As deer season progresses, deer become scarce quickly. It seems that as soon as the rut ends, they all just up and disappear.
Obviously, they’re still there, but where and how do you locate deer that seem to have gone nocturnal? It’s not easy, but late season deer can be hunted with success, you just have to adapt your hunting strategy.
Many hunters fill their tags within the first few days of deer season. What’s more, fierce winter weather deters many hunters who don’t want to endure the elements in the late season. For the late season deer hunter, this is good, as it means that you won’t have to worry about large numbers other hunters being around. Deer are often pressured early in the season when there are large numbers of hunters eager to get their deer during the rut. In the past I’ve had great success hunting deer as late as January when they’ve had time to relax from the pressure of early season hunting.
During the rut, many hunters set up in the early morning in blinds and tree stands where they will be able to rattle or call up a buck. But the rut is a crazy time for deer, between intense hunting pressure and the powerful hormone drive to mate. When deer go nocturnal, relenting to the pressure of the onslaught of hunters, they are less active in the early morning. The midday and afternoon however can be more productive.
Too many hunters hunt the rut exclusively, thinking that deer behavior during that time is “normal”. It is not – deer are so caught up in their hormone driven activities, they throw caution to the wind. It is only as the rut fades that deer return to normal.
No matter how much or how little hunting pressure there is, deer still need to eat. After the rut, bucks turn their attention to food. All of the sparring and mating of the rut leaves most bucks run-down and searching for food. Likewise, does that have been bred during the rut increase the amount of food they consume. Though they remain bedded down during the day, by the afternoon they become hungry and are forced to head back to forage at nearby food sources.
Identify food and water sources. Deer will bed down nearby to established food and water sources. When the pressure is on, they won’t want to travel far for fear of being exposed. Fresh hoof prints and droppings are signs of activity that will allow you to easily identify where the deer are feeding, and which trails they are using.
Once you’ve identified a food or water source, find the deer trails that lead back to their bedding areas. Bedding areas are carefully planned by deer: they are extremely good at choosing bedding locations with multiple escape routes. It is extremely difficult to stalk a deer that is bedded down. A bedded down deer that scents you will explode out of the bedding location and all you will see is the white flash of tail as it bounds away at breakneck speed. Even if you do get the drop on a bedded down deer, it is still difficult to get a good shot at a vital area.
To hunt bedded deer, set up near the identified food source, or along an active trail to and from the food source. Pay close attention to the wind direction to avoid alerting the deer to your scent.
Finally, it’s not unusual to have a second, or even third rut. Though not nearly as active as the first fall rut, secondary ruts can still bring out the bucks and does who have not been bred in the first rut. Does will reach estrus every 28 days, so if you’ve pinpointed the first rut, knowing when the second rut will come is a simple calculation.
In a secondary rut, rattling will not be quite as productive as grunting and calling, but you can still rattle up the odd buck or two. It’s not unheard of to find two or even three of four bucks chasing a doe during the second rut, completely oblivious to anything going on around them. Giving a few soft grunts or a short rattle can bring the deer your direction and present you with a shot.
If you don’t mind facing harsh weather and deer who are back to their usual cautious ways, then the late season is for you. Scouting ahead to identify where the deer are and where their trails are is key, but once you’ve identified them, you can rest easy in the fact that the deer will come.