December 24, 2023
Like a superstar quarterback on a championship team, the rut gets all the attention. Ask the average hunter and you’ll hear it’s the best of times, the playoffs of hunting season, the crème de la crème of deer hunting. I say that’s nonsense. In many ways, it’s the worst of times, and it’s actually my least favorite phase to hunt white-tailed deer. The declaration of its greatness is false, especially for those who choose to target specific bucks.
RECOGNIZING THE RUT’S REPUTATION
Perhaps I’m being too pessimistic. The rut is a great time to be a hunter. In fact, daylight deer activity gradually increases throughout the summer and early fall and peaks during the rut, including mature bucks. That alone makes it a great time to target big deer, right? Yes…and no.
Sure, whatever buck you’ve had your eye on is more likely to move during this window. The problem is you have no idea where that deer will be or what its movements will look like. The rut is a game of chance. Because of this, I label it as a bandaid for the unprepared hunter. It can bring a monster buck by your treestand with little thought or planning, but it can just as easily produce nothing.
You see, patterns and habituality completely disappear during the rut, and it’s those two concepts that serve as the basis of most hunting plans and tactics. We scout, learn, and pattern deer to put ourselves in position to capitalize. But our ability to do this decreases during the rut. Instead, we rely on rut stand locations that historically produce, such as bedding areas, funnels, pinch points, saddles, etc. You can have great hunts during the rut, but you just never know. The buck you’ve been hunting might be 10 yards down the trail or 10 miles away.
In contrast to unpredictable rut behavior, the early season, pre-rut, and late season are defined by habitual behavior. While deer don’t do the same thing each day, they do exhibit tendencies. Hunters who understand this scout accordingly, make plans, and often fill tags as a result. For those who work hard and pattern deer, these times are the best, offering them their greatest chance to cross paths with the giant they’ve been after. And of these times, some hunters prefer the late season.
How could that be? Aren’t all the bucks dead? While the giants that appear on social media in September, October, and November might make it seem that way, most deer survive, especially the mature ones. So don’t fall for the false premise that there aren’t any deer left on the landscape. There are. Plenty of them.
Instead, focus on the numerous reasons why the late season is so good for hunters. First, deer are under a lot of stress. Injuries from hunters, predators, and other deer impact their health. Depleted fat stores from intense activity during the rut burdens them even more. Furthermore, food sources are depleted, meaning that deer are congregating around pockets of remaining options. They need calories to survive the bitter-cold winter, and as these sources become scarcer, deer have to work harder and travel farther to find food. Hunters who scout and find these sources, or provide them in the form of food plots, will see aforementioned patterns around these areas, among other late-season hotspots.
I’ve learned this to be true through personal experiences. Deer are incredibly predictable, especially under adverse conditions commonly present during the late season. That said, just like the rut, the late season isn’t a given or a fix-all. It requires hard work, making the right moves, and understanding the components that make it what it is.
There are many things hunters can do to increase their effectiveness during the late season. The first of these is to save a good spot or two for that time of year. Choosing areas for this that deer already tend to use during the late season is advised. One such area is solar bedding cover. This is best defined as a south-facing slope, which receives more sunlight in winter. North-facing slopes receive much less sunlight, which is why these areas tend to not harbor bedded deer during the late season.
Thermal bedding is also important. Thermal bedding is composed of vegetative cover that holds more heat closer to the ground. Conifers, such as cedars, pines, and spruce trees, do this very well. They also shield deer from snowfall, which is another reason why deer commonly bed under them.
Another important task is to focus on high-carb (high-energy) food sources, such as acorns, corn, soybeans, etc. Deer need carbs to create energy for body heat. But that isn’t their only energy-based mechanism for survival. Deer become less active under sustained periods of cold weather. According to experts, as temperatures drop and remain cold, metabolic rates drop, too. This is how they survive winter with minimal caloric intake. However, this process doesn’t begin overnight. It slowly kicks in gear as winter weather persists, so the initial onset of cold weather is the best time to experience heavy feeding activity.
Don’t think deer don’t eat. They certainly do. It’s important to know what food sources to focus on and when. When it’s cold, hunt those high-carb food sources. When it’s warm, hunt greens, such as clover, radishes, turnips, wheat, etc. And don’t underestimate quality browse options for the areas you hunt. If deer aren’t making it to food sources during daylight, get closer to bedding areas. The closer you can get to beds without bumping deer, the better. If getting close to bedding areas isn’t possible due to visibility, audibility, or scent-related reasons, focus on good staging areas. These look different from one to the next, but all of them serve as spots deer browse along, feed in, or at least pass-through during daylight on their way to and from bedding areas. To see usage in the daylight, these generally need to be located closer to bedding areas than food sources.
If hunting in colder climates, or where food sources are limited, you might have trouble finding deer. When this happens, it’s important to locate where deer are yarding up. Find one, and you’ll likely find many.
SCORE ON SKITTISH DEER
Once you’ve settled on several late-season hotspots, position treestands and ground blinds. Remember, the deer have been hunted all season. They’re more skittish than ever and tolerate even less human intrusion than earlier in the year. So make sure hunting spots have good entry and exit routes. It isn’t good for one hunt if you can’t get there without blowing out deer. It’s good for only one if you can’t get back to the truck without doing the same. Furthermore, to help prevent deer from picking you off, add cover to blinds and treestands. Just make sure it’s done in a safe manner that won’t prevent you from safely climbing into and using them.
Once everything is in place, don’t rush. Be methodical. Be patient. The late season is long and lasts one to two months in most states. Unless you’re in a situation where other hunters are nearby or the season is quickly ending, it’s better to wait for the right time.
If other hunters are around, consider hunting along escape routes, especially if hunting pressure is high. This requires knowing how deer get away from incoming hunters, though, which entails in-depth knowledge of the land and how deer use it. Regardless of hunting tactics used, knowing when to move in is almost as important as how. In most cases, afternoons are better than mornings, if only because it’s easier to get into position without bumping deer.
Don’t immediately count out the morning hunt, though. If deer are on a good daylight morning pattern and you can get into position and intercept them without bumping them, give it a try. But know this is not a common scenario. It’s also wise to remember the midday sit, too. During very cold spells, and when daytime highs fail to beat the annual average, midday movement tends to increase. Why? It’s the hottest time of the day, and deer feel better.
On a similar note, a common late-season misconception is that deer move only on cold fronts. Rather, sudden swings in temperature (up or down) spark deer movement. It is abrupt change after stagnancy—not prolonged cold—that spur deer to move. That said, I prefer cold weather over warm weather for that change. And never underestimate the power of a late-winter snowfall. That’s the ultimate late-season deer hunt. I’ll take that over the rut any day.