Call me crazy, but of all my Best-Day picks, this is my favorite of the entire season. I know there are lots of reasons to think otherwise; some big bucks are resting in freezers, remaining whitetails are on high alert, and in at least half of the country, the weather is apt to be cold and snowy. It’d be easy to huddle under a blanket and watch football or even get talked into Christmas shopping at a warm mall. Ok, maybe not the shopping. But either wayl, I’m here to flip all the negatives on their heads, because this Thursday is going to be good, and you need to get out there.
Remember that the cold weather tends to keeps other hunters at home, so you’re apt to have the woods more or less to yourself. And while deer are indeed warier now than they were in September, they’re also hungrier, so if you can find the food, you’ll find them too. And the bucks that remain? They’re often some of the best you’ll see all season;—heavy-racked bruisers that are not only just as hungry as other deer, but also looking for that next flush of does ready to breed. Of course, this late rutting activity is not as exciting as the Main Event, but it only takes one big buck to walk past your stand for you to end your season with a bang.
Rut Phase: Secondary Rut
Plenty of people throw cold water (easy to find this time of year) on the secondary rut, but here’s the facts: Any mature doe not bred successfully during the breeding peak will enter estrus 28 days later (in other words, right now) and be available for any buck. We’ve discussed imbalanced deer herds (where does outnumber bucks) before, and the secondary rut happens with greater prevalence in spots like this, as bucks simply can’t get to all the hot does during the normal peak. In addition, a pulse of female fawns born early last spring may be coming into heat now, which adds to the excitement.
The secondary rut is real, and you can absolutely take advantage of it as a hunter. The one caveat to keep in mind is that everything about it is subtler. Bucks have to now focus on feeding, now, but if the opportunity to breed comes their way, they’ll take full advantage.
December 14 Morning Hunt Plan: Sit a South-Slope Transition Area
I went for many, many years convinced that hunting in the morning during the late season was a bad idea. And, in fact, it can be, as late-season bucks often leave feeding areas and headed back to bed before sunrise. Wading into a big buck’s haunts and bumping him is never a good thing, and in this phase of the season, it could be disastrous. But if you can find the right spot, morning hunts can work like a charm now.
That right spot is a south-facing slope that serves as a transition area from a food source back to a bedding area. Whitetails will often take their time moving back to bed if there’s sufficient cover and browse to make them feel safe and keep them fed after they leave a major food source. And because south-facing slopes get more sunshine, they often fill the bill.
Even better, deer in such area will often bed early but then get up and grab a bite of browse or reposition high up the hill in midmorning. You can often pinpoint these areas by glassing them at dawn or in the first hours of daylight. Look for grassy or brushy spots that lie between the main food source and a high bedding ridge, and you likely won’t have to search hard for a good buck. The key to hunting these areas is to either enter them well before first light (you’ll need an approach that avoids walking through the main food source) or waiting until pink light, when you can glass the food source and make sure the deer are off it before slipping in. Once you’ve entered the transition zone, you can take a stand or still hunt, making sure you mind wind direction and, of course, sound. I’m convinced that noise carries farther and clearer in the cold air of winter, so take extra pains to walk quietly, wear soft clothing, and keep all your movements measured and slow.
One word of caution: If you can’t find such a spot, it’s often best to skip the morning hunt, and simply get into your afternoon stand a little early. To wit:
December 14 Evening Hunt Plan: Set Up an Acorn Ambush
This is really the simplest hunt out there, and we’ve come full circle from the early-season hunts, which involved scouting to find the hottest food source and hunting it. The process is often even simpler now, as the cornucopia of September’s early fall foods is long gone and has been replaced by few remaining staples, including standing or waste grains, food plots, hard mast, and browse. Farm fields and food plots get all the hype in this phase of the season, but you can’t beat an oak stand that’s thrown a good acorn crop.
Even in farm country, acorns remain at the top of the list on the whitetail menu, and the great thing about oak stands is that they’re typically secluded from human view. This means that even late-season deer feel comfortable feeding there during the daylight, a nice contrast to fields and food plots which deer typically avoid until the last sliver of daylight. I like to isolate several good oak stands that I know had a good nut crop, then visit them midday for a scouting session. I’ll bring my stand and cold weather gear (typically strapped to my pack so I don’t work up a sweat) and set up immediately and hunt til dark if I find good sign. If you scout several oak stands and the feeding sign looks solid in each, hunt the one where bucks have tipped their hand by leaving fresh rubs or scrapes. While they’re as focused on food as their girlfriends now, bucks can almost never resist the temptation to drop some sign, especially if they sense competition, or the presence of an estrus doe.
Hot Tip: Pack a Path
Years ago, I found a pod of late-season deer that were absolutely pounding a new-seeded alfalfa field in December. Trouble was, when I snow-shoed back there to scout, I discovered that the foot-deep snow was coated in an inch-thick layer of ice. My frozen brain could not figure out how to get back there without alerting every deer for a quarter-mile, so I did the only thing I could come up with; I tromped a path through the ice to a couple of stand trees. I was convinced the noise I made doing that spooked every buck in the territory. But when I glassed the spot the next day, the alfalfa was covered in feeding deer, and when I returned to hunt, I not only had mostly-silent paths to my stands, but I also found that the deer were using the very paths I’d cut with my bearpaws only days before. I’ve used this trick with great success in the many years since—and you can too.
Hot Gear: Battery-Powered Clothing
Most of us struggle with cold hands and feet during winter hunts. Obviously good boots and gloves help, but they’re only effective if you’re also protecting the areas your head and your core. So, to make your hands and feet (and everything else warmer) get a really good hat, and keep your core protected with a heated vest like the E Wool Pro, a lightweight vest that provides up to 7 hours of heat, thanks to a rechargeable battery. Like all great cold weather gear, it’s not cheap, but you’ll get years of use, enjoy your late-season hunts a whole lot more, and probably take home some bucks you’d have never tagged otherwise.