Finding Late-Season Deer

If you live in East Tennessee and are looking to fill one last deer tag close to home, you need a proven game plan. (December 2005)

The author took this big East Tennessee trophy buck in December of last year's hunting season.
Photo courtesy of Travis Faulkner

A little more than a month ago, just about every back road in the country was covered with muddy trucks and 4-wheelers during the November gun season. Bright orange vests dotted the steep mountainsides like ornaments on a heavily decorated Christmas tree. Deer hunters everywhere were fired up and overly anxious to place their cross hairs on a heavy-tined buck that would surely be the envy of all their friends. It's funny how during the early segments of deer season it can be a difficult task to even find a good place to hang a tree stand without bumping into another hunter.

But by the time December rolls around, the eagerness and excitement associated with deer hunting typically hits rock bottom. Bone-chilling temperatures along with a combination of snow and icy roads have a unique way of keeping many hunters at home during the remaining weeks of the season. Let's face it, intense scouting and logging countless hours in the field long before opening day can easily generate late-season burnout even for die-hard deer hunters.

However, opting to stay out of the deer woods during December and January can be an enormous mistake and potentially cost you a filled tag. In fact, over the past few years, hunting the mountain country of East Tennessee during the late season has enabled me to dramatically expand my trophy room.

Without question, choosing to stay in the woods during the cold winter months has significantly improved my relationship with my taxidermist. On the other hand, my wife sometimes feels that hunting all season long has had the opposite effect on our relationship!

Hunting during the late season can be very demanding and poses several different challenges for deer hunters. In order to be successful during this stage of the game, you must have the right mindset long before you leave home. This involves accepting the fact that you may face grueling cold temperatures and long hours in the stand without seeing a great deal of deer activity on some outings. There have been days when the highlight of my hunt was simply watching a hungry gray squirrel bounce around my tree stand searching for hickory nuts beneath a thick blanket of winter frost and leaves.

In situations like these, a hunter must keep in mind that it only takes one hunt to drop a monster buck. Remember, your odds of filling your tag drastically improve by simply being in the stand and staying in the woods. You will never shoot a trophy-class buck while lying on the couch eating potato chips and watching the Outdoor Channel. Without question, you can see some monster bucks when you view hunting shows, but unfortunately, you will not be the one squeezing the trigger.

Now's the time to climb out of that easy chair and begin mentally preparing yourself for late-season hunting. Don't allow plummeting temperatures, adverse winter weather, fatigue or burnout knock you out of a golden hunting opportunity. Having the right frame of mind and following a proven game plan will allow you to fill that remaining deer tag during the last part of East Tennessee's deer season. Let's get started!

EAST TENNESSEE'S HOTSPOTS

One of the most important aspects of deer hunting is simply concentrating your efforts in areas that traditionally yield high numbers of deer. The first step in having a good game plan is realizing that where you hunt can be as important as how you hunt. Let's turn to Daryl Ratajczak, the big game program coordinator for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) for some inside information relating to where the hotspots will be this December.

"The top five counties in East Tennessee for deer harvest are Hawkins, which recorded a total harvest of 2,356, and Claiborne checked in 1,668. Scott added 1,266; Johnson chipped in with 1,205 and Morgan rounded out the list with 1,179. Hawkins and Claiborne counties account for a considerable amount of the East Tennessee deer harvest because of their location in the ridge and valley physiographic area of Tennessee. In other words, this area encompasses a lot of farmland in the valleys," Ratajczak explained.

A combination of hardwood ridges and valley farmland can hold and sustain healthy populations of deer throughout the year. These areas provide the deer with both woodland food sources and various agricultural crops. In addition, the deer also have adequate cover to provide safety and protection. Hunters looking to end their season on a high note should definitely check out these counties in East Tennessee this December.

PUBLIC LAND OPPORTUNITIES

According to Ratajczak, hunters can take advantage of several wildlife management areas (WMAs) that are in East Tennessee. In fact, the Cherokee, Sudquist and Royal Blue are the largest WMAs in the area that are open for public hunting and encompass nearly 800,000 acres. There are also many smaller WMAs that are dispersed throughout the entire region. You can find more information about these areas in the annual Tennessee Hunting and Trapping Guide.

UNDERSTANDING CHANGES IN DEER BEHAVIOR

Hunting deer during the late season requires hunters to adapt their strategies and techniques from earlier segments of the season. Deer hunting is very similar to bass fishing in the sense that anglers must be able to vary their fishing techniques to consistently catch bass throughout the year. This usually involves switching lures, altering presentations, and focusing on different types of structure and depths. In order to be successful during the remaining weeks of the season, you must also adapt your hunting techniques to meet the new challenges, according to Ratajczak.

"Hunting during the December and January deer season is quite different from your early-season hunts. Some deer may be influenced by a secondary rut, which will typically occur during the early to mid part of December, although most deer will be settling down into their normal late-season feeding patterns. If you find signs of the secondary rut, such as bucks chasing estrous does, you should hunt like you would during any normal rutting period," Ratajczak said.

"However, if no signs of the rut are found and you plan on patterning deer, remember that feeding patterns at this time of the year will be like no other. After intense hunting pressure, the deer can be much more secretive, utilizing heavy thick cover -- and mature bucks could be on a nocturnal schedule. Deer sightings can drop drastically and you may have to focus your hunting efforts in areas that you normally would not look for deer," Ratajczak noted.

THE SECONDARY RUT FACTOR

As mentioned earlier, hunting during the later segments of deer season can potentially allow hunters to take advantage of the secondary rut. Over the years, there has been a great deal written about the overall impact of the secondary rut. There are also conflicting beliefs and different interpretations among outdoor writers and professional hunters on this subject.

On one side of the issue, there are some who believe that the secondary rut is as explosive as the primary rut. Then there are those who feel that the secondary rut is weak in comparison and could basically pass by unnoticed. You are probably wondering which side is right on the secondary rut issue. From my own personal hunting experiences, I feel that both sides are right to a certain extent.

A couple of years ago, I took a nice buck during the late Tennessee gun season that was stiff legged, sporting a swelled neck and trailing a hot doe. There were definitely clear signs of rutting behavior during that particular late season and I had adjusted my hunting strategies accordingly. Switching my tactics from focusing primarily on late-season feeding and bedding areas to doe travel corridors allowed me to kill a specific rutting buck during the December season.

However, in most cases, I have learned that you just don't see the intensity of rutting behavior during the secondary rut as you observe during the primary rut.

There's a good reason for that: By the time the secondary rut rolls around, the majority of the does have already been bred. Furthermore, by this point in the year, the remaining deer have survived the earlier segments of the season and can be skittish and wary. In my opinion, these factors prevent the secondary rut from being as explosive as the primary rut.

Nonetheless, it's important to remember that a lack of intensity does not mean that utilizing rut-hunting tactics during this period will be ineffective. Basically, if you find any sign that indicates rutting behavior, than you should make the appropriate adjustments with your hunting techniques, according to Ratajczak.

"Even under the best herd conditions, a secondary rut is possible and quite normal, but there will be far fewer does participating. This early- to mid-December period can be an ideal time to catch that elusive buck dropping his guard after the intense hunting pressure has eased off a bit," Ratajczak commented.

FOCUS ON FOOD

If the secondary rut is not a factor during the late season, it's time to adjust your game plan and focus on the remaining food sources.

Earlier in the season, whitetail deer could take advantage of an endless buffet made up of a wide variety of food sources, which can make patterning a buck more difficult. However, during the late season, most of these food sources have been diminished, limiting the number of choices for the deer.

This leads to a conclusion that might surprise some hunters: I strongly feel that this undeniable fact makes pinpointing travel patterns of a buck a much easier task during the late winter months.

Without question, one of the main woodland food sources and all-time favorites of whitetail deer everywhere are acorns. Unfortunately, during the cold winter months, squirrels, turkeys, deer and just about every other animal that lives in the woods have devoured most of the acorn supply. However, during some years, the white oak and red oak trees will produce bumper crops of acorns that could potentially last through December.

Isolated ridgetops or areas that contain large groves of oaks can be late-season hotspots in the mountain country. Acorns provide deer with a high-protein food source that plays an integral role in winter survival. The deer will routinely visit areas that still hold acorns until the supply has been completely diminished. Finding these areas will be fairly easy because of the abundance of sign left behind by deer, turkeys and squirrels scratching away the leaf litter to reach the few remaining acorns. Hanging a tree stand near remaining acorn crops can be a sure bet during the December season.

If you are unable to locate areas that are still holding acorns in December, then you must look for alternate late-season food sources in the mountain country. For example, galax, similax, certain types of rhodendron, honeysuckle and mountain laurel provide nourishment for deer during the winter months. However, hunters should note that rhodendron is typically eaten by whitetails only when other food sources are not available.

Hunters should have no problem pinpointing areas that contain honeysuckle and mountain laurel. Both of these winter food sources are fairly common in the mountains of East Tennessee. Deer depend heavily on honeysuckle and mountain laurel when food is scarce, which is typically the case during the late season. Positioning a tree stand overlooking worn trails leading to and from these mountain food sources can pay huge dividends during the remaining days of December.

What if you are unable to locate areas that are still holding acorns and have experienced little luck finding honeysuckle or mountain laurel? Once again, you must alter your game plan to meet the late-season challenge. You have to keep in mind that deer have to eat to survive and whitetails must move at least a short distance to reach the food source in most cases. Locating the current late-season food source and properly setting up can be the difference between a filled tag and total boredom.

With that in mind, what other mountain food sources do deer depend on when all the others have been depleted? According to Daryl Ratajczak, the big game coordinator of the TWRA, deer frequently change their feeding routines during the winter months.

"After the mast crop is exhausted and green vegetation is becoming sparse, deer will change their feeding habits and become browsers more than anything else. Although any tree is susceptible to browse pressure if food is scarce, deer generally prefer the maples and dogwoods over most others," Ratajczak explained.

IMPACT OF WINTER WEATHER

Throughout the month of December, hunters may encounter harsh winter weather conditions in East Tennessee. Plummeting temperatures, ice, snow and bitter cold winds are all winter weather factors that can have a dramatic impact on overall deer behavior and patterns.

Deer will typically become much more active just before and immediately after a cold front. Whitetails generally try to feed heavily before the weather takes a turn for the worse. In addition, deer that have been bedding in thick cover during extreme winter weather will need to feed after the cold front has passed.

Watching the weather forecast to determine frontal periods will enable you to determine the best times to be in your stand. Keying in on the remaining food sources during these periods can be an extremely productive hunting strategy during the late season.

Even mature bucks that have been on a strict nocturnal schedule will frequently make daylight appearances t

o feed before and after the bad weather hits. Being patient and staying in your stand during these conditions can pay huge dividends and allow you to fill that remaining tag.

LATE-SEASON OPPORTUNITIES

According to Ratajczak, hunter participation decreases considerably during the December hunts.

"December harvest totals are nearly one-third to one-half the amount of the November season. However, hunters who are patient and stay in the woods can be rewarded during the late season. The deer are out there! If you do the scouting and put in the time, more than likely you can fill that remaining deer tag. The odds are you may tag a wiser and older deer that has eluded hunters throughout the busiest and craziest part of the early season," Ratajczak said.

"The December and January segment of deer season is very important when it comes to managing the Tennessee deer herd. Knowing the hunting pressure is much lower at this time of year, we can open up sensitive areas for doe harvest either through quota or non-quota hunts. This will ensure the doe harvest doesn't exceed the recommended amounts. Too heavy of a doe harvest can have drastic effects on an area such as East Tennessee where populations aren't nearly as high as the rest of the state.

"Since there has been little change to the hunting regulations, hunters can expect the overall harvest numbers to be similar or even slightly higher than last year. This increase should be attributed to a growing and expanding East Tennessee deer herd," Ratajczak added.

With that in mind, there should be nothing stopping you from throwing on some extra clothes and hanging your tree stand. Right now is the time to ignore late-season burnout and follow a proven game plan that will allow you to end your season on a high-note. Good luck and good hunting!

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