Author’s note: This is the final installment of our four-part Ultimate Whitetail Plan series. Still have a buck tag? No problem. And in case you want to get a jump on next season, check out the early season plan, the pre-rut plan and the rut plan. Good hunting!
Last winter in North Dakota was atypical, as it was in many parts of the county. “We had almost no snow and record high temperatures,” says local bowhunter Derek Plautz. “Needless to say it made the hunting difficult.”
Plautz hunted hard, and the first week of December he started getting trail cam pictures of a shooter 10-point. “He only showed up on the cam one time in shooting hours,” he said, “but at least we knew he was there. We hunted him for several weeks.”
With only two nights left in the 2011 season, Plautz decided to change it up. He moved to an entirely new location within the ghost buck’s core area and set up in a hidden spot that nobody had hunted all season. He didn’t hang a tree stand, but rather fashioned a small ground blind behind a fallen tree.
The first deer to step out that evening was the giant! The buck moved slowly toward Plautz, bronze antlers glinting in the last light. On the ground Plautz had to be especially stealthy, and he was. When the deer crossed at 30 yards, he pulled his Hoyt and let the arrow fly. The buck kicked and ran, but didn’t go far.
“What a great way to end a weird weather season,” Plautz said. “I can't imagine anything better than to get to enjoy hunting all season, and then to get a buck like this at the very end!”
There are two major keys to Plautz’s success, and I urge you to keep them in mind. One, if you use trail cameras, keep them running until the last day. You never know when and where a buck you have never seen before might show up. Secondly, and this is huge, hunt the buck’s winter core area, but switch it up. Vary your normal approach into the woods each day -- set up, either in a stand on the ground, in a funnel or near a cover edge. That buck is there because he is a master of moving around and avoiding hunters. Get that element of surprise and you might get him yet.
HUNT THE FOOD
Your late-season strategy has to center around the limited foods that remain for the deer. Both does and bucks are run down from the November rut, and they have to eat. The colder (and snowier) it is in December, the harder deer will move to and from the leftover feed, and the more visible they will be in daylight. Some tips for three common feeding habitats:
- Crops: You’ll see the most animals if you have access to corn or soybeans, by far the two best winter food sources. A patch of standing corn is especially good, as it provides both eats and cover for skittish deer. In a harvested bean field, scout edges and corners where a few strips of beans were missed and still stand. Those will be a magnet for deer. The less gun pressure in and around a field so far, the more bucks you will see in daylight. Pray for snow and temps from the teens to 30. A hungry buck might pop out into the crops morning, noon or night then. Bundle up and be out there till the end.
- Ridges: I love to hunt a hardwood ridge within a mile of a crop field anytime of season, but not any old ridge will do in December. Ideally, look for a hogback that was thinned a few years ago and that now offers brushy ground cover. A lot of does and bucks will travel through the second-growth saplings and thickets en route to and from the fields, and they’ll stage and browse in the greenery. Tip: Sneak in somewhere through mature, open woods and set a stand or blind on the first downwind edge of where the thinned second-growth begins. You shouldn’t jump a single deer.
- Greenery: If you hunt public or private woods miles from the nearest corn or beans, you won’t see nearly as many deer -- none some days. To have a prayer of punching that last tag you must find and watch what little food/cover mix is left for a buck -- edge of a clear-cut or power line, oak flat near a cedar swamp (maybe a few nuts), grape or honeysuckle thicket, you get the picture. Set a stand on the fringe of a pine, cedar or honeysuckle thicket. Bucks love to run any green edge left in the woods.
FACTOR IN PRESSURE
Virtually every farm or woods has had some hunting pressure, moderate to heavy, come December. Don’t fret about that pressure, but rather factor it into your strategy and use it to your advantage.
Numerous studies have shown that almost all people hunt within a mile of a field, logging road or similar easy-access area. In late season, the answer is not to keep hunting these same spots, but not necessarily to go deeper into the woods away from roads either. Studies also show that most whitetails do not flee pressure by leaving their core areas and heading miles farther into cover. Rather, most bucks continue to live around the same fields and ridges, they just seek out hidden, thick spots where most people never hunt. And they move at night.
That is why switching it up where you hunt is so important in winter. Think: “Out of the way.” A beaver swamp beside a gravel road, a 6-acre thicket behind a neighbor’s house, an overgrown hog lot at the back of a barn -- a thick spot like that is where an old 8- or 10-pointer will hide in hopes of riding out the season. Find such a spot, set a stand (ground or tree perch), hunt it hard and score at the bitter end.
MUST HAVE WINTER GEAR
- I’ve tried all the base layers and Under Armour Cold Gear top and leggings still work best for me. Top these with fleece pants and a jacket lined with Gore’s Windstopper and you can hack it for hours in a cold north wind.
- Insulated old-school boot covers were bulky as clown shoes, but modern ones, such as ArcticShield Boot Covers are thinner and lighter. Toss a couple of Hot Hands in each bootie and wait hours on stand for a buck to show.
What About the Second Rut?
Across the country, some mature bucks continue to rut into early December, and a second rut happens at some point. But this rutting is so spotty and unpredictable that I wouldn't plan my day around it. That said, you should:
- Lay a doe-in-heat trail into your stand most days. Far fewer does mist the woods with estrus scent now; a buck might cut your trail and follow it in, hoping to hook up with one last hottie.
- Carry your grunter and continue to call. If you see a flurry of rutting activity in early December, you might try rattling to mimic two bucks fighting over a last hot doe. But if and when the deer you see appear secretive and skittish, indicating the rut is done, back off because bucks will shy from the horns rather than come to the racket.