We all want the rut to last until the end of the season, to keep the excitement going as long as possible. For most deer hunters, late-season hunting is more like an experiment than a true hunt. They dream that maybe this year it will be different. But those dreams don’t last long in the stark winter winds of solitary boredom. There is nothing easy about the late season.
I have seen late-season hunting that was much better than the rut, more predictable and even more action packed. In fact, I now look forward to the last two weeks of the season with just as much enthusiasm as I do the first two weeks of November. There is a formula that produces this kind of action, and that is what I want to get to in this article.
Most hunters get discouraged when they realize late-season hunting is tough, and they often give up before it actually gets good. Understanding what makes for good late-season hunting — and then doing what you can to improve it — will also make the rest of your season better.
A Textbook Late-Season Hunt
Before we get into the meat of this article, I will walk you through my most recent late-season hunting experience to set the stage for what is possible when it all comes together.
I hunted a giant buck last January, a buck I had been hunting since 2009. So, there was a lot more to this quest than just antler size. He had outwitted me many times, and the chase had become personal. This is the textbook late-season blueprint, and after the story, I will help you find ways to make the most of this often-tough time where you hunt.
The hunt started back in November, when this buck gave me the slip for the fourth or fifth time. He was following a doe straight toward my stand for what should have been a slam-dunk shot. At the last second, another buck came running in and chased this buck away. When this other buck came back to claim the doe, I decided to take the bird in hand, ending my regular archery season hunt for 2011. However, I did have a late-season tag I immediately dedicated to the giant 11-pointer.
Finding him back
In late November, I started running a trail camera on the nearby ridge planted with soybeans. There were still some beans left in the field, so deer were feeding there. I soon found out my quarry was among them, and he was showing up on my cameras almost daily. I checked the camera every few days for the next two weeks and he was still hanging around, often coming in during daylight.
Coming up with a strategy
Studying the trail camera photos, I determined the buck was approaching from two different directions. So, I knew picking a stand location would be a crapshoot. What if I was wrong and had to deal with a field full of noses, ears and eyes — all made more sensitive by two months of hunting pressure? That was not a prospect to be relished. I needed to get beyond the obvious.
There were some trees along the field where I knew I could be downwind of all the deer all the time, but the shot would be at least 50 yards. I could have used a muzzleloader, because that was a legal arm with the tag I was using, but being a bowhunter at heart, that didn’t appeal. I kept coming back to the same conclusion, regardless of the line of reasoning: I needed to hunt from a scent-containing ground blind right in the middle of the bean field. Then it wouldn’t matter which trail the buck used to reach the field.
The only problem was I didn’t own such a blind, and the thought of trying to film a hunt from a small pop-up blind (even if I could get the windows sealed off with plastic wrap) didn’t seem like a good choice. With the help of a friend (he did most of it), we designed and built a sealed wooden blind I could pull around on a trailer.
Assessing the risk
The biggest risk in this strategy was how the deer (specifically, the big buck) would react to the big box sitting in the middle of the field. If I was going to hunt him with a bow, I didn’t feel like I had a choice. I brushed the blind with cedar boughs, hoping that would help with the transition and parked it squarely in the middle of the buck’s feeding area. I did that roughly about the time the late season started, around mid-December.
I imagine that buck was big-eyed when he first stepped to the edge of the field and saw the Apollo 13 landing craft parked on his favorite patch of beans.
Monitoring the buck’s reaction
Not wanting to leave the all-important decision of when to start hunting the blind to chance, I placed a trail camera near the blind pointing north and another pointing south. They were Bushnell cameras, so I set them to field scan mode so I could get a photo in each direction every minute for the last two hours of each day. Then at noon each day, I slipped in and pulled the cards. I was looking for daylight photos of the buck indicating that he had accepted the blind.
The first photo of the buck came a week after placing the blind. Way off in the distance (probably at least 125 yards) I could see a single buck with a giant frame staring at the blind. It had to be him. The next one came about three days later and the buck was now much closer, seemingly relaxed and feeding.
Making the move
From then on, the photos became more commonplace, and by the end of two weeks I felt the risk versus reward of hunting the blind had finally tipped enough in my favor that it was worth getting in there. The last thing I wanted to do was to hunt the blind hard before the buck was using the field in daylight.
I think understanding this fundamental of sound deer-hunting strategy alone is worthy of this entire article. Don’t overlook the importance of knowing when to start hunting a late-season food source. If you don’t have trail cameras, you can accomplish the same goal by staying back and watching with binoculars until you see what you are looking for. Deer are too wary at this time of year to permit you to hunt them repeatedly without soon figuring out you are there. You want that education to start when your chances for success are highest so maybe you can get the buck before the herd figures you out.
How the story ended
I would love to tell you I killed the buck. I had him within 30 yards of the blind twice over the next week of hunting. On the first encounter, the cameraman filming the hunt told me to wait as the buck quickly picked up his head and worked past the blind. In my panic to get a new window open for the shot, I alerted a doe. Game over.
On the second encounter, the buck again came out early and started to work past the blind fast after taking an hour (yep, talk about an adrenaline rush) to feed within bow range. I again panicked, opening several windows until I caught up with him and this time in the rush forgot to hold low. He jumped the string and my shot caught him in the very top of the back, just above the shoulder. What a humbling moment that was.
He did just fine with the flesh wound (in the photos I got of him a week later he looked untouched) and we found his sheds in late January — one of them just 30 yards from the blind!
The Late-Season Formula
OK, now I will get to the magic formula. My experience with this buck wasn’t an isolated event. My friends and I have started taking mature bucks during the late season by focusing on three things: weather, pressure and food.
Great late-season hunting has everything to do with the weather — more specifically, changes in the weather. Often, we associate late-season success with cold weather, but that is only partly true. Actually, the onset of cold weather triggers the most movement. When it has been cold for a long time, the deer adjust and movement sometimes even decreases. So, look for cold fronts and you will see the most action.
The opposite is just as true. When it has been very cold for a long time, a warm front will get the deer going just as surely as a hard cold snap will put them in panic mode after extended warm conditions.
So, weather breaks are the key to daylight activity during the late season. By the way, the temperature on the day I shot at the big buck from the opening story was in the single digits, after a very warm December. The first hard cold snap of winter is a big part of the late-season magic. Do all you can to be out there the day the front goes through and the next two evenings.
I am not sure how much you can control this aspect of late-season hunting, but if you can control it, you need to. Keep the pressure off until you know there is a deer you want to shoot using the feeding area during daylight hours. Unless you have your heart set on a specific buck, it pays to monitor more than one feeding area to give yourself the best chance of finding daylight activity. As I mentioned earlier, trail cameras are best but if you don’t have one, you can watch with binoculars.
If you are serious about improving your late-season hunting, you need to plant good food plots or pay the landowner to leave a small portion of his commercial crops as an attraction. North of the Mason-Dixon Line, your best choice is a combination of brassicas and soybeans — or corn if you can afford it. South of this line, a late-summer planting of oats and ryegrass — the standard green field — is a better choice.
Right now, you might be thinking food plots are fine for people who own or lease land, but you are just hunting on permission and don’t own any equipment. Well, this past year, I took on the challenge of seeing if I could create a flourishing food plot with just hand tools. I called it the “Poor Man’s Plot” and had a lot of fun chronicling its establishment. Here is how I did it:
I got some help and cleared a few small trees and brush from a half-acre, semi-open area in the woods. We then sprayed it with RoundUp and came back two weeks later to burn the dead residue off the plot. We vigorously raked the ground to open up the soil before broadcasting fertilizer and seed. The next rain pounded the seed into the open soil, and they germinated within a week. Soon, I had the perfect plot made with nothing but hand tools.
If an old guy like me can do this with some help, you can too. Many landowners will grant permission to create small plots as long as they fully understand what you have in mind. Often times, they will feel sorry for you and even swing by with the disc on their tractor. Just because you don’t own or lease land doesn’t mean you can’t have a few small food plots to hunt in the late season. In fact, this is one of the fastest-growing trends in the hunting community.
You can make a difference with a half-acre food plot of brassicas (I have been planting Frigid Forage Big-N-Beasty, but there are other blends that also work well) when planted in early to mid-August. You will be amazed how much the deer will utilize this plot once they realize it is there.
Late-season deer tend to move much less during the morning than the afternoon. One researcher found most deer finish feeding about two hours before sunrise. They then pick their way slowly toward bedding areas. This makes morning hunting a risky proposition.
Another challenge comes in the form of compressed home ranges that occur during these early-winter cold snaps. The deer bed very close to their food. Not only does this make it more difficult to get between feeding and bedding areas without being detected, it can actually make it very difficult to even approach the feeding area at all without being detected.
So, pay very close attention to the route you take to the stand or blind. Wear white camo if there is snow on the ground and keep out of sight as much as possible.
Late-season deer are hunt-tested, but you can have success during this time if you have the food and the weather. Keep things in perspective; this is not easy. I hunt many hours in the late season, and the return on my investment of time is not super, but when the conditions are right, the late season can be just as good as the rut.