"Bucks at the Buzzer," "Bitter Cold Bucks," what do you title an article about hunting late season whitetail when "late season" is a term relative to where you are geographically? This obviously influences what "stage" you will find the herd in and which tactics will bring success. In Minnesota "late season" means the last gun hunter has passed through, the crops are down, the foliage is off the trees, typically there’s snow on the ground and the deer are starting to reform their social structures. However, here in Alabama or Mississippi the rut may still be in swing.
If you’ve always hung up your bow at the end of peak rut, you don’t know what you’re missing. Even in our northern latitudes, some years you may have rut activity lasting through the month of December and even in to January. On the other hand, some years they go into "winter survival mode" early. Which manner they display will determine where to find them and how to hunt them.
How do you know which mode they’re in? Read the sign. If there are still a few does yet to be bred, then as far as the bucks are concerned, it’s still all about "perpetuation of the species." You should see significantly more sign than if they have gone into winter survival mode. When going into winter, a very clear pattern starts to develop. The bucks will try and put on some of the weight they lost during the rut and will begin to try and conserve energy. Unless they’re spooked, most of their travel will be done from the bedding area to a food source and straight back.
If all the does have not been bred, you’re probably better off using the breeding or competition tactics you did during post rut. If breeding is finished, you’re better off using their curiosity or hunger to your advantage.
Even though the frenzy of peak rut may be over, the bucks may still be ready to breed at the drop of a hat. Any sign of a receptive doe can encourage them to go berserk again. In some areas not all the does get successfully bred the first go. Some call it a "secondary rut." It’s a fact, sometimes a few does will make it through two estrus cycles before being effectively bred. Many times this happens in areas where the buck-to-doe ratio is lopsided and there aren’t enough bucks to get the job done the first time. Yearling doe-fawns may also come into heat their first time during December, January or even February.
After all the does in an area have been bred, whitetail will start to reform their social structures. The bucks start to tolerate each other more and the does start to socialize in their doe-fawn family groups. The "alpha," grandmother doe, slowly starts to become the dominant deer in the area again.
To know where to find your late season buck, the same principles hold true regardless of the time of the year. A whitetail needs food, water and cover. They also need a spot where they are left undisturbed, so I will add "pressure," or should I say "lack of pressure," to that modus operandi.
Because of temperatures, the cash-crops probably being harvested and other factors, food sources can become limited for whitetail during late season. Although food sources may be restricted, they can become easier for a hunter to find. If there’s only one restaurant in town, guess where everybody eats?
If you have whitetail in the area, there must be a source of water somewhere nearby. In areas that have freezing temperatures but no snow, a water source can be a key. Just like you may have seen a dog lap up snow for a source of moisture, a whitetail will do the same thing. In the spring and early summer there is so much moisture in the forage they are eating, whitetails may not need to visit a water source for some time. But now the plants are dry and have died, or are dormant for the winter, what do they do? "Water" can be a huge, often overlooked, key to bagging a late season buck.
Whitetails also need to be protected from the elements so cover, or "a place to live," is also very important. It really depends upon your area as to what you may find. In some regions, whitetail inhabit the same haunts all year long, while in other regions they may travel 40 miles or more to find suitable wintering grounds. The flora and temperatures in your area will likely determine whether they need to move or not.
One of the most important aspects to location is pressure. If the spot receives a lot of hunting pressure or other forms of stress, it can make harvesting a mature buck near impossible, especially if the chance of a receptive female is long gone. (Girls make all males act stupid at one time or another.) Without the rut causing them to do vulnerable things, a mature buck will not tolerate much of a disturbance before he changes something to avoid making contact with you. In extreme cases he may totally vacate the area. Ideally we want to hunt whitetails as undisturbed as possible. Try to put as little pressure on your hunting area as possible.
Once you locate a late season buck, how do you close the deal? In my opinion, the best tactics will all depend upon whether breeding is complete. And, if it is finished it can depend upon how long it’s been over. If there is still the hint of a receptive doe, you will likely be better off using the same tactics you did just before the peak of the rut. If breeding is finished, use their need to feed to your advantage.
Todd Amenrud is the Director of Public Relations, Territory Manager & Habitat Consultant for BioLogic.