Tomorrow’s not only the ninth of December–it’s also the bottom of the rut’s ninth inning. It’s also a day you could hit hunting’s equivalent of a walk-off home run by tagging a giant in the last phase of breeding. One month ago, we were approaching the breeding peak, and any does that were not bred during that first cycle will come into heat again.

In addition, a percentage of fawns (up to 40 percent in some areas) will enter their first estrous cycle now. More than once I’ve seen a huge December buck getting towed around by a doe that was half his size.

Many hunters dismiss this secondary rut, which is as big a mistake as forgetting your long johns now. You won’t witness widespread chasing like you did in November, but you don’t need to if your stand is close to a major food source.

We’re in the early stages of winter, and whitetails are seeking the most protein- and fat-rich foods they can find: fields of waste or standing grain, food plots, clear-cuts, or hard-mast crops. They’re all good, but I’d take an oak ridge full of acorns over everything else now.

The moon will be up for much of the day today, which will goad whitetails to feed while the sun is up. If there’s snow cover and significant cold, it will only ramp up their urgency. It’s tough to crawl up a tree when your fingers feel like tongue depressors, but no one knocked a ball over the wall in the bottom of the ninth without stepping up to the plate. Here’s your plan.
Morning:** You haven’t slept in since you started this journey, but today is the day. Unless you’ve got a morning spot with a no-fail entry route that ensures you won’t bump deer, catch up on some Zs and eat a good breakfast. Two to three hours after sunup, get out and speed-scout the best food sources in your area. Pick the best one, set a stand, and prep for your hunt.

Evening: Get on stand as early as you can take it. With the moon up and temps down, a monster buck is as likely to show up in midafternoon as he is during the last ticks of daylight. It’s critical that your scent not blow toward the feed or where deer are likely to enter it. If the wind shifts, relocate your stand–or build a quick ground blind–at once. If a young doe hops into the food source dragging a mammoth buck, you know what to do.

Possible Spoiler: Temperature. The wheels will come off the afternoon food-source hunt if temperatures are unseasonably warm. In the northern half of the country, that means any thermometer reading in the mid 30s or higher. If a warm front blows in, set up on feeding areas as close to beds as possible, and get in the stand early. Whitetails won’t make trips to destination food sources such as cropfields until after dark, but might grab a quick bite at a small clear-cut, an oak ridge, or a secluded food plot at any time of day. You need to be there, ready

Photo illustration by Matt Lehman Studio