Some general firearms deer seasons have closed. The first winter storms of the year are gathering. Peak breeding has been over for days. So what’s special about this date? Plenty. Secondary rutting will heat up starting today. This phase of the breeding cycle involves two different groups of does. The first are any mature animals that were not bred during the primary rut; they will enter a second estrus about a month from their first cycle. The second group of does is composed of fawns–usually early-born animals–entering their first estrous cycle. Bucks will spend the entire winter tending to these stragglers, and this is opening day of that second rut.
The onset of cold weather–which across much of the north happens now–marks another transformation. Rut-depleted bucks and hungry does will gather around high-quality food sources and feed with an urgency they haven’t shown since last spring. These concentrations of deer are typically easy to locate and pattern, which makes for some of the year’s most exciting hunting. Finally, the moon will rise at just about daybreak this morning and be visible in the daytime sky until late afternoon. I’ve had some of my best early-winter hunts under such conditions.
Though the secondary rut can make a trophy buck vulnerable, it will never mirror the scope and intensity of November’s main event. Bucks are just plain tired right now; they are not going to embark on any cross-country seek-and-breed missions as they did a month ago. A mature buck will pursue an estrous doe with a passion, but he’s not likely to find that doe unless she’s living near his favorite food source. Also, secondary rutting involves a mere handful of does compared with the November rut. Breeding activity may be intense but will be localized and short-lived. You’ll have to look carefully for the signs and take full advantage of them immediately.
So here’s how to find that early-December monster. First, start by sleeping in. Most mature bucks are going to be bedded (or close to bedding areas) near first light, and bumping them as you walk to an early-morning stand is self-defeating. When you do arrive at your hunting grounds, speed-scout some of the top late-season food sources. In farm country, focus on standing crops or grain stubble. Big-woods hunters should focus on clear-cut edges. Regardless of habitat, any oak stands that experienced a bumper crop this fall should be covered in deer sign. If there’s snow cover, identifying the most popular feeding areas will be a snap.
Then refine your search to large tracks and other buck sign. Late-season food sources frequently resemble a cow yard, making track identification difficult, so walk several entry trails away from the feed looking for those big hoofprints. If you find a fresh scrape or newly worked rub on one of these lanes, that’s all the sign you need to confirm this as your ambush spot.
Return to the truck for a stand, a gun or bow, and plenty of cold-weather gear. Under normal conditions, you’d have a few hours to grab a bite and get back in time for a prime-time, last-hour-of-daylight hunt. But remember that daytime moon? It’s going to have deer–make that your deer–on his feet early today. He can come through at any time, pushing a doe or on his way to that feed, ready to fill his belly and look for love. It’s your last, best chance to fill an empty buck tag.