LAST UPDATED: May 1st, 2015
So it is December. That means that unless you live in the far southern reaches of the country, the whitetail rut has come and gone. Like the whitetail breeding phase, you may think that your best chance to tag a big buck is over. After all, isn’t the late season just a time to fill the freezer? That depends on who you ask. Many of the most successful big buck hunters out there will tell you that the late season can be your best chance at bagging a monster buck. How so? Well let’s look at some of the tactics and then you decide for yourself if you can have a successful season after the rut is over.
Food, Food, Food
After whitetail bucks have spent the entire rut chasing does, fighting off other bucks, and barely eating or resting, their focus changes dramatically. The rigors of the rut, coupled with trying to avoid hunters leaves a mature buck in the worst physical shape of the year. Both his fat reserves and muscle mass will have been diminished. That’s not a good thing with winter threatening to knock down the door. So, in order to survive a buck must replenish his fat reserves and restore muscle mass as quickly as possible. Thus, in the late season, bucks become slaves to their stomachs. Consuming as many carbs, proteins, and fats as possible is their number one priority. Therefore, finding the hottest food source around is the ticket to success during the post-rut.
Food plots that attract during the early season and the rut are great, but don’t neglect late-season “favorites”…your success may depend on it.
Deer begin flocking to high quality food sources when the mercury starts to dip. An ideal location would be a standing soybean or corn field, or a small brassica plot. All three provide the deer with what they need at this crucial time of year. Soybeans contain a lot of protein for rebuilding muscle mass, while corn and brassicas such as turnips provide a lot of carbohydrates, which the deer can use for energy and also turn into fat stores. The colder the temperature, the more deer need to feed. It takes a lot of energy simply to stay warm when it is frigid outside. Deer burn a lot of calories in winter, so they constantly need to replace them. Mature bucks are in even more need of this than other deer, since the rut takes the greatest toll on them. I have actually found that mature bucks are often some of the first deer to enter a field when it is brutally cold out; contrary to what we know about a big buck’s nature. The key to hunting them successfully lies in first locating the best food source available, and then hunting smart.
Access Is Key
Once a prime late season spot has been located, you must then look at how to hunt the spot most effectively. This is more important now than at any other time of year. The deer are naturally much more skittish during late season; usually due to hunting pressure. Also, late season feeding areas tend to concentrate higher deer densities than at other times of the year. All of those extra eyes, noses, and ears make it much harder to hunt the area without alerting deer to your presence. Finding an access route to your stand or blind that will not bump any deer whatsoever is imperative to success.
The #1 key to hunting success is not letting the deer know they are being hunted. This gets even tougher as the season progresses. Be sure you have a good plan for getting to and exiting your stand site.
It seems in late season deer will spook and clear an entire field for almost no reason at all. This late in the year, you cannot afford mistakes. Obviously, making sure the wind is in your favor is important, but getting to your stand early will also help. I tend not to hunt mornings from December to the end of the season. This may be partially due to the fact that it’s just hard to get up early when it’s extremely cold out, but more than that, I have by far had more success during evening hunts during the post-rut than any other time-frame.
Deer tend to feed longer during winter, and therefore linger in the fields longer, making it very difficult to access a stand next to a feeding area in the early morning without bumping deer. Instead I opt to get in my stand early for the afternoon. I have seen a lot of deer movement from 2-3 PM when it is really cold, so I like to be set up by around 1:00PM. This way I don’t risk educating a spooky deer herd; giving myself the best chance for success.
The Backup Plan
The next step I like to take is trying to key in on exactly where a big buck is most likely to enter a feeding area. This is more crucial when bowhunting, as opposed to hunting with a long-range rifle. It can be difficult to bowhunt a large field where deer seem to come from everywhere. A mature buck is a smart animal and will rarely show himself out in the open during daylight unless he has an exit strategy; that is, somewhere he can run to and disappear very quickly at the first hint of danger. I believe the best places for a quick exit are brushy or weedy draws or ditches that border or jut out into open fields. Without a doubt, a buck feels more comfortable knowing he can be gone in a few seconds.
Scout such areas for big tracks in order to pinpoint a buck’s preferred travel corridor between his bed and food. Remember that a buck will move very little this time of year if not pressured, so if you can find where he’s entering into the field, you have a good chance of killing him.
Hunting where others won’t is one tactic that can lead to a filled tag. After months of hunting pressure, deer will likely seek out such areas.
As a bowhunter during the post-rut, we should have a backup plan as well. If the weather warms up or for some other reason the deer just aren’t hitting the food during daylight, you have to go find them. When this happens to me I start by hunting stands that I very rarely hunt in order to see if the deer are avoiding certain areas due to pressure. If that doesn’t work, I then switch from hunting directly on the food source to hunting closer to the deer’s bedding area. I try to get as close as I can without blowing my cover, so to speak. This way I can hopefully intercept a buck before dark as he makes his way towards the feeding area. The real key is to pay attention to what is going on with the deer herd and basing your tactics on that because every area can be different.
I have already mentioned that deer are unusually on edge during the late season because of hunting pressure. This presents another challenge for bowhunters. Ideally, you would try not to pressure your deer herd very much during the entire season. However, the reality is that if your hunting property, or property surrounding yours, has been gun hunted, chances are good the deer are feeling pressured. This can be turned into an advantage though; especially if you have access to small secluded food plots that are about a half-acre is size and planted with either brassicas or standing soybeans.
I do my best to leave plots like that alone just for this reason. When the deer need food and they feel pressured, they want someplace they can feel safe. A small food plot hidden in the timber, close to a bedding area, is a fantastic way to draw in pressured deer when it gets really cold out. That is, as long as you save those spots and don’t burn them out before the time is right. Even if the temperature drops way down, don’t hunt these areas on a bad wind or when the conditions aren’t right. The quickest way to mess up a good post-rut spot is to let the deer know you are hunting them.
Sometimes you have to abandon your favorite foodplot for one that is nestled back in a secluded area. If you have access to such a place, you may find a late-season hot spot that holds the buck you are chasing.
What if you are in an area that doesn’t have a lot of crop fields to attract deer? Well the deer in these areas are in no less need of forage to survive. If you are hunting in big timber, for example, deer will concentrate on areas where some acorns may still be on the ground, especially on hilltops or south facing slopes where snow will melt faster and food is easier to get to. Also, don’t discount areas that have a lot of natural woody browse. Not a deer’s favorite or most nutritious food, but when nothing else is available, places like power-line cutovers, clear cuts, and thickets are where the deer will be.
Another tactic that will help is going afield when no one else will; namely the nastiest, coldest days of the season when most hunters prefer to stay home. Food is still the name of the game, and wherever the deer can find it, that’s where they will be. A savvy whitetail hunter will find these areas, pick a bulletproof access, bundle up, and hunt the coldest, nastiest days of the year. Yes, it takes dedication and maybe a little madness to go out when it is five degrees. However, that is when you may have your best chance to shoot a monster buck this season.