Many people scoff at the idea of hunting anything but velvet antlered deer in the early season or love-sick bucks in the rut, but there are plenty of good hunting and scouting opportunities to be had in the later seasons and, as importantly, the post-season periods. Deer return to their “patternable” routine post-rut and are heavily dependent on feed and cover, more so than any other time of year. This often-overlooked part of the year can be confusing, but over time I have found that certain tactics have led to some of my greatest successes in the field.
Just as I do with my other hunts, I typically begin with in-depth cyber scouting, considering what the needs of the deer are at that time of year, and locating the areas they will favor on satellite imagery or maps. Keeping in mind that weather plays the biggest role in deer movement once the rut is over, I look for thermal cover, substantial feed and year-round water. I also consider the terrain and elevation, and I often speak with biologists about migrations, behavior and feeding trends. If we are talking mule deer, I try to look for all my “deer needs” in a two-square mile grid, if I am focused on whitetail I cut that in half. Once I have narrowed down a starting point, I’m ready to put boots on the ground and scout.
Whether you live in agricultural areas or you’re hunting mountain bucks, successful hunting — and scouting — of late season bucks begins with scouting immediately after the season is over. I typically wait till the last day of the season, or immediately after I tag out to establish feeding and travel patterns for the next season. With this approach, I can establish feeding patterns and travel corridors without concern of spooking a buck I might be after. Post-season in most states you will have snow on the ground, use this to your advantage. Locate the winter range of deer by following tracks back into bedding and feeding areas. At this time of year, the trees will also be devoid of foliage making it easier to locate rubs, which are key areas to target for the following year’s pre-rut. Locating these areas, marking them with a GPS or in a note book will give you foresight and a starting place for the following season, and next year’s hunts.
Once I have the broad overview of the area I intend to hunt, I begin to take note of what the deer are eating, and where they are drinking. This will help me pinpoint where I want to focus my efforts the following season. To further improve on my findings, I set up observation stands and blinds, or sit where I can glass from a distance overlooking my target area, keeping notes on how the deer are utilizing the landscape. Study their behavior, and see how it differs from the earlier seasons. I also take notes detailing the temperature, moon phase, barometer, and wind. I find that deer are habitual creatures, often when I have an amazing game rich day in the field I notate the date and the conditions. Like clockwork the next year, if the environmental conditions and date align I will have an action-packed day of hunting.
Trail cameras serve a useful purpose as well. I like to have one or two cameras in each of my “deer needs” features to help me develop a pattern. Just as I would in the early season, I take an inventory of the bucks and does on camera so I can plan my attack. It’s also a good way to take inventory on deer that survived for next year’s early season hunts — assuming you are not in a migration area and the deer herd is a resident one — but it also gives me insight to the caliber of bucks using the area I want to hunt. As with my boots on the ground scouting approach, I take notes on time of day, weather conditions, barometer and moon phases for trail camera photos. This combined dataset will provide me with the tools I need to be confident and ultimately score in the late season next year.
This information is crucial to my success in the late season, but what if you don’t have the time to scout year-round in your hunting area? Well, I have a few tips to ensure I can still tag out in the late season.
By the time the snow hits, most of the deer herd has returned to survival mode and bucks are desperately trying to find safe zones with ample food supplies to help them make it through the winter. Deer are going to do anything and everything possible to conserve energy, especially in those areas that see significant snow fall or cold temperatures.
Use this to your advantage, combine your findings and use it to find out what you don’t know:
- Deer will travel in the warmer parts of the day to utilize the suns energy to stay warm.
- Find the food source that will provide the most energy and the least travel from bedding cover.
- Bedding cover is also cover that will provide shelter from the wind and weather.
- Believe it or not water sources are crucial in late season, especially ones that do not freeze over.
These tactics are like hunting the early season. Once you figure out what deer need and how they get it, you can intercept them in their daily routine.
Snow also provides us crucial information for locating and harvesting trophy bucks. Tracking is a bygone art form, pushed to the wayside by big optics, tree stands and ground blinds. It can take years to master and become a great source of frustration at times. However, for the patient deer enthusiast it is another way to achieve his or her goals.
I generally use this tactic when we have received a fresh blanket of snow overnight. I will begin walking through the woods with the wind in my face — much like still hunting — until I cut a track. While there is no sure-fire way to determine a buck track from a doe, as rule of thumb a very large, deep track, especially those not accompanied by smaller tracks is likely to be that of a buck. It should be noted there may still be rutting activity in the late season, so keep that in mind and adjust your tactics accordingly.
Once I locate a track I am confident may be a buck, I continue to follow it very slowly. Continually scan your surroundings, looking as far ahead as possible with binos for any sign of the deer. The key here – and it may seem obvious — is spotting the buck before he spots me. Often I am looking for micro signs, a few tines poking out behind a tree, an eye, or the horizontal line of a bucks back behind the brush. Often, I will crouch down to change my perspective and look for legs sticking out. This can be a very effective way to hunt with a rifle; I personally don’t do much tracking while bowhunting, though I know folks who do very well with this tactic using archery equipment. Either way it’s a fun way to scout for next year, slowly scanning the woods taking note of any bedding areas for next year’s hunt.
With careful consideration and the right methods, your late season doesn’t have to be written off, in fact some of my best deer and elk have come out of these “unwanted” hunts. It’s like anything else in hunting, you will get out of it what you put into it. Get out, study your surroundings, and good luck. I look forward to seeing your successful pictures next season.