One of my favorite times of year is late-winter/early-spring when the weather starts to turn. Usually by this time, I’m itching to get back outside and a warm March day is just what I’m looking for. Whether it’s wandering the woods, scouting, working out, or spring cleaning – it’s some much needed outside time. Personally, I can’t sit still, so here are some of my favorite things to do with spring right around the corner.
#1: Shed Hunting
Be careful not to jump the gun on this one! You don’t want to go in too early and kick the animals out of the area that you are wanting to shed hunt BEFORE they have dropped their antlers. Every year, people report bucks/bulls dropping antlers early based on sightings or trail camera footage. Folks rush in to look for sheds only to push bucks out of the area that are still carrying.
From my experience, if your herd is healthy, then most will carry their antlers into late winter depending on how brutal the winter is. I can only speak from experience on whitetail shed hunting, but I imagine the same principles apply out west on public land. Find the winter food and you will usually find the sheds. Cut corn, beans, cereal grains, or winter food plots are definitely some of the first places to check if you have access. On public land, look as close to crop fields/winter pastures as you can. If you can’t get close to food, check the top third of a south/east facing slope off of the food sources for bedding areas. You will usually find the first tier of bedding (does, fawns, small bucks) fairly close to the winter food while the older age class deer will be a bit further away.
#2: Winter Scouting
This goes hand in hand with shed hunting for me, but I love late winter scouting especially when there is still some snow on the ground. You get to see first-hand where the deer are bedding, how the trails run, and fresh sign from the previous year. This is also one of my favorite times of year to scout properties in general to understand the timber and habitat. I find it very challenging to walk onto a new property in the summertime when foliage is at its maximum and predict how the deer will move through it once the leaves are down – which is most of the hunting season!
The biggest things I’m looking for when scouting the deer woods in late winter are:
Bedding areas – why are they bedded there, how are the beds oriented?
Mast producing timber – identify the “feed trees” and the bigger stands of oaks, persimmon, crab apple, beech, cherry
Cover – where is the cover thickest and how will bucks use that cover to scent check doe bedding areas?
Where are the areas in most need of timber stand improvement?
#3 Timber Stand Improvement
There is a big misconception amongst the general public that cutting down trees is a crime against nature. Like anything else, in some instances it can be, but what many don’t realize is that timber harvests are very productive ways of improving the wildlife habitat. Generally speaking, big giant mature timber is NOT very conducive to holding wildlife and harvesting the timber off of a property can result in thick, lush, nutrition and cover that brings abundance to an ecosystem. If managed property, it can benefit both you, nature, and your checkbook.
Hinge cutting has been all over Youtube in recent years and for good reason. It can be a very powerful tool to help take your hunting property to the next level. However, make sure you have a property understanding of forestry and timber management before you go running around the woods with a chainsaw. There is a difference between managing your timber for wildlife and managing it for timber value – but they aren’t mutually exclusive. If you have the knowledge and background, you can and should manage for both. Here are some basic steps to help you break down the process:
Scout your woods and get a feel for where the timber is wide open and mature and where is it thick and nasty
Determine where you want the main bedding to be on your property and how you would want bucks to move through the landscape to scent check doe bedding. With this in mind, identify a few locations that you would want to “thicken up”
Go in with some spray paint and identify the trees you want to hinge, cut, or hack and squirt. Prime examples of good trees to cut are less desirable species that infringe upon a valuable species (like an ash tree a few feet away from a walnut tree), a mature stand of undesirable trees, or trees that are growing too close together causing the entire stand to be valueless.
#4 Soil Prep
This is a crucial time of year to take stock of how your soil is doing and what it will need for the upcoming year. Whether you’re planning to garden or plant food plots, I highly recommend taking soil samples this time of year and putting down lime/fertilizer as needed to accommodate the crops you are planting. I send mine to Waters Lab in Owensboro, Kentucky and they send back a summarized report of what my soil needs depending on what I’m trying to grow. I usually do one sample for smaller plots and between 2 and 4 for larger ones. Usually, if I’m within an acceptable range, I won’t do much and will just put down some lime (around 300 lbs per acre) to maintain. Then, every couple of years, add fertilizers as needed.
#5 Frost Seeding
Many people don’t know that you can actually plant certain crops in the winter time! No, they won’t grow until the spring, but it gives you a jump start on the growing season and prevents the need to till/plow or disturb the soil biome at the surface. It can be very effective with certain species – one of which is clover. Frost seeding works by utilizing the freeze/thaw cycle of late winter as the daytime weather warms but nighttime weather still drops below freezing. You broadcast the seed right onto the ground, and when the ground thaws, the seeds fall into the cracks. I usually frost seed around late February or early March where I live in Western Pennsylvania. Clover doesn’t need very much soil cover for germination, so you can seed it pretty late in the winter. Switchgrass, on the other hand, needs to be seeded earlier in the winter to ensure plenty of freeze/thaw cycles to get it deep rooted in the ground. It needs a significant amount of ground cover.
In conclusion, the early part of the year is a great time to be outdoors soaking up the warming temperatures, and as this article outlines, there is plenty that can be done during this time for the landowner and homesteader. Here’s to a beautiful and refreshing spring ahead for us all!