11 Tips for Late-Season Deer

11 Tips for Late-Season Deer

Having trouble filling your last North Carolina deer tag? Here are some suggestions that will help you top off the freezer.

Photo by Ben Clewis

By Mike Zlotnicki

By any measure, December is not generally regarded as a hot month for North Carolina. The season, three months old in some regions, is winding down and many hunters, having filled their "meat" tags, are turning to small game and waterfowl for satisfaction. But the die-hards and have-nots are still out there, and the following should help put a nice ending on a long season.

Often scorned by deer hunters for crowded circus-like conditions early in the season, game lands still harbor many deer late in the season. Yet most of the crowds present in the beginning of the season have given up and gone home. Although much of the available public land resides in the western part of the state in the form of Pisgah and Nantahala national forests, deer harvests average two to four animals per square mile here (with the exception of tiny Alleghany County), so eastern game lands with higher population densities will better serve the late-season hunter.

According to Evin Stanford, deer biologist for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, there are some public lands for hunters to visit.

"We don't collect data from game lands," he said. "But later in the season many hunters have lost interest in deer hunting and game lands offer a lot of land to hunt on with good deer populations."

Some game lands to check out in the central (Piedmont) section of the state would include the Caswell Game Lands (over 16,000 acres) in Caswell County, Uwharrie National Forest (over 45,000 acres) mostly in Montgomery County, New Hope Game Lands around Jordan Lake (over 40,000 acres) largely in Chatham County and Butner-Falls of Neuse Game Lands (over 43,000) in Granville County.

"Butner-Falls of the Neuse covers a huge area," Stanford said, "and boat access can limit the competition and hunter activity." Uwharrie is composed of several large tracts and if an individual can get off the beaten path, he can have success.

Deer harvests hover around six per square mile in these areas, and some trophy potential exists there as well.

As Stanford noted, one of the nicer aspects of the New Hope and Butner-Falls of Neuse game lands is that much of their respective acreage surround Jordan and Falls of the Neuse reservoirs. Hunters taking to the water can find many areas that probably haven't seen a human all year, save for an angler retrieving a lure thrown in a tree. Myriad peninsulas and coves mark these lakes, and a little topo study can put you on a near-virgin oak ridge with a little effort. Any pressure from road-based hunters will simply push deer your way.

Farther east, the tracts get bigger and the population densities are still thick. Stanford recommends the Roanoke River Game Lands, a permit-only area that has low pressure and good trophy potential.

Bladen County boasts Bladen Lakes State Forest (over 30,000 acres) and the Croatan National Forest, which covers over 150,000 acres in Jones, Carteret and Craven counties. Holly Shelter Game Land offers over 48,000 acres mostly in Onslow County.

Whether you hunt private or public land, the following bits of advice should apply.

There's nothing more comforting than approaching a favorite stand - be it climber, lock-on, box or ladder - with the anticipation of a coming hunt. But by December, your "old reliable" may be viewed by the local deer herd the same way: Your comings and goings are like clockwork. Permanent stands - especially box stands and ladder stands - over food plots or bait sites are especially vulnerable. No need to fret, though.

Smart hunters will eschew the usual stand site for something different, usually a portable climber, and continue to hunt the same area.

Ricky Maynard, a successful deer veteran from Thomasville, said, "I have five climbers and hang them all, alternating according to the wind."

If you know deer are still using specific travel routes late in the season, moving only 50 to 100 yards can make all the difference in deer sightings. I've had deer move through an area, stop beneath my (relocated) climber and actually look carefully at the stand sites I'd been using earlier in the season.

Another good place to employ the climber is deeper into cover adjacent to a feeding area, especially a food plot. Deer, especially bucks and older "matriarch" does, will stage in thick stuff until after nightfall, so setting up a couple of hundred yards distance will increase your chances of seeing deer during shooting light.

The fact that deer head for thick cover after being pressured is no secret. In the right environments - like briar thickets and cutovers that are a few years old - dense cover can provide security and forage for deer.

But cover can mean different things in different locales. For example, don't overlook cattails and such in wetland areas, especially as travel routes. Cutovers often border vast agricultural fields in eastern North Carolina and should be of particular interest in areas where running deerhounds is legal. Mature bucks will seldom leave the sanctuary of a cutover even when pressured by hounds, if the cutover is big enough. A strategically placed climber high in an adjacent pine tree can give a hunter a peek into a buck's lair.

Swamps can be late-season magnets if there are islands or hummocks located within. A pair of waders or hip boots can take the place of a tree stand.

But the biggest reason to head for dense growth is that the deer stop moving in the open woods this time of year.

Maynard said, "Other than early and late, the only movement you're going to see in December is in the thick stuff."

Dense cover isn't the only cover big bucks gravitate to toward the end of the season. Many hunters drive or walk past big bucks on the way to traditional hunting grounds. Don't overlook smaller tracts of land like rural home developments and the funnels created by the houses and yards. Hunting isolated places close to manmade structures may require resurrecting your bow, but you may be surprised at what you see.

"The last day of the season last year, the landowner of my club in Caswell County jumped two 20-inch

bucks behind his horse barn, which is about 100 yards from our clubhouse. Nobody hunted there all season. The same thing happened behind another barn on the same lease."

The same holds true for other often-overlooked areas like the woods around the clubhouse, land bordered by highways or roads and old homesteads or thickets in the middle of fields.

I killed a 17-inch-wide 6-pointer a few years ago that was using a 15-yard patch of plowed field to cross between the heads of two briar thickets within sight of a convenience store. I was actually hunting over a 5-acre fallow field that had a feeder and a food plot in it. I heard the buck approaching, but dismissed it as a dog or squirrel - my truck was parked a few yards behind my stand. I'm not sure who was more surprised when he stepped out into the warm morning light, and a 40-yard shot from my .270 put him down for good.

Most hunters play the "first light, last light" game of hunting deer, going out early in the morning and then again for the evening hunt. But studies have shown that many of the biggest bucks killed each year are killed between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. This strategy can work well on heavily pressured land like club leases and public land where the majority of the hunters are following the same schedules. This can work well particularly during the primary and secondary ruts, when lovesick bucks will use the middle of the day to travel in search of receptive does.

It's also a good bet when hunting around bedding areas, as deer will get up and move around within their core areas during the middle of the day.

One technique often overlooked in many areas is the deer drive. Many picture the effort as a dozen or more men whooping it up as they advance through a given tract of land to awaiting standers, but one of the more effective ways of driving is the two-man drive or push. It can take one of several variations. I do most of my deer hunting with my old friend Alex Webb of Chapel Hill. We often set up stand sites within a quarter mile of each other depending upon various factors. At the end of a morning's hunt, one of us will simply walk to the other's stand in a roundabout fashion, keeping touch with two-way radios. More than once one of us radioed to the other that we'd spooked a deer the other's way, and occasionally the stander will report deer movement toward the driver. This works especially well along funnels and known escape routes.

Another tactic is to have the stander set up high over a big cutover or bedding area and have the driver either move through the cover or use the wind to push his scent into cover. Often, the deer won't spook wildly; they will only get up and move a short distance before bedding again.

Whatever you do, choose your partner wisely and wear ample amounts of blaze orange.

Many hunters swear by estrus and cover scents, and that's fine early in the season. But I believe that in the late season, such scents often only announce your presence to deer, especially wise bucks. I mean, how realistic does a doe urine-soaked scent wick smell in December? According to Stanford, the first week in December is usually the peak of the rut in the mountains; farther east it peaks from the end of October on the Coastal Plain to the second week of November in the Piedmont.

Randy Mabe is a Brown Summit hunter with many big bucks to his credit, including a 147 Pope and Young brute. He said, "For me, no scent makes sense. I've had many deer hit a scent drag or wick, then stop and back out slowly. An estrous scent can work in December, but I'll only use it if I notice active rutting activity."

Mabe also swears by rubber boots, and owns pairs with various degrees of insulation to span the season.

You'll never completely eliminate your own human scent, and dowsing yourself in a cover scent may only signal to deer that an incontinent fox or coon is following a hunter through the woods.

Late-season bucks have had up to three months to identify certain scents with humans. Scent elimination, not enhancement, may be more important as the season winds down.

Variety is the spice of life, and this can mean more at the end of the season. Many hunters, having hit hard for several months, get lazy and careless as the season winds down. Just when a buck's mental state is at its peak, yours may be fading. Why not try something different? Hunt with a bow, muzzleloader or handgun. Try an iron-sight lever action or an heirloom gun instead of your favorite scoped rifle. Hunt a new tract of land. Use a ground blind. Sleep in and hunt the midday. Drop the grunt call and use a doe bleat. Do a combined scouting/still-hunting trip. Take an old friend or neighborhood kid with you. Target an old (or young) doe.

No matter what you choose, it'll keep your mind in the game and your butt in the woods, where you'll have a far better chance of bagging a buck than from your couch.

It only takes a few trips to a given stand site before deer can pattern you, so be mindful of a few things. It starts when you get out of your truck. A careless door slam can announce your presence, especially if you park too close to your hunting area. Leave the ATV in the truck; your feet are quieter. Pay attention to the wind when entering and exiting stand sites. Go in after daylight and ease your way to a stand. Calls that may have worked during the rut might well be left at home. And vary your routine.

Mabe said, "If you can see your path to a stand, you've been hunting it too long. Find a new path to an old stand. Go in one way and come out another. Do whatever you can to mix up your routine even if it's within the same area."

It's hard to spend long hours on a stand, still and alert, if you're miserably cold or wet. Buy the best clothing you can afford and start with footwear. Wool socks, liners and insulated boots are half the battle. Never leave the house without a rain suit, which can act as a windbreaker as well as rain protection. Gloves, mittens and facemasks should be considered, as well as chemical heating packets for hand warmers. A ski cap - or "toboggan" - is a nice piece of equipment on a frosty morning.

Comfort for the backside shouldn't be discounted. Most lock-ons and climbers leave a lot to be desired, so shop for a pillow or pad that can make your hours on stand more comfortable.

Comfort can be more mental than physical. Don't hesitate to bring a book or Walkman-type radio with you during a long vigil on stand. Sure, your attention is muted some, but you're still in the woods and not in your den. And you're not asleep.

Don't forget food and drink. Again, scent and sound may be compromised, but at least you're hunting. Avoid cellophane packaging and carbonated beverages.

Deer are simple creatures despite all of our efforts to make them otherwise. They (like most humans) seek food, sex and shelter. After a month or two of chasing does, bucks are going to be pretty much nocturnal, worried only about safety and food. December buck hunting, despite the secondary rut, can largely focus on available food sources. The mast crop so prevalent early in the season is long gone, as are most row crops. Hunters targeting bucks need to target available food sources.

"As far as December forage, if you're lucky and we have a good mast crop like last year, we'll still have hard mast like acorns on the ground," said Stanford. "Acorns take a long time to digest and deer can fill up quickly on them, which is why hunters not hunting in the woods last year in some areas may have seen fewer deer than normal. Other than hard mast, target anything green with reach like honeysuckle and greenbrier. It's also a good time for food plots."

December may be the signal to the beginning of the end of the deer season, but that's no reason to stay at home. The easy deer are gone, and those left represent a greater challenge for Tar Heel deer hunters. As Mabe put it: "It's the bottom of the ninth, the game is almost over and it's time to pull out all the stops."

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