Post-Rut Deer Strategies For December Success

Several tactics to score on a mature buck this month

John Seginak | December 1, 2008

Tim Shubert of Colbert killed this heavy-horned Madison County buck on a wheat/rye/oats field the second to the last day of the season.

Twas the day after Christmas, and all through the woods, Georgia deer hunters were sitting on food sources most fitting… on clover, wheat, rye and oat plots. In privet bottoms, honeysuckle thickets, water-oak stands and over late-dropping pears… in hopes a whitetail would soon be theirs!

Corny poem? Oh, yeah, but it holds a lot of truth. Late-season success rests on hunting food sources and doe concentrations, both of which go “hand in hand.”

The primary rut is long sincegone by Christmas, in most parts of Georgia, and the bucks are looking to replenish themselves and put the weight back on they lost pursuing does for a month and a half. At the same time, they are looking for that one last doe that might not yet have been bred. Also, in excellent habitats, this late in the season, some early born doe fawns are actually starting their estrus cycle. Hence, the “secondary” rut. The does are also now in large groups. It is often “boom or bust” this time of year. I have often not seen a single deer, then sat a stand where up to 17 came out in a herd.

As I’ve stated in most of my articles, I rarely sit directly on a food source. Your chances are much better hunting trails leading to or from bedding areas to the groceries. And, get as close to the bedding areas as you dare get without being detected. Thick bottoms, old clearcuts and areas of secondary growth are where it’s at this time of year. The leaves are all but gone, and these areas are generally the ones with enough thick cover for the deer to feel safe and well hidden.

As mentioned earlier, the does are bunched up, and the younger bucks are back in bachelor groups of three, four or more. This makes trails leading to the food sources very easy to recognize, as a lot of deer are funneling into feeding areas. Most years, by Christmas, all the white- and red-oak acorns are gone, as are the persimmons, grapes and crabapples.

Food Plots: Where available, the deer are now hammering agricultural fields and food plots. The less available natural vegetation there is, the more use the plots receive. Alfalfa fields/plots are hard to beat this time of year. They will suck deer in for miles. If adequate bedding cover is not avail- able close to the field, they will probably arrive well after dark. If great bedding cover exists nearby, the deer will stay close to the plots and are much easier to set up on.

Ladino clover, wheat, oat and rye plots are also relished by the deer in late season. As always, whether sitting right on the food plot, or close to the bedding area, play the wind correctly, or you are probably out there to just enjoy the day. The deer have been hunted for about 13 weeks, some have been shot at, and the less wary are already in someone’s freezer. They are very wary of any human scent.

An acquaintance of mine, Tim Shubert of Colbert, took a really nice 4 1/2-year-old buck a few years ago on his wheat/rye/oats plot. He killed him in the afternoon the second to the last day of the season. Once the available acorns were gone, the deer flocked to his cereal-grain food plot, and he passed many a deer before the mature buck showed up!

Plots containing New Zealand brassica varieties and turnips also produce quality food this time of year. Oddly, when the plants look green and lush, they are hardly touched by the deer. It takes at least one, sometimes two or more, hard frosts to make them palatable. The frost actually rushes the plants to maturity, which results in a much sweeter taste to the foraging animals… sort of like a green banana versus a yellow one. If brassica plots have not endured hard frosts, you are wasting your time hunting them.

Natural Browse: If you are hunting an area/club void of food plots or fields, the preferred native vegetation types will be privet, honeysuckle and the remaining acorn forage. Usually the only remaining nuts are water oaks in my hunting area in north/middle Georgia.

My favorite stands in late season are near thick, dense privet thickets in the river and creek bottoms, and along the edges of beaver swamps. The deer are often feeding and bedding in the same place, moving very little. They merely have to stand up to feed, and they feel very secure there.

Privet is one of the most protein-high natural vegetations in Georgia, and it lasts the entire winter. It pays to hunt privet thickets all day, as the deer will stand up and browse at all times of the day. I have filled the last bit of freezer space with a nice late-season doe taken between 10 and noon in a privet bottom.

One must be very careful hunting the privet thickets, as it is easy to bump deer getting into your stand site. They may be in there 24-7. Always approach with the wind in your face and as quietly as possible. I usually set up at least two stands for varying wind directions, and I put them up in August. Climbers are noisy, no matter how stealthy you may be. Rambo couldn’t climb a tree quietly enough if deer were bedded 50 yards from him. I almost exclusively hunt out of permanent stands, or lock-ons with quiet climbing sticks when hunting these areas.

A lush honeysuckle patch is also worth its weight in gold. Honeysuckle, like the brassicas/turnips, becomes more palatable to the deer after it is touched by a hard frost, although it doesn’t wilt like the aforementioned forages. Honeysuckle stands are usually associated with thick regrowth or clearcut areas, so once again, the deer have food and cover at the same locations. As with the privet, it is very easy to determine the areas where the deer are hitting the honeysuckle hard, as a lot of the stems will be devoid of leaves, and the site will be marked with bunches of tracks and dropping piles.

Water oaks are usually the only acorns in town late in the season, unless the white- and red-oak crops are huge in the fall. Water oaks also drop their small acorns at an irregular rate, little by little, through most of the late season, rather than all in a few weeks like the other varieties. If there are white-oak acorns remaining, hunt them as the deer won’t utilize the water oaks to any degree until the white oaks are gone. Stands next to dense bedding thickets, once again, are your best bet.

If you are fortunate enough to have some “dessert” items on your hunting area, you’re in luck! Late-dropping pears, such as the Keiffer variety, and honey- and black-locust tree pods are favorites. The latter hold their pods until well after the first frost, often dropping them in mid to late December. If you have ever broken one open, it is easy to see why the deer like them. They are very sweet.

Look for locust trees on your hunting land. Pods, like the black locust ones pictured, provide a sweet treat for deer in December.

Honey locusts are not found in great abundance in middle Georgia, usually just two or three trees at a location, so the fruits are scarfed up quickly, and the window of opportunity closes fast. Usually the time frame is a week or two at most.

Locust trees are easy to find. The leaves are very unique and resemble mimosa-tree leaves. The trunk and large branches also have large, very sharp thorns growing on them, often in clusters. These characteristics make them easy to identify without the pods being present.

Watch for Weather Fronts: The late season here in Georgia is often a time of approaching weather fronts, and, on occasion, bitter cold. If it has been seasonal and a wicked cold front is coming, be on the stand. The same goes for a front that may bring three straight days of rain. The deer know these fronts are coming due to pressure changes and will feed heavily.

I killed a really nice 3 1/2-year-old 8-pointer a few hours before a front hit. The region was supposed to get two days of downpour, starting around 4 p.m. Between 2 p.m. and 2:30 p.m., when I shot the buck, I saw 16 deer. I’m glad I did, because it rained 7 inches over the next 48 hours.

Hunt hard before a weather front. John killed this nice 3 1/2-year-old hours before a two-day rain event brought 7 inches of water. He said he saw 15 other deer in a 30- minute period, which proves deer move before weather fronts.

Hunt Late: I have found that the deer in our Piedmont region of Georgia tend not to move early in the morning during periods of bitter cold for our state. My records show that 90 percent of my deer sightings on days when the temperatures were less than 18 degrees at daybreak, occurred between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. They also tend to bed in spots of direct sunlight if possible, and on a slope out of the wind, usually with a southerly exposure.

Deer Drives: An alternative method to “stand” hunting in the late season is deer drives. Obviously, the more people you have to drive and act as standers, the better your chances of moving deer. However, successful drives are possible with just one stander and one or two drivers. We usually stand hunt one area in the morning, drive a different one in the middle of the day, and then stand hunt again in the late evening.

I feel the keys to successfully driving deer are: 1. knowing their habits and escape routes. 2. pushing them in a direction they would be prone to go anyway. 3. making sure the drive is done at a speed that moves the deer but doesn’t cause them to come by the standers at a blur. We make lots of noise but move very slowly. We also try to push the deer into the wind, with the standers being placed off to the side of the wind flow, so the deer, of course, will not smell them.

As mentioned earlier, the deer are usually grouped up in large numbers again late in the season. We have driven as many as 23 past the standers off one perfectly orchestrated drive. If you jump a bachelor group, you may push as many as seven bucks to the standers in an effort, like we did.

When we began a quality-deer-management program in earnest, and needed to drastically reduce the number of does, deer drives were invaluable at season’s end if we had not harvested enough by that time. Eight of us once took 15 does off a 2,500-acre piece of property, with seven coming off one drive with four standers and four drivers.

Again, there is an art to pushing the deer just enough to move them but not hard enough to look like brown bullets racing through the woods. No ethical stander will take a shot at a wide- open deer at any distance. Wounded deer bum everybody out… or at least should.

Funnels, caused by ravines, rivers, swamps or steep hillsides are excellent pinch points for a stander, and the deer use them regularly as is.

Hope everyone has had a wonderful season to this point and has taken a child or newbee hunting.

Bill Tingler from Pennsylvania, who visited the author last month, helps demonstrate what high, thick stands of privet look like. Deer will bury themselves in these areas, moving very little since they literally only have to stand to eat.


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