Because it ain’t over until it’s over!
You passed up one too many bucks, spent too much time at the office or maybe things just didn’t go your way this season. The clock’s ticking, and the deer that pranced across food plots and strolled through open hardwoods are nowhere to be seen. You’re nervous, and you worry the season will end on a sour note, an unfulfilling season of empty woods, empty memories and an empty freezer.
There’s always hope as long as there’s life left in the season. By changing tactics and, above all, keeping the fire alive, you stand a good chance of finishing the season on a high note.
1. Hunt The Refuge
The block of thick woods you smartly set aside as a refuge on your land served a valuable purpose: It gave pressured deer a comfort zone, a place to hide when things got heavy. Most of all, it kept them on your land so you could manage the herd to fit your goals.
It might seem to go against everything you were taught about management, but it’s time to hunt that refuge. It’s fourth and long, deep into the fourth quarter. What have you got to lose?
Yes, hunting it will defeat the entire purpose of a refuge and will likely run deer out of that little haven. That’s why you’d better make it count when you do go in. You might only get a couple of hunts before the deer bolt, but they won’t stay gone forever. Turn it back into a refuge before next season — and throughout most of the season itself — and you’ll continue to give the deer a place to feel safe.
2. Go Deep
Whether it’s territory you set aside as a refuge or cover that simply seems too thick to hunt, you can be sure that’s where deer are hanging out this time of year. You can be just as sure they won’t venture out of that cover until dark.
To tag one of those bunker bucks, you have to go in after them. It can mean crawling through the thick brush on your hands and knees and sitting against a skinny sapling, an uncomfortable way to spend a few hours. Remember, however, desperate times call for desperate measures.
In many instances, thick cover is only thick on the outside edges, creating the illusion of an impenetrable jungle when it actually opens up a little inside. That’s not to say you’ll be able to see a hundred yards. At best, you might be able to find a shooting lane that offers 30 yards of visibility. Hunt it right, and that’s all you’ll need.
3. Throw ’em a Change-Up
You aren’t seeing deer from your favorite stand because they’ve figured out that it’s your favorite stand. The local deer know they are being hunted and have learned to sidestep your faithful tree. They’ve got your number.
Increase your deer sightings by giving up that stand and shifting your location. How far you move depends on the cover and terrain. But, no matter how far your move, get out of sight of that stand you’ve called home all season. Also, get downwind. If deer are skirting your stand, they are most likely circling downwind and out of sight. By moving 100, 200, even 300 yards from the spot you frequent the most, there’s a good chance you can intercept those deer that have become accustomed to side-stepping the stand you normally hunt.
4. Go Long
A study conducted in Pennsylvania found the vast majority of hunters never walk more than a half-mile from the nearest road. Researchers gave hunters GPS devices and tracked their every move. Surprisingly, most of the hunters interviewed figured they walked a mile or more when they barely went out of sight of their vehicles.
The lesson is simple. If you want to see more deer, go where the crowds don’t go. Deep woods far off the beaten track can be brimming with whitetails that haven’t been bumped around all season.
If you plan to hunt the backwoods, be prepared. Take a GPS, a flashlight with fresh batteries, plenty of food and water and plan to sit the entire day. Why not? If you’re willing to walk an hour in the dark to get in, it doesn’t make sense to come out for lunch.
Also, have a plan for getting your deer out. Take a backpack and plastic bags and bone out your deer in the field instead of dragging the entire carcass back to your truck, or try one of the various deer carts on the market if your state’s laws prohibit boning out the meat in the field.
5. Go Often, Go Early, Stay Late
If there’s one primary reason hunters don’t fill their tags, it’s because they just don’t put in that much time. These days, it’s tough not to tag at least one deer if you spend more than a casual day or two in the woods. If there’s a time to hunt hard and hunt often, it’s right now.
Skip work if you can, negotiate family time (just a suggestion) and spend every waking moment in the woods. Stay in the woods from sunrise to sunset and stay alert. You never know when a buck is about to show up.
6. Forget About Food
Nothing is more important to a whitetail during the late winter than food. Except, of course, survival. We’ve all been told to concentrate our late-season efforts on food sources, especially high-energy foods like corn and winter-hardy greens.
That’s great, but those food plots you’ve been hunting all season won’t produce a single deer during legal shooting hours. At least not if they’ve been hunted hard. No buck in his right mind is going to wander into an open field during the last days of hunting season, so why spend your last days watching an open field?
Instead, focus on trails in thick cover that lead from known bedding areas, but instead of placing your stand closer to the food source, put it near the bedding area. Pressured deer will delay their daytime activity and will hug thick cover until they feel safe enough to move. By watching the edges of bedding areas, you stand a much better chance of seeing a buck than if you watch a field.
7. Go for a Walk
Strolling through your woods during the early days of the season was a bad idea. Now it’s time to buckle down and take still-hunting to a higher level. By executing a slow, deliberate sneak though your woods, you might be able to walk up on an unsuspecting buck. It’s one of the most challenging ways to tag a deer and it often doesn’t work, but the more you do it, the more skilled you become.
Make sure all the conditions are right. Only hunt when moisture softens the leaves and the wind masks your movement and carries your scent away from bedded deer. Move slow, then move slower. Look more than you walk.
8. Drive Them
Just as a well-executed still-hunt can produce late-season whitetails, a carefully crafted drive can put plenty of last-minute bucks on the ground. Whether you have two friends or a dozen to help you push deer, there’s no better way to get jittery whitetails to get up and go than to kick them out of their beds. Drives are not only productive, they can be incredibly exciting. The sight of a buck sneaking ahead of the drivers will certainly get your adrenaline flowing.
There’s more to pushing deer to waiting hunters than forming a line and yelling as you kick the brush. A successful drive takes proper planning, the right circumstances and a little bit of luck. Two guys will have little chance of driving deer through deep woods, but they can certainly score in a small woodlot.
9. Shoot or Don’t Shoot
Too many hunters can’t bear the thought of ending the season without adding another set of antlers to the pile behind the barn, so they pull the trigger on a basket-racked 8-pointer instead of the doe standing next to him. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with shooting a small buck, but if you have a choice, shoot the doe.
As the saying goes, you can’t eat antlers. Shoot any buck you want, but don’t complain about the lack of quality bucks next season if the pile of 6-point racks in your garage continues to grow.
There’s also nothing wrong with not killing a deer this year. Although success rates have increased over the last two decades, plenty of hunters don’t bring home any venison. You can always bum a few steaks from your buddies.
10. Don’t Panic
The most important late-season strategy is to remain calm and stay focused. Remember, deer hunting isn’t rocket science. If you haven’t taken a buck yet, it might be the result of a combination of bad luck and missed opportunity. Keep hunting, right up until the last minute of legal shooting time on the last day of the season. We all know someone who pulled out a last-minute miracle, don’t we? Maybe this year it will be you.
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• Same County, Different Names: B&C and Buckeye Big Bucks recognize Brian Stephens’ Highland County whitetail as an Ohio record. An even bigger deer holds the No. 1 spot in the BTR. This article was published in the Winter 2010 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.