Every deer season, thousands of hunters are out in the woods looking to fill their freezers. The successful ones will likely have done lots of scouting in preparation for the hunt.

Several trips to a new hunting location at various times of day, and careful observation while there, will help you determine the routines of the local deer and improve your chances.

The key signs to look for in the quest for whitetails:

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Tracks and trails

The most common sign that deer leave behind is their tracks. On soft ground or in snow, it’s easier to see a track’s outline and gauge its freshness. Follow fresh tracks and there’s a small chance you’ll actually run into the deer that made them; more likely, you’ll learn that deer are or have recently been in the area. You can also look for “game trails,” paths worn in the duff or snow that indicate a path is commonly used by deer or other large animals. A trail timer or camera can give you insight on who is using the trail and when.

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When a deer rubs its antlers against a tree, the resulting abrasion in the tree bark is called, predictably, a “rub.” These rubs may be seen just about anywhere in the woods where male deer travel. If you see rubs on several trees in a row, that’s a “rub line”—made by a dominant buck when defining his territory. Find a rub line, and you’ve identified a place that a buck may frequent in his search for a female.

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During the rut, a buck “paws” the ground, scuffing away leaves, grasses and dirt to create a shallow oval-shaped scrape in the earth. The buck then urinates on the scrape; often, he’ll also break, chew and rub his facial glands on a “licking branch” overhead. The scents left on the ground and the branch are an apparent attractant to female deer. A scrape is a telltale sign that a buck’s been in the neighborhood.

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Photo (top): Jim Collyer