I'm not going to lie: I'm not crazy about hunting deer during the late season. The weather is colder, the rut is over, and fewer deer are on the move. Hunter pressure has been brutal. As a result, two hours on a stand can feel like an entire day. Hunters who have been going at it hard are as worn-out as the bucks they're hunting. But for those who remain focused, this is a great time of the season to topple truly big deer.
"The post-estrous period can actually be better than the seeking phase of the rut. You won't see as many deer, but you will see some monsters," says big buck slayer and outdoor TV legend Mark Drury. "You might sit for days without seeing many deer and then the biggest deer you've ever seen will walk right in."
The name of the game at this time of year is to find the food. Bucks are worn slap out after chasing every hot doe whose path they cross, and with brutal cold descending upon major swaths of the whitetail's range, food is essential to restore energy and survive the winter. If you're a member of the unfortunate crowd still looking to fill a buck tag with a real season-making bruiser, your first job is to find the food — your second is to find the buck visiting it.
Food Is Your Focus
Like a buck, you need to identify what in your hunt area is going to provide the most nutritious food for the local herd — possibly a challenge this winter after the brutal drought experienced throughout many areas this past summer. The first choice will be agricultural fields — preferably ones that were planted with corn, soybeans, alfalfa, or the like. Most will be cut by now, but deer will hit them looking for remnants scattered on the ground. In some areas where corn has been left standing for wildlife, pay particular attention, as standing corn not only provides food but also cover, so deer can feed and bed in one spot, something a wary buck will prefer given the likely hunting pressure he has already experienced.
"When it is cold, we hunt over grains," says Drury. "When it is warm, we go to the greens." The latter meaning planted food plots or perhaps fields where soybeans are still uncut as deer don't require the excessive protein found in grains if it is not as cold. The good thing about greens, too, is it digests more quickly in a deer, so they get on their feet more often to feed. If you have food plots planted in leafy, frost-sweetening brassicas, such as turnips or kale, you have the second most likely spot whitetails will head to feed. Leave one or two of these hot spots alone. Let deer get comfortable going and coming into them for a week or two if you can spare the time, and then hit them only when the time is right. (More on that in a minute.)
Lastly, alternate food sources now will be old oak stands where acorns fell earlier in the season. Like in the crop fields, deer will return, digging among the leaves for remnants.
Hawthorn, soft mast (such as dogwoods), and wild berries will all be a draw as will old apples, pears, and persimmons. Beechnuts will also attract deer when other high-protein mast is scarce. Find these spots and watch them. Now you have to figure out which ones are receiving antlered visitors at a time you can hunt them.
Ohio hunter and Intrepid Outdoors co-host Adam Hays is an elite big buck hunter. He is one of only two hunters with as many as three 200-plus-inch deer to his credit, and he has a good number of bucks that have tapped out at more than 170 and even 180 inches. One of his nicest giants was a 182-inch 10-point that he scored late in the season, a time of year he admits he isn't as gung-ho about hunting, either.
"I really prefer early season to any other time of the year, because a buck's feeding pattern makes him more predictable and hunter pressure isn't a huge factor yet," says Hays. "After that, the post-rut is good because they are returning to feeding patterns. Even though they have been pressured, if you can locate a good buck and pattern him, you can kill him." For that reason, even as the season rages on, Hays takes time to scout from a distance in order to get as much intel on when and how and in what conditions a buck visits a food source before actually hunting the buck. For that reason, he focuses most of his late season efforts on deer hitting larger food plots and fields, since he can set up at a distance and observe, for days if necessary, before actually hunting the buck. It's a tip he learned after reading an article about deer hunting great Myles Keller.
"It's what Myles Keller called hunting from the outside in," says Hays. "Before going into an area, I will sit an observation stand as far from the area I think the deer is feeding in as I can get." Hays will then watch how a deer enters an area, as well as how it leaves it, noting the moon phase, wind direction, temperature, and any other key observation that will help him set up properly.
"That way when it's time to hunt the buck, I'll know the exact wind to hunt it in and the exact tree to set my stand on," he says. When the conditions match those he observed the deer in, he moves in for the kill, quickly setting up his climbing sticks (four sections) and hang-on immediately before he hunts the spot. The effort pays off. Hays has killed the eight biggest bucks of his life (both early and late season) the first evening he sat a stand.
"Don't ever hunt an area until it's right," he says. "It only takes one mistake to blow a big deer out of an area, especially late in the season."