By this time of year, most Hill Country deer hunters regard the rut as nothing more than a fond memory. But there are ways to score now, says this expert. (December 2009)
Austin novelist and longtime Hill Country deer hunter David Marion Wilkinson poses with five bucks he's taken off the same 1,580-acre Hill Country ranch.
Photo courtesy of David Wilkinson.
We blended well with our surroundings. After all, we had on the proper clothing (jeans and a Hawaiian shirt, shorts and a T-shirt), we ordered the proper food (tomato bisque and sandwiches), and drank only water and a soft drink. In short, we looked like two city guys in a trendy coffee shop-bakery-sandwich shop -- not two deer hunters.
While someone at another table clicked away on her laptop and other customers chatted between periodic cell phone calls over raspberry-flavored iced tea or café latte, Austin novelist David Marion Wilkinson and I talked about deer hunting. Fortunately, none of the many non-hunters around us bothered to drop a dime on us and call PETA to report two men who enjoy eating venison summer sausage on the loose in a yuppie joint.
Despite our decidedly urban surroundings and the 100-plus-degree heat outside, our minds were on autumns past and future. I grew up in a hunting-oriented family, and so had my friend, David. Both of us took our first deer when we were still in grade school, but if I had been wearing my camo gimme cap on this particular afternoon, I would have tipped it to him in recognition of his whitetail savvy. He's a few years younger than me, but he's logged a lot more hunting time than I have. In fact, if bucks put up posters, he'd be on the 10-most-wanted circular. Well, maybe least-wanted is a better way to put it.
David's father was a lifetime hunter and professional hog trapper, and his grandfather was a game warden. So not only has he learned a lot about deer over the years, but he also has inherited two generations of hunting wisdom he doesn't mind sharing.
Specifically, we were discussing the kind of Texas deer hunting that separates the proverbial men from the boys -- the late season.
Deer season for most of Texas, including the highly huntable Hill Country, runs from Nov. 1 to Jan. 4 -- 65 days. But while those two-plus months constitute one deer season, for all practical purposes the state has two seasons: early and late.
No matter what the calendar says, getting a buck or doe is never guaranteed, but anyone who has done much hunting knows that the odds are definitely better on the front end of the season. That's why the highways leading to places like Fredericksburg, Kerrville, Llano and Mason look like outbound hurricane evacuation routes the day before deer season opens. Tens of thousands of Texas hunters turn out for opening weekend, and a large percentage of them come home with meat.
Most Hill Country leases are small tracts with limited hunting acreage. They are family ranches for the most part, or tracts leased out to small operators for grazing. They see little activity most of the year. On opening weekend, the young and naÃ¯ve bucks make easy targets.
Think about it. The deer have had 10 months to let their guard down and, depending on how you handle your feeder, a month or two of free meals behind them. On top of that, they are about to get lovesick. With female companionship on their minds, bucks get careless.
But before you know it, it's December. The fall foliage is gone, the NFL has begun the playoff process, your wife's been holiday shopping since Thanksgiving, and the rut is over. Still, there's a good month or more of hunting time left.
On top of that, in 39 Edwards Plateau counties, there's an antlerless and spike season that runs from Jan. 5 to Jan. 18. Too, 23 counties have a muzzleloader season that runs to Jan. 18.
Studies of the Edwards Plateau (which has the state's highest deer population) by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department show that the rut usually peaks in the eastern third of the area by Nov. 7, in the central portion by Nov. 24 and in the western third by Dec. 5.
So, while there's still time on the game clock, tactics have to change once the rut is over. The deer, especially the bucks, have once again focused on the fundamentals of survival, and the odds have swung back in their favor. Beyond that, David believes deer are a whole lot more intelligent than hunters give them credit for.
"Deer are at least as smart -- and maybe smarter -- than a dog," David says. "They have the ability to solve problems and react to suddenly changing conditions. They also adapt their behavior."
That brings us to the first important consideration when it comes to late-season hunting: Deer react to hunting pressure. They like to hang out where you aren't, assuming they know you're around.
"Any way hunters can reduce their level of activity on a lease will up the odds of harvesting a fine buck," David says. "Leave the chain saws at home. Knock it off with the four-wheeler excursions; walk to your blinds. Don't yell at each other. Don't play loud music, and so forth."
Some hunters even avoid what most consider a deer camp fundamental, a roaring campfire. That said, I've seen a curious doe walk straight toward a small campfire.
While keeping the noise level down is a good strategy anytime during the season, it is especially important after the rut. The reason you need to keep it quiet on your lease is that deer are smart enough to associate human sounds with bad things. Bottom line: Deer pattern people just like hunters try to pattern them.
The next piece of late-season advice has to do with the wind.
"Always hunt with your face to the wind," says David.
Again, that's savvy insight any time, but it really gets important in the second half of our season when a buck regains his natural sense of wariness.
"Everybody wears camouflage," David says, "but far too few worry much about body odor, bacon grease and cigarette smoke. Deer smell (and hear) far better than they see."
Before you head for your lease, shower with scent-free soap. Wash your camo duds in UV whitener-free, scent-free detergent. Store them in scent-free plastic trash bags. If you're going to be hunting in cedar country, add a few fresh cedar boughs to the bag. When you must answer nature's call at the stand, use a plastic container. Deer will avoid the smell of human urine.
David also believes in using cover smells. He rubs cedar or a fresh cow patty on his hunting boots to throw deer off, especially when adding corn to a feeder.
"The idea is to make your clothes smell like whatever deer smell every day of their lives. Not like Jimmy Dean Sausage," David advises.
The calendar and weather conditions play an even more important role in late-season deer hunting.
When it comes to weather, high wind is bad, cold is good. Because of their reliance on their sense of smell as a means of survival, deer do not like to move in a high wind. But after a norther has stopped blowing, cool weather improves hunting. Not that it makes deer friskier, but it takes more energy for the deer to keep their metabolisms revving. Energy comes from what they eat, meaning they have to forage more.
Successful late-season hunters also pay attention to the moon phases. Deer are going to be more active on moonlit nights. When there's no moon, or a thick cloud cover obscures the moon, deer are more apt to be up and feeding at morning and evening.
"I watch solunar charts carefully," David says. "I have found them to up my odds of success. They are especially important in hunting post-rut whitetails. Food, water and cover are all the deer are concerned about. Knowing when they'll most likely feed is a huge advantage."
Finally, a hunter can greatly improve his chances during the late season by doing things differently.
"Most Hill Country hunters refuse to alter their hunting techniques post-rut," David continues. "They arrive at blinds just before dawn, or two or three hours before dusk, sit in the same place, usually over a hard-hunted feeder, until the last hour of the last day. Shake things up."
Quit hunting your established blinds and move to heavy cover where no one has hunted earlier in the season. Set up on a game trail and try to intercept a big buck as he makes his way to food or water.
"I don't sit on trails, but where I can watch them," David says, "usually downwind from the expected direction of game travel."
If you're patient and do things a little differently, likely as not a big buck will show up to demonstrate that when it comes to Texas deer hunting, it's never too late in the season.