Late Season Deer Tactics
October 28, 2003
A little study goes a long way in predicting late-season buck travel.
Although it was three in the afternoon when I stepped out of the warm sport utility vehicle, the cloudy sky and cold air reminded me it was late December as I headed to my stand. The stand was located in a large oak tree along a deer trail that most of the bucks in the area used as a rub route. I had noticed several scrapes along the trail during the November rut. Now, with the second breeding phase over, the scrapes were only a vague depression in the snow. I was sure the deer would still be using the trail, however. It led to the only field in a three-mile proximity that still had standing corn purposely left to feed the deer.
Before I got to my stand I knew I was too late. Through a gap in the trees I saw several deer already in the field. As I got closer I could see at least one buck. I stopped behind a large ash and took out my binoculars for a better look. The big eight-point buck was there. Although he was only an eight-pointer, he outweighed the aging 10-pointer I saw standing near him by 50 pounds. His big eight-point rack would score about 150; the 10-pointer would be just under 170. I had seen both these bucks before but never together. They seemed to pay no attention to each other as they moved through the corn, eating as they went.
Realizing there was no way I could get near the field without alerting the deer, I decided to sit and watch. Within minutes there were 17 does and fawns in the corn, but neither of the bucks paid attention to any of them. I assumed they were all bred because I had seen both bucks chasing does in November. As I glassed the field I noticed an 11-point nontypical I had never seen before, although one of my clients had taken a shot and missed the buck in late November.
I watched the deer until well after dark to see if any more bucks arrived and where they entered the field. I also checked to see if there was a better way to approach the field and a better place to hang my tree stand. Some of the deer had come from a small finger of woods on the other side of the field. There was very little cover, though, and no tree large enough to support a stand. I might be able to use a ground blind or sit on my folding chair if I could find enough cover. I moved my stand the next day, and a week later the eight-pointer made the mistake of walking directly under it.
LET THE RESEARCH BEGIN
That was the year I began researching deer, using a journal and keeping a record of all my deer sightings, their location, sex, size and activity along with their direction of travel, the temperature, wind speed, windchill, humidity, dew point, cloud cover, precipitation, barometric pressure, moon position and moonlight. As a result of my four-year study I realized there were several different meteorological conditions that both decreased and increased daytime deer movement. I was most interested in those that caused increased movement during the day. After analyzing my data, and correlating it with my observations over the years, I discovered several conditions that cause deer to move during the day once the rut has ended.
During cold weather deer move less because cold temperatures cause them to lose body heat. However, when prolonged cold weather keeps deer from feeding regularly or when low food sources and cold weather cause them to lose calories and weight, they are forced to move and locate food. They often move during the warmest part of the day, usually in the late afternoon or early evening, especially if there is cloud cover that may keep heat from dissipating.
In the northern states, when the temperature, dew point or windchill drop below 20 degrees, deer movement is often restricted to heavy cover, downwind sides of hills, low-lying or other protected areas where deer can escape windchills.
My research indicates that windchill is the determining factor in deer movement. Although I often saw deer during the day when temperatures were above 20 degrees, I rarely saw deer in the open when wind speeds reduced 20-degree temperatures to windchills below 20 degrees. It doesn't take much of a wind to create a low windchill. A five-mile-per-hour wind at 20 degrees produces a 16-degree windchill. A 10-mile-an-hour wind at 20 degrees produces a four- degree windchill.
When food sources are scarce, especially after agricultural crops have been harvested, grazing plants have been depleted and mast and berries are gone, deer are forced to rely primarily on browse. If other preferred food sources are available, deer will use them until they are depleted and then will search for another source. Limited food sources in late fall/early winter often concentrate the deer, including older trophy-class bucks, on the food sources.
Although early winter creates harsh conditions with low temperatures, rain and snow, it is one of the few times during the year when bucks carrying trophy racks may be seen together. Because the rut is over the bucks are no longer antagonistic toward each other, and they often begin to reform the bachelor groups they were in before the rut. They are also in search of high-quality foods in order to gain back the weight they lost during the rut. This combination of factors provides late-season hunters the opportunity to see several bucks, including some that are trophy class, roaming together on a regular basis.
On several occasions I have seen large, dominant bucks like the three mentioned above traveling together when the sky was cloudy and the temperatures were low. The largest deer I ever saw was a 12-point 200-class buck, which was traveling with a button buck near a cornfield on a cold, cloudy day in December at 8:30 a.m.
SELECT THE RIGHT AREA
The key to hunting late-season trophy bucks, as you can see by my hunt, is to be in an area where trophy bucks abound. That hunt took place in a lightly hunted region of southern Minnesota where hunting is by primitive methods only. Because of the hunting restrictions and the cold weather, hunting pressure is always minimal, and there are several bucks scoring between 140 and 170 in the area, making it easy for a persistent hunter to see trophy bucks.
When you are hunting late-season deer you need to know where the food sources are as well as the trails the deer use during daylight as they move to and from the fields. The easiest way to find the food sources is to regularly scout the area by driving the farm country roads to locate fields that haven't been harvested yet, and by locating small pockets of food and trails while scouting on foot.
Once you've located the food sources, determine where the bucks are traveling by looking for rub routes and scrapes that may still be visible. If neither rubs nor scrapes can be found, look for evidence of bucks along doe trails because the bucks may be traveling with the does at this time. After you locate the trails, choose a hunting site well away from the food source where you have adequate cover for a tree stand, portable blind, or where you can stand and wait for the deer.
RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME
When you hunt in the afternoon or evening, the farther from the food source you are, without getting too close to bedding areas, the better your chances of seeing deer during the day. Even though deer may arrive at the food source well before dark, they are most alert near the food sources where you may be detected. Because bucks generally travel later than does, you will have a better chance of seeing them in protected areas, well away from the food sources, in the early afternoon.
When you hunt in the morning, try to position yourself between night resting areas/early morning food sources and daytime bedding areas. Your hunting sites should be located along ##trails leading to buck bedding areas so you have an opportunity as the bucks return to their beds.
I often see deer bed and feed in overgrown fields of brush and saplings on the downwind side of hills in the morning. They often stay in these areas until daylight, then, as the sun rises, move to areas of deeper cover. When this happens you can set up downwind or crosswind of the trails the deer use as they leave. You can also set up near known buck bedding areas, provided you get there before the buck returns.
The time to hunt late-season bucks is when the conditions are right. When foods are scarce or a preferred food is available, and there is cloud cover and the windchills drop, expect to see deer earlier in the evening and later in the morning than normal. After a winter storm lets up; or it has been cold, windy or there has been heavy precipitation for more than a day and a half, causing deer to miss two or more feeding periods; and then the wind dies down, or the windchill rises, expect deer to begin feeding, and to continue for the next couple of hours.
USE SCENT, CALLS, DECOYS
With the rut over and most of the does bred, bucks are not as willing to respond to calling, rattling, scents and decoys as they were during the rut. But as long as a buck carries antlers his testosterone level is still elevated, and it may respond to estrous scents and doe calls, which can be effective when used along rub routes and scrape lines and near daytime staging areas, food sources and buck core areas. Because bucks are not traveling as much, or are not as willing to respond at this time, the key to attracting bucks is to be in or near areas bucks use during the day.
Estrous scents can be placed so they spread out downwind of your hunting position to attract the buck as he approaches a food source. Estrus can also be used on a scent line by leaving drops of scent on the ground along a line that crosses a deer trail and leads to your location.
Although scientific research suggests that there is no doe estrous call, the "social grunt," which is used by does when they are trying to locate each other, will get a buck's attention at this time. When a buck responds to scents or calls, it may not be because of rutting urge; it may simply be because of curiosity.
Decoys can provide the needed visual stimulus to bring a buck within range after he has responded to scents or calls. Bucks are not looking for a fight at this time of the year, and because of this doe decoys work best. A decoy with antlers may intimidate or alarm a buck, causing it to leave the area.
Mobility is a key factor in late-season hunting. I use a collapsible bedded doe decoy because it's lightweight and rolls up for easy transportation. With their low profile, bedded decoys should be placed in a semi-open area, preferably not on a trail. In several field tests I have seen deer skirt a bedded decoy on a trail while walking right up to it in other areas. Place bedded decoys near a bush or tree where a deer would normally bed. Standing decoys can be placed in tall grass, brush or any other area where deer might be found.
Because deer, including bucks, are looking for food at this time of the year, the combination of tarsal scent and deer urine on the ground, leading to a food scent, can be very effective. The tarsal and urine are non-threatening and may arouse the buck's curiosity; the food attractant then brings it within range. These scents may also attract does, which may be followed by bucks. When using scents, choose those particular to your area. Corn, apple and acorn scents work well in most areas.
Because the rut is over, bucks do not look to exert dominance, or look for a fight, and they seldom respond to buck scents, aggressive grunts, tending grunts and rattling. However, these products and techniques, when used in combination with doe or estrous scents to create the illusion of a buck with an estrous doe, may attract a buck who simply hasn't had enough of the rut yet.