Tactics for Late-Season Deer

Hunters who give up on taking nice bucks before the end of the season should try these strategies for last-minute success.

by Larry Weishuhn

I was shivering, cold to the point of almost shaking uncontrollably. The combination of high humidity and low temperatures was taking its toll. I tried thinking of warm campfires and a cup of steaming hot coffee served in a blue-enamel cup. The kind you'd otherwise refuse to drink from without the protection of gloves for fear of burning your hand. Hot hands at the moment sounded pretty good.

Doubt started creeping slowly up on me - doubt about the wisdom of having passed up numerous bucks earlier in the season when temperatures were more pleasant. Had I taken that young 8-point some time ago, I could have been sitting by the fire dreaming of next year's hunt.

Each breath I exhaled "smoked" as it rose skyward. I watched silently as a long sigh disappeared.

What was that? It looked like movement in the underbrush headed toward the honeysuckle thicket to my left. Through raised binoculars I spotted more movement, two spindly brown legs. The body the legs supported was obscured by a myriad of leaf-bare limbs. No doubt it was a deer, but was it a buck or a doe? I had already taken a doe and now was looking for a buck, hopefully a mature deer with sizeable antlers.

Through my 10X binoculars I could make out the hind legs of the deer. I concentrated on the deer's hocks. During the rut, mature bucks generally have dark-stained hocks. That stain remains for weeks after the peak of the rut on some bucks. Carefully I studied the hocks for even a hint of faded darkness. Finally, they indeed did appear to be dark.

Energy conservation is important to bucks late in the season, so they tend to rest relatively near their food sources. Photo by Robert C. Humphrey

I quickly replaced the binoculars with a scoped, shouldered rifle. I began studying what I could see of the deer through my variable rifle scope, now set at 6X. The deer kept moving, yet the body, neck and head remained obscured from my view. Quickly glancing forward along the path I expected the deer to take, I noted a small opening. A few more steps and the deer would be totally visible.

As silently as possible I cocked the rifle, trained the view of the scope on the opening and waited, trigger finger in place.

The deer stopped just shy of stepping into the opening. There it stood for long enough to start me shaking from anticipation rather than simply the cold, which had momentarily been totally forgotten. "Just one more step!" I begged silently.

The first upper portion of the buck to appear was his nose. Yes, "his," because with the next step I could see antlers, 5 points per side, long tines with good mass - the thickness of them was equal to or exceeding the diameter of his eye. The buck's face, which I quickly studied through the scope, had some saggy skin about it, usually the sign of a mature buck.

My trigger finger quivered, and I remember mentally telling myself to remain calm and wait until the cross hairs were right behind the buck's shoulder.

My shot came as a surprise, but I knew the cross hairs had been firmly planted right behind the buck's shoulder when I had tugged at the trigger.

Keeping an eye on the buck, which took two steps and fell, I hurriedly replaced the spent round with a fresh bullet. Moments later I stood by the downed deer's side and whispered a small prayer of thanks. I had finally scored on the second-to-the-last day of the hunt. I was and am convinced that my success was due primarily to being persistent and having changed my hunting techniques.

Being successful late in the deer season takes a different approach than early-season or even midseason hunting. During early season, bucks are generally in their late-summer patterns and routines. During mid-season, they are influenced by the rut and actively search out does, which are generally found around food-producing areas. But as the season continues and the rut begins to wane and sex drives begin to greatly decrease, deer, especially mature bucks, start to do things a whole lot differently.

Only a few days before, procreation was on every buck's mind, but now with their desires and nature satiated, bucks' thoughts return to survival. Not only do they have to avoid hunters and other predators, they have to think about regaining weight lost during the lean weeks of the rut, when food took a back seat to pursuing all does in the area.

The drive for survival is an interesting one, especially in whitetails. With the rut behind him, no more will a mature buck throw caution to the wind. His movements from bedding to feeding areas generally occur under the cover of darkness. During the day bucks tend to "hole up" and rest. They're tired from chasing does day and night with little or no sleep or rest. Once the rut is over, the bucks become a bit lethargic, preferring to rest rather than travel. They are also interested in conserving energy against cold weather, and that means they spend as much time bedding and as little effort traveling as they can.

To me there is no greater challenge than trying to take a mature buck during the post-rut, which coincides with the last days of the season in many instances.

However, even during the late season, there is one thing that is of a necessity to whitetails: food. The necessity of food is a constant throughout the season, hunting or otherwise, and regardless of where you hunt. Locate a late-season food source and your chances of success are greatly increased.

By late season most of the acorns and other mast and fruits are merely a pleasant memory to deer. Now they have to rely on greenfields; food plots; evergreen browse, such as smilax (greenbrier) and honeysuckle; and possibly other local favorites. Find the deer's food sources and part of the battle is won when hunting during the late season.

A few years ago I was hunting an area that generally produced some pretty darn good deer. Unfortunately, I did not get to hunt there until nearly the last week of the season. I knew the hunting was going to be fun, but the taking or killing of a deer could be a bit difficult. Still, it was the only time I could schedule a hunt in the area.

I arrived at the hunting area about midmorning. I spent the better part of the day looking for food sources, and found basically three different places that looked interesting. One was what was left of a corn field - obviously part of it had been flooded either by intention for waterfowl or by nature. The other was a clover field mixed with triticale and the third was a fai

r-sized patch of honeysuckle that showed considerable browsing pressure. Rubs around each of these areas indicated bucks had frequented them. But this late in the season, the rubs had not been visited in a while. The same was true for scrapes. I found the remnants of several scrapes.

During my years as a wildlife biologist specializing in whitetail management, I had noted that bucks, especially the bigger mature bucks, tend to wait until near darkness to enter food plots or greenfields. Thus I set up one stand along a trail about 150 yards into the woods back from the edge of the greenfield. Based on the freshness of the tracks, I surmised it was being used mostly in the evening.

Next I set up a stand near the edge of the corn field, where I could see both the standing corn and several trails leading into it. Because it was standing corn, which would not only provide food but also cover, I suspected the deer would feed into the corn earlier than they would the greenfield. After looking the tracks over, I suspected most of the deer activity here occurred in the afternoon.

During my midmorning reconnoiter I spooked deer out a patch of honeysuckle deep within the woods. The area was being used primarily during the morning. Taking into consideration the prevailing wind (and paying attention to the long-range weather forecast), I set up my third stand downwind of the honeysuckle and several trails leading to it.

Those duties done, I headed to the stand near the corn field. I had not been in my stand longer than about 10 minutes before the first deer appeared, a young 6-month-old "nubbin" buck.

A few minutes later three does came to the corn field's edge and disappeared. Moments later more does and fawns walked into the corn. That's the way things went the entire afternoon. It seemed practically every deer on the property was headed to the corn field. As shadows lengthened, bucks began arriving. Two of them were good 10-pointers, but both were slim-bodied and looked young.

Just at dark I watched a huge-bodied deer step into the opening next to the field. He looked briefly my way, but before I could move, he stepped into the corn and was gone. Later under the cover of darkness I left the field and headed to my camp.

Well before daylight I was sitting quietly in the stand overlooking the honeysuckle and the trails leading to it. With first light I spotted movement feeding on the honeysuckle. Through binoculars I could tell it was a decent 8-point buck, but not quite what I was looking for. When hunting mature deer with sizeable antlers, you have to always be prepared to go home without filling your tag. I was willing to do so if I did not see the deer I hoped to take.

During the next three hours I watched four young bucks, nine does and seven fawns feed through the area, mostly headed toward the honeysuckle patch. Had I been simply looking for a buck (or a doe for that matter), then that day or the afternoon before I could have easily filled my tag.

After a quick lunch break I headed to the stand near the food plot. I had a good feeling about that particular place. Maybe it was the big distinct hoof print I has seen on the trail I set up my stand next to.

Warm sunshine almost caused me to doze a bit, and for a while I was sorely tempted to crawl out of my stand and lie down on the ground for a much-needed nap. But there was something nagging at me to stay where I was. I looked at my watch - it was 2:30. That might seem early, but years of experience told me even during the late season quite often deer tend to move during the middle of the day.

Milliseconds after looking at my watch I heard what I at first suspected might be a squirrel rustling and scampering through the leaves. I turned slowly and there on my extreme right stood a buck, big of body and massive of horn. I quickly counted 8 good points and basal kickers as well. I kept my eye on him and the exact moment he turned to look at something behind him, I switched the rifle around so I could shoot from my left shoulder instead of my right. As a youngster I had missed an opportunity at a buck because I didn't know how to shoot left-handed. Later that same day I taught myself to shoot from either side!

The buck was not aware of my presence. Slowly and deliberately I shouldered the rifle and settled the cross hairs on him as he quartered toward my shoulder. When he turned just a bit more to provide an excellent angled shot, I gently tugged at the trigger. The buck fell at the shot. Quickly I shoved another .30-06 round into the chamber, but that one would be unnecessary.

Was the buck headed to an earlier-than-expected meal in the food plot? Would he have staged in the area awaiting darkness before walking into it? I don't know and I never will.

The keys to taking that deer had actually been two-fold. One was persistence - I hadn't quit hunting - and the other was locating late-winter food sources.

I sometimes get "tickled" with some "hunters" who, if they have not taken their buck by the first few days of the season, give up the hunt for the year. Having confidence in yourself and continuing the hunt even after others have already started making plans for next year quite often leads to late-season success. I'm a firm believer in hunting until it is completely over. As the great wordsmith and philosopher Yogi Berra once said, "It ain't over till it's over!" I don't quit until the last second of the season and I don't unload my gun until the hunting season is officially over, not before.

A few years ago I shot one of my most impressive bucks with about five minutes of the season remaining. I was determined to take a deer if at all possible. I had already made arrangements with a friend to see about taking care of the meat and a mount for me should I connect at the last moment.

The weather was miserable, cold and wet, and the season would end at sundown. Walking a pasture road I spotted a deer that was bedded under a small sapling. Quickly I found the buck in the scope, put the cross hairs behind the shoulder and tugged the trigger. Thankfully, the deer went down with the shot. I reloaded and ran to his side. I could scarcely believe my "luck"!

As I stood there mentally congratulating myself, I remembered someone's definition of luck as being "where opportunity and knowledge meet." I think we need to add that luck also comes down to "being at the right place at the right time." And if you are not in the deer woods until that last moment of the last day, you probably are not going to be at the right place!

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