Early-season whitetail hunting is generally wonderful.
Early-season bowhunters will set up on relatively unwary animals that haven’t had to worry about humans pursuing them for eight months. Hunters will be excited after seeing bucks and does at agricultural fields most mornings and evenings during August. Archery hunters who pay attention can easily plan where to set up their stands.
Later, the pre-rut season generally occurs when the nights turn cooler, and bucks stake out breeding territories. That activity (rub trees, scrapes, trails) also means it’s simple to pinpoint some general locations where a wallhanger is likely to be. Such deer sign also may offer hunters an idea about the size of an unseen buck that made those markings — the general rule is the bigger the rub, scrape or track, the heavier-antlered will be the deer.
During the rut, or mating season, deer, especially formerly super-wary bucks, will chase receptive does 24/7. Auto-deer collisions always peak at this time, as bucks and does play tag all day and night for about three weeks.
About all a hunter needs during the first half of the 11th month is a well-sighted-in gun, a stand in the woods or at the edge of a field that affords good lines of sight and a pocketful of patience. A hunter who can sit all day in a tree stand is almost certain to see a buck with his nose to the ground at some time during the day.
But then comes the winter doldrums, starting for most of us with a capital “D” — as in December
However, by December in most of the South, the primary rut has finished. Plus, most deer will associate humans with gunshots and will have watched their relatives hauled out of the woods on ATVs or tossed into pickup truck beds.
Also by December, most does no longer are interested in randy bucks but concentrate on finding proper nutrition to feed themselves and the fawns growing inside them. Mast, such as acorns, has been consumed by then, along with unharvested crops left in fields.
Hunters mostly agree that post-rut, late season is a tough month to hunt whitetail bucks.
But is that sentiment entirely accurate? Can the 12th month still be a prime time to hunt a big whitetail?
Listen to what some successful deer hunters have to say:
THE LOCAL KNOWLEDGE FACTOR
Michael Clifton has taken a string of bucks with at least 130 inches of antler, including a 9-pointer that grossed 138 inches in 2003.
“But I’d never killed a non-typical buck,” the 43-year-old said. “I’d never even seen one around here.”
Like many hard-core hunters who know their region is saturated with trophy potential, through the years, Clifton has garnered permission to hunt from several landowners.
“I have some leased land and some that’s private,” he said. “The place I got this deer was a small tract of private land where only a few people are allowed to hunt.”
During 2005 and 2006 pre-season scouting, he found signs at one of his hunting areas that indicated a very decent buck.
“I knew (the property) had some good (buck) sign,” he said. “In fact, it was a better-than-average place; it had some really good rubs. I set up my stand not far from one of those good rubs. (The buck) had twisted off pine limbs that were ribcage high. I had a feeling a pretty good deer lived there because of the limbs twisted off that high from the ground.”
It also helped that the landowner had told Clifton he’d seen a “pretty good” buck.
“He showed me a shed he’d picked up back there several years ago, and it was big,” he said.
Clifton put local knowledge together to drop a 167 5/8-inch non-typical whose rack sported 21 scoreable points.
SCOUTING AND SIGHTED RIFLESPerhaps the best example of hunting an area and getting big results because of pre-season scouting comes from William “Will” Price.
Price was hunting wild turkeys during the spring of 1998, but he forgot about gobblers when he discovered not only one but a pair of huge shed horns, obviously from the same buck. He marked down the spot and vowed to return during deer season.
Sitting in a stand atop at ridge Dec. 9, 1999, Price’s turkey hunting/ scouting trip paid big dividends when he spied a huge buck walking on a hill across a valley.
“He was probably 300 yards from me,” Price said.
His first shot with a Browning .30/06 rifle didn’t seem to affect the big buck, so Price fired off a second round and watched the deer fall. When the hunter clambered down one hill and up the other and came to the buck, he found he’d hit the 10-pointer with both shots.
His trophy scored 180 6/8 Boone and Crockett typical inches.
DEER LURES AND THE SECONDARY RUT
Brant Grady had hunted deer for more than 30 years when he scored on his best buck during 2008.
“I carried a Doe-In-Estrus Buck Bomb Aerosol Fogger with me,” he said, “and I squirted a few blasts of that scent into the air.”
The veteran hunter was aware of the secondary rut, which is a time that unbred does come into season a second time.
“It was Dec. 2, 2008, so it was about the start of the secondary rut (where I was hunting),” he said.
Grady was in a tree stand on the side of a hardwood ridge next to a cutover that was bordered by a creek at the bottom.
“I’d found a rub on a tree next to the creek about a week earlier, and the tree was 10 inches around,” he said.
Grady was in a Summit climbing stand about 15 feet off the ground when the buck walked down the side of the creek, following the scent trail of the Doe-In-Estrus spray. The hunter downed the deer at 80 yards with one shot from a Marlin .30/30 rifle.
What makes the secondary rut so important for hunters is that dominant bucks actively seek out remaining estrous does that weren’t impregnated during the primary November rut. This early December time is a prime period to try estrous scents.
The 10-pointer is Grady’s best deer trophy.
OLD HOME PLACES
There’s something about abandoned farmhouses that attracts bucks during December.
It may be that honeysuckle or any one of a number of heirloom plantings are favorite browse forage, and often grow near derelict rural homes. Or it could be these properties usually are near roadways where deer can be aware of the comings and goings of hunters. Because these homes are unoccupied, the lack of human visitors also may make them magnets for whitetails.
A big-racked deer often will hunker down in a honeysuckle thicket near such buildings and not move if he can see and hear hunters and knows they haven’t detected him.
And the deer are on to something, too: Many hunters will walk or drive right by such places, often trying to get to the most isolated areas on the hunting property. The hunter assumes that the deer, especially big bucks, will retreat as far as possible from roads or the sight and scent of man.
Yet from the buck’s perspective, these abandoned farmhouse areas have everything a buck could want: food, shelter, dense cover and surprisingly little hunting pressure.
Whatever the case, crumbling farm shacks, sharecropper cabins and the like are favorite winter haunts of whitetail bucks.
Kevin Chandler took the tactic a step farther by actually hunting from an abandoned home place on Dec. 22, 2008.
“I shot the deer out of a old abandoned home place beside a big pasture,” he said. “The buck was coming out of hardwoods going to a cutover to bed down.”
The massive 12-pointer fell at 8:15 a.m. after a single shot from Chandler’s 7-mm Magnum rifle.
Most hunters believe use of rattlin’ horns to decoy bucks is reserved for the pre-rut period when male deer decide who earns the right to be the dominant breeding male.
That’s not necessarily so.
The lack of receptive does means fights are almost assured during December.
A hunter named Cody Fouts put the tactic to good use Dec. 13, 2008, while hunting public land last season.
“It takes me two hours to walk into this place I’d been hunting all season,” he said. “About 9:15 a.m., I rattled, and a minute later this guy stepped out near the top of the mountain.”
One 7-mm round from a Remington SAUM dropped the big whitetail in its tracks. The toughest part for Fouts was dragging the big 8-pointer back to his truck.
“Took me 3 1/2 hours,” Fouts said. “But we’re used to workin’ hard for (our) bucks.”
Bob Arnao, 48, has been a top trophy hunter for years.
He hangs so many trail cameras that he knows exactly where surviving bucks live during December — and thus he knows where to hunt. He also has permission to hunt multiple properties and sets up stands in order to defeat wind currents.
“I keep multiple trail cams set up year ’round,” he said. “I almost exclusively bowhunt and spend a lot of time rotating from place to place to keep things fresh each time I hunt.”
That knowledge helped him decide to go to a particular stand last winter. His hunt there resulted in a 9-point monster aged at 5 1/2 to 6 1/2 years old and whose rack measured 148 gross inches.
“It was a stud,” he said, “one of the best I’ve ever killed.”
BECOME A ‘HOLE IN THE AIR’
Arnao, who is a guide (The Whitetail Fanatic) and videographer of deer, goes to extreme measures to make sure he leaves almost no scent at his hunting areas.
The olfactory sense of whitetails is legendary, so Arnao does everything he can to defeat their noses.
In addition to washing his clothes in scent-free detergent and showering with scent-free soap, he stores his camo clothing, socks, boots and caps outside in waterproof plastic containers. Sometimes he places cedar or pine boughs in those containers.
“I dress outside in the morning, no matter how cold it is,” he said. “I don’t want household or cooking odors to get on my clothes. Smoking is out of the question.”
Arnao also doesn’t wear his calf-length rubber boots in his truck or at gasoline stations or restaurants. (“You could get gas or oil on the soles,” he said.) He wears sneakers while driving to his hunting areas.
Arnao also determines exactly from which direction the wind is blowing at his tree stands by checking its direction at his home before he goes into the woods.
“(The wind) can blow one way at your house but be blowing from another direction at your stand,” he said. “You better know how the wind’s blowing at your stand before you go, or you’ll mess up that stand for days.”
As already mentioned, whitetails love to eat succulent honeysuckles in winter.
But the key is they prefer just about any plants that are green.
Legions of food plot seeds are available and many brands make some over-the-top claims. That’s not important. It’s important that hunting at greened-up food plots is a sure way to see bucks during December — if the herd hasn’t been pressured too much. If that’s the case, bucks will become totally nocturnal.
In that case, place a stand on a deer trail leading away from the food plot and toward the nearest bedding area. Get quietly into that stand before daylight and you may catch a big boy headed back to his bedroom at dawn.
One of the favorite late-winter deer food plots is kale, a leafy green plant that has a high sugar content and draws whitetails like flies to honey.
Here’s a final natural foods tip. During cold Decembers, warm snaps of two or three days often occur in the South, accompanied by rain as a front moves through an area. Find a mature forest with a deep carpet of pine needles the day after such a rain, and you’ll often see a crop of mushrooms pop up.
Whitetails are connoisseurs of mushrooms and will come from miles to eat these tasty morsels in winter.