Post-rut, post-gun season mountain whitetails are not easy when you hunt public land. I’ve always been a little envious of those private land guys in their heated blinds overlooking food plots during the late season because, this time of year, if you’re hunting over the right food sources and can endure cold weather, it’s inevitable a shooter buck will show up at some point.
If you’re a public land hunter like me, though, late season means skittish deer and bucks that have a habit of staying in security cover until almost dark. Trying to catch one in the open this time of year can be a tough task, but it can be done.
Finding a Buck to Hunt
The hardest part of deer hunting this time of year can be finding a buck to hunt. Even if a buck has eluded hunters, there’s still the chance that it could have shed its antlers by now. We discussed this extensively in my last post. Even in high quality habitat, a minimum of 20% of all surviving antlered bucks have shed their antlers by the time late season here in Pennsylvania, which begins day after Christmas, rolls around. (Read “Do Big Woods Bucks Shed Their Antlers Earlier Than Other Bucks?”) In other words, if you’re out looking to kill a doe with your flintlock, it won’t hurt to double-check that it’s actually a doe and not a shed buck before pulling the trigger.
If we have snow, following tracks can be a great way to get onto a buck this time of year. Find the hubs of deer activity that are adjacent to thick cover. Look for big tracks, about 3 inches across, that are spaced farther apart, which signals a big deer with a long stride. Try to find where those tracks enter and exit thick cover and set up downwind of that location.
Earlier in the season, with more foliage on the trees, I’d try to get closer to where the buck is actually bedded. This time of year, though, there’s just not enough cover to shield your movement and you have no choice but to sit back a little bit and wait him out.
Favorite Late Season Food Sources
Browse are the primary food source for mountain bucks in winter. Look for areas with high stem count with lots of browse. The edges around, as well as throughout, fresh cuts are prime late season locations for mountain bucks. In my book, Hunting Mountain Whitetails, I outline my strategy for hunting in and around various types of cuts, and those techniques are especially applicable this time of year.
Selective and clear cuts can also be prime bedding spots during the late season, especially if located on south-facing slopes. Deer bed on the downwind edges of these cuts as well as near openings within these cuts.
Don’t overlook woods openings. Many of those woods openings will have various grasses growing in them that deer love this time of year. A prime example of this would be gas well openings. The fringes around many gas wells are very fertile, and minerals from the well often leach into the surrounding area. I’ve seen bucks come from long distances to eat the grasses surrounding gas wells.
In selective and clear cuts, look for areas where springs emerge from underground, or any low spot in these cuts where water drains. These are fantastic late season spots because they stay open longer than other water sources and the ground around them stays soft and swampy after other areas have frozen solid.
Believe it or not, grassy fields can be great, too. It seems paradoxical since bucks this time of year are so cautious and practically nocturnal, but if you can find a grassy field or some type of cut crop field close to bedding cover, don’t hesitate to set up a stand. These are low percentage spots (aren’t they all!) but if you have enough does, especially yearling does, coming out to feed, bucks will soon follow.
The Second Rut
One month after the November rut, whitetails experience another rut. This second rut, while not nearly as intense, still offers a great opportunity to harvest a Big Woods buck. But don’t let the term “second rut” fool you. This one is nowhere near as intense as the November rut, and in fact, many bucks may not even show any interest at all.
Not every doe gets bred during November. Some does, for instance, simply don’t have the body weight necessary to become pregnant and need an extra month to physically mature. Any doe that was not bred during the first rut will come back into estrus about 28 days later. Mathematically, that means we can potentially encounter second rut activity from early December to early January here in Pennsylvania.
The second rut is NOT a sign that the deer herd (i.e. buck-to-doe ratio) is out of balance. If anything, it’s a sign that yearlings are not getting enough nutrition to reach the necessary body weight to carry a fawn. In the Big Woods, this is a common problem, but it’s not exclusive to this terrain. For instance, in 2012, while bowhunting in Ohio, I witnessed a big buck breeding a young doe in late January.
Estrus cycles among does vary greatly in terms of time and duration. Even still, only in cases of extreme overpopulation do adult does make it through the primary November rut without being bred. Almost everywhere else, the presence of a second rut will depend on the presence of yearling does.
(Photo: Yearling does like this one are the key to finding "second rut" bucks.)
Find the Doe Groups
Right now, a buck’s primary focus is on food and replenishing all of the nutrients it lost during the first rut. Rather than roaming the countryside looking for receptive does, bucks take a subtler approach by habiting feeding and bedding areas where doe groups are found – especially doe groups that contain at least one or two yearlings.
Staying close to doe groups allows bucks to expend the least amount of energy while waiting for females to come into estrus again. That’s why it’s common to see a single buck tagging along with a large group of does this time of year.
In West Virginia one year, I used trail cameras to locate a doe group after rifle season, and every night they visited the same food source. I’ve been hunting West Virginia since I was 14 and killed my first buck, a spike, in Lewis County. Over the years, I’ve also killed bucks in Gilmer, Calhoun, and Upshur, but the area I enjoyed hunting the most was Randolph County, which reminded me a lot of the Big Woods of Pennsylvania. It is remote, steep terrain with tough access, harsh winters, and low deer densities. When you get a buck, any buck, it’s a trophy.
Well, eventually a buck showed up on my trail camera – not just any buck, though, a drop-tine buck that I’d been after all season long. That particular deer was unique in that the drop tine actually jutted out from the base of its left beam and angled out over its left eye. According to trail camera photos, the buck alternated regularly between feeding and checking out does. Several days later, another buck of similar size showed up on the camera along with the drop-tine buck. Two days after that, a third buck arrived on the scene.
Stand Setup and Hunting the Fronts
When I finally returned to West Virginia to hunt the full week of muzzleloader season in mid-December, a massive snowstorm the day before had dumped a foot of snow, which made backcountry travel sketchy at best. Following the snow was another stretch of minus zero temperatures. But after four days of fighting the cold and snow, I finally caught a break, and daytime temps “soared” into the 30s.
On that particular hunt, my tree stand was located in a funnel between the feeding area and bedding area. I was set up for a maximum 50-yard shot. This is important to note because I feel like that’s where many hunters go wrong during late season, and probably during any season – they spend too much time hunting low percentage stands in wide open woods. My best stands, historically, have always been in areas in or near quality security cover.
Also, the tighter the location the better. I want the first time I get a clear look at that buck to be when it’s already within range, which gives the deer less time to possibly bust me. Remember, there’s no foliage to use as camouflage this time of year. If I’m hunting from a treestand, I climb trees that have lots of surrounding saplings to help break up my outline. If hunting from the ground, I try to get in the middle of a blowdown or up against a big tree.
Day five of muzzleloader season dawned clear and bright, but later that day, overcast again moved in. Another heavy snowstorm was on the way. At some point earlier that week, I’d gotten a photo og the drop-tine buck posturing and locking antlers with another 8-point. With that in mind, around 3:00 PM, I made a series of short, loud grunts to simulate a buck tending a doe. I avoid rattling during the late season and second rut because it takes a very aggressive buck to respond to that, and bucks this time of year don’t usually go looking for a fight. A grunt call is as aggressive as I care to get.
I no sooner shoved the grunt call back into my pocket and the drop-tine buck appeared, at a dead run, heading straight for me. He got within 50 yards and I dropped the hammer. When the smoked cleared, I found the buck piled up within a hundred yards of my stand.
I’ve killed a lot of nice bucks over the years, many of which I’m really proud of. But even now, 12 years later, that drop-tine buck is still my favorite. Late season in mountain country. Cold weather. Five grueling days on stand in harsh conditions. As I dragged the buck up the hollow and back to the truck, the snow began to pour, and I barely got off the mountain before the roads became impassable.
It doesn’t get much better than that.
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