Final Thoughts: Deer Season
The last word on late-season whitetails, from the country's top hunting authorities.
In December, what phase of the rut are deer in where you live and how do you hunt them?
From the Midwest to the Northeast, the primary rut is winding down or altogether finished. Having expended themselves eluding hunters and chasing and breeding does for several weeks, most bucks are so gaunt they look like they’ve been through a grinder. “The number of deer sightings in traditional rut areas — along doe trails, in funnels or heavy timber, for example — falls off dramatically,” says Terry Drury, who hunts and videos trophy bucks in Iowa and Illinois.
“Whenever deer are in that post-rut mode, go back to hunting food sources and your sightings will shoot back up. One evening last December we hunted a plot of standing corn and saw 20 deer, including six bucks packing the weight back on.”
In contrast, the rut is just beginning to rock in the South. “On a well-managed area that has, say, one buck to every four or five does, the deer start to rut hard around December 18,” says Mississippi game-call-maker Will Primos. “Hunt where you’ve been seeing lots of does, and you’ll spot bucks sooner or later.”
Where’s a good spot for a December stand or blind?
“I’ve got a hot stand near some apple trees,” says Dave Streb, who works for Quaker Boy Calls and hunts like mad in New York. “Since it’s also located close to a bedding area, the stand is good for both morning and afternoon hunts. If you can find apples or acorns still dropping on your property, and if you can hang a tree stand and slip into it without busting through a nearby bedding site, you’ll be in business late in the season.”
If you hunt a middle-tier state, say from Kansas east to Virginia, Kentucky game-call-maker David Hale has a setup for you. “You know those elevated points and sunken ditches that jut out into crop fields — the ones too thick or rough to be cultivated? If you’re able to get access, put up a stand in one of those strips; they’re natural travel routes that deer follow in to feed,” Hale says. “These cover strips are also great places to find bucks running the last does coming into estrus.”
For rutting whitetails, Primos will hang tree stands on hardwood ridges in the South, where the visibility, hearing and prevailing winds are advantageous to both hunters and bucks. “Big deer run ridges, trying to cut the scent of hot does,” Primos says. “I’ve also watched them stand on ridges listening for running does — and for that stiff-legged gait of other bucks. Plus, ridgetop winds are a lot more predictable than winds swirling around in the bottoms.”
By December bucks have been spooked and maybe even shot at for two months. How do you deal with hunting pressure?
“Most bowhunters don’t spook too many deer,” says Streb. “But when I see their trucks parked in certain places, I figure they’ll be back when shotgun season opens, and then the pressure will really pick up. So way back in early fall I begin looking for remote hollows, ridges and thickets where I might still find a few bucks in natural movement patterns when December finally rolls around.”
Hale looks at pressure this way: “If a burglar breaks into your house, you’ll stay out of there until it’s safe again, but you’ll eventually go back. Same thing with a buck. He might hide out for two or three weeks, but when rifle season is over, he’ll return to his core area. During a late bow or muzzleloader season, you might catch up to a big deer from the same stands you used early in the season, especially those rimmed by thick cover.”
Drury says that pressure on surrounding properties can actually improve your late-season hunting. “Other guys might make last-ditch gun drives on adjacent properties and push deer into the thickets on your side of the fence,” he says. “Stand-hunt the perimeters of your thick cover areas, being careful not to put any additional pressure on the ddeer, and you might shoot a buck you’ve never seen before.”
Do calling and scents still work in December?
From the first of the month until around the 17th, it’s prime time for rattling across the South. “Late in the pre-rut, bucks are fired up and ready to fight for does, and there are minor turf wars going on,” says Gary Roberson of Burnham Brothers Calls, one of the top horn-whackers in Texas. “The main thing to remember is to play the wind — bucks almost always circle and come to the horns from somewhere downwind. Also, rattle in short, hard bursts because that’s the way most big deer fight.”
Farther North, “rattling can still work, especially early in the post-rut, because dominant bucks are looking for the last of the hot does,” says Drury. “But, man, you’ve got to be cautious. Other hunters have been rattling at bucks since the first of October in most areas, so big deer are leery. We tone it down. In fact, we don’t rattle blind. When we see a buck upwind we might just ÃƒÂ”tick’ the horns to get his attention and hopefully pull him our way. But we don’t get any more aggressive than that.”
You’ll still want to carry and use a grunt call. “When you set up in a thicket near a food source, it never hurts to do a little grunting from time to time,” says Hale. “And keep in mind that grunting is still just as effective as it was back in October for stopping a buck or turning him into shooting position.”
Using doe-in-heat scent is a no-brainer if you’re after rutting bucks in the South. But the tactic remains hot late in the season up North as well. “The post-rut is one of my favorite times to lay down an estrous-doe trail on my way into a stand,” says Missouri native Steve Stoltz, a pro-staffer for Drury Outdoor Videos. “A mature buck is looking hard for the last hot does in December. If he cuts your scent trail he might follow it in and present you with a shot.”
In New York, Streb sets a little deer stink on trails that wend to or from a food source. “Doe or buck scent — it really doesn’t matter,” he says. “I’m not trying to lure a buck with the stuff, just stop him for a shot. I put the scent where a buck is forced to drop his head behind some cover to sniff it, which gives me an opportunity to come to full draw. It’s a good way to get a shot at a spooky deer during late bow season.”