For me scouting begins at the close of the previous season. The deer find themselves at desperate odds with their own environment. Their survival habits will be more evident as they struggle to make it through the winter. Late season hunters get a preview of this, especially in the aftermath of rifle seasons. A hunter willing to put some frozen ground under heel, use trail cameras, and glass deer during the winter, will be privy to habits earlier observations may not have shown them. Chances are a hunter will see sign more than actual deer, with the leaves bare and the ground hard we need to focus more on turned leaves, scrapes, and scat. I think it goes without saying to get your rear in the woods after a snowfall and study those tracks!
I've often thought of the winter scouting as a great way to figure out my "wild card" stand location, that option for where to be when, due to hunting pressure, I'm not seeing as much activity as I'd like to from normal stand locations.
Then of course comes shed hunting season. For some of us this is incredibly exciting! Maybe we get lucky and find a shed that tells us the buck that was always one step ahead of us survived. Or it can alert us to other bucks in the area. Coming up empty shouldn't dishearten anyone, however. Finding a shed is merely a sign that a buck was there, the best thing to do is consider where that shed was found in proximity to food or bedding areas and make a mental note.
Spring into Summer scouting can be fun. As temps get friendlier and nutrients become more plentiful deer will move from the recesses and security of the deep woods more frequently. Obviously this makes them easier to observe. This is usually a time when many of us begin our scouting. Early summer scouting gets me excited for the fall by reaffirming deer are in my hunting areas, and that is important, who doesn't want that confidence heading into bow season? It also shows us how healthy the herd is.
This is also a good time of year to consider pruning a path to your stand or blind. Why not get a jump on this? I've been lax some off seasons and it is no fun needing to "machete" your way through to put up a stand or camera. You will make yourself less detectable with a clearer path, and also a little strategic trimming around your stand offers the deer a path of less resistance, which they happen to appreciate just as much as we do!
The end of summer can be dicey, as this is when we really want to try and pattern deer, but should not disturb the hunting grounds too much. Trail cams are especially useful in late summer for those reasons, but as we go to check them it should be with little frequency and we should practice the same stealthy tactics we do while hunting.
For many seasoned hunters it is easy to know roughly where the deer are and when under "normal circumstances." Most of us understand natural funnels, bedding areas, feeding areas, and cover areas, but with all that in mind I'd also use scouting to think out of the box. What I mean here is understanding where to be under "abnormal circumstances," like say, a Saturday during the season when a multitude of hunters descend upon the woods. Remember, you're not just trying to get ahead of the deer, but other hunters as well. This means having a great plan A, but also a B, C, and D, with each giving you a worthwhile opportunity.
It may seem trivial but even understanding common wind directions and topography of an area will help with stand location and travel routes to stands. Try to find a route allowing a downwind approach, that also avoids deer paths. Some hunters like using a side hill to avoid their outline being detected, but be cautious in this as deer also use side hills for the same reason, so avoid them at times of day a deer will perhaps use that same hill en route to your stand. This is all part of off season scouting because guessing things on the fly is rarely part of a successful hunt. I've been known to spent quite a few summer evenings sitting at great distances from my potential stand with binoculars just watching where deer come and go from. I won't go much into using attractants because not everyone likes the tactic. In the end I do like using them because it brings deer to my camera or to the area where I'm considering sitting. With that in mind I always consider the location of natural food sources and usually use attractants in close proximity to them. In PA there is no baiting allowed and all "deer candy" has to be gone within so many weeks of the season opener, so I hedge my bets with things like acorns and clover anyways.
In the end I believe all these things just help me create a bit more luck for myself. As a self taught hunter I have made quite a few mistakes, the one thing I have learned about hunting, public lands in particular, is to think one step ahead. Deer are a living breathing and THINKING being. They are always in survival mode and will not give up too easily. Always be thinking and be creative. Chances are that one extra step you thought was just you "over thinking" a situation, could be the very idea that has you drawing back on a nice buck or doe this fall!