Change Is Good

Change Is Good

East Texas bucks have changed their priorities from breeding to eating -- so if hunters expect to score, they need to change their tactics to match.

(December 2006)

Photo By Mark Werner

I'm not sure why I'm even sitting here, I thought to myself. It's cold -- well, by Texas standards, anyway. I haven't seen a buck from this particular stand all year, and there are exactly 12 hours left in the season. A smart hunter would have gone duck hunting, or not got himself in this situation to begin with.

I've never been accused of being smart. So there I sat in the first few minutes of legal shooting light on the last day of the season, shivering and deerless, hanging onto the last ray of hope that a buck -- any buck -- might walk by.

Looking at the smoke rising from the farmhouse just a quarter-mile away, thoughts of heading in to the warmth of a fire and breakfast began to creep into my steadily congealing brain. My sore back, numb posterior and frostbitten fingers all murmured: It's OK. Everyone will understand. There's no shame in coming home empty-handed. It's not about taking a deer -- it's the hunt that matters.

Bacon sure would be good about now.

Turning away from the house, I tried to convince myself that I was going to stay on stand come hell or frozen appendages -- and that's when I saw him.

There was little doubt that it was a "him." The buck appeared as thick as an Angus bull, heavy-beamed antlers silhouetted against the frost-laden grass. With the single-minded intention of reaching his bedding area before the sun broke the horizon, the old buck had made a fatal mistake: Instead of staying in the thin finger of woods lining the small creek, he'd chosen to shorten his route a few hundred yards by cutting across the field I was set up on. I prayed that the single cartridge that had been loaded into the chamber of my rifle countless times that season wasn't a dud.

The shot was anticlimactic. A few minutes later the 9-pointer was in the bed of the truck. That bacon is going to taste even better now, I thought. And I was right!

Admit it: You've stopped deer hunting at Thanksgiving before. Most East Texas hunters have done that-- and who can blame them? By the time December rolls around, the rut is a distant memory, and the bucks that survived the nonstop barrage from armed humans perched atop climbing stands have disappeared. However, persistent hunters understand that the tail end of the season can be one of the best times to pattern an old buck.

The rut, while one of the most celebrated and anticipated periods of the year for a deer hunter, also is one of the most unpredictable and physically stressing to a buck. Often leaving his core area and running for days with little rest and even less food, a buck can lose considerable weight that needs to be replaced if he is to survive even the moderate Texas winters.

By now, a buck's mindset has changed from looking for love to looking for food. For that reason, successful late-season deer hunters change their tactics from locating does to locating food sources and being near them at sunrise and sunset. When looking for late-season feeding areas, hunters have three options: natural browse, planted food plots, and electric or gravity feeders.

Of the three types of food available, natural browse is the hardest to locate but offers the greatest reward to hunters exerting the effort. The first step to finding natural food sources is to sacrifice a little time in your deer stand and dedicate it to mid-season scouting. Typically, hunters think of deer as creatures of habit -- which, for the most part, they are. However, as the season progresses and food sources change, deer are forced to follow their stomachs.

Set up near the feeding areas at first and last light; then, still-hunt the bedding areas at midday. Remember: The season's

almost over -- this is no

time to be timid.

The bucks you patterned feeding in a hay meadow or oak thicket at the end of October will have switched to another food source by December. To find these new areas, get out of your stand and follow the well-traveled deer trails you have been guarding all season long. On one end of the trail you should find a bedding area and, at the other, a feeding area. Set up near the feeding areas at first and last light; then, still-hunt the bedding areas at midday. Remember: The season's almost over -- this is no time to be timid.

"In East Texas there is often the misconception that everything that is green is deer food," commented Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist Stephen Lange, "but that is not the case. Deer are an edge species, and first-choice deer forage is found in secondary succession areas such as young clearcuts, burn areas, or old pastures. Early-winter forages include American beautyberry, honeysuckle, greenbrier, strawberry bush, water oak, and elm. Deer even utilize sumac, poison oak, and yaupon."

Find a patch of any of these types of plants, and you've just located the ideal place for hanging a late-season stand. If you can't locate any natural forage areas on your lease, all's not lost: It's possible to create them. "Good deer forage can be produced by mowing and disking in early-to-mid fall along pasture edges, fencelines, shooting lanes, and powerline right of ways," remarked Lange.

The second-most productive food source for late-season bucks should have been thought about six months earlier when you were busy catching bass and shooting fireworks. Food plots planted with the correct mix of plants will be used by deer all season long, and likely will be hit hard late in the season when other food sources have been depleted.

The general over-the-counter food plot mixtures sold at your local feed store should contain some plants hearty enough to grow in December. However, if you want to make sure that your food plot can sustain growth throughout deer season, call your county extension agent for recommendations as to what type of plants grow best in your area.

"Right now, the big buzz in winter food plots is cold oats planted along with chicory," reported Richard Gay, a wildlife biologist from Lufkin. "Cold oats, commonly called 'buck forage oats,' grow at a pretty good rate and will survive temps well down into the teens. Chicory is planted along with it, which is utilized as a summer crop and is a semi-perennial, which means it will come back for about 2 to 3 years without replanting. All you do is replant the oats the next fall, and the chicory will follow suit the next spring."

Also, some items generally thought of as crops for human consumption, (corn and peas for example) can be planted and left s

tanding to provide late-season food and cover. Northern hunters often key on standing cornfields in order to bag late-season deer; it stands to reason that we can benefit from standing corn as well.

The most-used and least effective method for pulling in late-season deer involves the use of a corn or pellet feeder. The biggest drawback to using feeders is that most hunters don't relocate them as the deer's travel and feeding patterns progressively alter. Deer that have survived to the later period of the season didn't achieve that by aimlessly wandering up to a feeder that has been in place for months, or even years. Older, wiser animals know where your feeder is, and when you're standing vigil over it, so they typically aren't drawn in during daylight hours.

A feeder is best employed during this period by placing it along a well-used trail between bedding and feeding areas found by mid-season scouting and then setting your stand between the feeder and the bedding area. The idea here is that any deer using the trail will stop at the feeder long enough to delay it so that it will pass in front of your stand during legal shooting hours.

Late-season deer in East Texas are not the same creatures that they were the first weekend in November. Yearlings have become seasoned veterans, and any deer older than 2 1/2 years have become invisible. If a hunter wants the opportunity to take that trophy of a lifetime in the Pineywoods, he'll need to get out of the stand he's taken up lodging in and get aggressive. Finding deer through mid-season scouting, hunting feeding areas at first light, and pushing bedding areas during midday is just what it takes at this time of year to put a trophy on your empty den wall.

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