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Bowhunting Hunting

Keys To Post-Rut Bowhunting Success

September 24th, 2010 1

Our expert knows so much about bowhunting for whitetails that he could write a book about it. In fact, that’s exactly what he just did. Here’s his take on how to score after the rut. (December 2005)


Photo by Steve Bartylla

Snatching my bag of clothes and gear from the truck, I headed into the woods. Reaching a safe location, I began the unpleasant task of changing into my hunting clothes. Racing to slip on a layer of thermals, I longed for when the temperature was above single digits. Stashing my driving clothes, I slipped on my Scent-Lok liner, topped it with camouflage, doused myself with Scent Killer and was ready to rock. After a short walk and 20-foot climb up the tree, I was just settling in when the first family group came pouring into the picked cornfield.

It was late December, three full hours before dark, and I already had seven deer within 50 yards. As the first two hours zipped by, more deer piled down the ridge on the opposite side of the narrow cornfield. Soon, the field was crawling with deer pawing for the snow-covered kernels. My attention was focused on a group of three yearlings and a 2 1/2-year-old 8-pointer that I saw the five previous days when a little 6-pointer’s head shot up to look at the ridge. As the yearling assumed a submissive posture, I knew the big boy was about to appear.

Entering the field, a mere glance from the large-bodied 9-pointer sent the 6-pointer scurrying away. Confidently swaggering to the middle of the field, still a good 60 yards away, the big boy began filling his belly. Gripping my bow tightly in my hand, I argued with myself whether I should try to grunt him over or wait him out. The last two afternoons I had chosen the safe route. With so many sets of eyes on the field, I was concerned that drawing any attention to myself would be too high of a risk. Finally, I decided that if he didn’t make it over by the time gray light came, I would use the low light to help conceal me when I called.

About 10 minutes later, I caught the break I needed. The 8-pointer began harassing a little forkhorn. After playfully sparring, he got too aggressive for the little guy and chased him near my stand. Securing the release to my loop, I positioned my feet for what I hoped would happen next.

The big guy, with his attention focused on the pair from the start, puffed up and began stomping his way over. Hoping the scrappy 8-pointer would stand fast, I raised my bow and readied for the shot. At 20 yards he altered his head on approach to make eye contact with his subordinate. Coming to full draw, I settled the pin behind his front shoulder. In an instant, the buck exploded into the air, kicking violently before bursting across the field. Slanting farther to the side with each yard he covered, he horseshoed his body as he crumpled to the ground. On my sixth consecutive afternoon, the buck was finally mine.

ENDURING THE WORST
If there’s a well-kept secret to killing mature bucks, it’s how productive late-season hunting can be. Fortunately for those of us that realize this, comparatively few other hunters take advantage of this phase of season. Perhaps it’s because everyone else has already filled their buck tags. Maybe it’s because they believe every animal sporting good antlers have already been harvested. It may even relate to what another hunter once told me while I was on a late-season trip: “You guys aren’t really going out to hunt in this? The highs are only in the single-digits and there’s more than 2 feet of snow on the ground!” To keep him from calling the psyche ward, I didn’t bother to mention that the week before saw me out in 15-below-zero temperatures, overlooking a cornfield covered in over 3 feet of snow. Funny, but that hunting trip was one of my best ever.

Truth be told, I suspect that it’s a combination of all three of those factors that keep many hunters out of the woods. Another factor is that many of the stand sites that were hot earlier in the season are now colder than the frigid temperatures. Speaking from experiences of my youth, I can tell you that it just isn’t much fun getting frostbite while watching a patch of snow that doesn’t even hold a single track. I can see how one or two of those experiences can convince a hunter to stay indoors. Hunting the post-rut offers serious challenges to overcome.

Still, compared to what bucks living in areas yielding consistent snow cover and freezing temps can be forced to endure, we have it easy. The toll paid from rutting can be seen in weight loss and injury, and it couldn’t occur at a worse time. Now, they must try to survive winter. For the unlucky ones that must make it on a diet consisting mainly of woody browse, they must do it while running a negative energy balance. Simply put, they expend more calories each day than they intake.

With the buck’s fat reserves already depleted, combined with potentially harsh conditions, this is no easy feat. Traveling through deep snows and cold temps both drain a lot of energy. Throw in the fact that even in agriculture-rich areas without standing crops, snow depths of much more that a foot force deer to shift their diet to comparatively poor sources of energy, and one begins to appreciate what they must endure. After all of that, many of these deer also must contend with predators whose weight and large paws are more easily supported by the snow’s crust.

In an effort to minimize the effects of all these detrimental factors, deer employ behavioral and physiological adaptations. To begin with, they significantly reduce their movement. Often, they do little more than travel back and forth between bedding and feeding locations. In short, the less they move the less energy they burn. To take energy conservation a step further yet, deer even slow their metabolism.

Along with that, when the temperatures really plummet, the deer combat this by shifting their feeding activities more to the warmer late-afternoon hours. Since the later night and early morning hours are typically the coldest portion of the day, this modification allows them to remain bedded and conserve body heat during these frigid periods.

Next, they shift their now greatly reduced home range to locations that best promote their survival. In the areas that consistently receive deep snow cover and brutal temperatures, the destinations for these winter migrations are traditional yarding areas. Most often, a thick stand of mature evergreens is selected. Here, the dense canopy of branches creates a ceiling effect. Not only does this trap heat to keep the temperature at ground level a degree or two warmer, but it also captures some of the snow, making travel easier. Furthermore, with so many deer packing into these areas, the extra hoof traffic also results in easier-traveled deer trails, along with providing more sets of eyes to detect predators.

In conjunction with that, this is the period when those otherwise solitary bucks now gladly utilize the same bedding ar
eas, trails and food sources as the family groups. This intermingling allows them to take advantage of the heat-retention properties of the yarding area and increased protection from predators, as well as the easier travel that the packed trail system provides.

In this setting, the food sources are most often woody browse. White cedar is always preferred, when available. It’s the only woody browse known to be able to sustain a whitetail’s life completely by itself. Areas of recent logging activity are typically the next best alternative. If conducted in early winter, the plethora of tops scattered across the ground provide a bounty of buds. Older activities can be good choices as well. Until the regrowth of saplings grow beyond the deer’s reach, they also offer a concentration of tender buds. If none of those choices are available, it becomes a matter of finding whatever natural browse is available.

During winters experiencing warmer temperatures and less snow cover, a less traditional form of yarding occurs. Instead of concentrating on thermal cover, deer gravitate to the best available food sources. When they exist, standing crops such as corn, soybeans and sorghum are almost always preferred. In areas where standing crops are in short supply, it’s not uncommon for a lone field to draw deer from miles around. When minimal or no snow is present, waste left from harvesting crops is also a good option. The same can hold true of hay and alfalfa fields that contain exposed greenery or round bails of hay. When agricultural options aren’t available, the same hierarchy of woody browse species polishes off the list of preferred food sources.

Interestingly, in areas where yarding commonly occurs, mild winters often inspire deer to dismiss traditional yarding areas for prime food sources, as well. However, regardless of how much better the food may be, they will almost always choose the thermal protection when snow and the thermometer both fall.

Not any one of these behavioral and physiological adaptations may appear to make a significant difference. However, with the line between life and death being so fine, any advantage a deer can gain is important. When all of these factors are combined, they are substantial enough to significantly increase winter survival rates.



The deer’s tendency to shift feeding times earlier is also an advantage. Frankly, deep snows and cold temperatures are the late-seasons hunter’s best friends. The worse it gets, the more inspiration the bruiser has to hit the food source before dark.
 

CAPITALIZING ON ADAPTATIONS
Now that we understand how whitetails cope with winter stress, we can explore how to most efficiently use these traits to our advantage.

At first glance, it may appear that drastically reduced movement is a disadvantage. However, finding where a mature buck resides transforms this swiftly into a significant advantage. Investing several late afternoons observing the best available food sources is a good way to find him. Because there’s no other time during season that a mature buck more rigidly clings to a pattern, this is well worth the effort. Simply put, find a mature buck in a food source one late afternoon and there’s a very good chance that he’ll feed there almost every day until the source is exhausted, or changing snow depths and temperatures alter his patterns.

With that accomplished, the next step is to backtrack his trail just far enough into the woods to allow the hunter a route to and from the stand. On the rare occasion when a safe route exists to a field edge stand — such as in hunt that began this chapter — this is also an acceptable choice. In fact, assuming daylight feeding is occurring, it’s preferred. Setting up on the edge provides the increased odds of catching the minimal second-rut activity that may occur.

Hunting on the food source also provides the hunter with the ability to attempt calling bucks feeding at a distance in close enough for a shot. Moreover, because the concentration effect often means that more than one mature buck is utilizing the same food source, sitting the edge often provides opportunities that in woods trails don’t. Still, without a good route more harm than good is the most common result.

The deer’s tendency to shift feeding times earlier is also an advantage. Frankly, deep snows and cold temperatures are the late-seasons hunter’s best friends. The worse it gets, the more inspiration the bruiser has to hit the food source before dark. This is so pronounced that these conditions can make an otherwise nearly exclusively nocturnal buck move to feed during daylight in an open field. Many of my best hunts have occurred on the coldest day of season. On the flip side, unseasonably mild conditions tend to shut down a mature buck’s daylight movement. If a high-risk stand site is the only option, saving it for an afternoon of brutally low temperatures is the best option.

Finally, even with all of these odds stacked in the hunter’s favor, some bucks refuse to move in the open during legal shooting hours. When hunting one of these reclusive monsters, it’s necessary to go deeper into the woods after them.

When snow is present, it’s easy to backtrack his trail to the bedding site. Though many people believe spooking a buck from its bed is disastrous, I don’t believe that doing so once has long-term effects. However, it’s a good idea to bring the stand and required gear with you to prepare the stand site on the spot rather than coming back later.

For these predominately nocturnal bucks, stand placement should be as close as the hunter can approach the bedding area, without alerting the buck. This distance will be dictated by a host of factors, such as noise made in the approach, the buck’s view from his bed, wind direction and topography, to name a few.

Regardless of where the stand is placed, it’s important to keep disturbances to the area to a minimum. When a mature buck is patterned, keeping him unaware to your stand placement leads to positive results.



For these predominately nocturnal bucks, stand placement should be as close as the hunter can approach the bedding area, without alerting the buck. This distance will be dictated by a host of factors, such as noise made in the approach, the buck’s view from his bed, wind direction and topography, to name a few.
 

DEALING WITH ADVERSITY
Picking a good stand location is only half your battle. Next, you must conquer the elements. Luckily, advances in hunting clothing have made this possible. I have found two options that work.

One option is investing in numerous layers of quality cold-weather garments. Headmuffs, chemical heating packs, boot blankets and Polar Heat Exchanger Masks complement this approach.

The other option is the Heater Body Suit. This quiet, lightweight and easy-to-use item encloses the hunter and retains their h
eat. It has been my choice since the first time I used it. This cold-weather hunting outfit makes those 30-degree mornings more enjoyable and allows you to remain comfortable in temperatures well below zero. All that’s required to retain the perfect amount of heat is adjusting the zipper up and down.

The advantages of staying in the stand are obvious. In short, you can’t kill a deer when sitting at home on the couch. Every bit as important is that being comfortable keeps the hunter focused. When your mind is dwelling on how miserable you feel, you fidget more, your senses aren’t keyed on hunting and the odds of harvesting a deer plummet. The Heater Body Suit effectively removes these obstacles from late-season hunting.

With that done, you can focus on odor elimination and sound reduction for both yourself and your equipment. Thankfully, a combination of Scent-Lok and Scent Killer products can handle the odor factor, with inspecting equipment enabling the hunter to address those unwanted noises. Although difficult, it’s hardly impossible to ambush a mature whitetail when these factors are treated with the appropriate attention. In fact, it’s one of my favorite times to be in a stand.

(Editor’s note: For a comprehensive guide to cutting-edge stand-hunting methods, check out author Steve Bartylla’s new book, Advanced Stand-Hunting Strategies. Send a check or money order for $22.50 — tax and shipping included — for an autographed copy to: Steve Bartylla, 909 N Chestnut Ave., Marshfield, WI 54449. Be sure to include your name and shipping address.)

  • Greg C

    Help. I am hunting a small 10 acre parcel and all the land around me is posted and they wont let me hunt. I know where the bucks are bedding but i can't intercept them because the other 3 pieces of property around me are not in my reach to hunt. According to my trail cameras there are two 10 pointers who will easily score in the 150's or better. they are coming in anywhere around 11:30 at night, and around 4:30 in the morning. I have tons of does coming in on me right around sunset but I need some help to try and trick these bucks into coming in during shooting light. It is now Dec. 6th, there is about 2 inches of snow on the ground, the only food source easily available is whatever i have been putting out for corn to keep the does coming around. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

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