December 08, 2023
Whitetail hunters live for the rut, when bucks do crazy things they’d never do the rest of the year that make them extremely vulnerable to two-legged predators. Once the rut is over, however, things quiet down in the deer woods as the majority of hunters call it a season. For some of us, though, the end of the rut is the beginning of our serious deer hunting. The post-rut can be a great time to tag a mature buck if you understand basic deer behavior and how to use it to your advantage.
When deciding how to hunt the winter time period, you must consider several factors. First, you must know what stage within the rut cycle the whitetails in your hunting area are in.
“Whitetails rut at different times during the year in the southern United States,” says Chuck Sykes, director of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and a very serious and accomplished deer hunter. “In southern Alabama, for example, deer don’t get going until February. The rut in south Texas differs in timing from the rut in north Texas, which differs from the rut in Oklahoma, and so on. So, it’s important that hunters know when deer rut in their hunting area, and at what stage of the rut the deer are in when they’re afield, so they can tailor their hunting tactics accordingly.”
If the deer in your region are still chasing hard during December and into January, following tried-and-true rut hunting tactics makes sense now. But when the rut is winding down, it’s time to shift gears and do things a bit differently.
In recent years, average daytime temperatures have gotten a bit warmer, contributing to a subtle shift in deer movement patterns. Does and bucks still breed during their usual timeframe in each region since the rut cycle itself is determined by the photoperiod and not weather, but they tend to move less in daylight and more during cooler nights. This is one reason I like to hunt the post-rut, as days are cooler than at any other time of the season and deer are more comfortable moving when the sun is up.
It’s important to remember that not all adult does get bred during the rut. Those that were not bred to pregnancy will cycle into second estrus 26 to 28 days later, on average. These post-rut, second-estrous does, then, become the focus of a smart deer hunter’s efforts, because the sweet smell of one can bring a big buck running.
When you combine that last rutting urge with a post-rut buck’s need to binge eat to replace all the weight he’s lost chasing does during the primary rut, you begin to understand where and how to focus your efforts.
DOES EARLY, FOOD LATE
While this next bit of advice from Sykes might not help you this season, file it away for future reference.
“We hunt does during the early season for a couple of reasons,” he says. “For one, once we’ve filled our doe tags, we can leave the woods alone and let it settle down until the rut and post-rut periods, which are the best times of the year to tag an older buck. Also, in so doing we’re reducing the size of the doe groups, which makes the pickings leaner during the rut and encourages bucks to be up on their feet more. Never shoot does during the rut; they’re your bait. Get after them hard during early bow season.”
Does are a key component of the one-two punch that will lead to consistent post-rut success. The other is food.
“Bucks are plumb worn down after the rut, and they need a lot of food to put on the pounds before winter sets in,” Sykes says. “Now’s the time to concentrate on winter food sources, whether it be crops fields, food plots or natural foods found in the woods. When talking about food I also include water, as deer need plenty to drink to help them digest all that food.”
Sykes recommends hunting field edges in the afternoons, much like you would during the early season, focusing on trails connecting these food sources and bedding thickets through known travel corridors and funnels. Scouting cameras placed in these areas will help you narrow the areas you should hunt.
As Sykes notes, food is of paramount importance now, a hub if you will, with trails leading to and from it like the spokes of a wheel. Late-season food plots featuring a section of greens (i.e., peas and brassicas) and a section of cereal grains (i.e., corn and soybeans) offer deer foods they love and gravitate to. The grains are most popular as temperatures drop rapidly and winter gets closer; the greener foods attract them during normal weather periods.
These preferred foods will draw bucks, but more importantly, they will draw does. And if your luck is running hot, one of those does will be a late bloomer and come into estrous. I’ve actually witnessed a second-estrous doe being chased by seven mature bucks at the same time through a food plot as described here. Sadly, she didn’t come running within range of my stand.
Of course, hunting pressure must be considered late in the season, as deer have been pushed hard for months. Hunting pressure is always a factor in which way the scales tip. That’s why, when hunting either public ground or private land where others are hunting, I like to be out there mid-week, when I have the place to myself (or nearly so). If careless hunters have blown up a food plot and scattered the does, I find it best to try and hunt one of the following scenarios while the primary food source has a chance to rest.
GET UP CLOSE
For years, the common deer dogma was to leave bedding thickets alone as a sort of sanctuary area on a property. But I’ve been hunting bedding thickets successfully for decades. I’ve had whitetail does and bucks come bed within easy bow range of my tree stand many times, lying there all day until readying to leave in the late afternoon.
To formulate a plan, carefully (i.e., quietly and scent-free) set trail cameras along the edges of suspected bedding areas. Once you’ve inventoried the activity there, plan to hunt the downwind side of those areas only when the wind is right. This way you have a chance to see bucks during legal shooting hours that might not get up until it’s nearly dark and won’t be at or near a food source until after legal shooting hours.
You’ll find that while does and younger bucks might move at a regular clip, mature bucks tend to move very slowly. Watch them and be willing to adjust your plans as necessary. Maybe they’ll move past a pinch point, or along a trail with a perfect tree for a stand on the downwind side of the trail. If so, be willing to move your stand when it’s safe to do so, and move in for the kill the next day.
PATH MORE TAKEN
If you know the land you’re hunting, you probably know of at least one trail marked by years of rubs and/or scrapes. These are routes bucks walk not just during the rut, but all year because they lead from key spots—bed, food, water—along routes that offer cover and the protection of thick flora and/or tricky winds. Find where one of these rub line trails connects with a bedding thicket, look for fresh sign, hang a camera and get ready.
I am a big fan of using doe-in-estrous scents during the post-rut period. Even an old, worn-down buck that gets a whiff of this smell will react to it. I’ve had some come at a trot up a scent line I’ve laid down, but I’ve mostly seen them follow the scent line at a walk, nose in the air as they try and locate that flirtatious doe looking for a final dance.
A curiosity scent like Wildlife Research Center’s (WRC) Trails End #307, which appeals to hunger, sex and curiosity, is a good choice. If there’s no snow on the ground, I’ll run a drag line with a pronged wick like WRC’s Pro Drag. One prong gets dipped in a doe-in-estrous scent like WRC’s Special Golden Estrous, Code Blue Doe Estrous or Tink’s #69. The other prong is dipped in either WRC’s Trail’s End #307 or a buck tarsal gland scent like WRC’s Mega Tarsal Plus or Tink’s Trophy Buck.
- These systems deliver scents fuss free.
Taking advantage of scents can help you pull a late-season buck close. The ability to deliver these scents efficiently will help you concentrate on the hunt. Wildlife Research Center’s Quik-Wiks ($8.99; wildlife.com) and Tink’s Scent Bomb ($9.99; tinks.com) feature a pop-out, retractable felt wick inside a protective plastic bottle with a screw-on cap and seal. You can soak the wick prior to heading out on your hunt, then hang at your hunting site when you arrive. At the end of the day, the wick stores back inside the plastic bottle, so you can reuse it the following day.
Along the edges of fields and food plots and near bedding thickets, a scrape dripper like a Wildlife Research Center Magnum Scrape-Dripper ($16.59; wildlife.com) can deliver your favorite late-season scents. These dispensers are heat-activated; the expanding and contracting of the air pocket in the dripper causes it to release scent when temperatures rise, then shut down when it cools. Temperatures almost always rise during daylight hours, so this helps condition bucks to show up during legal shooting light. Keep in mind, for these to work you need daytime temperatures above 40 degrees. During late season, hang them in a sunny spot where maximum warmth will get them working.