My long-time deer hunting partner who lives in north-central Wisconsin called to tell me increasing numbers of deer are showing up in his country yard to climb to the top of a seven-foot snow bank to browse on branches of his apple tree. I don’t know how high this is on the desperate whitetail scale, but this must be near the top. In the northern suburb of Minneapolis where I live, following our historic record snowfall in February whitetails living in a park six residential blocks away have recently been showing up in my yard and neighboring yards to munch on exposed tops of various flowering shrubs and evergreens (leaving tracks in snow like those in the photo above). Last night, a 15–20-pound white-faced rat, more commonly known as an opossum, spent the evening trying to figure out how to open the refuse can on my back porch, arousing considerable excitement in Harvey my wirehair pointer who was finally dispatched to end the ruckus. I have no idea what the flock of robins wintering in my yard have been eating, but they seem to be doing all right. Though whitetails in my northern Minnesota study area could move about in in snow in search of browse without great difficulty during December and January, our record snowfall since then has doubtless forced them to subsist on much, if not all, of their fat stores by now (mid-March). It now appears we are going to lose quite a few deer due to starvation this winter, mostly younger and older deer, including trophy-class bucks, if a serious snow melt doesn’t commence soon, enough to finally enable whitetails to break out of their depleted wintering areas (deer yards) to find new, unused sources of life-saving browse and/or crop residues in nearby farm fields.

Proposed Dangerous Copper Mining in Minnesota

If someone dropped a bomb that spread caustic sulfuric acid and other dangerous chemicals across a sizable portion of Minnesota’s scenic Arrowhead Region, including waterways draining into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Canada’s adjoining Quetico Provincial Park, and even into Lake Superior, killing trees, vegetation, birds, animals, fish and all other wild living creatures living near, downwind and downstream of the bombsite and poisoning affected soil and water for thousands of years, no punishment for committing such a heinous crime would be adequate. Yet two foriegn mining companies propose to do exactly this while promising to extract copper, nickel and gold from U.S. sulfide rock without any danger to living things, which has never been accomplished by even the most experienced of copper mining companies anywhere else in the world. Unlike iron ore, sulfide rock is an unstoppable source of sulfuric acid and other poisonous substances when dug up and exposed to air and water, rain or snow. Minnesotans anxious for more jobs are being blindsided by these compances. A trip to the Silver City Area in New Mexico and the region south of Tucson, Arizona where copper mining has been going on big time since the 1800s and talking to people who live near the huge copper mines there would prove it. For Heaven’s sake Minnesotans, please wake up. There is no shortage of copper. Don’t allow this unnecessary scourge get a foothold and inevitably destroy most of our pristine Arrowhead Region.