Some hunting seasons are short lived, and others feel like they drag on forever. For me, this year's whitetail season was the latter. If you're passionate about deer hunting, you're probably one of thousands of hunters tormented by a common dilemma - whether or not to hit the switch early in the season. If you have limited time to hunt or are restricted by the number of deer you can take in a given season, this decision can be daunting. It comes down to a simple matter of goals. As every whitetail hunter knows, to kill a big one you must be willing to let everything else walk. This can mean waiting until the very last minute to capitalize on a rare and often fleeting shot opportunity.
Those anxious to fill tags, do so at the first opportunity. Most take does and small bucks. In comparison, few larger bucks are taken in the early days of the season. While many hunters place greater value on the meat, a growing number of us are looking for deer sporting exceptional antlers. More often than not, we're the ones still sitting stands at the end of the season. It is a phenomenon commonly seen across North America.
As I hunted the waning days of Alberta's whitetail season, it dawned on me that few hunters have a clear understanding of the rut cycle and more specifically how to effectively hunt the post-rut. Recognizing that many states maintain open deer seasons on into the New Year, following are a few considerations for the late season whitetail hunter.
Understand When and Why Deer Move
Deer movement during the fall and early winter is motivated by two things; breeding and food. Whitetail hunters know that the rut is a magical time. Bucks are running everywhere and even the does are more mobile. As soon as the estrus is over, doe movement subsides but the bucks continue their search for at least a couple weeks. Then the second estrus takes place and deer movement becomes more visible again, at least for a few days.
Just as all good things must come to an end, so does the whitetail rut. With mission accomplished, highly visible breeding behavior quickly shifts into almost invisible survival behavior. In many states and provinces this transition coincides with the arrival of nasty weather. This past fall I observed classic post-rut conditions. In the last days of the December season deer were shifting into survival mode. To conserve energy, does moved minimally and bucks followed suit. With deep snow in many regions deer were expending a great deal of energy to travel to and from feeding fields and even more to dig through the heavy white stuff to find food.
During the rut, it's often as simple as setting up in the heart of movement corridors and waiting them out. However, peak rut strategies become far less reliable in the post-rut. Closing the gap in the post-rut is a hit and miss thing. Deer simply don't move much. So, if your goal is to find a good buck, it may be as easy as locating a reasonable population of does living in close proximity to the highest quality food source. That said, hunting trophy whitetails in the late season can be a trying ordeal.
The Late Season Weather Factor
If you're a late season deer hunter, particularly in the northern states and provinces, then you are probably well acquainted with hunting in extreme cold, windy and snowy conditions. To put it bluntly, waiting until the eleventh hour to shoot your deer can be like playing roulette. The later it gets, the more the odds are stacked against you. Worst case scenario - if the weather becomes too unbearable, you might get bumped out of the game altogether.
Regardless, savvy hunters know that big whitetails aren't stupid. Exceptional bucks are virtually invisible through most of the year, only becoming vulnerable when Mother Nature calls them to breed. What this means is that big bucks travel in search of hot does during and immediately following the first estrus anticipating the opportunity to service as many does as possible. It is during the two weeks following the estrus that really big deer become most visible and vulnerable. On many occasions, I've encountered world-class bucks during the last few days of hunting. Having strategically run the gauntlet of hunters and predators throughout the year, those big bucks are sometimes duped in the final days of the season.
To illustrate, a few years ago, with only a couple days left, I was out hunting with a couple friends. My tag had already been closed on a buck that scored 162-inches, and I was focusing my attention on elk. As luck would have it, as I sat on stand a solid 185-class whitetail stepped out 80 yards in front of me. All I could do was smile. All it takes is that one brief encounter.
Locate the Does
Given that almost anything goes when you're down to the crunch, if you find yourself hunting later in the season, a few tried and true strategies will undoubtedly tip the odds in your favor. Pinpoint the highest concentration of does, where they're bedding and feeding and set up on trails to and from those areas. Recognize that survival by way of nutrition and conserving energy are fast becoming a top priority at this time of the year.
Motivation, vulnerability and inclinations evolve as deer transition from their breeding period on through to the post-rut and then as they prepare for the winter months ahead. In tough conditions, deer will minimize their movement, so setting up as close as possible to where they are bedding can be marginally more effective, but certainly much more risky. Setting up on food sources is no doubt more desirable, however shot opportunities may be severely restricted by low light conditions. During most of the deer season, we would view bedding areas as sanctuary and leave it alone to preserve the integrity of our deer hunting property. In the late season however, this is one of the most effective ways to get a shot. Deer simply don't move as much during the late season.
With these things in mind, there are no set rules when the end draws near. Anything is worth trying. While contemporary logic suggests rattling produces limited results in the pos-rut, there are always exceptions. I've experienced excellent success rattling bucks on the last day of the season on several occasions. Chances are big bucks will still linger in proximity to the does hoping to catch an unbred doe experiencing a successive estrus cycle. Combine this knowledge with a treestand site located between the best available food source and nearby protective bedding cover, and chances are you're in the zone.
At the same time consider the game trail systems. While trails most heavily used may appear most attractive, try to evaluate whether larger bucks are using these or not. Look at the size of the tracks and consider trail intersections to increase your chances. As deer shift into survival mode after the rut, their movements become somewhat more predictable. That includes bucks as well. In my experience, big buck movement can be predictable but the biggest challenge is encountering them on the move during legal shooting light.
Use a Doe Decoy
While a buck decoy used in the late season can prompt an unwanted response, a doe often has the opposite effect. The odds are that bigger bucks will still come to investigate. Most tenacious in their quest for does missed during the first and second estrus cycles, when smaller bucks are less visibly searching for does, trophy bucks continue looking as long as possible. Even though the primary rut is passed they cannot neglect their natural instinct to breed and will often approach with their nose in the air to check for pheromones. By setting up in prime breeding areas, frequently calling with a doe estrus bleat, and continuing to use doe estrus scents, you may be rewarded for your patience. This can work for up to a couple weeks after the final estrus. Where some seasons remain open even longer, using a decoy can be effective, but it is a hit and miss strategy to attract deer.
Patience Can Pay Off
The most challenging element in the whitetail hunting game is that of patience. It only takes one encounter to make all the waiting and anticipation pay off. Remember "it ain't over 'til it's over" and who knows... by waiting until the late season, maybe your opportunity for a Boone and Crockett buck is destiny waiting to happen.
To tag a decent buck in the late season, you've got to be patient. Sometimes this means hunting right down to the last minute. On another occasion, I'd been hunting a 160-class buck the entire fall. Concerned that my time was running out, I chose to take a respectable deer that scored 134-inches with my bow. But still holding a doe permit, I stole away for the final two hours of the season. During my final hunt of the year I was graced with an up-close-and-personal glimpse of the buck I'd originally been hunting. Heartbreaking but satisfying, this incredible buck wore massive chocolate antlers; his solid 10-point main frame was a sight to behold. A doe was in the lead and the buck was trailing. With only a minute remaining in the entire season, they both scampered within 23 yards of my stand. I remember cursing the fact that I'd already filled my tag... but, I also recall noting that it served me right. That encounter epitomized the requisite patience of a true trophy hunter and the realities of hunting the late season.
Kevin Wilson is a freelance outdoors writer and professional big game & waterfowl
guide/outfitter from Alberta, Canada. Confessing an obsession for big whitetails
and bighorn sheep, he has hunted most North American big game species with either
bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun. Specializing in archery, freshwater fishing,
waterfowl and big game hunting, his articles can be found in several well known
outdoor publications across the U.S. and Canada. For more information on his
outfitting services, visit www.venturenorthoutfitting.com .
Member of OWAA & OWC.