November 24, 2020
By Doug Howlett
This story is featured in the South edition of the December-January issue of Game & Fish Magazine, on sale now on newsstands. Click here to subscribe.
When I was a kid reading outdoor magazines about late-season whitetail hunting, it seemed every article featured a burly, bearded woodsman clad in a heavy mackinaw coat and L.L. Bean boots trudging through a foot of snow on some giant buck's trail.
The message was clear to this Virginia teen: I was living in the wrong state. For a chance to kill big bucks in the winter, I needed to live in Maine or Michigan (or I had to grow a beard). I was out of luck on all of the above.
I knew that giant I had spotted (or missed) during the rut was most likely still lurking in my local woods since no one had yet paraded it around the county on the tailgate of their truck. I also knew the chances of "a tracking snow" falling were about 1 percent. Fortunately, over time, I learned snow wasn't necessary. In fact, it seemed that nearly every year some of the biggest bucks of the season were taken in its final days. This remains true throughout the whitetail's range, including the South.
The truth is, for the most dedicated deer hunters, the post-rut period remains one of the best times to score on a giant—even if it doesn't feel like it should.
"You won't see as many deer, but of the ones you do, you're more likely to see a monster," veteran big buck chaser and TV host Mark Drury once told me.
A hunter must simply build a strategy, be patient and hope for a little luck.
3 ESSENTIAL TACTICS
Harvesting a good buck late in the season can be tough, but it's not impossible. Doing so requires hunters follow some basic late season tenants to put themselves where the deer will be. Here are a few from three of the South's best whitetailers.
1. Find the Food
Following the peak of the rut, when big bucks were apt to pop up anywhere at any time as they chased does and ran off lesser bucks, the season returns to a more predictable pattern now, the prevailing theme being that deer need to eat.
"Go to your food sources," says Jimmy Riley, general manager of the famed Giles Island Hunting Club on the Louisiana-Mississippi border. "What you were doing in October, you should be doing in January." He notes that most food sources have been depleted by late season, and bucks and does have both lost 10 to 20 percent of their body weight. If there is mast, such as acorns or pecans, that's where they'll be, followed by green fields and food plots.
"You have to locate your food sources," Riley says. "For us, pecans have replaced acorns since most of the acorns have been eaten by [late season]. In the bottom flats where pecans are, if you find one still dropping, you're in the money."
If you do find deep-woods mast, whether it be acorns, pin oaks or pecans, that may well trump food plots, even in the evening, since deer feel safer in the cover of the forest after the pressure of a long hunting season. Other options include honey locusts, which typically grow near field edges.
Honey Brake Lodge in east-central Louisiana is known for its great waterfowling, but lodge guide and CEO Drew Keeth also loves to hunt deer on his property, and that includes evening hunts well into the last days of the season. He focuses on what he calls "destination food plots." These are larger plots on a property where there is still browse. Late-season does go there to feed in the evenings and are followed by bucks.
2. Keep Calling
For the same reason Keeth likes to hunt large food plots where does will congregate, he also continues to rattle and snort-wheeze. Bucks want to eat, but they are also still seeking those final does to come into estrus.
"I absolutely keep calling," Keeth says. "In fact, I think it's more effective post-rut, just because bucks are still looking for that last doe."
A tickling of antlers is usually enough to spur curiosity and stoke the flames of jealousy. Toss in an aggressive snort-wheeze, and a dominant buck may come running. To cement the ruse, Keeth also uses doe-in-heat scent and he might even add a grunt call to the mix at times.
Keeth says he'll place a hunter in a stand while he remains on the ground to rattle. He'll do a couple of rattling sequences and then wait 15 to 30 minutes. If nothing shows, he'll move on to another location and do it all over again.
Georgia hunter Sam Klement has killed his share of late-season bruisers over the years and also believes in rattling, but he likes to keep it light and not be as aggressive as he was earlier in the season. He employs a trick he calls "rattling on a string." He ties an 18-inch length of cord to the tips of his rattling antlers' main beams, then ties a longer rope to the cord.
He leaves the antlers on the ground and takes the end of the rope with him into his treestand. To activate the antlers, he simply lifts the rope just enough that the antlers clank together once or twice. This technique is especially effective near a likely bedding area, where volume isn't critical and the sound mimics two bucks simply testing each other. He also does this in the evening with less than an hour of light left. His goal is to make a buck that's about to go feed think two other bucks have moved in on him, and prompt the buck to hurry out for a shot.
3. Pinpoint Unpressured Areas
Every property, private or public, has certain spots that hunters seem to hit over and over during the course of the season. Those properties also have spots that go largely ignored. Identify the ignored spots that still possess bedding cover near food and water, and you're going to pinpoint where a big boy is likely hiding.
Klement hunts his property with a bow the entire season. As guns go off on surrounding tracts, his land becomes a sort of refuge. If deer on the public land or club where you hunt are gun-rattled, key on food plots that didn't produce early and got ignored, or areas where mast can still be found but haven't been hunted. The key is to find a spot where food, cover and water are all in close proximity.
"They aren't moving far," says Jeff Banks, Klement's friend and co-author of Producing Power Bucks the Banks Farm Way. "You need to get as close as possible to his bedding area and that thicker food source and catch him moving between them."
For Klement, that means getting in the thickest, nastiest stuff he can find and hunting deer close. "Come hunt with me and you'll say, ‘I can't see anything,'" Klement says. "But you have to go where no one else has and find those spots where there hasn't been any pressure." To maintain that low-pressure quotient, Klement never hunts the same stand two days in a row.
Need a little late-season inspiration? Look no further than these three Southern trophies.
- Alabama Typical Record: On January 31, 1993, Marengo County hunter Joe Gandy dropped a buck on his small, mostly open farmland property. According to Alabama Whitetail Records, it was the first time he had even spotted the deer on the seldomly hunted tract. When the dust settled, his 213 6/8-inch trophy would become the state's new overall typical record. It remains the record today.
- Louisiana Freak: The Sportsman's Paradise's number-one nontypical buck has so much junk protruding from its rack that hunter James McMurray thought its head was tangled in vines when he first walked up on it. The buck, killed on January 4, 1994, scored 281 6/8 inches and boasted beams that, in places, measured more than 11 inches in circumference.
- Public-Land Monster: When Josh Clark shot an 18-point buck at Mississippi's Canemount Wildlife Management Area on December 14, 2016, early buzz was it might become the new state-record typical buck, somewhere in the ballpark of 205 inches. In the end, it officially gross-scored 198 6/8 inches as a nontypical and netted 162 6/8 inches due to deductions. It was still a heck of a trophy, and remains a testament to the fact that not every big buck is killed on private land, nor early in the season.
Late-season scouting via trail cam is critical to locating bruiser bucks.
Scouting is purely a pre-season activity, right? Wrong. As hunt-pressured, rut-weary bucks return to basic feeding patterns late in the season, it becomes critical to step back and scout high-opportunity spots in the waning days of the season.
Remember, these bucks are beyond paranoid now, so you can't afford to slip up and simply stumble in on one. Blow him out of there and your season's effectively done. Every hunter I interviewed for this piece keeps the trail cameras running and takes time to watch what the deer are doing before they head to the woods.
Texas hunter Robert Walshe is typically focused on cull bucks late in the season on his 7,000-acre lease near the Mexico border. But rather than getting too bogged down on one buck or one spot, he'll target areas that have gone overlooked by his fellow hunters (or himself), as well as review cam footage to identify where and when deer are moving.
"Cameras are absolutely critical, as they provide information on deer activity even when I can't be out there, and they help me make decisions on where to go and when to be there," Walshe says.
That may mean ditching a traditionally favorite stand and setting a pop-up blind along a road bordering thick cover. Or, in Texas, abandoning a feeder on warmer days and setting up near water.
Jeff Banks, author of Producing Power Bucks: The Banks Farm Way, says a buck's range really tightens up this time of year. "We'll have bucks we haven't seen during the rut suddenly show up in late season," he says. "When they do, you know they're going to be close. It's time to hunt them."