December 03, 2021
Note: This article is featured in the December-January issue of Game & Fish Magazine (East edition). Learn how to subcribe
"All I need is one day to kill a buck."
This is usually my go-to line when talking shop with my hunting buddies during the final weeks of deer season. As much as I love punching my buck tag early, when I do I miss the ups and downs—the stresses and joys—of a full hunting season.
I haven’t eaten tag soup in more than a decade because throwing in the towel is not an option. My excitement now is as high as it is on opening day, only during this time of the year, I find the odds to be stacked more in my favor, thanks to these four strategies I employ during the late season.
1. Rattle Them In
My first son was born in 2017, so my hunting time that season was extremely limited. When it got to be December and I had yet to punch my buck tag, I was getting a little worried. I hadn’t done much scouting, my trail camera batteries had been dead for weeks and I was hunting on previous experience. What I missed the most that season was the intensity of the rut, so one day I decided to bring my rattling antlers and grunt tube along.
As I sat high in a tree, overlooking an overgrown crop field, I decided to try a rattling sequence. People always talk about a “second rut,” but I believe bucks are constantly trying to breed into early winter. So, I pulled out my rattling antlers and tickled the tines to mimic light sparring. I did this over the course of the next 20 minutes and then, out of nowhere, I heard a loud crack. What followed was a brawl between two bucks in the timber. I knew I had started this, and I was only praying to see it through.
The bucks went on to fight for about 5 minutes until one of them came out of the timber and into the crop field. As he entered, so did another buck and a couple does. I held off to see what would happen next, and I’m glad I did. Moments later, a shooter stepped into my lane. I lowered my sight onto his shoulder and squeezed. I was glad to have finally filled my tag, but I was also excited to have gathered this new information that bucks still actively fight during this time of the year.
Every year since then, I have rattled and grunted in mature bucks through December and January. A technique mostly used during the rut has proven deadly during the latter part of the season. Combine this with any or all of the following three tactics and you’ll have a recipe for tag punch instead of tag soup.
2. Find Major Food Sources
If you watch a lot of hunting television, you may believe the fix-all for any hunting property is food plots. The truth is food plots can only do so much—but they can really come into play this time of the year. If you have some sort of late-season green on your property during this time, there is a good chance your deer are headed there.
For those of us who don’t have food plots, or hunt public land where they don’t exist, we must look elsewhere. This is where it pays to scout after the season and document your findings. In particular, take note of thick briar patches that offer a lot of browse. Since the acorns have come and gone by the late season, a deer will focus on survival through twigs, stems and, if things get bad enough, even grasses. If you have any recent blowdowns from a storm, had previously done some hinge cutting or know of some clear cuts, these all offer great forest-level food for whitetails.
Deer, especially does, are focusing on their health during this time of the year. Pregnant does need a lot of nutrients, and the bucks are recovering from the rut. Food becomes a priority, and finding these food sources—even small pockets of food—can make all the difference.
3. Hunt Scrapes
Believe it or not, I’ve found hunting scrapes this time of the year to be far more productive than in October or November. According to the study "Remote Monitoring of Scraping Behaviors of a Wild Population of White-tailed Deer," conducted in 2000 by Karen Dasher, Jonathan Gassett, David Osborn and Karl Miller, 85 percent of buck visitations to scrapes occur after dark. Does visit scrapes after dark 75 percent of the time. My own trail camera and observation data collection corroborate these findings.
The truth is, that study and others I have read focus heavily on the creation and use of scrapes during October and November. In my own experience, bucks and does are both extremely active with scrapes throughout the year, but very much so in December and January during daylight hours.
Often, when I hit a wall during hunting season, I’ll take a break and scout places I know there are deer but hunting is not allowed. This is often park properties, private properties and sometimes suburban or industrial areas. This past winter I was able to scout over a powerline field that holds a great number of deer in the latter part of the season. I wanted to see what these deer were doing to help determine my next move on my own properties. One January day, using my spotting scope from my truck, I counted 8 different bucks of various ages that tended a scrape in the last hour before sunset.
Back on my own property, I noticed several deer using community scrapes throughout the evening. I have only ever killed one buck over a scrape during the rut, right at last light on a hunt in Missouri, but have witnessed several bucks actively using scrapes in December and January during daylight hours. Hunting a scrape now just might be the ticket to punching your late-season tag.
4. Invade No Man’s Land
If you are familiar with my writings, you should know I preach minimal human intrusion. Whether you hunt your own farm or public land, the key to success is ensuring deer feel safe and secure and have food and water. If they have all those things, they tend not to leave and usually survive much longer. I provide these needs on my properties by developing dedicated sanctuaries, but even on public land there are places in the timber where humans seldom infiltrate. These are the places I crash during the late season.
I look for places that hold the does, because even though it’s late, bucks still have a bit of testosterone in them and are constantly looking for that last standing doe. As does have been continually pestered by bucks for weeks now, they may retreat to these areas to get away, but the bucks eventually find them. Once I locate these areas, I mark them on my hunting app and hang a cell camera.
The No. 1 thing I am looking for now with my trail camera photos is a pattern. For instance, last season I set a cam for a specific buck and found he went from bed to food around 4:30 p.m. three days in a row. On the fourth day, I went in. He offered me a 32-yard shot with my bow, but a combination of trying to film the hunt by myself and trying to make an offhand shot from my tree saddle resulted in me going home empty-handed. Nonetheless, the opportunity was there.
Find these locations, gather your intel, formulate a plan and crash the area when the conditions are right. If you want to be successful every hunting season, keep this in your toolbox because it works better than most other tactics.
STAY ALL DAY
Gear that will keep you on stand in the bitter last days of the season
Cold weather can make deer hunting miserable. If you aren’t used to it or aren’t equipped for it, it can be the difference between enjoying your hunt and regretting it. During the rut, post-rut and late part of the season, all-day sits aren’t uncommon, but to be able to pull them off requires apparel that allows you to focus on the hunt and not the cold.
Sitka Incinerator Aerolite Jacket & Bib
I’ve always thought of Sitka apparel as gear, not clothes. The Incinerator Aerolite system is designed to provide ultra warmth for cold-weather hunts where conditions can be wet and snowy. Whether you hunt in sub-zero temps in the frozen North or the Mid-Atlantic states where it’s in the mid-30s, humid and raining, this gear will help you stay and play. Both garments ($649 each; sitkagear.com) feature a Gore-Tex waterproof/breathable outer layer with a durable water repellent finish, are stuffed with synthetic PrimaLoft Gold insulation and are articulated to allow free range of motion. The jacket has a built-in waterproof safety harness port and stow straps for packability so you don’t overheat on the walk to the stand.
Kenetrek 10-inch Grizzly Boot
There is nothing worse than having cold feet on stand. The Kenetrek Grizzly ($280; kenetrek.com) has warmth to spare thanks to a removable liner that combines 400-gram Thinsulate Ultra insulation and 3 mm of wool felt. The upper is 6-ounce oil-tanned leather and the rubber outsole features a deep and open tread design for getting to and from the stand safely through any sloppy terrain. It was designed for the mountains but works wonders in the whitetail woods. On especially bitter days, I combine these with a good pair of battery-heated wool socks and have no excuse for not sitting all day.