Madmen of December

Three late-season deer masters share their hard-earned secrets for trophy whitetails.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Hmmm, the couch or the tree stand? You can lie on the couch, watch the game and maybe doze off. Or you can dress in enough layers to give a good impression of the Pilsbury Dough Boy, step out into air so cold it hurts to breathe, trudge into a frozen wilderness, climb 20 feet up an icy oak and stand still for several hours swaying with the howling wind.

Sounds like an easy choice right? It is to the three late-season whitetail hunters featured here. Call them masochists, but they pick the tree stand every time. The reason is mounted all over their den walls. Each has tagged mature bucks after the rut that would make hunters who picked the couch roll over with envy.

After the rut, bucks have just two things on their minds: cover and food. The cold has switched them into survival mode-they have to eat to stay warm. These hunters have found ways to exploit this simple fact so well that they actually prefer the cold days of December to the randomness of the rut. Here are their strategies.

King of Improvisation
Jerry Stafford of Grantsville, Ill., is one of the most productive whitetail archers in North America. Although he's not a household name, he has an impressive record when it comes to hunting mature deer. His 22 bucks taken with archery tackle average 155 Pope and Young Club points.

Despite his accomplishments, Stafford didn't grow up hunting whitetails. Raised on a farm not far from where he makes his home today, he started his own trapline when he was six years old and walked it all winter, no matter what the weather. He continued to trap until he was 21, but when fur prices crashed, he gave up trapping and looked for another way to enjoy the outdoors. That's when he started to hunt deer. And that's why he is not afraid to go outdoors during the bleakest parts of winter. Many of Stafford's biggest bucks have been harvested during the late season. He attributes this to his understanding of deer behavior. Stafford explains that he tries to think like a deer by imagining where he would hide and feed if he were a buck. As a result, all season long he is a student of whitetail bedding and feeding patterns. By the time the late season arrives, he knows where the best bucks are bedding and feeding, as well as how they move through their territory.

Stafford says that in the late season he has had a lot of success hunting small food sources. He primarily hunts near small patches of corn that haven't been combined. Stafford has found that a two- or three-acre food source near cover is ideal, while 300-acre food sources will leave you out in the cold.

Stafford prefers to hunt from a tree stand, but many of the areas he hunts in Illinois during this time of the year lack the right size tree to put up a stand. This is partly because stand options become more limited after the rut-the bucks just aren't moving as much. As a result, Stafford improvises.

He explains: "I took five of my twenty-two Pope and Young bucks from ground blinds. I bagged my best ground buck on a very bitter day in late December; that buck scored 162 P&Y.; I knew where he was bedding and how he traveled to food. Unfortunately, there was no suitable tree for a stand along his route. I wasn't going to give up, so I built a natural ground blind. Here's what happened: When I hunt whitetails from the ground, I always position myself so my best shot will come after the buck walks past me. This way the buck won't see me draw or aim my bow. So when this buck passed me at close range, I was able to easily draw and fire an arrow without being spotted."

In addition to being a master of hunting off the ground, Stafford relies heavily on his calling skills to put him in position to kill big bucks during the post-rut period. During the second rut, which usually comes in early December in most of the whitetail's range, he'll rattle and grunt aggressivy, especially during midday near primary bedding areas.

However, Stafford says that his most productive post-rut call is the doe bleat. Several years ago a friend encouraged him to use it during the late season. He had had some success rattling and calling in December, but when he started using a doe bleat as his primary call, his success went way up. Now if he sees a buck that is out of range in the late season, he'll bleat at him, and more times than not, the buck will come to the call.

Master of the One-Man Drive
Jerry Bruns, a Wisconsin pipefitter, has harvested 13 Pope and Young-class bucks with archery tackle, including a gross 190 typical and a 219 non- typical. Many of his trophies were taken in December.

Though most hunters prefer to hunt early and late in the day, Bruns has been most successful during the midday hours when other hunters are home thawing out. He calls a unique midday strategy he has used successfully in the latter part of the season a "self mini-drive."

Here's how Bruns describes his winning formula: "Several years ago while hunting the late season, I was scouting a sliver of woods in the middle of the day when I jumped several deer from their beds. I watched them make their way to the edge of the woods and stop. Instead of bolting from the woods and crossing farm fields, the deer milled around. So I backed off and hung my portable stand, hoping they would come back. To my surprise, after things calmed down, they returned to where they had been bedded when I jumped them."

The trick to this strategy is to get the deer to the edge of the woodlot, road or other barrier without forcing them to leave the area. To accomplish this, a hunter should get the deer moving but not running. Don't still-hunt in and spook them at close range, and don't walk in hollering and breaking branches. Let them hear you and get out of your way.

Once Bruns thinks the deer are at the edge of the woods, he'll back off and hang his stand where he found most of the beds or where he thinks they will bed if they return. Bruns says that deer often return to their beds within 30 minutes. Bucks are no exception. They may sneak back sooner than you think.

Bruns postulates that during this time of year deer return to an area because they are reluctant to leave their safety zones. Deer are also so dependent on food during the post-rut that they are hesitant to leave food sources.

**Champion of the Fine Points **
Like Stafford and Bruns, Don Kisky takes his whitetail hunting seriously. Born and raised on farms in northeastern Missouri, Kisky benefited from having a father who trapped and hunted. He killed his first whitetail buck at age 10. Now an Iowa resident, he farms 3,000 acres of corn and soybeans and plants food plots for deer.

Like most serious whitetail hunters, Kisky prefers to hunt bucks during the rut with a bow. However, because he only hunts mature bucks, he often finds himself pursuing "the one that got away" during the late-muzzleloader season.

Kisky's best whitetail grossed 197 Boone and Crockett Club points. His top five bucks have a mind-boggling average of 181. Much of Kisky's success has come late in the season. In spite of the horrendous snow and cold that Iowans often encounter during December and January, he loves to pursue the big-racked bucks that roam his farm during this time. He says that hunting after the rut isn't as pleasant as it is in October and November, but the opportunities are greater.

On January 3, 2000, with the temperature hovering around zero, Kisky decided to try something new to tag a double-drop-tine buck that he'd been pursuing for five years. He had had numerous close encounters with the buck, but each time the monarch managed to elude him. With the years slipping by, Kisky came to the realization that he would have to hunt differently if he ever expected to get a chance at the buck.

Kisky has found that the best strategy for post-rut bucks is tree-stand hunting near food sources, especially when it's cold and the snow is deep. He's found that this approach is as close to a slam dunk as it gets. Unfortunately, with this buck, that strategy never seemed to work. The buck was old enough to know that going to food plots during daylight hours is dangerous. So with the 2000 season winding down, Kisky decided to position himself between the buck's bedding and feeding areas, about 400 yards from the food plot he thought the buck was feeding in. Just before dark, the buck came down the trail and gave Kisky a 60-yard shot. His muzzleloader ignited and his five-year quest came to an end. The buck is a 150-class mainframe eight-pointer with matching drop tines.

Though late-season deer hunting is not for the faint of heart, the three hunters here have proved that post-rut hunting can be rewarding. Hunting deer in December requires a mad relentlessness, but all three of these hunters agree that to the toughest and smartest go the spoils.ly if he ever expected to get a chance at the buck.

Kisky has found that the best strategy for post-rut bucks is tree-stand hunting near food sources, especially when it's cold and the snow is deep. He's found that this approach is as close to a slam dunk as it gets. Unfortunately, with this buck, that strategy never seemed to work. The buck was old enough to know that going to food plots during daylight hours is dangerous. So with the 2000 season winding down, Kisky decided to position himself between the buck's bedding and feeding areas, about 400 yards from the food plot he thought the buck was feeding in. Just before dark, the buck came down the trail and gave Kisky a 60-yard shot. His muzzleloader ignited and his five-year quest came to an end. The buck is a 150-class mainframe eight-pointer with matching drop tines.

Though late-season deer hunting is not for the faint of heart, the three hunters here have proved that post-rut hunting can be rewarding. Hunting deer in December requires a mad relentlessness, but all three of these hunters agree that to the toughest and smartest go the spoils.