The breeding is over, and the surviving bucks are in hiding. Now what the heck are you supposed to do?
The rut is over in most parts of the country, and a lot of the bucks that were out there are already in freezers and taxidermy shops. It can seem like there’s not a set of antlers left in your woods — but there are. And thanks to these Realtree pro staffers, we have a few tricks to help you put one of them in the back of the truck.
Hunt Security Feed
Food sources are abundant during the early season and through the rut, but they’re more limited by the late season. That makes it easier to capitalize on a buck’s appetite when you do find the food he wants to eat. “I think the biggest thing in the late season is hunting the food, especially in cold weather,” said pro staffer Tim Andrus. “They will be hitting the feed and scent-checking does as they look for ones that haven't been bred yet.”
While the majority of does have already been bred, a few were probably missed during the first cycle. Even likelier, some doe fawns enter estrous in the late season as they reach the necessary weight threshold to breed. Because of that, David Holder of "Raised Hunting" likes to find areas where large numbers of deer are congregating. “Corn and beans are great this time of year, and the absolute best scenario is a standing bean field with good bedding cover close by,” he said. “The best food sources help bucks twofold. It’s where they go to feed, but it’s where they find leftover does, too.”
Important as the food is, mature bucks need to feel secure before they’ll move around in legal shooting hours. The best food sources will probably not have received much hunting pressure, and they should have visual barriers to keep them from being seen by prying eyes. This is especially important to Jeff Danker of "BuckVentures." “Hunt security food,” he said. “Bucks that are worn down or hurt return to food regularly, especially if it’s near bedding or security cover. A lot of times, they feed at odd times of the day in order to avoid encountering other bucks.”
Security cover and untouched bedding areas are important. But how do you find them? What do they look like? These could be spots you've hunted a time or two, or places you've never considered hunting. It all depends on how much pressure has been applied. Monitoring how much a property gets hunted — and how deer respond to it — are vital parts of finding and patterning a huntable mature buck.
But if you’re struggling to find deer, look at a map and cross off areas that you — and other hunters — frequently hunted this season. Analyze what’s left and go there. Good bedding areas should have thick cover, and sustainable food and water sources nearby. South or east-facing slopes are worth extra attention, since they receive the most sunlight and are generally a few degrees warmer throughout the day.
In flatter country without terrain variation, it's important that bedding cover offers plenty of early successional growth. Mature bucks prefer to bed in and travel through areas with low-level foliage. Set up shop in a staging area — between the unpressured bedding and security feed — that offers the same characteristics.
Most experts will tell you to be careful with the calls during the late season, but there’s such a thing as being too passive. Michael Lee of "Backwoods Life" frequently uses a grunt call when he’s hunting near bedding areas late in the year. “Some of the big boys are still looking to steal a doe away from other bucks,” he said. “I like to use a tending grunt.”
Kandi Kisky of "Whitetail Freaks" has shot some big post-rut bucks by rattling, too. “At this point in the year, many bucks have already bred three or four does,” Kisky said. “They’re walking with their eyes rolled back in their head. Rattling can be a deadly tool right now.”
There’s more to it than just banging antlers together, though. Your position is now more important than ever because pressured deer are likely to be cautious. “When you choose your rattling position, make sure it’s a stand site backed up to a deep ditch, creek, standing cornfield, fence or anything else making it impossible – or at least tough – for them to circle downwind,” Kisky said.
It pays to be especially observant if you’re using calls. “If you lay eyes on a shooter that’s cruising by, make sure he’s not limping or bleeding before you call to him,” Danker said. “If he’s worn down or hurt, the last thing he’ll likely do is respond to a fight.”
“Time in the woods is No. 1,” Danker said. “Of course, you have to play the wind. But stay all day. If the wind changes, get out and go to another stand.”
Nate Hosie of "HeadHunters TV" agrees. His late-season strategy is to find doe groups and stay on them. “This time of the year, if you’re on does, stick with it,” he said. “Sooner or later, the fellows will be after them. But there will be ups and downs. One day may be on fire, and the next might be slow. Stick to the stand and hunt smart.”
Stick to the stand until, of course, you need to climb down and make something happen. If you see a buck locked down with a doe in a reasonable spot, Kisky said you don’t have much to lose by climbing down and trying a stalk. There aren’t many days left in the season, and you’re going for broke now.
However you hunt, have fun with it. If you end the season with an unfilled tag, remember: The countdown to next season begins on this season’s last day.
Whitetails make the hunting world go round. Josh Honeycutt, deer hunting editor and "Brow Tines and Backstrap" blogger, knows a fair bit about killing mature deer. He was raised up hunting the river bottoms of Kentucky. And he still hunts there—among other places—to this day.
Follow along as he shares his adventures, experiences and knowledge of the white-tailed deer.