Note: This article is currently featured in the December-January edition of Game & Fish Magazine. Click here to find out more.
There are lots of ways that a deer season can unravel. Whitetails out of range in bow season, deer you’ve patterned that “disappear” or fall to another hunter, bad weather, work and family obligations and just plain bad luck.
By late season, a significant percentage of hunters haven’t yet put a tag on the kind of deer they were hoping for. Maybe that describes you, and you’re still no closer to helping push your taxidermist and deer processor into the next tax bracket.
Isn’t it just about time to throw up your hands in despair and start thinking about next season? Maybe shop for that new bow you’ve been considering? Or perhaps start reading online reviews for the new line of riflescopes coming out soon from your favorite manufacturer?
Well, you could. But by doing so, you’ll just be making the late hunt even better for those who regularly kill their trophies closer to the end of the season than the beginning. But there’s no reason you can’t keep hunting at the same time you research new gear.
I killed my first deer in Oklahoma with a bow on a late-December day in 1984. Since then I’ve hunted archery, muzzleloader and rifle seasons for 30-plus years and regularly kill more good bucks later in the year than early on. To do so, however, you can’t simply keep hunting every day the same as you hunt on opening day.
Here are some late-season tips and tricks that will help fill your freezer—and your trophy wall.
HUNT THE FEED
Bucks, whether big or small, can run themselves ragged during the rut, spending weeks concentrating on little else but does. In fact, studies have shown that mature bucks can lose nearly a quarter of their body mass from pre-rut to post-rut. So, what’s a buck to do when the rut is over and the does are all bred or moved on?
The answer is that he’ll go back to a daily pattern where feeding is his top priority.
Note that his preferred feed might not be exactly the same as in the early, pre-rut part of the season. A buck you hunted around green agricultural fields during mid-November might be concentrating more on a newly planted winter crop or on a harvested cornfield by late December or January. He might even be visiting one of your food plots that you haven’t checked out since opening weekend.
Look for food sources close to known bedding areas for best results. Bucks this time of year won’t travel as much as they did back during the rut. They’ll shift back to their earlier routine, with a much smaller home range. Here they will have food, access to secure bedding, and they will feel relatively safe. Find that home range, and you’ve solved a big part of the puzzle.
Just because a late-season buck is concentrating on food doesn’t mean does aren’t also on his mind—they’re just not his top priority. But when those does that weren’t bred during the earlier rut come back into heat (typically around mid-December), the hunting can be better than ever. Some of the largest, healthiest young does born earlier in the year are also likely to come into heat around this time. And it only takes one doe in heat to draw bucks from miles around.
Since you will have already experienced the peak rut earlier in the season, take the date of peak activity and add 28 days. A week on either side of that should be the peak of the “second rut.” This is a time to go back to hunting doe groups, like you probably did during the pre-rut. If you know your hunting area well, you probably know where three or four doe bedding areas are located. Hunt travel corridors between doe bedding areas when the second rut begins.
CONCENTRATE ON SECONDARY COVER
If you did your pre-season scouting, you probably had a pretty good idea of where the big bucks liked to hang out on your hunting property before opening day arrived. By late season, that will likely have changed considerably, so you’ll need to throw your earlier reconnaissance out the window and cast a wider net.
It’s easy to understand why: By late season, the best buck areas have been hammered by constant hunting pressure, both during the early season and likely from time to time since then. And we all know that bucks need only to be chased out of their favorite spot a few times before they find a new hideout away from the hustle and bustle.
Fortunately, you might already have a stand set up in the best place to take a late-season bruiser. Those third- and fourth-choice stands that nobody hunted early on because they weren’t anyone’s “favorite” place might now be in the buck’s new core area. Using the wind to your advantage, slip in quietly and place a few trail cameras around to see if a good buck is using that area in the late season. If he is, you know what to do next.
ADD ARCHERY TO YOUR REPERTOIRE
If your hunting area’s firearm season has ended and you haven’t managed to kill your buck, don’t throw in the towel yet. All is certainly not lost, as in many areas non-firearms seasons run well past the end of the firearms seasons, and there are still plenty of bucks out there to be had.
For late-season archery bucks, concentrate on trails to and from feed sources. It’s usually best to hunt those trails far back away from the field edges, as wary bucks that have already seen plenty of hunting pressure will often wait until after legal shooting light to actually enter a feeding area. They’ll often stage somewhere along the way to wait for darkness, and if you are set up correctly, that might be right in your shooting lane.
If you aren’t interested in the expense, time and practice involved in getting a quality bow, getting it set up properly and practicing enough to be a successful bowhunter, don’t overlook the crossbow option. Although many like to think of crossbows as “100-yard killing machines,” that’s actually just a myth. However, getting a crossbow set up and getting skilled enough with it to kill a buck at 30 yards takes far less time and effort than is required with a vertical bow.
BIRD HUNTING FOR BUCKS
Wherever there are still upland game birds, December and January are months tailor-made for bird hunting. In fact, there are few things more satisfying to me than following a pair of good pointing dogs up a brushy draw in pursuit of quail or pheasants this time of year. It’s truly one of the finer things in life. And interestingly, it can also provide a critical piece of the late-season deer puzzle.
Often when bird hunting, we’ll see deer sneak out to the sides of cover or even bolt out ahead of the dogs to escape. Now you already know where he beds during the day, and even his favored escape route. By scouting for nearby feeding areas, you might even be able to determine what trail he takes from bedding to feed, and back again. Get a stand set up and do your bird hunting elsewhere for the next couple of days. Then slip back in and take care of business.
Note that you don’t have to actually see a big buck while bird hunting to know he’s around. Keep an eye out for tracks or other deer sign (including fresh rubs and scrapes, which are easy-to-see indications that at least one buck thinks there’s a second rut on). Check for sign when crossing creeks, walking fence rows or field edges. These are prime areas for both birds and deer. If you see fresh tracks or some other fresh sign, you’ve found the place to begin planning your late-season hunt.
Across much of the country at this time of year, staying warm in frigid temperatures is key to success. Clothing designed for cold conditions makes all the difference. Just in time for chilly late-season weather comes the V1 Whitetail heavyweight series from Thiessens, a new company that launched in October to produce pursuit-driven gear and sell it directly to hunters via thiessens.com.
The heavyweight line currently consists of four products: pant, bibs, parka and 3-N-1 parka. All feature Thinsulate insulation; a moisture-wicking, anti-odor treated core lining; Thiessens’ proprietary T-Dry waterproof, breathable outer shell; and Wind Defense windproof technology. Thiessens offers all in Realtree Edge camo.
To learn more about the heavyweight series, I spoke with Stuart Wilson and Kurt Grove, who lead product development for Thiessens. Both are avid end-users who hunt religiously each year and together have almost 40 years of combined experience in the outdoor goods and apparel industry. That experience, afield and in the marketplace, clearly guides designs.
The 3-N-1 parka illustrates Thiessens’ functional focus. The jacket has 300 grams of Thinsulate in the core (200 grams in the arms, where it’s less needed) and features ample pockets. Hunters can unzip the insulated, windproof inner jacket from the waterproof outer shell and wear either independently, or keep them together for the utmost protection from foul weather. The heavyweight parka has similar features, save the zip-in/zip-out versatility. Both parkas have a removable hood on the outer shell’s back with a simple, rearward one-way-pull shock-cord for adjustment.
The heavyweight bibs utilize 200 grams of Thinsulate above the waist and 300 grams below. A quality suspender system with low-profile hook-and-loop adjustments and two-way zip-to-hip zippers are other noteworthy features. Hunters will find numerous pockets in the bibs, including two on the lower back.
“Some guys like putting handwarmers or packets in the kidney area,” Wilson said. “This allows you to have a spot to put those to give your core a little more warmth.”
The heavyweight pant features lower hand pockets, traditional belt loops and a fly. It retains the two-way zip-to-hip zippers found on the bibs.
These zippers make putting on or taking off the garments a quick and hassle-free process, even when wearing large boots. Because the zippers function two ways, hunters can partly unzip the openings to cool down, such as during a walk to a stand.
“From the upper thigh down we also use a slick lining,” Grove said, “which adds another level of ease when putting on [the garments] while wearing boots and/or layers.”This same slick fabric is also used in the extremity arm areas on the parkas. In both areas, it yields a better range of movement and prevents underlayers from binding in sleeves and legs.
Other subtle features found across the heavyweight line are also quite beneficial. Ultra-quiet “Silent Snaps” offer secure, stealthy latching, while articulated designs aid comfort and functionality.
The articulated fit of the bibs and 3-N-1 parka I tried was comfortable, and the cut of the arms and legs provided flexibility and full range of movement. The two heavyweight pieces were warm but didn’t seem overly bulky. Thiessens’ V1 Whitetail heavyweight series offers cold-weather hunters a lot to like. $169.99-$199.99; thiessens.com — Drew Warden