Photo courtesy of Cass Fazzio.
It’s amazing the difference a few months can make in Texas. Back at the beginning of October, the woods were alive with activity. Deer would travel at will, moving freely during daylight hours between the dense vegetation of bedding areas and the open feeding grounds covered with plenty of acorns and crops. Food was abundant, temperatures were moderate, people weren’t shooting at them, and life was good.
But now it’s December. Virtually every bit of greenery has either been consumed or killed by subfreezing temperatures. The abundant acorns that covered the ground earlier are just a distant memory, and for the past two months a constant barrage of arrows and bullets has rained down from the trees. Bucks that survived the rigors of the rut and the onslaught of hunting are weary, ragged and all but invisible.
Realistically, most of you have abandoned the woods and any real hope of bagging a buck, anyway. Those lucky outdoorsmen who hunt the South Texas Brush Country have evidence that taking a deer in December, and even into January, is hardly out of the ordinary; at some ranches there, it’s actually prime time for taking a big buck. But if you hunt in East Texas and haven’t taken your buck by now, your chances are decreasing exponentially each day.
For most of the state, really, the season can pretty much be chalked up as a failure if the deer steaks aren’t in the freezer by Thanksgiving — and if you still haven’t taken anything by Christmas Eve, your rifle has more than likely been put into the safe to wait until next year. Those still hunting typically have moved on to chase waterfowl or hogs.
While the pursuit of late-season bucks can seem an exercise in futility, the few diehards who refuse to quit until the last minute of the last day know that this can also be an excellent time to take home an experienced old buck. You just have to realize that the tactics you relied on at the beginning of the season are now virtually useless. And let’s be honest: If they’d really worked all that well in November, you wouldn’t be hunting right now — would you?
Like a lot of East Texas hunters, I’ve spent many a season sitting in a freezing stand until the bitter end, praying that a mature buck — heck, any buck — would wander by. Many of those seasons ended without a shot being fired. That walk back to the truck with the same shell in the chamber with which I started the season — reflecting as I trudge along that I’ll have to wait another nine months before I have a chance to chase a buck again — is a long one. (As if to prove a point, a massive buck will inevitably run through the headlights on my way home.)
But owing in part to lessons that I’ve learned the hard way, deerless seasons have thankfully become less frequent for me over the past years.
By the first week of December 2000, I had already discounted the season as a failure. Not only had I not taken a buck, but I also hadn’t even seen one since the gunfire started back on the first weekend of November. It was definitely time for a change of tactics and scenery.
On a late-season afternoon hunt, I decided that instead of heading to one of the usual stand locations on our hunting grounds, I would settle myself into a narrow strip of hardwoods less than 200 yards from the back door of the house I grew up in. This particular stand of trees, less than 50 yards wide and just 100 yards long, was rarely hunted, owing to its proximity to the house. At the time I was of the mindset that all the deer lived on the back side of our place, and so I never hunted that close to the barking dogs and roaring tractor engines that meant civilization was near.
My theory was quickly proved wrong. Leaning against a centuries-old oak tree, I was the only witness to an almost endless parade of deer that afternoon. In the last few hours of daylight, both does and young bucks walked a trail that ran inside the tree line just 20 yards in front of me. I don’t know how many deer walked the trail on that particular day but I know the last one I saw was a quick-stepping 8-point buck. A soft grunt stopped him, and a single round from my .270 put him down for good.
The first step to taking a late-season buck is to move out of your core comfort area and into his. Many hunters have a difficult time accepting that they may not have chosen the greatest location for their permanent stand, and will not abandon it at any cost. Pride has been the downfall of many hunting seasons.
When December rolls around, it’s time to move. Two months of being hunted educates bucks in a hurry; the area around big wooden box blinds is abandoned, and feeders are only visited at night, so if you want to increase your odds of seeing a buck, get out of the permanent stand and try locations that you haven’t hunted all year, if ever.
That small strip of woods along the creek that doesn’t look thick enough to hide a rabbit might be the bedding location of a trophy buck. And the acre of scrub brush behind the cabin that you walk past every morning on the way to your stand? Could be the latest hiding place for the “phantom” buck caught back in September by your game camera.
When scouting for new late-season hunting locations, keep in mind that at this point of the season, bucks are doing two things: eating and resting. A lot of energy was exerted during November chasing does, so all bucks are looking for is an easy meal and a safe place to rest — both of which can be difficult to come by.
By December, the most-preferred food sources are all but gone; a few acorns can still be found, but the time and energy spent locating them outweighs the energy they provide. So instead of scavenging for acorns, deer begin browsing on leafy plants such as greenbrier, honeysuckle and small shrubs. To find these food sources look in the thickest and nastiest areas on your lease. Clearcuts made not less than two years ago are ideal locations for starting your search. The increased sunlight reaching the ground encourages the growth of brushy plants, which provide both a good food source and thick bedding cover. Work from this premise: The later in the season, the thicker the brush you need to probe.
East Texas is covered with bottomland and sloughs that, though favorite hangouts for duck hunters, are often overlooked by rifle
-toting deerslayers. I’ll share a secret: Deer live outdoors 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. They don’t have the luxury of coming in out of the rain. Getting soaked is a part of life, so they have little apprehension about getting their feet wet in order to evade from hunting pressure.
If this summer is any predictor for the coming months, we’re in for a wet year, which means that a lot of East Texas bottomland will be flooded in December. Find a few acres of dry land amid the thousands of acres of knee-deep, half-frozen slop, and you’ll find a buck. Throw a pair of hip waders into your hunting gear and hit the swamps once the mercury starts to dip.
Trudging back to my truck through knee-deep water after a successful duck hunt in the Sabine River bottom, I was worn out. The mile walk in wasn’t too bad, but that had been four hours earlier. Standing in freezing water has a way of sapping strength, and my legs didn’t want to move another inch.
Luckily, I knew of a small switchcane-covered island about halfway out of the swamp on which I could rest or pass out (whichever seemed more appropriate). Stepping onto its semifirm ground, I dropped my decoys — wondering why I carried so many in the first place — and sat down for a breather.
I’m not sure who was startled more — me or the buck that jumped up less than 10 yards away. I quit counting points when I got to 10, as he trotted through the water and deeper into the river bottom.
Keep in mind that when you’re hunting away from the comfort of your box, full camouflage is imperative. A facemask and gloves are required to conceal any movement. If you have a tendency to fidget, invest in a portable pop-up blind. I keep one strapped to my backpack that can be set up or taken down in under 30 seconds. In addition to concealing movement, pop-up blinds also help both to protect you against the elements and to contain your scent.
Over the past few seasons, that same strip of woods right behind my parents’ house has become a late-season interstate highway for deer. On one side of the trees is a 100-acre patch that, clearcut almost a decade ago, provides late-season browse; on the other lie 40 acres of newly planted pine trees — an ideal bedding site. In the last three years, we’ve combined to take five deer after Thanksgiving from this area, all within 200 yards of the backyard fence.
Cass Fazzio knows all too well the difficulty of deer hunting in the eastern part of the state. When he’s not in Wyoming working, he can be found perched in a deer stand pursuing haggard old bucks in the East Texas brush and swamps. His situation is different from that of most, in that his work schedule doesn’t always allow him to hunt the most productive times of the season. With a shift that requires him to work out of state for two weeks and then come back home for two weeks, Cass often misses the most active part of the rut.
As a result of this schedule, Cass goes into every deer season knowing that the hunting will be tough by the time he enters the woods, because the deer will have felt considerable hunting pressure. But Cass, always up for a challenge, uses a few tactics to help him bring the big bucks home.
On Dec. 2 a few years back, Cass and a 140-inch buck crossed paths. Actually, Cass had known about this buck for quite a while but it wasn’t until that cold December morning that they met for the last time. Earlier during bow season the buck had slipped in on him, and Cass was busted when he moved. After that close encounter, this wise old buck had turned into a night owl, leaving its bed only after dark and returning well before daylight.
The night before, Cass knew he finally had the buck’s number. “I told my wife that I was going to shoot the big buck in the morning,” he told me. “It was stormy and rainy the night before, so I knew he’d be getting back to bed late.”
Upon hearing her husband’s plan, Cass’ wife reminded him that their 2-month-old had a doctor’s appointment the next morning, and that he would be there — no excuses. That didn’t give the hunter much time, so well before daylight the next morning, he left the house as quietly as possible and walked to a stand on his 30 acres to wait for the bruiser.
At daylight a deer appeared on the edge of the field but Cass thought it was a spike that had been coming through every morning like clockwork. He decided to scope it anyway — and now he’s glad he did: Rather than the spike, it was the buck he’d been waiting for, as if the beast had read the script and showed up as anticipated. A single shot from his .25/06 dropped it — another December trophy for Cass Fazzio!
That day the hunter from Broaddus was using a simple deer-hunting tactic that most don’t take advantage of. Adverse weather disrupts normal feeding and bedding behavior, if only slightly, which can give a hunter a slight advantage. Make it a point to be in the woods just prior to and right after a cold front rolls in, because the deer will be more active during those times. Like Cass, also be on a stand near a bedding area on rainy mornings, since the cloud cover keeps it darker later, and that buck you are after might swing by during legal shooting hours, instead of 10 minutes before, as they usually do.
Another tip Cass passed along was one he learned growing up on the other side of the Sabine River, in Louisiana. If you think our deer are hunted hard, then you need to travel to our neighbor to the east to get a good understanding of pressured deer. Confronting liberal limits, long seasons and the added pressure of being legally hunted with dogs, Louisiana deer must learn to hide in order to survive; their pursuers must adapt as well.
One of Cass’ favorite methods for hunting these highly pressured deer is to position a climbing stand on the edge of a clearcut and start climbing. “I like to hunt clearcuts that are grown up between waist and shoulder high.” he remarked. “Deer will travel through those all day. Granted, I sometimes have to climb pretty high to see down through the brush.”
How high? “High enough to get a nosebleed,” he responded. (Those with a fear of heights need not apply.)
Cass’ last bit of advice: In order to take an East Texas buck late in the season, you must be ready to shoot at all times. These deer aren’t going to hang out in front of you for 20 minutes letting you make small adjustments or go over them with your binoculars — they appear out of nothing and disappear just as quickly back into it, so if you’re not ready to shoot, then you’d better be prepared to go home without a buck.
Make no mistake about it: Hunting late-season East Texas bucks is tough. Feeders are all but useless, and every deer in the state is now avoiding your favorite box blind. Bucks have disappeared into holes in the ground and won’t be seen again until Groundhog Day. But the few hunters who hang in there will be changing tactics and locations until they find one or more that works for them — and the reward might just be a real wallhanger.