By Gene Smith
“Gene, I saw a big buck just above your house last night,” my neighbor said. “He came out of the paper company tract and went into your lease. Had a nice rack.”
“What time was it?” I wanted to know.
“Around 9, I guess. Maybe 9:30.”
“I’ve seen him before, and I hope to see him again,” I said. “He’s an 8-pointer. I looked at him down the barrel of my blackpowder rifle year before last but snapped on him. I’m glad to know he’s still around.
“Thanks for telling me,” I said as my friend drove away.
Good neighbors help make good hunters, and most of us need all the help we can get, especially as the season winds down. My rural neighbors know how much I enjoy deer hunting, so they tell me about deer they’ve seen crossing a road or standing in a pasture or farm field. Such information is invaluable, for, as all serious students of the white-tailed deer know, these animals don’t range very far over their lifetime. Where they’re seen once is quite likely where they can be seen again. That’s how all those highway deer-crossing signs get placed where they are.
Hunting deer during the rut is one thing. Breeding bucks go a little crazy. The woods and cutovers may be crisscrossed by running deer at any hour of the day or night. Buck scrapes are hot, and rubs are fresh and plentiful. It’s easy to decide where to hunt then, and it’s such great fun because the odds are so decidedly in a persistent hunter’s favor.
But what do we do late in the season when the rut has waned and most of the deer of both sexes have gone back to their old routines? We’ve already put a few does in our freezer and, in most seasons, even some venison in freezers belonging to family and friends. Even so, we’re still enjoying our hunting despite the increasing cold and the reduced deer movement. That’s when the tips from neighbors and rural mail carriers and late-shift workers and sheriff’s deputies come in handy. Take note of where deer, particularly antlered bucks, are being reported. Those are great spots for post-rut hunts to begin.
Well, I did see that 8-pointer again, late last season. It was through the scope on my faithful old Remington .270, but he’s still out there somewhere. I missed him, but let’s come back to that short, sad story in a bit.
Things that work for me might help you find a worthy buck in the post-rut season. And that brings up a basic question: What are you looking for in a buck? To one who has yet to score late in the season, any legal buck will surely be considered worthy. As in the case of a young hunter after getting his or her first deer, or perhaps after getting his or her first buck. Even to those who have already bagged one or more bucks, including a “big deer” (meaning something on the order of a heavyweight wearing a rack with seven or eight points or better), taking a post-rut trophy is awfully satisfying.
If taking note of sightings is the first step in planning your end-of-season hunting, the second is to save a few spots just for that purpose. Have some places set aside, in your mind if not on your map that you choose not to hunt during the first two-thirds or so of the open season. Save them, undisturbed, for the latter days. They can be on public land, such as in a national forest or wildlife refuge. One or two should be well away from where you see most of the hunter traffic during the early and middle parts of the season. Check a map to find tucked-away spots that others seem to overlook. Many will be near paved roads, sometimes even within 50 yards. Most, of course, will be remote. Those places are ideal spots for scouting fresh food sources and bedding areas – habitat that will attract old bucks after the stresses of the rut have passed, when their bodies are most in need of rest and recuperation.
Those special spots are what some of us call “smokehouses.” They’re where we go to get meat. We keep them pretty much to ourselves. It’s not that we’re selfish by nature, we just like to check in a “big deer” now and then after the other hunters have hung it up for the season.
A primary reason for staying away from those special spots is anchored in whitetail buck behavior. You don’t walk through their living room or bedroom without their knowing it and without leaving your scent. Once they know they have a visitor, bucks change their patterns, sometimes temporarily abandoning their core living area. It’s best not to thrash around in all of the woods and bottoms and thickets available to you. Whether private or public land, hunt on some tracts and save some for later.
Post-rut bucks are largely nocturnal. They have reverted to the movement patterns for which they are naturally programmed. They also prefer darkness now because they have learned that darkness brings an absence of motor noise and footfalls, of muffled voices and whiffs of sweat in the wind. Late-season hunters need to adjust their behavior patterns as well.
My method is simple: to abandon the open woods, where the bucks once dogged does, and to seek out the thickets and draws in which they spend their days. This means passing up permanent stands and ladders. It means loading a light pack, strapping on a climbing stand, and spending serious time high over the thickest of thickets I know about or can find.
Brushy slopes and bottoms in cutovers are fine places to climb for big bucks. Old fields with brushy terraces, especially those with south-facing slopes, are ideal, if a hunter can find a high tree to climb safely. For obvious reasons, wintering deer like to bed down on southern exposures, out of the wind. In my area the stand trees of choice are sound, straight pines, and if it isn’t too windy I usually climb to the first limbs. I go high for two reasons: to be able to see better and to take my human scent up and away from game.
Young pine forests, with trees chest high or better, are commonly full of blackberry briers, tall grasses, myrtles and other shrubby growth. The poorer soils of abandoned farms and pastures often have lots of cedars, which make good cover and windbreaks. All such places, whether remote or close to human habitation, make excellent escapes and refuges for deer. I love to hang a stand around these. After going in the dark and climbing a pre-selected tree – most often one left as a seed tree for natural regeneration – even on the coldest of days two things will warm me up: a glimpse o
f antler or the welcome sunlight as the rays finally fall on my back. On cloudy days, with or without misty rain, I can only hope for a buck, but that’s okay. Bearable misery is part of the hunting experience.
Much has been written about the use of scents, both as attractants and as a way to mask human odors, which abound. I suspect that tobacco, after-shave lotion, and musty body odor is wafted for at least a mile on cold, misty morning air. Although I’m a non-smoker who uses unscented soap and deodorant religiously from October through December, I’ve had deer blow at me from far away hillsides and bottoms. Their sense of smell is one heck of an early-warning system. All a hunter can do is keep his body and hunting clothes clean and apply something that covers human scent. I use red fox urine. I put it on my boot soles all season long.
Those superior noses are vital to deer reproduction. Bucks locate does in estrus, or coming into estrus, by smell. So, in late season, when most of the does have already been bred, it’s possible to fool a buck by cleaning out and doctoring an old scrape with one of the products designed to get his olfactory attention. Most of these are advertised as urine collected from estrous does. The idea is to make him think he missed one or that a sweet young thing has just come of age and has left her calling card. Doe deer do this by tinkling in a buck’s scrape. Checking his morning mail, which is delivered by the slightest air currents moving through his neighborhood, a buck might just get the fake message and drop by to see if he can be of service. If he comes tipping through the understory, antlers glinting in the late morning sun, nose to the ground, offering an occasional low grunt, you have achieved what all full-season hunters hope for. All that’s left is to close the sale.
Another aspect of post-rut hunting is to locate food sources. Bucks don’t chase does all year, but they eat all year. If you’ve got your hunting grounds properly scouted, you know where the right oaks are, where the honeysuckle is thickest, where the apple, pear, locust, and persimmon trees are – and which ones have nuts and fruit on them going into the fall. Hunt close to those places, including the trails leading to them, as long as the food lasts.
Pick a stand tree with a good shooting lane. Climb on the downwind side, and stay low if you must in order to see the area beneath the tree. Get close enough to see a target animal in weak light, because a nocturnal old mossback will most probably show up only in the first or last light of any given day. An exception is when the food source, an acorn-laden oak, for example, is in a place remote enough to offer him the confidence to come for a midday snack. If a buck feels secure, from lack of disturbance and the absence of human scent, he is more likely to move about in broad daylight at the tail end of the hunting season.
All deer leave their beds during the day to urinate, stretch their legs, groom, and maybe browse. It’s reasonable to assume that while they’re up, and knowing those big acorns are just a few yards away, they’ll come for a little taste, particularly if they’re tired bucks in need of restoring body fat that’ll be needed for surviving the stresses of January, February and miserable old March. I make it my business to find those hidden-away places just for use in the post-rut period.
As the senior hunter in my immediate circle, I tend to take the easy way some of the time, hunting from ladders and from lock-on stands I reach via six or eight climbing steps, each fastened around a tree by a chain and a strong snap fastener. This is a quick and quiet way to hunt. I always have one or two such setups stuck away in my private places. It’s a great way to hunt, until you down a big one right at dark and have to find help to get him out. But what a nice problem to have!
I have rediscovered ground hunting in recent seasons, too. If the topography is right and the deer trails converge in an area where I have the wind in my favor and at least two or three good shooting lanes – which I clear with cutters if I must – I will sit on the ground, just as if I’m hunting turkeys, and hope something shows up. More than once I have dropped off to sleep on a nice morning. God knows how many deer have walked past unseen, but more than a few got their noses full of dirt.
Hunting at ground level requires much self-discipline and a good ability to see game. As in turkey hunting, you can’t move around. Scratching your nose or swatting a bug might spook a buck that has already seen you and is slipping in for a closer look.
Whether you are in a tree or on the ground, watch for movement. Learn to pick out parts of a deer. You might see only an ear, an eye, the flicking of a tail. You might see only a brown spot at first. Patience can pay off in spades. Just sit and wait to see what walks out. It could be a doe. It could be a fawn. It could be the buck of a lifetime.
It could even be me! Keep that in mind, and keep your finger off that safety until you know without a doubt it’s what you’ve come for.
That buck my neighbor told me about, the one I missed? Well, he’s a slick one. He’s been seen in my yard. He, his girlfriends and their offspring eat my apples and grapes. After I snapped a cap on him with the front-loader, another hunter saw him but couldn’t shoot. We jumped him out of his bed one day while rabbit hunting. He ranges behind a nearby country church. (By the way, every country church has deer and turkeys nearby, but you knew that already.)
He and a lesser buck nearly ran me over once, chasing a big doe. He shifts from the paper company woodlands to our side of the road, then back again. There are several of us who would like to see him up close and horizontal . . . or hanging from a scale.
So far, it hasn’t happened, but I had my second chance last December.
I had been woods-walking most of the morning, and even though I carry my rifle on these jaunts I don’t call it hunting. It was nearing 11 o’clock. I was heading home, my rifle slung. Straight down the logging road, that buck calmly stepped out and stopped, broadside. I reacted poorly. Instead of easing the rifle off of my shoulder and mounting it smoothly in a hasty sling, I jerked it around and planted it against my shoulder. The stock was slightly higher than it should have been. I had to readjust by bringing the buttplate down.
I was already puffing, from the exertions of my walking. Now I was practically hyperventilating. The buck decided to leave. He didn’t rush, but he didn’t linger either. Keep in mind that it was only a two-rut woods road. I knew he’d be safe in two seconds, three at the most. I was shooting offhand. I got him in the glass, but the crosshairs were waving hello and goodbye each time they crossed his thick body. I tried my best to catch him middle ways of my gun waving, but I missed him, pure and simple. He paused to see what the commotion was about. I was slamming the bolt on another round when he passed from view. He was only about 80 yards out.
He’ll be back, I’m sure, and so will I. I have a feeling he’ll go home either with me or with one of my friends this season. I know where he lives.
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