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When Bucks Go Tough: Late Season Hunting Strategies

Strategies and tips for when bucks go nocturnal.

Brad Gill | December 1, 2006

 

November in the Georgia deer woods almost looked like the start of a new era; big-bodied, heavy-racked bucks almost seemed to come out of the woodwork. Some deer-cooler operators and hunters have reported a great rut with lots of deer on the move. November may help cushion 2006 as one of the best years we’ve seen in a while. However, and unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. Instead of sitting in the November woods waiting for a mature buck to smell a doe in estrus and carelessly walk into your gun sights, we’re fixing to get a dose of December reality as the rut ends and harder hunting days begin.

“The bucks have gone nocturnal,” is a pretty common phrase you’ll hear around campfires and coffee pots. While not all bucks go completely nocturnal, some of them do. For those deer, a little heat will force them to move. Here’s how a few guys plan on spending their December days in the deer woods.

Deer Drives: Dalton Knox of Covington said deer drives on his Newton County lease result in lots of dead does and an occasional great buck. Dalton hunts the same tract as Bibb Henderson, this month’s 79-year-old cover model who killed a 160-gross 11-pointer.

“We’ve taken some really nice bucks by pushing heads,” said Dalton. “It seems like the bigger deer hold up in a smaller area where they can see. If you have a small patch of woods with some real thick briar patches, those bucks will lay in there where they can sit back and look. We killed one real good deer a few years ago doing that. He scored in the high 140s.

“He was laying around an old homeplace that was grown up. I walked past the deer and saw a trail going in a little briar patch. I kicked the briar patch, and that joker blew up within 10 feet of me. He came straight out like a bullet. You’re going to walk past a lot of the better deer, especially if you’re trying to push a big thicket.”

Dalton said one of the biggest mistakes folks make when doing deer drives is trying to push large tracts of thick woods.

“We have three to four pushers, and we’ll have five to six standers, depending on what size head we’re pushing,” said Dalton. “Some of these heads are as small as two acres, but we’ll push them as big as five to seven acres. If it’s bigger than that most of the deer just run around in the middle of it. Most deer get by you and circle around, and you can never get them out of it. We’ve tried to push bigger heads in the past, but it’s nothing but wasting time.”

The best areas to push are narrow bands of thickets.

“Being able to control the area is the key,” said Dalton. “We get in there and keep a straight line 50 to 60 yards apart and ease through it. We walk with the wind at our back. If it’s wrong, the deer will turn. The shooters are usually 100 to 150 yards apart; some have shotguns with buckshot and some have a rifle, depending on where they’re standing.”

Dalton said he and his buddies will normally make three drives in a day, which will usually result in eight to 12 deer. Dalton used to hunt in south Georgia, a part of the state that he said was great for driving deer.

“We had a place in Millen with big open fields with narrow ditches and little creek bottoms,” said Dalton. “It made perfect for driving. We’d push deer out everywhere.”

Bucks and Bunnies: In January 2003 I did a story with rabbit hunter Mike Thomas from Social Circle. Mike gets permission to rabbit hunt several tracts of property during deer season because whitetail hunters are successfully killing deer thanks to the commotion produced during his rabbit hunt.

“I’m going to Putnam County Saturday (November 18),” said Mike. “These guys like it. When you have land that’s nothing but planted pines the deer lay up all day, especially in December after the rut. They don’t have to budge. They got all the cover and food, and nobody is in there bothering them.”

Mike’s beagles don’t run, or track, deer — that would be illegal where he hunts in Oglethorpe, Putnam and Morgan counties where deer hunting with dogs is prohibited. It’s the loud hollering and shooting that accompanies a rabbit hunt that will make a deer get up and move.

“If there’s a deer in your way, it’s getting out,” said Mike. “The deer won’t be spooked. The dogs aren’t putting any heat on them. They just don’t want to be there with all those people hollering and shooting, so the deer just get up and go.

“The deer these guys see when we’re rabbit hunting are just walking away from the racket. The deer won’t be running wide open or anything.”

Mike, his hounds and his buddies usually arrive at daylight to begin their rabbit hunt. The deer hunters have been in their stands since before daylight.

“On average there’s about three deer hunters hunting on any given Saturday,” said Mike. “When we start hunting they’re usually anywhere from a quarter to a half mile away. They’ll be hunting the roads around the planted pines, in the planted pines and along some of the old hardwood drains they left when they cut. They hunt their stands like it was a normal Saturday.”

Doors slam, tailgates fall and as many as a dozen beagles hit the ground; then Mike starts hollering at his dogs… “here, here, get in here.”

“There’s not a better heart-beating moment for those deer hunters than when those beagles first turn loose,” said Mike.

When Mike’s crew kills the first rabbit they keep moving into fresh areas where they’re always likely to be bumping bedded deer.

“It’s a good relationship we have with the deer hunters,” said Mike. “We’re not taking away from them, and they’re not taking away from us.”

Mike remembered the first time a guy deer hunted while he went rabbit hunting.

“That boy said, ‘If y’all are rabbit hunting, I’m going to get on the backside in case a deer comes out. I ain’t stupid.’ Common sense tells you the deer are getting out of there.”

The Almost Nocturnal Buck: Some hunters operate under the idea that all post-rut bucks have gone nocturnal. Jerry Attaway, 64, of Loganville says there are some bucks you simply won’t see; however, there are mature bucks that will get up for a few minutes very late in the afternoon. These almost-nocturnal bucks are hard to see, but Jerry’s got a strategy that works.

“We see several good bucks every December,” said Jerry.

Jerry said the No. 1 thing to finding and killing a mature buck in December is to locate his food source.

“A buck is wanting to lay up with as much good food as he can,” said Jerry. “Late in the season, think green. It’s that simple. Honeysuckle is one of the things I always look for. They also love privet. I’ve seen them standing on their hind legs to get it. Food plots are another good food source.”

Although acorns aren’t a dependable December food source every year, Jerry said to check any water-oak trees for late-season acorns.

“Late in the year they can still be falling,” said Jerry. “A few years ago, I found a water-oak tree that had lots of deer sign under. That was at the end of January. Most acorns are completely gone by December, but water-oak acorns can still be falling at the end of deer season. Those little acorns are sweet, and the deer love them.”

Jerry added that his scouting efforts have shown that deer return to hardwoods during years when the acorn crop was heavy earlier in the season. The deer scratch like a turkey looking for leftover acorns.
“I look for these food sources in the middle of the day,” said Jerry. “Scouting on the day before a rain is an ideal time because the rain will kill all your scent and then you’re ready to go hunt with fresh woods.”

When Jerry goes on a December scouting mission, he goes with his lock-on stand and speed ladders in the back of the truck.

“If I’m going to look at a piece of woods, I try to go in there and do all the damage I need to do at one time,” said Jerry. “I look it over one time real good and then stay away from it. Then I’ll come out and hunt it a few days later.

“I think you can bump a buck one time and get away with it. If that happens again in a few days, I think that’s the end of him.”

Jerry looks for big, clumped-up droppings around these December food sources which will tell him he’s likely at a mature-buck’s supper table. Then, Jerry is going to look for big tracks on trails leading to that food source.

“When I find the droppings and big tracks, I ask myself if I can hunt this deer,” said Jerry. “Out of all the good places you find, some of them you can’t hunt because of the wind and different things. The wind is the most important thing of all in December. When I find sign, I’ll pull my compass out and see if I can come, hunt and go without being detected.

“Another thing is noise. The ground is full of leaves, so you have to slip in there early and be quiet.”
Jerry doesn’t position his lock-on directly over a food source. He believes the chances of seeing that buck over the food during daylight is pretty slim. However, he won’t be far.

“I hunt 50 to 75 yards from the food source,” said Jerry. “In Georgia there’s enough thick woods that most deer will only be 100 to 150 yards from where they’re going to feed. That’s another reason why late in the year you have to be quiet and play the wind.”

Jerry said his stand usually ends up being in a thick area near the food.

“If there’s thick brush anywhere, that’s where your bucks are going to stay,” said Jerry. “They don’t like to be in the open. I’m trying to catch him up 15 minutes before dark, so think thick.”

Once Jerry has scouted and found big dropping at a food source and big tracks on a nearby trail, he’s ready to return for a hunt. He said you may have to hunt three or four times before the buck gets it in his mind that he’s in the mood to travel that trail and feed on that food source at that particular time. He said there can be so many food sources and so many bedding areas that it’s impossible to completely learn a buck’s December habits.

“In Rockdale County there’s just so many bedding areas that it’s hard to detect where they’re going to come from,” said Jerry. “Just when you think you have him figured out it turns out that he only travels that route about once every four days. Those other three days you’re hunting and you get disgusted because you haven’t seen a buck because there’s so much thick cover down there for them to live in.”

Jerry said no matter how disgusted you get with the hunting, don’t get out of your stand to see if the buck is still using the food source you’re hunting.

“All you’re doing is contaminating the woods a little bit more,” said Jerry.

Secondary Rut: Don’t rule out the possibility of a mature buck getting out of his bed if he smells a doe in heat.

“The secondary rut in Newton County comes in around the middle of December, and I think it’s something to always be looking for with those younger does coming in season,” said Dalton Knox. “It’ll get those bucks stirred up again. The last few years we had a real strong secondary rut. They got real fired up about the middle or third week of December. A lot of bucks started making rubs and scrapes again, and deer got real active for four or five days. I feel like the last couple of years the secondary rut was probably stronger here than the first.”

There’s still about a month of deer season left. Mature bucks won’t be running wide-open like they did during the rut. However, using a few late-season methods can kill those bucks that go tough.

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