Snakebit and never even spotted a buck? Saw a big eight-pointer but spooked or missed him? Forget the reason, you're down to the wire. There are only a few days left in gun season and that tag is burning a hole in your pocket. And maybe you'll get to use it yet.
In most regions the post-rut is occurring now and you know what that means. Poof! Bucks disappear. Where do they go? Well, nowhere really. Gaunt and weary from chasing does, the survivors hole up in cover near food sources and curtail their movements. You can't set a stand in a funnel or along a doe trail in open woods as you did back in the rut and expect a good buck to saunter by. Now you should go for a tighter, thicker setup.
First, find the food. Patches of standing corn or pockets of acorns that fall late in the season are nirvana to a deer. Re-check those harvested grainfields or food plots you hunted in October. Even though a field receives moderate to heavy pressure throughout the season, a big buck will still hit it when food is scarce in December -- though generally after dark.
Hunt the Fringes
Check aerial photographs for "fringe thickets" 50 to 150 yards off feeding areas. It might be a patch of honeysuckle or multiflora rose, a strip of pine or cedar or a small beaver swamp. Set out in the morning with a tree stand on your back, travel upwind as much as possible and sneak toward that thicket, scouting as you go for fresh trails and big, wide buck tracks.
Search the edges of fringe thickets for a stout tree with upper cover (a white oak is great because brown leaflets cling to the branches even in the dead of winter). Then hang your stand and wait.
This isn't the stealthiest approach you can make, and you might spook a few deer, but you've only got a few days left to hunt, so why not go for it? Most of the time you won't bust a buck when sneaking in and setting up tight to such fringe areas anyway.
Stick to your Stand
If you have the physical and mental stamina, stay in your stand all day. During the post-rut, or what some folks call the "recuperation period," bucks feed mostly at dusk and during the night. Since a buck feels somewhat safe and hidden in a thicket, however, he might get up and browse buds and stems or hunt for acorns at midday.
Hunting pressure is heavy at the start of the season. It diminishes somewhat toward the middle but then heats up again at the tag end. That's another good reason to stay in your stand. Other guys will knock around the woods you're hunting, likewise going down to the wire and trying to bust a buck or a doe for the freezer. On an adjoining property a gang might put on a drive. Pressure from near and far can push a buck into the thicket you're watching any time of day.
Maybe you've already spent 7, 10 or 20 days in a stand. You're fed up with that, so why not try a little still-hunting. Pick a rainy day when the woods are quiet. The morning after a light snow is best because you can pad along silently and maybe cut a smoking hot track. An old, gray buck up ahead will pop out like a neon sign against the white backdrop.
Stay high on a ridge or hillside, creep slowly and pause every few steps behind trees. Glass draws and bottoms carefully. Only the hardiest brush and vegetation will still be standing. Dissect every inch of it with your binocular. Look for a piece of a feeding or bedded deer -- a twitching tail, a flickering ear or a glinting tine.
Nudge a Buck
It's closing weekend and you decide to make a drive. That's fine, but leave the hollering and tree banging to the other guys. For my money, a gentle push or nudge by two or three hunters is a better way to score. Make sure everybody wears plenty of blaze-orange clothing for safety.
Nudging works best in a small cover, such as a 15-acre strip of brush or a 255-acre woodlot. Post on the downwind side of the cover you're hunting. Stay high and watch a buck's likely escape route -- a draw, ditch, necked-down finger of brush, etc.
One or two buddies drive around to the upwind side of the cover. They park the truck and walk through the brush like they're strolling down Fifth and Main. If the pushers jump deer they should stop, wait a minute and then move again. The idea is not to scare the daylights out of an already skittish buck so that all he will offer is a low-percentage shot. You just want a buck to see, hear or smell the guys who are nudging him along. If things go according to plan, he'll get up and sneak or trot toward your end of the cover. Be poised for that last good shot of the season.