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When Late-Season Rivals the Rut Pt. II

After the whitetail rut winds down, major temperature changes are what gets bucks moving in daylight.

Late-Season Feeding Patterns
Now, we need to put this anecdotal evidence and all this science to work. Obviously, the best opportunity for shooting a late-season buck comes during the increased activity that occurs with the first hard cold snap in early winter. I've seen bucks display uncharacteristic abandon when the mercury dips hard in late December and early January. You can best take advantage of this activity by pre-scouting a few good food sources and being prepared for action when the forecast calls for deep cold. I usually try to be out there when the front is passing, as well as a few days after it goes through.

Now, let's assume the deer have already gone through the physiological transition and their systems are tuned to live with the extreme cold they are facing. Now, you need to watch for a warm snap, while looking to hunt the same areas. So the real key to late-season success is the change in weather, not the weather itself.

Late-season deer tend to move much less during the morning than during the afternoon. One researcher found that most deer finish feeding about two hours before sunrise. They then pick their way slowly toward their bedding areas. This makes morning hunting a risky proposition when the rut is over.

Another challenge comes in the form of compressed home ranges that occur during these early-winter cold snaps. The deer bed very close to their food. Not only does their compressed range make it more difficult to get between feeding and bedding areas without being detected, it can actually make it very difficult to even approach the feeding area at all without being detected.

Late-Season Hunting Strategies
I used to think the goal was to see a buck from the distance that I would like to shoot before I committed to a feeding area. Remember, these are extremely wary deer. With the first hint of human intrusion, the buck will be back on a nocturnal pattern immediately. So I couldn't afford to bumble around. But being that cautious will cost you opportunities. For sure you will miss that flurry of movement that comes as the cold front is passing through.

You can't always wait for them to become visible before you start hunting them. You need to be hunting when they become visible. Find the food, as that is where they will be when they ratchet up their daylight activity. The best possible food sources in the most isolated areas will produce the best action. Set your trap ahead of time and then be there when the weather changes.

If you do happen to see a buck that is out of range, pay close attention to exactly how he enters the feeding area. What trail did he use? What was the wind direction? What time was it? You also want to know what all the other deer using the feeding area are doing so you can factor them into your strategy. All of these observations are important when deciding if you should move your ambush closer.

Bucks won't use the same exact trail to enter their feeding area each day (in fact, they don't always come out before dark each day). So don't read too much into a single sighting. If you feel good about your current setup, you may want to stick it out; however, if you see the buck do the same thing twice, it is time to move.

Late-season hunting is a waiting game; it may take three or four outings before you see the buck again. All the deer using the area have to remain relaxed for that entire period if this is going to work. Make sure that you can get out of the area after shooting time expires without alarming a single deer. If you can't, you've committed yourself too far into the feeding area.
Mature bucks usually wait to come out last, following all the does and immature bucks. So even if you only spook a couple of does while heading back to your vehicle, you've just educated his advance guard and have made it more difficult to tag the buck on future hunts.

If the weather is warm and all you see are does coming out, you have three options: move to another area and keep watching, stay put and wait until it gets colder in order to get the bucks moving or start hunting deeper in the cover. The first option is a good one. The second is also good-if you have the time-but the third option carries some risk. Save it until the last few days of the season when you have nothing to lose.

Late-season hunting revolves around food and weather. Combine high-energy food with a big change in temperature and you have the formula for success. Keep an eye on accuweather.com. When the rest of the world is burrowing into a pile of blankets, you should be breaking out your treestand. Things are finally turning your way. 

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1 Response to When Late-Season Rivals the Rut Pt. II

Mike wrote:
November 24, 2010

Good article. My only issue is that I don't have access to farmland... that seems to be the challenge these days... Thanks for the article!