Deer hunters love the rut. It’s that brief window when bucks abandon their timorousness and boldly fixate on one thing: does. It is a time of action, where bucks are on the move throughout the day. They chase does by stands, come in hot to rattling antlers and grunt calls, and march proudly by trail cameras in the middle of the day. It is the most wonderful time of year for a deer hunter. Yet, like all good things in life, the rut eventually comes to an end. And hunting deer after the rut is a challenge. The deer have been pushed hard for the last several months by other hunters and are especially timid. What’s more, without the draw of does in estrus drawing them out of the thick, brushy places they hide, bucks are reluctant to move during the daylight. The weather of the late season is unpredictable, with snow storms and cold fronts pinning deer to cover. Warm spells and long periods of inactivity may cause them to move during odd times of the day. Yet all hope is not lost. Hunters who have a late-season-draw tag, have another primitive weapons season to hunt, or just weren’t lucky enough to find a buck during the prime time of the rut—when armed with the right strategies—have as good a chance of filling their tags as they would during the rut.
Find the food
With the rut having come and gone, things like scrapes and rub-lines become much less important. Though bucks will visit these occasionally even months after the rut is over, their biggest focus during the late season is food. To survive the winter, deer need a ton of calories, so foods high in carbohydrates and proteins, such as corn, soybeans, and acorns, become their main focus. Late-season hunters should concentrate their efforts on staking out corn and soybean fields when available, and on any areas with a lot of oak trees. Search for signs of recently feeding deer and hang out, waiting for their return.
Take a nooner
The real key to successful late-season deer hunting is hunting hard. Although most of the deer activity will occur in the early and late hours of the day, only hunting during those times will drastically cut a hunter’s chances of success. It’s important for late-season hunters to stay in the woods all day if they can. Although it’s true the deer do move most often during the morning and evening, they will often have a period in the late afternoon where they will get up to feed for a bit. This usually occurs during colder days when they are in search of a few extra calories, and it seems to happen most often around noon or shortly after—the warmest part of the day. Staying out there and ready all day long can be instrumental to bagging a late-season buck.
Move in on them
Deer stands and ground blinds have their place, and on the cold, short days of the late-season, they may seem the best place for a hunter to sit comfortably and hunt. Yet sitting in the stand waiting for the deer to come to you is not always the best strategy. The irregularity of deer movements during the late season can make sitting in a stand a game of luck more than anything. Instead, late-season success comes most often by going after the deer. Locate bedding areas and winter deer yards and try still-hunting. Walk through areas and try to jump a buck out of his bed, then hope he stops long enough to give you a shot.
Go for a drive
On occasion during the late season, bagging a buck just can’t be done alone, so it’s good to get a little help from your friends. Deer drives can be an effective way to put meat in the freezer. They’re best done with three or more people, using two hunters to drive and one to post up for the shot. Find a thick area where it is likely a lot of deer are bedded down, and have the drivers push through it. Meanwhile, station a shooter along likely escape routes for the deer, such as field edges or heavily used deer paths adjacent to thick cover. Then, it’s simply a waiting game: You just hope that a big buck, fleeing the drivers, will trot into shooting range. Note: Check the legality of driving deer in your area before initiating one.
Hunting in the late season can be a difficult undertaking. Yet part of the joy of late-season hunting is the challenge. Late-season deer hunting is a test of your skills as a hunter, and with the right technique, it’s a test that can be well passed.