The late season is by far our favorite time to kill a big buck. The rut is over, and with it, the randomness of the hunt. Late season bucks are a pretty "beat up" crowd. They have been fighting for 2 months or more and have the bruises and broken bones to prove it. Many of them have been gored by other bucks, while others have been "gored" by broadheads or misplaced bullets. Some of the "luckier" ones are wearing Buick tattoos on their butts from crossing against the light when chasing a doe across a highway. But, most of them are just tired and hungry and a whole lot lighter than they were a month earlier. They have clearly entered into the "need to feed" period of the fall cycle.
|An Adirondack, Montana, buck working a snow-covered food plot.|
Hunt the Carbs
You can locate mature bucks late in the season if you understand a few things about deer biology. As the rut subsides, they once again begin to think of food. They need food to repair their broken bodies and food to replace the 50 pounds or so they have just shed in the name of reproducing the species. Deer depend on winter fat to get them through harsh winters. A rutting buck will often use up all of his accumulated fat reserves. Without fat reserves his body starts burning muscle. He needs to build fat in a hurry if he is to get through the winter
As many of us know all too well, foods high in carbohydrates build fat. Late season feeders key in on the "hottest" high-carbohydrate foods they can find. Soybean seed pods are a favorite, as is standing corn. If there are still acorns available, they are sure to attract a crowd (snow permitting). Brassicas plants like kale, rape and turnips are also late season favorites. If none of the above is available, clover-based food plots, or even high-sugar green grain plants, will go a long way to rebuilding a broken buck. If all else fails, there is always woody stemmed browse and weed fields to recharge on. A whitetail will generally dig through up to 8-10 inches of snow to find snow covered foods.
Weather is a key ingredient in late season hunting. Extended mild weather will generally kill a late season hunt as the deer can feed as they please and food is just about everywhere. But a serious snow cover will concentrate deer on what foods they can find, and very cold nighttime temperatures will force deer to get out there and feed during the warmest part of the day. When daytime highs fail to break freezing and then drop another 10 degrees, you can often catch a big buck out feeding during the mid-day high temps. Deer have the uncanny ability to conserve energy by exposing themselves to energy robbing weather only when necessary. They seldom feed at night in extremely cold weather as the energy value of the food taken in is exceeded by the energy expended staying warm during feeding. When hunting in very cold conditions, we often see our fields "fill up" by early afternoon and "clean out" long before the sun sets. Big bucks in "recovery" after a tough rut need food, and often go after it during the warmest part of the day.
Winter storms can be pretty tough on northern deer, especially the big ones. Deer are often on the feed a few hours prior to a big storm hitting. Once it hits they will head for shelter. Get out there on your feeding areas or set up somewhere between food and shelter in advance of approaching storms. Big bucks will often join does in beating the weather, but they will try to do it in places where they feel comfortable. The does and fawns may be out by the road but Mr. Big is more likely munching away on clover on that 1/4-acre plot tucked away in the middle of the hack brush.
If you have been working a big buck (to no avail) and have a good idea where he hangs out, you can still-hunt him on a stormy day. Make no mistake, we are not big fans of still hunting but when the snow is blowing sideways, you can sometimes sneak up (downwind) on a mature buck by taking things one step at a time and tiptoeing through the woods. High spots overlooking side hills and hollows are excellent places to try it; covering 100 yards in an hour or so is not too fast. You won't kill him with crunchy snow or noisy leaves under foot, but sometimes things are just right for a strategic sneak through the woods.
|Here's the Adirondack, Montana, buck one year after the game camera picture (above) was taken.
Late Season Tactics: Go Easy, Tread Softly
Setting up a few hundred yards downwind of a late-season feeding location is a good way to kill a mature buck without his ever suspecting you are in the vicinity. Late season hunting often requires adjusting hunting approaches. Late season whitetails are usually wired and head for the hills at the slightest hint of danger. You can no longer get away with early season tactics. Be careful of hunting food sources during very calm and quiet days. Whitetails will often lie up within 100 or 200 yards of a food source, and late season deer are definitely wired for sound; on a calm day they will hear you coming 200 yards away, and either stay in their beds until danger passes, or slip out the back door.
Sooner or later, a hunted property becomes "polluted" by hunters. Mature deer learn where the stands are set and where humans have left their scent. By season's end, they have learned to avoid these areas. They start spending their time in "clean zones" where they have yet to encounter human scent, sounds or any number of warning signs. We keep track of our "clean zones" just in case we need to pull a late season rabbit out of our hat. Neil once killed a nice buck late in the season by setting up in a "clean zone." He found the "clean zone" by drawing circles around all of the stands we had over-hunted and polluted on an aerial. He looked at where the buck was thought to be traveling (avoiding our polluted stands) and identified a "clean zone" near one of his preferred routes. He hung a fresh stand in the "clean zone" on the last day of bow season and killed the buck a few hours later.
Hunting bucks during the "need to feed" season is no easy matter, but it is clearly one of the best times of the entire cycle to hunt big bucks. You'll have to find the right foods, and adjust your tactics accordingly but it is one of the most productive big buck times of the entire whitetail hunting cycle.