Experienced deer hunters know that the post-rut period can be as dull as the rut is exciting. It is a bit of a shock to go from seeing dozens of actively pursuing bucks every day at the peak of the rut to few or none just a few weeks later, but that is the nature of the beast. The rut never really ends till early December in most whitetail states because there is always an estrous doe somewhere, and the randiest of bucks will never stop looking for them.
While there is a noticeable lull in buck activity following the first rutting period, there are two facts hunters must keep in mind as they work to unravel the post-rut mystery: Those bucks are still in the woods, and they are still searching for does. The trick is in knowing where and when these exceptional trophy bucks will be on the move. Put yourself in the right place at the right time, and you will have your chance to score.
With all this in mind, here are four proven tips for successfully hunting trophy whitetails during the post-rut period.
PUT IN YOUR TIME
Successful trophy buck hunting is not a Saturday morning proposition. Some lucky hunters are certainly exceptions when it comes to this rule, but by and large, the most consistently successful hunters are out there every day regardless of the weather conditions, home, school or work responsibilities or even how they feel. Being sick, tired, bored or discouraged are excuses, not solutions. Gear up every day, hunt for every legal minute of the day, and do not allow yourself the luxury of giving up. If you truly want a big buck, hunt hard and hunt often. Nothing else will do.
For example, last year I spent 10 straight days in the woods before I saw the buck I wanted. Over the last 50 years, I’ve hunted twice that long before getting the shot I wanted. It’s how you do it.
TARGET LOW-LIGHT PERIODS
I have purposely spent entire nights in blinds and stands just to see what the deer are doing after all the other hunters have left the woods. It’s amazing how much activity occurs between sunset and sunrise. The woods are literally alive with deer — feeding, traveling, grunting, chasing — it’s quite an education to see what goes on during the hours of darkness.
Of course, it’s not legal to hunt the nighttime hours, but there is a small window at dawn and dusk where hunting is legal, and the deer are as active as they are going to be that day. For this reason, it is imperative that hunters be on stand 45 minutes before legal shooting time and then remain on stand till the clock runs out. Last year I shot a huge 10-point buck that came past my stand with only two minutes of legal shooting time left. I let him get into the first open shooting lane and dropped him in his tracks with only a minute to spare.
BE AN ALL-WEATHER HUNTER
Local diners are full of hunters on rainy Saturday mornings. Many a trophy buck owes its life to a plate of bacon, eggs, sausage and coffee that kept hunters in their seats instead of in the woods. If you want to kill a trophy-sized buck, you will have to go where he is under whatever conditions exist. Rain or shine, cold and windy, it does not matter. Gear up for the forecast, and tough it out no matter how miserable it gets.
Experienced hunters know that some of the best hunting occurs during the worst weather conditions. Bad weather invariably affects a whitetail’s ability to see, hear and smell, which puts him at a disadvantage as he roams the woods in search of does. Deer do not fear what they can’t see or hear, and the least little mistake they make can be all the difference to a hunter who braved the elements and stuck it out while all their buddies were back at camp huddled by the wood stove.
This I learned during my younger years when I left camp before dawn in a raging blizzard, rain storm or in howling winds but came back a short time later with a fresh liver for the cook to fry and a deer for my partners to drag out of the woods for me. Whitetails can endure the harshest weather imaginable. If you want to succeed, you will have to do the same.
LEARN TO SHOOT
One of the least-discussed aspects of successful deer hunting is the hunter’s ability to put his bullet or arrow where it needs to go to end the hunt on a successful note. In every deer camp I’ve ever been in, stories starting with, “I can’t believe I missed!” dominate the roundtable discussions at the end of the day. As a guide, I have watched my hunters miss a standing, broadside buck at 20 yards, often repeatedly, essentially ruining the day for both of us.
It requires a great deal of effort, determination and perseverance to get that shot at a trophy-class buck. Why waste all that effort with a disappointing miss?
A successful deer hunt starts at the range long before the season opens. With a bow, practice so that you can kill any deer you see inside 40 yards. Shoot from treestands, blinds, while sitting and while standing. Be prepared for any shot opportunity that comes your way.
With a firearm, tighten all sight screws and then sight in to be dead on at 25 yards. Most 6mm and .30-caliber loads will put you three inches high at 100 yards and dead on again at 250. Of course, your selection of caliber and firearm makes a difference, so spend as much time at the range as possible until you know your capabilities at 25, 50, 100 and 125 yards. If you can’t make the shot, admit it and wait for a better opportunity. Slinging lead at distant whitetails is rarely productive.
When traveling, shoot again when you get to camp to be sure that your gun or bow is still on target. Keep your weapon in a padded case and handle it with care — no bouncing around in the back of a pickup truck, no handing it off to others to admire, no leaving it unattended in a community rack or up against a tree. If the gun or bow is not in your hands, it should be in a case. Otherwise, you risk dropping or bumping it, or someone may decide to give the sight adjustments a spin.
Next, always have a clear idea of where you want to shoot your deer when you see it. I have had excellent success for decades with the standard behind-the-shoulder shot, so I just wait till my deer is standing broadside, center the crosshairs halfway up behind the shoulder and squeeze the trigger. The deer may run, the deer may fall, or he may stagger, but by the time I get to him, he will be dead. Head, neck, spine and other “trick” shots are great when you can make them, but those are precisely the shots that the majority of hunters miss each fall.
Instead, go for the big target (heart, lungs, liver), and put your bullet or arrow where it belongs. No muss, no fuss, no having to explain what went wrong. The only problem you’ll have is deciding how to get your deer out of the woods.
Try these tips this season and see if they don’t make a difference in your success rate. I have been hunting whitetails since the 1960s and continue to take big bucks each fall the old-fashioned way. Now it’s your turn!