Face it. When you hunt late, you hunt with two strikes against you. Most of the best bucks have been taken. The ones that are left are spookier than long-tailed cats in a room filled with rocking chairs. That is the bad news. The good news is that those wary whitetails are a better-than-average bet to put a pulse-pounding exclamation point on your hunting season.
Late-season survivor deer are lucky or smart. The smart ones tend to be older than most, and if they’re older, they probably have bigger antlers.
The single best way to find late-season bucks is to get far, far, far off the beaten path.
Many hunters don’t like to walk far, and they often hunt within half a mile of a road. If you’re willing to walk 2 or even 3 miles into the backcountry, you’ll find more and bigger whitetails than you ever imagined.
Examine a topographic map of your favorite hunting area. Find a remote, roadless area and head toward it. The more remote, the better. Avoid the temptation to use a four-wheeler. By the late season, deer have learned that the putt-putt-putt of an engine means a hunter is coming. Transform yourself into a stealthy hunter the old-fashioned way. Walk.
Hunt the most difficult terrain you can find. Look for places where a whitetail could remain unseen for days but still have relatively easy access to food and water. Grizzled old bucks love those places. Swamps, thickets, and slash piles adjacent to timber cuts may be hell to navigate, but they’re great places to hunt.
Go early and come back late. Those long walks to and from your remote hunting ground are going to take time. Get into the woods well before sunup and plan on coming out well after dark. Deer tend to be most active at dawn and dusk. You need to be there when they’re on the move and not bedded down.
Supply yourself well. Full days in the winter woods require plenty of food and gear. Your body burns a lot of fuel in cold weather, and you need to keep the furnace stoked. Pack plenty of food and water. Hot drinks, too. Carry rain gear, changes of socks, and a couple of extra clothing layers in case the weather turns sour.
Be prepared to pack your deer out of the woods. If you were hunting within half a mile of a road, you could plan to drag your kill back to your car. A 3-mile drag, however, is a drag indeed. Take a cue from western mule deer and elk hunters: Skin and bone-out your deer at the kill site, and carry out the meat and antlers on your back. An external-frame pack makes this easier than a daypack or an internal-frame model.
Be prepared for emergencies. You’re a long way from help, so it’s a good idea to carry a first-aid kit and some survival supplies. If you don’t know how to use a map and compass, learn. Carry a cellphone just in case.
Hunting off the well-worn path doesn’t guarantee success. It does, however, improve the chance that you’ll fill that buck tag before the season ends.