December Whitetail: How to Hunt Post-Rut Bucks

derek plautz NDIf you’ve still got a buck tag in your pocket, read on.

One recent winter in North Dakota was atypical, as it has been in many parts of the county these last few years.

“We had almost no snow and record high temperatures,” said bowhunter and BIG DEER blogger Derek Plautz. “Needless to say it made the hunting difficult.”

Derek hunted hard, and the first week of December he started getting trail cam pictures of a shooter 10-point. “He only showed up on cam one time in shooting hours,” he said, “but at least we knew he was there. We hunted him for several weeks.”

With only 2 nights left in the 2011 season, Derek decided to change it up. He moved to an entirely new location within the ghost buck’s core area, and set up in a hidden spot that nobody had hunted all season. He didn’t hang a tree stand, but rather fashioned a small ground blind behind a fallen tree.

The first deer to step out that evening was the giant! He moved slowly toward Derek, bronze antlers glinting in the last light.  On the ground Derek had to be especially stealthy, and he was. When the deer crossed at 30 yards, he pulled his Hoyt and let the arrow fly. The buck kicked and ran, but didn’t go far.

“What a great way to end a weird weather season,” said Derek, pictured above. “I can’t imagine anything better than to get to enjoy hunting all season, and then to get a buck like this at the very end!”

I point out two major keys to Derek’s success, and I urge you to keep them in mind. One, if you use trail cameras, keep them running until the last day, you never know when and where a buck you have never seen before might show up. Secondly, and this is huge, hunt the buck’s winter core area, but switch it up. Vary your normal approach into the woods each day…set up, either in a stand on the ground, in a funnel or near a cover edge… That buck is there because he is a master of moving around and avoiding hunters. Get that element of surprise and you might get him yet.

Hunt the Food

Your late-season strategy has to center around the limited foods that remain for the deer. Both does and bucks are run down from the November rut, and they have to eat. The colder (and snowier) it is in December, the harder deer will move to and from the leftover feed, and the more visible they will be in daylight.

Some tips for 3 habitats:

Crops: You’ll see the most animals if you have access to corn or soybeans, by far the two best winter food sources. A patch of standing corn is especially good, as it provides both eats and cover for skittish deer. In a harvested bean field, scout edges and corners where a few strips of beans were missed and still stand. Those will be a magnet for deer. The less gun pressure in and around a field so far, the more bucks you will see in daylight. Pray for snow and temps from the teens to 30. A hungry buck might pop out into the crops morning, noon or night then. Bundle up and be out there till the endRidge: I love to hunt a hardwood ridge within a mile of a crop field anytime of season, but not any old ridge will do in December. Ideally, look for a hogback that was thinned a few years ago and that now offers brushy ground cover. A lot of does and bucks will travel through the second-growth saplings and thickets en route to and from the fields, and they’ll stage and browse in the greenery, and on any leftover acorns. Tip: Sneak in somewhere through mature, open woods and set a stand or blind on the first downwind edge of where the thinned second-growth begins. You shouldn’t jump a single deer.

Thickets: If you hunt public or private woods miles from the nearest corn or beans you won’t see nearly as many deer—none some days. To have a prayer of punching that last tag you must find and watch what little food/cover mix is left for a buck—edge of a clear-cut or power line, oak flat near a cedar swamp (maybe a few nuts), grape or honeysuckle thicket…you get the picture. Set a stand on the fringe of a pine, cedar or honeysuckle thicket. Bucks love to run any green edge left in the woods.

Factor In Pressure

Virtually every farm or woods has had some hunting pressure, moderate to heavy, come December. Don’t fret about that pressure, but rather factor it into your strategy and use it to your advantage.

Numerous studies have shown that almost all people hunt within a mile of a field, logging road or similar easy-access area. In late season, the answer is neither to keep hunting these  same spots, nor or it is to necessarily go deeper into the woods away from roads. Studies also show that most whitetails do not flee pressure by leaving their core areas and heading miles farther into cover. Rather, most bucks continue to live around the same fields and ridges, they just seek out hidden, thick spots where most people never hunt. And they move at night.

That is why switching it up where you hunt is so important in winter. Think “out of the way.” A beaver swamp beside a gravel road, a 6-acre thicket behind a neighbor’s house, an overgrown hog lot back of a barn… a thick spot like that is where an old 8- or 10-pointer will hide in hopes of riding out the season. Find such a spot, set a stand (ground or tree perch), hunt it hard and score at the bitter end.

What About the Second Rut?

Across the country, some mature bucks continue to rut into early December, and a second rut happens at some point. But this rutting is so spotty and unpredictable that I do not recommend hunting the second rut per se. That said, you ought to:

–Lay a doe-in-heat trail into your stand most days. Far fewer does mist the woods with estrus scent now; a buck might cut your trail and follow it in, hoping to hook up with a last hottie.

–Carry your grunter and continue to call. If you see a flurry of rutting activity in early December, you might try rattling to mimic two bucks fighting over a last hot doe. But if and when the deer you see appear secretive and skittish, indicating the rut is done, back off because bucks will shy from the horns rather than come to the racket.

Good luck!

Maryland Girl Shoots First Deer

MD lexi first deer

Guest post from longtime blogger Danny Myers. I enjoy these type stories as much as any we post, as the shooting of a first deer is a rite of passage for the boys and girls who will be the future of hunting:

Well Mike, I guess we won’t get to see what that lopsided 7 point will turn into next year.  (You put this deer on the blog earlier this year).

He came out one morning with 2 small bucks chasing a hot doe.  After an agonizing 15 minutes of waiting on him to slow down, Lexi made a great shot and was able to get her first deer.

Maryland has a 2-day Junior Hunting Season.  On the first day Lexi got a horrible case of buck fever on a 3 point. He gave her a good 5 minutes of shot opportunity, but there was nothing she or I could do to calm her nerves. Needless to say we were both disappointed. But after this morning’s hunt, she looked at me and said, “Thank goodness for that buck fever yesterday!” 

When she told me back in September, “If Lollilop comes out, I’m shooting,” and she wasn’t kidding. This is the deer we called Lollilop.

This easily ranks up near the top of proud daddy moments so far in my life. Thanks, Danny.

Awesome Lexi! Thanks to your dad for taking you hunting these last 3 months.

PS: If your boy or girl, or any kid you know, shoots his or her first deer email me story and photo (mikehanback@yahoo.com) and I’ll gladly post.

Pennsylvania Bowhunter Shoots 8.5-Year-Old Buck

PA 8.5 buck 1

The Deer-Forest Study blog, written by biologists and researchers from Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, is one of my favorites, and I monitor it weekly. Biologist Jeannine Fleegle posted this one earlier this week:

A couple of weeks ago, we got a phone call from a hunter reporting a tagged deer. Nothing out of the ordinary about that this time of year. 

(Note: The PA researchers tag some wild does and bucks every year and monitor their movements with GPS and the like; the tagged deer are legal game, and hunters who shoot and report them get a reward.)

When we looked up the tag, we discovered that this buck (11144) was tagged in 2010 as a yearling, which means he was 8.5 years old!  The hunter was nice enough to forward some photos and (the buck) was rather impressive. 

This buck was harvested during the (2016) archery season…. But he was available for harvest as a 7.5-year-old, 6.5-year-old, 5.5-year-old, 4.5-year-old, 3.5-year-old, and 2.5-year-old for every deer season (which) means this buck outsmarted hunters for 6 years.  If he was a legal buck as a yearling, that would make it 7!  And let’s not forget, he was an antlerless deer for one year too.

PA 8.5 buck 2

…8.5 years old is pretty old for a buck. To give you a little perspective, less than 1% of bucks harvested are older than 7.5 years old. 

The hunter who harvested this buck was pretty awesome too.  She declined the $100 reward and asked that it be used on future research. I guess Buck 11144 was reward enough (for her).

Idaho: Big Country, Big Whitetail Bucks

idaho buck 2016 vinnieGuest blog from our longtime friend Vinnie C. from Florida, who has blogged with me from day 1 since I launched Big Deer 8 years ago. Thanks for your support and this great hunting post man:

Left Florida with 95-degree weather and traveled to NW Idaho where temps were in the 20s and 30s. Time to hunt giant whitetails!

I was hunting with very good friends: Lou, who owns the property I’ve hunted for at least 5 years now; Vince, who invited me along years ago; and DJ, the newest member of the group.

Opening day, October 10, was cold and rainy early, about 38 degrees. At sunup I sneaked down a hillside to my favorite rock, a vantage I have been hunting for years. It cleared at first light, and as I glassed the surrounding area a few deer materialized from nowhere. Saw some young bucks and a couple does with yearlings. Herd looked to be in fantastic shape and the animals didn’t seem to be under any pressure whatsoever.

About 8:00 I noticed movement on the plateau below me at about 600 yards. When I put the glasses on the buck I could see pretty good head gear even at that range. I was trying to get into position for a possible shot when he decided to head down the face of the plateau into a fairly deep ravine. I thought about making a play on him but decided to sit tight, being as it was only the first day of a seven day hunt.

About 20 minutes later I heard a shot from Vince, who by the way is also the one who turned me on to longer range shooting. He was hunting way off to my left, and whacked a beautiful 10 point at almost 400 yards. I waited a little at my spot, then went to help my friend drag his deer down the mountain.

The next day was a bit colder, and I got to the rock early. It was a morning you can only dream of, with spectacular mountains in the background and a river running through the breathtaking hillsides. With the country crisp and alive, deer started moving early, looking for a nice place to lie up on the sunny sides of the hills.

idaho buck 2016 vinnie 2

Around 8:30 I saw a shape appear on the plateau. Put the glasses on him and knew right away he was a shooter. The buck was about 525 yards down the mountainside. I nestled my Browning A-bolt in 300 Win. Mag. firmly in the crease of my backpack and coat, and ranged and dialed him at 500 yards. I had a solid rest and was ready to send a 180-grain Nosler down the hill. I exhaled and squeezed off the shot.

The deer never flinched! He just moved along his route, across to my right. I was shaking a bit now and chambered another round. I ranged him again and he was 445. I figured I had shot over him, so I adjusted the distance, squeezed off another shot and hit him hard behind the shoulder. He reared up his hind legs and I knew I had smoked him good.

I got a rush and goose bumps. There is no feeling more exciting than knowing you just shot a nice buck! He was biggest bodied deer I have ever killed. Incredible hunt and incredible buck, and a day I will never forget.

On the third day, it was 28 degrees, and deer were on the move, butting heads and thrashing the bushes. I saw a couple more shooters that morning, and then I heard a shot  the distance. DJ had shot a nice 10-pointer and the hunt was complete. I spent time with some of the finest people on the planet in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Cannot wait for next year!—Vinnie C. from Florida

Get Your Buck Thanksgiving Weekend

ny rob javarone buck 2010

In most regions right now, most of the adult does have been bred, and bucks are tired and run down from chasing, breeding and eluding hunters. But those survivors know the chance to breed a doe won’t come around for another year. They prowl for the last five percent or so of does that might still be receptive. They move heavily at night and in cover, but a good buck might slip up at dawn or dusk, so be out there.

The days of Thanksgiving weekend are some of the biggest hunting days of the year as family and friends get together and fan out across the woods. This is another reason to hunt. You never know where and when that pressure might drive a buck into your lap.

Best conditions: Hope for daytime highs in the 30s to low 50s, with lows in the 20s. I prefer clear high-pressure days, but a light snow would be great. One thing in your favor is the last-quarter moon this week. Researchers have found this moon phase to be best for extreme deer movement, especially the last hour of the day.

Top stand: You’ll likely have a chilly west or north wind, so set up on the east side of a hill or ridge where the wind is right, and where you can cover a wide swath of thick woods, marsh and/or a weed-choked field. Watch for a buck cutting from one thicket to the next, hoping to run across a last hot doe—or sneaking from pressure. Remember the last hour of the day is likely to be best.

Good luck.