July 25, 2022
Regardless of how folks below the Mason-Dixon line view me, I’m not a Yankee. I’m from bloody Kansas, a border state in my great-grandfather’s war. Though I was a boy at the time, I clearly remember the headline when the last-known Civil War veteran passed in 1959.
Back then we had almost no deer in Kansas, and no deer season, but in my lifetime the Sunflower State has developed great whitetail hunting. It is not true that Kansas has a Boone and Crockett buck behind every tree, but we have good deer and a lot of big bucks. I’ve always considered Kansas home, and for the last 15 years we’ve had a farm there.
Kansas rifle season is the only inviolable block on my calendar, but there are some problems. While archery season is generous, rifle season runs 12 days and starts the Wednesday after Thanksgiving. Plus, Kansas is a one-buck state.
As a hunter, I support this rule; it creates good age-class distribution and a high buck-to-doe ratio. As a landowner, I hate it. We cannot remove bucks with poor genetics except by sacrificing that one buck tag.
So, from a time when I had no local deer hunting until today, when our Kansas buck hunting is exceptional but limited, I have always looked to the Deep South, where seasons are long and limits laughable. I hunted Alabama and the South Carolina low country when "one buck per day" or "no limit on bucks" was the regulation. Mind you, I’m talking whitetail deer! I suspect the game departments always knew the odds were in the deer’s favor.
I’m not sure where the Deep South really starts, but over 50 years I’ve hunted in both Carolinas, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi. Hailing from a one-buck state, I love going into a Southern hunt knowing I can take a buck … and then keep looking.
Usually this doesn’t come to fruition. Although the whitetail is the most numerous big-game animal on the planet, it’s also the wariest, wiliest and most hunter-educated. I’ve taken multiple does when meat was wanted or herd reduction needed, but I can recall only a couple times when I’ve taken more than one buck on a Southern whitetail hunt and numerous times when I never pressed the trigger. Even so, for a kid who grew up with no deer season, it’s a wonderful feeling to start a hunt with the world as my oyster. Reality or results don’t matter; the potential is awesome.
Years back, I was hunting on buddy Zack Aultman’s place in southern Georgia. Zack’s only rule is to shoot mature bucks. My first time there, I made a horrible mistake and shot a gorgeous young 11-pointer that needed to grow up. As humans and hunters, we make mistakes, but that was one of the worst.
I didn’t expect to be invited back but, surprisingly, I was. Next time, I never saw a decent buck (not uncommon with whitetail hunting) and never shot. Then, during a bitter November cold snap, we caught things just right. During the first day, freezing rain sluiced off the roof of the blind but later slacked to a cold drizzle. I was on the edge of one of those classic, wide Southern powerline rights-of-way, and a buck came out on the far side to tend a scrape.
Oh boy, can’t afford another mistake. The deer was a heavy 8-pointer but not "big." Having messed up before, I was scared to death, but I took a deep breath and made the shot. Later we all agreed it was a nice buck, mature and never going to be a monster. Whew, good call!
In the afternoon the temperature plummeted, and my wife Donna and I were both freezing in an elevated stand farther down the powerline. The deer didn’t mind the unseasonal cold, and the rut was in full swing. Toward sunset, a parade of bucks chased does back and forth across the 100-yard opening. All were small, young or both, but the activity was as good as it gets. The sun had long set and there were maybe 10 minutes of legal time left when three does came out to the left of the stand and stared into the black timber behind them.
The buck that followed was a fine 10-pointer with tall eyeguards—a good, solid deer and a no-brainer. The buck crashed off into the pines, but the shot from Donna’s .270 looked good. It was full dark by the time we found him, a gorgeous Southern whitetail.
A couple days later, operating on pure instinct with no time to be sure, I shot a second buck crossing a narrow cutline in the Georgia pines. Although sure of the shot, I never found a drop of blood, just deep-cut tracks where I thought the buck had bolted.
He lay 40 yards into the pines, one of few animals in my life that just kept getting bigger the closer I got. I reached for my cell phone, found a bit of signal and tried to call Zack, but my hands were shaking too hard to press the buttons. He was an awesome buck, my best Southern whitetail. Also, since Georgia has a two-buck limit, it was the only time I have limited out on Southern whitetails.
Throughout the region, deer densities are high and whitetails are the major road hazard. However, the cover is thick and hunting is difficult. Public land can be limited, although there is much forest land open to public hunting in some areas if you dig a bit. Despite generous seasons and limits, cashing in on the full potential is unlikely, especially for an outsider (or Yankee, if you will).
Success depends on your goal as well as on local management. I offer this purely from an outsider’s perspective, with no stones thrown toward management goals: When you step across the line from Alabama (buck-a-day limit for many years) to Georgia (longtime two-buck limit), you quickly encounter a different potential in bucks.
I take this in stride; I like to hunt whitetails and love their venison. I’m always hoping for a monster, but I’m also a realist. I’m happy to follow along with management goals and local standards. At Zack’s place, we look for grown-up bucks because we know they are there. Sometimes we see one, sometimes not. Other times, in other places, any buck can be a sensible goal. And, wherever you’re hunting whitetails, sometimes you’re going to go home empty-handed.
Those long Southern seasons and generous limits are seductive, but whitetail hunting is an insider’s game. Local hunters have a huge home-court advantage. If they’re your backyard deer, you can watch moon, weather and wind, and track the rut. Few of us are so obsessed that we’ll hunt every day of a several-month season; we wait until conditions are right, and then apply a full-court press.
When we’re outsiders, though, we can’t do that. On any hunt away from home, we have to pick a “good” time. It seems to me this is difficult with Southern whitetails! In my own home court in Kansas, there is no choice; for rifle hunting it’s that short period in late November and early December, usually catching the tail end of the primary rut. For archery, early November is reliable for pre-rut activity, with the rut usually peaking Thanksgiving week.
Southern whitetails are different. The rut hits at different times in different places, and perhaps because the weather is usually warmer, it seems the rut spreads out over a longer period. In southern Georgia, November usually catches the rut, but my friends in Alabama believe January sees the most rutting activity. That said, the pre-rut period, when bucks are rubbing and scraping, can be better than the rut itself, when buck movement is erratic and unpredictable. Given a choice, I try to avoid a post-rut hunt.
In Kansas, the rifle season has been locked in stone for decades. We can look up the moon phase, but we can’t do anything about it. In contrast, the long Southern seasons allow us to plan a hunt during the dark of the moon and perhaps focus on the rut.
One critical factor we cannot plan around is weather, and in the South it’s all over the map. That brutal November cold snap in southern Georgia, coinciding with the rut, was glorious, but I haven’t hit those conditions again. Snow is unlikely, but it can rain. More frequently, it’s too warm, with shirt-sleeve weather at dawn and midday highs into the 80s. Doesn’t matter. The deer are used to it. They’re going to move when they’re going to move. You just need to be there.
TAKING A STAND
I don’t go south for whitetails every year, but last season during the pandemic not much was happening. I did some driving rather than flying and headed south twice, to Georgia in early November and Alabama in January.
As an outsider, I plan my Southern whitetail excursions months ahead, picking a few days from a long season, trying to avoid a bright moon, and hoping the wind and weather will be favorable. Even if they are, there’s no guarantee the right deer will move during any period of just a few days. Today, most Southern whitetails are taken from elevated stands. Based on wind and expected movement and feeding patterns, you put yourself in the best stand possible for the conditions, but the final move is up to the deer.
Zack and Debi Aultman’s place in southern Georgia is a pine plantation that’s well-managed for whitetails. Nobody is successful all the time, but I expect to see bucks here. The first evening I took the “Cherry Tree” stand, overlooking a long food plot on a mild, sunny afternoon. A couple of young 8-pointers came out early, and they were easy to pass. When the shadows grew long, a heavy-bodied buck stepped into the field. He was past mature, with funky, ugly antlers. Tough call! Age-wise, he fit the bill; I knew I should probably take him, but it was the first evening and I couldn’t do it. He stayed out for a long time, as did the two young bucks, along with 20-some does. Then they all wandered back into the woods, and at dark the field was empty.
A couple days later, I did a morning hunt at “The Pond” stand, a gorgeous place overlooking a food plot with a perfect woodduck pond off to the left. It was still early, but long past full daylight, when a buck stepped to the edge of the woods near the pond and tended a scrape. This was an easy decision: The buck was big in the body with antlers that were high, wide and heavy. As he worked the scrape, I saw prominent “acorns” on several tines. No hesitation. I’d already switched binocular for rifle. Done with his marking, the buck trotted along the edge of the field toward me, and when he slowed, I shot him on the shoulder.
That was that. I hunted three more days and saw only young bucks. Lightning doesn’t always strike twice, and that was just fine.
In January I joined friend Gordon Marsh, proprietor of the Wholesale Hunter e-commerce site. We started near his home close to Montgomery, but the bucks he’d been seeing on trail cameras had gone to ground. To change things up, we went a bit north to join Mike Crutchfield and Jeff Slatton at their deer lease, a classic Southern deer camp in the Alabama woods.
Here, I had no great expectations; we were just deer hunting in a fun place with wonderful people. I saw deer at every outing, which pretty much defines good deer hunting, but no antlers for several days. Not knowing the area, I alternated stands at my buddies’ suggestions. The grass is always greener on the other side, and it’s boring to stay in the same stand if you’re not seeing much.
One stand was a tall tower overlooking an excellent food plot, where a good 10-pointer had appeared on trail cams. I saw just a few does from that stand, so I was happy to switch around. However, I know that if a stand is well-sited and the wind is good, it’s probably better to hold your ground. The day after I left, Mike shot a smashing buck from that stand. If I’d stayed put, maybe I’d have seen him … and maybe not. With whitetails, you can’t always be in the right place at the right time.
This area, too, had a long section of powerline, a feature inextricably linked to Southern deer hunting, at least in my mind. I was in a tower stand on a ridge, with the wind in my face and a good view in both directions. I’d seen a few does early and then nothing for two hours.
I was carrying a nice .270 that I’d never shot a deer with. I was itching to use it, but it wasn’t my intent to take the first buck that came along. I wasn’t exactly asleep, but for sure I was asleep at the switch. I’d been looking left; about 9:30 I swiveled right, and there were two bucks chasing three does 250 yards from the stand. I should have looked longer and harder, but I shot the larger of the two, dropping him in his tracks. Two days later Gordon shot a similar buck.
Alabama being Alabama, I didn’t have to quit with my buck, and I didn’t. I kept hunting, hoping for something bigger and a little older. Saw him, too, just at sunset on the last day. This one I looked over carefully. I think he was 4 years old, a heavy-antlered 6-pointer with either broken or absent eyeguards. I had the crosshair on him for a long time at 160 yards and then put the rifle down. It had been a great hunt, and even a “Yankee” doesn’t always need to press the trigger.