December 09, 2021
The rut is over. The majority of deer season is behind us. The late season is here, and soon, it’ll be a distant memory, too. But for now, we still have tags to fill. With dropping testosterone, and months of heavy hunting pressure, it’s a different game.
So, it begs the question, should you tap that late-season deer on the shoulder? Or completely stay off its radar? Well, it depends. But most of the time, it’s probably best to hit the mute button.
Mike Dukart, CEO and owner of Illusion Systems, and J.J. Dukart, president of The Deer Society, are both seasoned whitetail hunters and experts in whitetail vocalization.
Naturally, it was a breath of fresh air when these guys — who make a living selling grunt tubes (and other deer gear) — advised caution on calling to pressured and late-season bucks. That kind of genuineness and honesty can be rare in business, and it immediately captured my attention.
Of course, most states’ gun seasons fall in November and December. That translates to a lot of applied hunting pressure throughout the last two months of the year. It takes a toll on deer, and these animals respond to that.
“In Minnesota, gun season opens up when they start becoming the most boisterous and active (pre-rut and rut),” Mike says. “All of this human pressure (and guns) that’s going on in their normal habitat completely changes their behavior. They get skittish. We don’t get to interact with them a whole lot because they’re overcalled and over-pressured. They go nocturnal. Seeing a deer and trying to naturally call or communicate with it is 100% harder once they start getting pressured.”
However, to minimize impact on their own grounds, Mike prefers to leave his hunting properties alone during times of heavy pressure. This gives deer a safe zone, because he’s certain that whitetails almost always filter into areas that offer less pressure. They also respond better to calling later in the year.
Alternate Forms of Communication
As deer transition into the post-rut and beyond, they become much less vocal and less outgoing. While deer were very extroverted throughout the rut, they’re becoming the introverted beings they always are after the breeding season ends, and after being hunted hard.
That doesn’t mean they aren’t communicating though. Mike and J.J. both agree that deer still convey messages to one another.
“I think scent and visual cues are some of the things that pick up during (and after) gun seasons,” J.J. says. “Once all of that pressure kicks in, from a communication standpoint, the more natural you can be the better. Deer have been on edge for weeks. Human scent is all over the woods. The rut is winding down. Their minds are a little clearer than they were a few weeks ago.”
In other words, it’s probably best to lay off the grunt-snort-wheezes, and other battle cry and war whoop vocalizations, too. Both Mike and J.J. notice other forms of communication really pick up after deer have been pressured.
“One of the things that I’ve been picking up on with trail cameras, and also just throughout the years, is the amount of communication via scent, scrapes and rubs,” Mike says. “This definitely increases and becomes the dominant way for them to communicate. Bucks pee on everything. They’re rubbing glands on everything they can find. They’re not only letting the does know they’re there but also letting the other bucks.”
Of course, the rut kickstarts this behavior. Testosterone levels are rising. Does are pushing away fawns. Every deer in the woods is freaking out and wondering what’s going on in the world, as the Dukarts put it.
That said, by the late season, dropping testosterone, hunting pressure and lack of will to confront rival bucks causes these deer to get quieter. But they definitely still communicate via body language and scent.
“By smelling each other, they know exactly who it is,” Mike says. “So, if that buck comes in there and makes a rub or hits that scrape, other bucks know who it is, and if he isn’t from that area.”
These guys create situations to take advantage of this behavior. They make mock scrapes in key areas that are advantageous for hunting, or near cameras where they can gather intel.
Deer use posturing and other varieties of body language to transfer messages, too. Short of using a decoy — which isn’t a common late-season tactic — this isn’t actionable information for hunters though.
Making the Right Late-Season Call
The truth is that deer hunting isn’t black and white. It’s highly situational. You might see a deer during the late season that’s acting extremely aggressive. That’s generally the exception and not the rule, however. More times than not, it’s better to be passive in the vocalization department.
“I would call less frequently,” Mike says. “I wouldn’t challenge deer or put a lot of emotion into anything. Even if I did an estrus bleat, it wouldn’t be a crazy or wild one. If anything, I’d try to mimic that hunter mentality of the does coming back together with the fawns. There’s a little bit more communication going on there. Create an illusion of deer that a buck might want to come check out.”
Generally, that comes in the form of soft doe and fawn bleats, and subtle grunts. Don’t be very loud, though. Keep it quiet, and keep the frequency to a minimum. That’s normal behavior for this time of year.
Like Mike, J.J. highly encourages keeping things natural, such as light sparring or soft contact grunts. Given that the occasional adult doe or doe fawn might enter estrus late in the season, he even gives the nod to a few doe estrus bleats. He certainly stresses keeping the volume down, though.
“Start low enough that maybe they don’t hear you, and then work your way up,” J.J. says. “A lot of people call too loud and put deer on the defensive. It spooks and educates them.”
Calling aside, there are certain tactics that work better during the late season. Mike acknowledges this, and that’s pretty cool.
“At this time of year, as far as calling goes, I would try more to get deer patterned,” Mike says. “They’re settling into a place where they’re around food, and [where] they feel more comfortable. They’re going to [create] a pattern during the late season. I would focus more on that, and be aggressive on getting into position to get a shot at that deer than I would about trying to call a deer into a stand that’s been there all year long.”