Patterning southern winter whitetails means something entirely different in the upper part of the region than it does in the lower portions. Let’s take a look at strategies for both parts of the region.
So here is the situation. The end of the deer season is approaching. The weather is the coldest it has been since the overall deer hunting commenced, the prime part of the rut has long since ended, food sources have narrowed, deer habits have changed, and you still determinedly want to kill a big buck. What should be your game plan?
The first thing that must be said is that for most of us, this is the hardest time to tag a bruiser. Most of us will have to venture to the same public and private lands where we have failed to tag a trophy earlier in the season. But as difficult as it may be to kill a late season buck, it is possible. Here are the factors we should have an understanding of in order to experience success.
In this part of the deer-hunting universe, winters are rarely brutal. You can be thankful that you are not dealing with deep snow and a Maine or Michigan winter here.
But weather conditions do affect southern deer. It is very likely now that the deer in this region will move less at the coldest part of the day, which is most likely to be the early morning period. They will be more likely to feed in the middle of the day, especially if a front is approaching. Also, and as is true throughout the season, the last two hours of daylight almost always offer possibilities.
So if work or family commitments restrict your potential time afield, take care of those obligations in the mornings, be on stand by 10:00 and remain afield to the end of shooting light. That is the first step to possible success.
The Secondary Rut
As an outdoor writer for nearly 30 years, I have interviewed deer biologists in every Southern state at one time or another. Whenever the topic is the secondary rut, the general consensus is that it is something that we hunters simply can’t count on, at least in terms of drastically increasing our chances at killing a big buck. One gentleman even told me many years ago that the secondary rut was mostly something that sprang from “the feverish imagination of outdoor writers.”
Some doe fawns come into heat during such a rut, but generally less than 20 percent of these yearlings will enter estrous. Sometimes, in many places, the number of hot doe fawns will be considerably less.
Some new rubs and scrapes will appear every year in mid-December and we should take note of this sign and even spend an evening or two hunting over these buck calling cards. But if you decide to take a stand over a fresh or re-freshened rub line, don’t spend more than two evenings doing so. Those red hot December rubs and scrapes are the quickest — from my experience — to grow cold.
The Deer Diet
If we can’t count on the secondary rut to influence deer behavior during the late season, we can definitely rely on food availability to determine where and when the bucks travel.
Overwhelmingly our best chance to take a wide-racked buck late in the season is to determine where and on what that animal is feeding. Finding that food source is a very difficult challenge. For that prime menu item might be a food plot, an oak grove, an agricultural field, or maple leaves.
Over the years, I have hunted late season deer over numerous food sources, but the one constant is that all of these sources were temporary and none drew whitetails for more than a few days. One evening, for example, I found fresh droppings in a small grove of red oaks. For whatever reason, these four or five trees had produced a better than average crop and nuts still lay on the ground. I was able to take a buck the very next day.
I returned to that site several days later, though, and all the acorns were gone and all the sign was old. To put up a stand there again would have been foolish. Such is the transient nature of late season food sources.
Although a bountiful acorn crop was my ticket to punching a buck tag one year, generally such hard mast foods are not available most years by the December to January period. Here’s where scouting and knowledge of local soft mast food sources is crucial to having a chance to succeed.
I own a number of tree and shrub field guides, and every time I see any kind of plant with any kind of berry on it, I look up that species of flora in a tree or shrub field guide. I research whether deer will consume this plant’s fruits or not.
Sometimes these soft mast food sources are common and sometimes not. For instance, the persimmon grows in every Southern state and deer relish this tree’s orange fruits. They are among the last to ripen of all soft mast foods.
Other times, it might be some uncommon species of grape or obscure viburnum bush that only thrives in very specialized habitat. Some folks might scoff at spending so much time learning about unusual trees and shrubs, but this attention to detail can pay off.
Obviously, food plots, agricultural areas, and openings of any kind can draw deer late in the season. But before you commit to spending a mid-day or an evening outing at one of these locales, make sure that whatever plants exist there are edible by deer.
For example, one November I was able to kill a decent buck that was feeding across a green field. The farm where this field existed was a long drive from my house, and I was not able to return to the site until one evening in late December. When I arrived around 4:00 p.m., I noted that the field was now brown and largely barren. It was too late to go to another farm, so I spent the last hours of daylight there. Sure no deer of either sex appeared.
December and January hunting in the Deep South is not at all similar to pursuing whitetails in the upper part of the region, according to Slade Reeves, video producer for Primos Hunting.
“When the season is winding down in the upper Southern states, for us, this is when the peak of the rut occurs,” he emphasized. “December and January are the prime months of the rut in much of the Deep South. In fact, a lot of hunters from the upper South come down here so they can experience peak rut hunting again in relatively mild winter weather.
“Some years in this region, we can have a strong secondary rut in late January. Of course, the weather has a lot to do with how strong the secondary rut is here.”
Feeding And Bedding Areas
Reeves said the first step to success during December and January is understanding where the deer bed, feed, and travel during the peak of the rut. “Pine plantations, cedar thickets, and 3- to 5-year-old cutovers are really important bedding areas in the Deep South,” he offered.
Bedding areas relatively near to food sources this time of year are prime locations. A 5- to 10-acre food plot is often a major deer draw in this region in December, and it will stay that way through January. That’s assuming it has been planted with the right deer foods.
Among the most fetching of those foods, Reeves added, are clover, turnips, wheat, oats and various greens. In the Deep South, acorns and soft mass foods are for the most part long gone by December and January. Here a food plot near hardwoods and evergreen thickets reigns.
Once you establish where a bedding area and feeding area combination is located, the next step is to figure out where the main funnel is between the two, Reeves noted.
“There are two classic pinch points,” he said. “One is where any type of hill or slope in a stand of hardwoods merges with another. The second is where any two kinds of habitats meet, like where a cedar thicket or pine grove borders a food plot or field. A stand of hardwoods between food sources and bedding areas is also a great set up spot.
“Those are excellent places during the rut to intercept bucks that are following the does to feeding areas and making and checking rub or scrape lines. One year, for example, I shot a nice buck in a pinch point that was just 30 yards from a food plot. The buck was following behind a group of does.”
December and January deer hunting can be difficult. But if you have an understanding of deer behavior during the winter, you have a better opportunity of patterning late season whitetails.