Hunt On The Ground For Winter Deer

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I’ve frozen my fanny off way too many days in a tree stand over the years.  Nowadays when I’m desperately trying to fill my last tag in December or January I generally hunt on the ground. It’s warmer down there, and if you set up right, you have better hiding cover.

No. 1 thing to remember: Do not set up where deer will walk straight at you through the bare winter woods. If an old doe catches you move or simply sees your blind as some strange blob that wasn’t there yesterday or last month, she’ll either spook r back off and skirt you. Any buck behind her will probably do the same.

Instead, set up where a buck will walk past your blind at an angle, either quartering-on or, better, quartering away. This way, a doe or buck hopefully won’t see your blind’s outline and get suspicious. If and when an 8-pointer walks into range, you’ll be out of his direct line of sight when you draw your bow or shift your gun. And he’ll be in good position for a quartering or broadside shot.

No. 2 thing to remember: When the woods are bare in winter, do not try to pop up a tent blind and hunt in it. Every deer that comes within 100 yards will see that out-of-the-ordinary-looking blob, turn and run off with white tail flagging. Just set up on the ground with a low profile. Use a tree or log to break your outline.

Good luck, hope you punch your last tag at the buzzer!

December Deer-Hunting Tactics

If 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 local 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.”

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With only 2 nights left in the 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. “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 common feeding 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 end.

–Ridge: 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. 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.

–Greenery: 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 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.

Canadian Buck: 8 Years Old w/7/8” Antler Bases!

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From our friend Oneil Baillargeon who lives and hunts in central Saskatchewan:

Was fortunate to harvest “Clubroot,” an ancient old buck who’s been living around home for 8 years now. He’s never been much of a buck until this year, going from a 5×4 last year to adding a pile of mass and brow tine length this year.

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Not having any other deer on camera that I was convinced were over 5 years old, I decided this was the deer I would be pursuing. Having a couple sightings the days leading up to the season opener, I was in the right place at the right time for the evening of opening day.

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Clubroot barely had any teeth left and carried bases measuring 7 2/8″… I was more than happy to hang my tag on this narrow old fella.–Oneil

Way to go man, an 8-year-old buck that has survived the wolves and brutal winters of the wild Canadian North is one of whitetail hunting’s top trophies.

BIG DEER Exclusive: Tennessee McCrary Buck, 190 Inches Non-Typical!

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Today’s great guest blog from Michael McCrary:

Mike: I’ve hunted since I was 10 years old in the middle Tennessee area, and this is by far the biggest deer I’ve seen in my 33 years of hunting.

This was on a new lease that we picked up last April. Our hunt group of 5 family members stumbled across this 450-acre lease in Perry County. My father and uncle quickly put out trail cams on old scrape lines and trails that meandered through mostly old cut overs.

I travel for work so was not able to go with the group to check the trail cams. I was getting ready to board a flight to Asia one day when my son sent out a text to the hunting group: You will not believe what we have on cam! As you can imagine my suspense was building and I had to ask him twice to send pictures.

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When he passed along the pictures I couldn’t believe it. We first captured this deer on camera back on 8/25; he acted like he was at a photo shoot and literally posed at every angle! We ended up with 8-10 pictures that gave us a really good look at his crazy and irregular rack.

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The next time he showed up was 9/29, and it appeared he had gone nocturnal. We had several more images on 4 different trail cams over a ½-square mile radius, all at night. Then on Oct. 22nd he showed back up, and we got good videos over a rub line of him feeding on tree leaves.

As all this was coming together the spot on the lease where I had picked to hunt had one picture of the big buck that I captured at night as he passed by the camera. As you can imagine our guys were quickly naming and claiming spots surrounding the area. I studied the terrain, as well as what could be the buck’s escape routes if the other guys jumped him. I then relocated my stand down the hollow about 150 yards from a previous spot that I had hunted in hopes to encounter the deer.

Then came opening day of the muzzleloader season and the anticipation was high. We had 2 days to hunt this property before going to a WMA over in east Tennessee to hunt with a group which is an annual event for us. On opening morning we all got to our entry points and proceeded to our hunt locations. It was an unusually warm morning with a southwest wind. I was set up in white oak tree that gave me the best vantage point overlooking some large rubs and scrapes.

At 8 am a 7-point walked within 10 yards of my tree and eventually made his way to a thicket and then out of sight. After about 30 minutes I heard what sounded to be a small tree falling, but when I scanned where the noise came from I saw a small 8-point and the same 7-point trying to move out of the way of a large 9-point that appeared to be running them off. The 9-point was a nice, solid buck for the area, 135 to 140, but with the pictures of “Big Ugly” I let him walk. Then nothing happened for 45 minutes.

Around 9:15 I looked over to where the other 3 bucks had been, and saw movement coming at me. I could see through the thicket that he had a massive rack that was both wide and tall. Soon I was able to make out the buck’s right side, the one with all the character. I knew I would most likely get a shot at this tremendous buck.

I raised my gun as he walked through the first clearing; he was quartering to me and his horns covered his vitals so I had to tell myself to let him keep coming. He turned head on as he walked into the next clearing, and I thought he would walk straight to me. He was about 40 yards away but then he stopped and looked down the hill—we were eye to eye as I had climbed a tree lower on the hill from him. He raised his head and spotted me in the tree. I was hesitant to shoot the deer straight on like that, but I decided to take the shot.

Smoke from the powder filled the air and I moved around trying to see through it. When it cleared this amazing deer lay dead 15 yards from my tree. Certainly a buck of a lifetime. Lots of character, and a total of 25-26 points. We think he will score around 190”. Thanks for listening, Mike

Mike, way to go man, truly awesome deer! Love the way your family hunts as a group, great tradition you guys have built. And there’s a lesson here: No matter how long you’ve hunted an area (more than 3 decades in Mike’s case) you never know when a giant buck will show up and give you that one in a lifetime opportunity. Keep at it!

 

 

 

 

After-Rut Deer Tactics

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By late November in most places the rut is winding down and there’s been a lot of pressure in the woods—people stomping around, riding ATVs, shooting guns… A bunch of bucks have been removed from the gene pool, and the survivors are spooky as stray cats. You’ve hunted all day without seeing a rack, right? Well, keep the faith and stay out there. More old deer than you think still cruise your woods into early December, hoping to hook up with one of the hot does of the season. You might score big yet.

Hunt Midweek: One good thing about the post-rut is that 75 percent of the “rut hunters” who were in the woods two or three weeks are long gone. Some of them got their bucks; others have lost interest or had to go back to work. Whatever, there’s less competition. Hunt mid-week and you’ll have the woods to yourself most days, especially after Thanksgiving. Deer will move best on days when there’s less commotion.

Key on Rubs, Scrapes: Cruising bucks are tired and battered, but still running on testosterone and still rubbing, so keep hunting your best stands on ridges with heavy rubbing sign. Alternatively, if you notice a bunch of fresh rubs in a creek bottom or along a field edge one day, hang a new stand there and hunt it for a week. A cruiser is working the area and he might be back one day in shooting light.

Some bucks go back and check scrapes they pawed in early November. It makes sense if you think about it. Near those stinky patches of dirt is where they hooked up with the first estrus does. That’s where they might run across a last hot gal.  You go back too. Scout scrapes and scrape lines you located a month ago, working a key ingredient—cover—into your strategy. Any good buck that survived a hail of arrows and bullets earlier in the season will check scrapes in the thickest pockets he can find. Set up downwind of “cover scrapes” that have been freshly pawed. The more fresh rubs and doe trails in the area the better.

Keep Rattling: Working toward his doctorate in wildlife biology at the University of Georgia years ago, top whitetail scientist Mick Hellickson conducted an intensive three-year study on the movements and behaviors of mature bucks. Part of that research project produced some groundbreaking research on antler rattling.

“If you are interested in rattling in big numbers of bucks the peak of the rut is far and away the best time,” says Hellickson. During those wild days, 65 bucks responded to 60 rattling sequences—a 108 percent response rate. “But the first weeks of the post-rut, when old bucks cruise for the last hot does, are prime for trophy hunting.” This is the phase when Hellickson and his team rattled up the most mature bucks. Of the 29 bucks that responded to their 51 post-rut rattling sequences, 10 were 5 ½ years plus, and another 10 were 3 ½ to 4 ½.

So don’t give up on your rattling too soon. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind. Rattling works best on a still, chilly to cold morning, when a buck can hear your horns almost a mile away. The best spot to set up is downwind of one of those scraped/rubbed/thick-cover ridges or bottoms we talked about earlier. Sit in a stand until 11:00 AM, and rattle and once or twice every hour; toss in some big grunts for effect. Again, it is apt to work best on a Wednesday or Thursday, when nobody else is in the woods.

Late Scent Trick:  Everybody tries scents during the rut, but sometimes they work better the first two weeks of the post-rut. Think about it. During the peak, estrus does mist the woods everywhere. But later on, when there are only a few hotties left, the sweet scent of just one might bring a buck running. I lay a doe-in-heat trail into all my late-season stands, and then I hang wicks to float more lure in the woods.

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