The Right Rubs: In the book Whitetail Country Michigan biologist John Ozoga points out that the first good-sized rubs–on trees 2 to 4 inches in diameter–that you find in late September were made by bucks 3½ years and older to mark their home ranges and “to proclaim their control over a given area.” Other bucks and does will see the fresh blazes, and they might come over and lick or rub their heads on them. But those deer will get a whiff of the rub maker’s fore-head and salivary scent, and they’ll know who’s living there large and in charge.
Finding clusters of big rubs is a key strategy for your entire season. From late September through December, most of the bucks that blazed those rubs will spend 90 percent of their time on the same ridges and in the same bottoms where you find the sign. So find the early rubs; scout out from them a couple hundred yards for the best food sources, trails, funnels and bedding thickets; and hang some tree stands at strategic points. Hunt those stands all season, and you’ll see some shooter bucks.
Scrapes: Back Off! QDMA biologist Kip Adams points to a comprehensive University of Georgia study of free-ranging deer that live on a 3,400-acre property that is hunted each fall. I put the most stock in studies that deal wild, hunted deer, not pen whitetails.
Most all deer research over the years has found that bucks check scrapes mostly at night, and the Georgia study, the largest of its kind, confirms it. The researchers tallied thousands of trail camera images and found that mature bucks check scrapes mostly between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m.
Why waste more hunting time sitting and watching scrapes where a good buck isn’t likely to show up until the wee hours of dark? “You’re much better off setting up and watching a heavy trail or edge of thick cover several hundred yards off the freshest scrapes you can find,” says Adams. “That’s where you might catch a buck moving to and from the scrapes in first or last light.”
Back Off Scrapes Altogether: By mid-November in most areas, it’s time to back off scrapes altogether. Karen Alexy, lead researcher on that Georgia project, says that bucks most often make and hit scrapes two to three weeks prior to the rut. “After the peak, we found that bucks almost completely stop visiting scrapes,” she says, “so you might be better off hunting bedding sites, travel corridors, or feeding areas.”
Low-Pressure Stands: In a South Carolina study, researchers analyzed hundreds of interactions between hunters and deer, and found that mature bucks traveled 55 yards on average farther away from hunting stands at the end of the season versus the beginning of the season.
This confirms something I have been writing about and saying on my TV shows for years: Mature bucks can learn your habits and pattern you. As the season progresses they see, smell and hear where hunters walk into the woods, climb trees, walk out at midmorning or after dark… You get the picture. The bucks then start to skirt those stand locations and access points to avoid you.
This fall, change it up. Say you’ve been bowhunting a big 10-pointer for a few weeks from the same 2 stands in a 200-acre block of woods. You saw the deer a couple of times early in the season, but it’s been awhile since you’ve seen him now.
Check the lay of the land on maps or Google Earth. Then at midday, slip into those woods and set a couple of new stands along trails, in draws, at creek crossings, etc. You don’t always have to move far; you might set some of those new stands on good cover edges or funnels only 40 to 70 yards from your original stands. Play the wind and be as quiet as you can as you set the new stands.
When you sneak back in and hunt those fresh stands, you have a good shot at surprising that buck in a spot where he doesn’t expect you. As he moves on a pattern to avoid your first stands, he might walk 10-20 yards below one of your new stands. Take him!
High or Low? Missouri biologist Grant Woods put GPS collars on deer and found that old bucks generally bed just over the top of a ridge, usually on the east side. “That’s probably because most of the time wind currents come from the west,” he says. “When a west wind goes up and over the top of a hill and swirls, it creates an air cone that picks up and carries scent from all directions.”
Woods, a hard-core bowhunter, notes that he rarely hunts on tops of a hill because of the eddy-like, unpredictable air currents up there. “You’re a lot better off hanging a stand lower on the side of a ridge or mountain, or on a flat where you can catch a buck sneaking up to his bed or coming back down from it.”
Think Green (Part 1): Biologists in Michigan, Minnesota and other northern states have found that 5- to 40-acre conifer swamps, with trees 10 to 25 feet tall and canopies 50 to 70 percent closed, provide the best thermal cover for deer. If you bowhunt the late season up North, look for green covers of that size, and hang a stand on a nearby trail.
Think Green (Part 2): After killing a deer late in the season, Pennsylvania ruminant nutrition specialist Phil Anderson pokes through the paunch to see what the critter had been eating.
“Ever killed a doe or buck in December when the woods are brown, but the rumen contents (of a deer’s stomach) are bright green?” he asks. He points out that deer love tender, green shoots year-round and particularly in the winter. The animals sniff and dig around the woods and find them under rotting leaves.
Next December and January, be on the lookout for spots where deer have dug and pawed the leaves (deer sign is narrower and more linear than wild turkey scratching). Get down on hands and knees and investigate. If you find little green shoots popping up, set up there and fill your last doe or buck tag.
Beat the Head Bob: In a study funded by the Georgia Department of Transportation in hopes of reducing deer-car crashes, Dr. Karl Miller and others focused on the whitetail’s vision. They confirmed that to get a good 3-D look at a strange object, a deer has to shift its head and stare at it from several different angles. You’ve seen that before—a deer sees you and starts head-bobbing as it tries to figure out what the heck it is looking at.
The next time a doe or buck looks up into your tree stand and starts head-bobbing, freeze. When the animal dips its head and appears to look away, stay frozen. Only when the head-bobbing stops for good and the deer relaxes and seems satisfied that you are not dangerous should you shift in your stand and draw your bow. A deer’s eyes are well adapted to detect movement.