December 19, 2023
Well, here we are in the waning weeks of the season, with buck tags still burning holes inside our favorite hunting pants! We had an early season plan of attack, but that fell through. As the rut came and went, we found ourselves scratching our heads, as we always just seemed one step behind. And now, as the snow flies and cold winter winds whip across the landscape, we are in the fourth quarter, with barely any time left on the clock!
Sure, you could hang up the bow, wash and dry the camo and call it a year. But if you are anything like me, quitting is not an option. Sure, all the bucks still standing have been hunted for months and have had their survival senses sharpened to a razor’s edge. As a result, we must now change up our tactics, tread carefully and adopt a “less is more” approach to putting a hard-earned buck on the scoreboard before the clock runs out!
Maintaining a positive attitude is a key ingredient for bowhunting success. So, let’s start by discussing some of the positive aspects of still being “on the hunt” this late in the game.
Well, you can start by giving yourself a pat on the back for your persistence. If you’re still hunting at this point, that means you haven’t given up or settled for a lesser buck, just because taking the shot represented an easier path. Kudos to you for sticking it out!
The next positive is that you now have most of the playing field to yourself. Most other bowhunters have tagged out or given up by this point. Although it’s true there are now fewer bucks on the landscape than there were back in the fall, you have very little competition in pursuing them, even on public land. In fact, you may even be able to score permission to some previously unattainable private ground during this time frame, because lots of other hunters have called it quits. Don’t ever give up on the old-fashioned methods such as knocking on doors or writing letters to landowners asking for permission. Someone may just admire your dedication — or feel sorry for you — and tell you to go ahead and hunt!
Yet another positive in the late season is that you know bucks must rely on the best food sources in their core area to survive. Research shows that a buck will lose 20-30 percent of its body weight over the course of rut. With cold temperatures now the norm and food supplies limited, this means those bucks will be following a very strict routine traveling between bedding areas and feeding areas morning and evenings and conserving as much energy as possible for the remainder of the day. I’ve always said that “patterns kill big bucks,” and at no time of the year is that truer than when targeting bucks on high-quality, late-season food sources.
While locating the best remaining food sources in your hunting area is obviously critical, you also need to pinpoint a buck’s most likely bedding area. Because of the cold, snow and lack of vegetation in the late season, this is not typically a very complicated process. South-facing slopes, which receive the most sunlight and therefore reach the highest temperatures each day, are the ticket at this time. Bedding on a south-facing slope helps a buck maintain its body temperature and also offers an opportunity to perhaps take advantage of any grass or other vegetation that may grow during short periods of unseasonably warm weather.
Well, I hate to be a negative Nancy, but hunting the late season isn’t all rainbows and unicorns. Probably the biggest challenge is that by this point in the season, the bucks have seen it all! They’ve been called at, blown out of beds and food sources, winded multiple hunters and perhaps even dodged a few bullets. In short, they know the game that is being played, and the fact they are still playing it proves they are among the smartest and most skilled athletes on the field.
Another challenge is food. Yes, a good, reliable food source at this point in the season will draw deer from miles around. But if YOU don’t have access to hunt it, that is going to make your job a heck of a lot harder. And while seeing lots of deer is always fun, the fact that every great late-season food source is going to attract tons of deer means there will be many, many eyes, ears and noses to beat every single time you hunt.
You can face a similar challenge when it comes to bedding areas. If you don’t have south-facing slopes on your hunting property, there may not be many deer bedding there. If you don’t have feeding or bedding areas to hunt, you better hope you at least have a travel corridor the deer use to get between the two. And regardless of where you hunt in the late season, you need an absolute bulletproof entry and exit strategy so you can get in and get out without deer seeing, hearing or smelling you.
As we already discussed, the buck you are hoping to tag is on high alert. A creak of a treestand and he’s gone! An ounce of human scent in the timber and he knows what’s going on! Bump him from his bed now and he may completely vacate the area! All in all, you will probably get only one crack at a good buck during the late season, so you better make it count. Your attention to detail needs to be higher than ever, so a smart bowhunter will cross every “t” and dot every “i” before heading into the field. The late season is very tricky and doesn’t leave much room for error. However, it can pay off big if you put together a good plan and execute it properly.
Less Is Best
So, now that we’ve established the positives and negatives to late-season bowhunting, we can put together a road map for success. This is where “less is best” comes into play. Some may think our best bet is to just hunt and hunt and hunt and grind it out until we stumble into an opportunity. Well, that may work during the rut, but in the late season the odds of success are very slim. The key now is picking our spots.
So, how do we find our buck and attack without alerting him? This is where old-school scouting and high-tech scouting come into play. Digital scouting and cell cameras can be a huge help during this time of the year, because these are very low-impact methods to gather information. Still, my best tactic at this time is driving back roads in the morning and evening and glassing fields to quickly figure out where the hot food sources are. Visual confirmation is my starting point, as experience has shown that a hot food source will attract the majority of the deer in the entire area. It could be a standing cornfield, late-dropping acorns on an oak ridge or a fall food plot. Regardless, we need to find this spot and pay attention to the details!
Using the onX Hunt app on my phone, I can easily scan the surrounding cover and identify likely bedding areas that these deer are using, all without ever stepping foot in the area. Now, it is time to deploy our cameras and let them do the dirty work! From here, we can put together the finer details we need before we go hunt.
Putting It All Together
I like to set up at least two cameras, pointed in different directions, on the food source I’ve identified. I want the cameras to catch deer coming and going so I can gauge their direction of travel and pinpoint the exact areas where the deer are bedding.
Once you identify a target buck, either via glassing or trail camera, the wind direction becomes vitally important. You should be keeping a log of the local wind direction each day and cross-reference it with the comings and goings of that buck. You’ll quickly realize the buck has a preferred wind direction for traveling from his bedding area to the feeding area. This helps you figure out where he’s likely bedding and where you may be able to ambush him on his nightly stroll to dinner!
I also like to match my late-season buck sightings with moon phase and weather conditions. For example, he may only show up on certain moon phases or right before cold fronts. Remember, you may only get one chance once you start hunting, so the more you can figure out ahead of time, the better.
Now that you’ve got confirmed sightings in person and on camera, you can put the pattern together and set the trap! In conjunction with his preferred wind direction, weather forecasts and pictures that we’ve received, we can now hang stands and get ready to hunt. The philosophy here is to only hunt when the iron should be hot, by utilizing the high percentage days based on the patterns we’ve discovered. By limiting our hunts, we are limiting the chances of the buck and other deer patterning us before we get an opportunity.
A few years ago, I hunted a buck I called the “Big 6,” and he showed me a very distinct pattern in January. On a west wind and during the coldest days, he would show himself in daylight. If I was not hunting on those nights, my cameras told me that my chance of killing this buck were basically zero. Luckily, I got a major cold front with a west wind during the end of January and capitalized. By scouting more and hunting less, I had a plan in place and was ready to act when conditions were right. The formula resulted in a great late-season buck for me, and it can work for you too. Give it a try this winter, and good luck!