Hunting East Tennessee's Cold-Weather Bucks

Hunting East Tennessee's Cold-Weather Bucks

Don't allow the nasty elements of cold weather and late-season burnout spoil your chances of taking a trophy buck at the end of the season.

Author Travis Faulkner approaches a massive East Tennessee buck he took last December. The buck was following a doe in a classic display of secondary rut activity. Photo by Travis Faulkner

The predawn winter sky was consumed by a black and empty darkness that generated a thick coat of frost covering my windshield like an icy blanket. The weather forecast alone was enough to make any deer hunter question the sanity of leaving the comforts and coziness of a warm bed on such a morning. The temperatures had plummeted into the low teens and the clutch of winter had left behind a frozen land of ice that created an extreme hunting environment.

However, my decision to hunt the rugged mountain country of East Tennessee during these harsh conditions turned out to be very productive. In fact, after a few trips I realized that Tennessee's late-season hunts offer some fantastic deer hunting that is often overlooked by other hunters and provides a golden opportunity for serious hunters to fill those remaining deer tags. The following tips and strategies will enable you to recognize significant changes in deer activity and will provide the knowledge you need to harvest that late-season whitetail.

By October and November many hunters' minds enter a trancelike state that is completely governed by deer hunting. This enthusiasm, however, dwindles by the time cold weather roll around. Bone-chilling temperatures and falling snow have a way of persuading many hunters to hang up their gun or bow and call it quits for the year. This form of late-season burnout drives many hunters out of the deer woods during December and early January in Tennessee.

One effect of this drop in hunting pressure is that previously crowded areas are now available with limited interruptions by other hunters. The second segment of Tennessee's gun season almost passes by unnoticed and deer return to a more relaxed state of behavior. In fact, the trophy bucks that were earlier forced to take up a nocturnal lifestyle are now becoming more active during the daylight hours.

The quests for locating food sources and surviving cold weather require bucks to break out of their secluded hiding places and show themselves. Most hunters will be amazed by the amount of deer activity that occurs throughout the day during the winter months. Simply being in the woods will dramatically increase your chances of harvesting a trophy buck.

Unfortunately, many of us have our hunting time drastically limited by the constraints of work and other demanding obligations. We are forced to hunt only on weekends and on "sick days." There is nothing quite like a tree stand and crisp morning air to place us back on the road to a speedy recovery!

However, most hunters will find that the holiday season is a perfect time to extend their hunting opportunities. December has the potential of producing some phenomenal hunting.

There are several counties in East Tennessee that have relatively high deer populations and some good hunting during the late season. The top harvest counties in the east are Hawkins, Claiborne, Hancock and Sullivan, according to Ben Layton, the Deer Project Leader for the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency.

In fact, Hawkins County recorded a total harvest of 338, Claiborne checked in 198, Hancock added 128, and Sullivan rounded out the list with 125 whitetails during the second segment of the gun season. Hunters should concentrate their hunting efforts in these counties for the best chance of seeing deer in the late season.

By December, gangs of squirrels, turkeys and - obviously - deer have eagerly devoured the surplus of the acorn crop. Finding isolated ridgetops and other secluded areas that contain groves of oaks can pay huge dividends during the late season. Acorns provide a convenient source of fat and are very high in protein, which contributes greatly to winter survival among deer herds.

Locating these areas is fairly easy due to the obvious sign that is left behind by foraging whitetails. During the harsh months of winter, acorns become dormant beneath a blanket of falling leaves. Deer will excavate through the layers of leaf litter to consume what is left of the remaining crop. Hanging a stand near or around these key locations can produce optimal results for the late-season hunter.

"Other important winter food sources when the acorns have disappeared are honeysuckle, galax, similax, certain species of rhodendron, and mountain laurel. Rhodendron is usually eaten when other food sources are not available," Layton noted. Mountain laurel and honeysuckle are also very common in the mountains of East Tennessee and should not be too difficult to pinpoint.

Many deer hunters find that deer sign and the whitetails have mysteriously vanished during the late season. However, in most cases the deer are still in the area you are hunting, but their habits have changed due to the onset of the late winter months. Recognizing the seasonal changes in travel patterns and holding areas is the first step in filling a late-season tag.

"In December and January deer movements are primarily governed by the need for food and the need to escape severe weather," Layton noted. "Bucks should be highly motivated to find food sources so that they can begin to recover weight lost during the rut. Deer movements in general will most likely be determined by the conservation of energy. If food resources are readily available, then deer will move to them even in periods of cold weather.

"If food is scarce, then deer may restrict their movements in cold weather since they would burn more calories seeking food than they would get from the available food once they find it. Under these conditions deer are likely to restrict their movements and spend more time in areas that provide some escape from cold conditions. Such areas may be a sunny hillside that blocks the wind or a dense evergreen thicket that provides relief from severe weather," Layton added.

An excellent strategy during the late winter months is to locate an available food source that is close to a thicket or clearcut. Deer utilize thickets and clearcuts for escape during periods of intense hunting pressure and for survival during adverse weather conditions. The thickets provide cover, sapling twigs and other forms of browse, and serve as a shield against bitter cold winds


Positioning a tree stand on the edge or high above these thickets can potentially generate some first-class hunting during December. The mountains of East Tennessee encompass numerous areas consisting of prime laurel thickets and clearcuts. Trophy-class bucks that have survived a few seasons rely heavily upon these areas.

Often these deer will bed down in thickets or clearcuts before or just after daylight. Around the midday hours these bucks will leave their beds to stretch and browse on the available forage the thickets provide. These thick entanglements serve as sanctuaries this time of year and are where you need to concentrate your hunting efforts. I have observed countless hours of deer activity and have harvested some of my better bucks using this strategy.

Perched high above the edge of a laurel thicket just before daylight on a cold December morning, I was startled by a very distinctive sound. It was deer crashing through the frozen leaves and I listened as an occasional grunt echoed throughout the confines of the thicket. Unfortunately, I stared with dismay into the darkness as the buck chased the doe around the mountainside and completely out of my hearing.

However, just after daylight I spotted a doe slowly approaching my position. Her tail was tucked and she was urinating every few steps. My heart pounded as the doe continually looked back over her shoulder. Then I heard the heavy gait of a buck trailing a few steps behind her. The buck's massive neck was swollen and he stopped occasionally to tilt his head and curl his lips to scent check the doe.

I watched patiently as this top-heavy brute grunted, making his breath clearly visible in the cold morning air. With the rifle nestled firmly on my knee and the cross hairs on the buck's kill zone, I gently squeezed the trigger. The buck dropped immediately.

About 30 minutes later I heard the loud roar of my father's rifle about three ridges over. Another large lovesick buck had chased a doe right under his tree stand and offered a perfect quartering-away shot. Fatigue from pursuing does all morning had caused the buck's tongue to drop and it was panting heavily as it paused on a wooded bench, creating the ideal shot opportunity for my father.

This old bruiser had endured many fierce battles during the peak and secondary rut. The neck of the huge 9-pointer was severely scarred and a brow tine was missing from its towering rack. The secondary rut was in full swing and the bucks were in hot pursuit of estrous does, creating some intense hunting action. My father and I had harvested two nice trophy bucks and had experienced one of our most memorable hunts. Hunting the secondary rut during Tennessee's late gun season was well worth fighting the bitter cold temperatures.

Unfortunately, many hunters who are convinced that the rut has long since ended often overlook the secondary rut. However, this phase of the season can create a window of opportunity for hunters to witness a major increase in deer activity. It is not uncommon for hunters to observe more than one buck actively chasing an estrous doe through the woods.

By this time of year most of the does have already been successfully bred during the primary rut. The few remaining estrous does create a new field of competition among the bucks due to the limited availability. A productive strategy is to use a combination of grunt calls and estrous scents that can potentially pull desperate bucks straight to your position.

In addition, it is imperative for hunters to recognize the occurrence of the secondary rut and pinpoint areas that hold does. Positioning a stand over a food source or setting up on the edge of travel corridors or bedding areas of does is always a wise choice. The bucks will inevitably show up in these areas in search of the remaining estrous does.

Many hunters ask what role does the secondary rut play in the late season and when does it usually occur. Ben Layton, the TWRA's Deer Project Leader, has the answer to these questions. "In areas where many of the does were not bred in the first peak rut, there will be a significant increase in deer movements later in the season. If the deer herd is quickly growing in the area, there may be up to 10 percent of the fawns breeding the local population if habitat conditions are good. If this fawn breeding occurs, then buck movements should be excellent during the late season," Layton explained.

"The timing of the second rut will vary depending on the county. Some East Tennessee counties have a peak rut in early to mid-November and in some counties the rut hits around the first week of December. The secondary rut should occur about a month after the first peak rut," said Layton.

Any time you hunt the mountains of East Tennessee during the late winter months, you are subject to encounter snowy conditions. However, a fresh coat of winter snow can potentially increase your chances of harvesting a whitetail if you use it as an advantage.

For instance, a layer of snow enables hunters to move through the woods without making a great deal of noise and creates ideal stalking conditions. Stalking and glassing from high vantage points allows you to cover a lot of territory in a short period of time. A deer's dark coloration stands out in great contrast against the snow. Whitetails can be easily spotted from long distances and this factor greatly improves your odds of a late-season harvest.

In addition, it has been my personal experience that deer have a tendency to move and feed heavily during moderate accumulations of snow. However, during a heavy snow with high winds, deer usually retreat deep into laurel groves and thick cover. Another positive aspect of moderate amounts of snow is that deer leave behind an enormous amount of sign that is both easy to discover and read. This will allow you to establish a pattern and makes tracking whitetails an easy task.

By chance if you spook or jump a deer in the snow, it will usually dash up a hillside and immediately stop to look back at the intruder. This creates a chance for a shot. The opportunity will only last for a short few seconds, but does provide a standing shot.

Hunting in extreme weather conditions consisting of high winds, plummeting temperatures, ice and snow, can create a very uncomfortable situation. However, you can combat the nasty elements of winter weather by simply being prepared. Having the right equipment is a necessity for hunting during these harsh conditions.

In the past, my hands and feet were the first to freeze on cold weather hunts during December. I have learned to wear half-finger wool gloves in combination with hand-warmers stored in my pockets. The hand-warmers are odorless, inexpensive, small, compact, and are a lifesaver on cold days.

Heavily insulated boots and wool socks worn over a thin pair of polypropylene socks can keep your feet nice and toasty. I also

like to layer my clothing, wear polypropylene underwear and Gore-Tex outerwear. However, you do not want to get fully dressed and then hike a great distance. Your perspiration will spook the deer and you will freeze after sitting on the stand. It is always wise to pack your thick garments to the stand and then change. Following these steps will enable you to endure long hours in the field despite frigid weather conditions.

This winter take advantage of the cold weather hunting opportunities in the Volunteer State and hunt with the passion you had back in November. You may be surprised by what these late-season hunts hold in store for those willing to endure bone-chilling temperatures and the presence of falling snow.

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