November 13, 2023
The early season comes and goes. The pre-rut blows right by. The rut feels like a blur. And, then, there we are, knocking on the door of the late season. Here’s how to fill your buck tags in a time when many hunters are tagged out or throwing in towel.
1. Know When to Go
Not every late-season day is good. It’s important to know the factors for daylight deer activity during the late season. Furthermore, it’s important to know when to go deer hunting. Some of these factors include available food sources, barometric pressure, moon position (overhead/underfoot), hunting pressure volume, temperature, weather and remaining estrus does.
2. Know Where to Find Them
Fortunately for deer hunters, there are many different places to find them throughout the season. But during the late season, these places shrink. Bedding areas to keep in mind include thermal and solar bedding areas. Some examples include CRP fields, clear-cuts, leeward ridges, marshes, oxbows, ridge points, standing cornfields and swamps.
3. Set Up Over Food Sources
If I’ve written it once, I’ve written it a bunch of times. Food dominates all things deer hunting. So, it only makes sense to target a deer’s belly during the late season, right? But you need to be smart about it.
Deer are incredibly adept to picking up on human intrusion. If there’s much of that going on, you can bet there won’t be much daylight activity on big, open food sources (such as corn, soybeans, oats, wheat and big food plots, such as beets or turnips). If this is happening, find more remote food sources deer are feeding on (like remaining hard mast, woody browse, etc.).
In areas where you can, plant food plots specifically designed for the late season. Brassicas, standing beans, corn and wheat are great late-season options. Michael Lee, cohost of The Backwoods Life, uses this tactic every year.
"Late-season food plots are key for success," Lee said. "Get in the stand early in the evenings and be patient. The big bucks will show up right at dark many times. Hunt the travel routes to the food sources and tight to bedding areas. You can catch those big boys slipping in and out or looking for a second-rut estrus doe."
4. Home in On the Water Sources
If there’s snow on the ground, you can forget about water. If it’s recently rained within the past five to seven days, you can forget about water. If you live in a swampy area, you can forget about water. But if it’s bitter cold, everything is locked up from sub-freezing temperatures, and nothing of the other factors listed above are in play, you better not forget about water.
Deer need to drink just as much as they need to feed. During winter, they get very little water from the foods they eat. A wintertime water source that’s still open can be a great way to fill a late-season tag.
5. Find the Right Bedding Cover
Different types of bedding cover are important to deer. Bernie Barringer, an outdoor writer and lifelong hunter, focuses on two types during the winter. "On sunny days, deer like to bed on south-facing slopes where they can protect themselves from cold north winds and soak up the sun’s rays," Barringer said. "They may get up and move a few feet throughout the day to stay out of the shade and enjoy the sunshine. I call these solar bedding areas."
Barringer encourages hunters to focus on other areas, too. "Thermal bedding cover is used during nasty weather," Barringer said. "If it’s drizzling, snowing, overcast and generally crummy weather conditions, deer will tuck into thick cover where they can escape the cold winds and weather. These spots are normally found in creek bottoms or side hills with heavy underbrush. Find where they feed and locate the cover, they are most likely to use based on weather conditions. Then it’s a simple matter to set up an ambush between bedding and feeding areas for a close shot.”
6. Hug Tight to Bedding Areas
I start out being more conservative and set up closer to food sources than bedding areas. However, late in the year, most deer have felt the affects of hunting pressure. If hunting such deer, most deer—especially older, wiser ones—won’t make it to food sources during daylight. That leaves you with only one option, to set up closer to the bedding area.
Be very cautious when you do, though. It takes extra stealth and awareness to slip in on a bedded deer. In most cases, I prefer to set up somewhere between 75 and 150 yards of a pressured deer's bed. To do this, you must know where they’re bedding, and the conditions have to be just right. Once everything is in line, then you can move in for the hunt.
By the late season, bucks and does alike have eased into areas that receive less hunting pressure. If possible, find these pockets of habitat and attempt to gain access to these. Finding unpressured security cover is a challenge, but imperative. Get to those overlooked and hard-to-reach areas.
8. Track Up a Deer
The late season was designed for tracking deer. This can be a very good tactic for finding and killing a whitetail. Obviously, you need snow to do it efficiently. Once you have that, then slip along known travel routes until you cut a fresh track. Slowly follow it from there. Don’t worry if you bump the deer, either. If you do, sit tight for 45 minutes and allow the deer to re-bed. Then take up the track again and move a little slower, constantly glassing ahead. Persistence is the key to tracking deer. Don’t lose patience and stay at it.
9. Conduct a Push or Drive
Deer pushes and drives are very effective during the late season. Use them to fill your remaining tags. Get some pals together. But make sure your push (smaller than drives) or drive is conducted correctly, safely and efficiently. It’s an art. Brush up on your skills before implementing this tactic in the field.
10. Find a Remaining Rut
Kevin Knighton, cohost of The Backwoods Life, likes to chase the rut, literally. "By the late season, many hunters are tagged out in their home state," Knighton said. "This can be a great time to explore hunting in other destinations. Several southern states like Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and even Florida have zones that will be in full-rut late in the season. This can be a great time to hunt the peak [rut] in a new destination."
Bonus: Don’t Rush In
Dan Infalt of The Hunting Beast is a big-buck slayer and does it on public land and heavily pressured private land. And his advice is something to remember, especially during the late season. "During late season, crops are cut, leaves have fallen, grass is laying down and there’s a lack of cover," Infalt said. "Bucks must seek out the few remaining pieces of thick bedding cover and can be a little easier to find than during the early season. However, the novice will rush in and set up right away and the same lack of cover that helped him find the bucks will get him busted."
Bucks use this to their advantage. "Smart bucks will often bed in thick cover on the edge of a food source and watch it during the day, so they may see you set up," Infalt said. "My best luck has come from patience. A day in an observation stand with a good spotting scope and/or binoculars will give you great intel about how a buck enters the food source, what trees it goes by, and where it is vulnerable. Often, your first strike is your best chance. Pick the wrong tree by rushing in and your hunt may be over before it begins."