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Late-season whitetail tactics

There’s no denying it: The late season can be the most challenging time for hunters still looking to score on a mature buck. It’s certainly nothing like the height of the fall rut, when the survival instincts that so carefully guide buck behaviour throughout the rest of the year are tossed out the window. Indeed, their hell-bent approach to seeking out available does often leads to lapses in judgment that hunters can take advantage of.

Once bucks have settled into their post-rut routines, however, they move considerably less and with increased caution, making it a much more daunting task to hunt them. For these late-season deer, you have three primary strategic options: hunt them in and around their feeding area, intercept them between their feeding and bedding areas, or head for the heart of their bedding cover and attempt to roust them there. Each tactic has its pros and cons, and the one you choose depends on your personal preference of hunting style.

1. Hunt the feed areas

To hunt late-season white-tailed bucks while they’re feeding, you must do some scouting to find their primary food sources. Where fruit or mast crops are the key forage, preferred feeding locations tend to be pretty consistent year after year. So, if you’ve hunted the area before, you undoubtedly know where to look.

In agricultural regions where crop rotation is part of the production process, however, prime food locations change from year to year. You may have to put some miles on your boots or tires to identify these spots.
Often, this can be as simple as locating concentrations of feeding does, as they also seek out the richest available foods to prepare for the harsh winter ahead. If you don’t see any deer, look instead for signs they’ve been actively feeding, such as tracks, droppings and disturbed crops.

Local landowners can be a great help, so knock on a few doors if you’re struggling to find deer. In my favourite hunting area, it’s the school bus driver who knows and sees all. An avid outdoorsman, he always keeps an eye out for deer during his early-morning and early-evening rounds.

Once you’ve found an active feeding area, the hunting strategy is pretty straightforward. To begin, identify the primary approach routes and avoid them when you set up. You can bank on there being considerably more does and immature deer than bucks taking advantage of any food supply, and all those extra eyes, ears and noses can spell doom if you give away your presence.

Instead, you want these deer to feel secure while feeding, for they’ll effectively serve as living, breathing confidence decoys. Educated mature bucks are much more likely to step out into the open to feed during legal hunting hours if they feel comfortable that other deer have already taken the plunge (also see “Bonus tips: decoys” on previous page).

When selecting a stand location, there are four essentials to keep in mind. First, your stand must offer a clear view of the approach trails and feeding locations. Second, whether it’s a ground blind or a treestand, make sure your set-up blends in with the natural surroundings, yet leaves clear shooting lanes. Next, select sites that are within comfortable shooting range of where you expect the deer to appear and feed. And finally, your stand must be downwind of where you anticipate a buck will show up.

When heading to your blind, always approach from downwind, preferably well before first or last light. Liberally apply masking scent to help conceal your odour. Keep quiet and alert the entire time you’re on your stand, and don’t make any unnecessary movement (I know some hunters who bring a book to help pass the hours). If you don’t have the patience to sit still for hours at a time, however, this may not be the ideal tactic for you.

2. Hunt the travel corridors

Post-rut bucks live a pretty predictable lifestyle when left undisturbed—learn their daily patterns and you’ll have a chance to intercept them as they move from their bedding cover to feeding sites. Again, you first need to identify where they’re feeding, and what trails they’re using most often to get there.

The trails can also provide clues for finding their primary bedding area. I also turn to aerial photos and topographic maps to help pinpoint the most likely sites, remembering that the more pressure the deer are under, the farther from prime feeding sites they’re apt to bed.

Bedding is all about comfort to a white-tailed buck. That means a somewhat remote location providing security from hunters, with cover that’s generally nasty to move through. They prefer sunlit slopes in extreme cold, and shade when it’s warm. When the winds are howling, they’ll select the leeward side of a slope.

Relying on their extraordinary natural senses for survival, bucks often select bedding locations that are downwind of where they think dangerous intruders are most likely to approach from. They’ll also select elevated bedding sites that enable them to easily smell and hear intruders. As well, preferred locations will have easy-to-access escape routes with few barriers, allowing for undetected travel when needed.

After you’ve located a feeding area and likely bedding sites, topos and aerial photos can also help identify the routes deer are using. Frankly, once you’ve located feeding and bedding sites, preferred paths between the two often become self-evident on maps and photos.

Always keep two things in mind when searching for likely trails. First, bucks generally opt for the path of least resistance, so look for well-established travel corridors. Remember, deer are creatures of habit and will use the same path day after day if nothing forces them to consider alternatives.

Second, a buck will select travel corridors that afford him security and ready access to escape cover. This often means edge habitat, so when scouring your maps and photos, pay particular attention to fencelines, headlands, stream banks, ridgetops, the bases of hills, cutlines, road edges, natural bottlenecks and the shorelines of lakes and ponds. Any structure that creates a natural barrier to easy deer movement is likely to have an adjacent travel route.

Having identified likely travel routes, it’s time to confirm if they’re actually in use. I prefer to check during midday, which is generally the time of least activity for mature bucks during the post-rut. This lessens the likelihood of accidentally bumping into a buck and putting him on red alert.

Approach potential travel corridors from the downwind side, and don’t walk on the paths themselves. All you want to do is confirm that you have, in fact, located an active travel route. Recent and numerous tracks are the best indicators, and obviously you’re looking for the tracks of a buck. Late in the season, across much of Canada, this is relatively easy given the typical snow cover.

Another effective way to identify active travel routes is to erect trail cameras. They let you remotely identify how many deer are routinely using the trail and when, as well as their sizes and sex. If your camera doesn’t reveal the animal you want, move on to another trail.

Once you’ve pinpointed a well-used route between feeding and bedding sites—and that a buck is using it—it’s time to get serious. Resist the urge to hunt the corridor by simply walking up and down its length, hoping to bump into a buck. You’ve discovered his secret pathway and the best strategy is to adopt an equally secret hunting tactic—an ambush. This means establishing a stand somewhere along the route.

It can be difficult to set up a portable treestand without making a disturbance; in such a case, I recommend using a ground blind instead. As with selecting any blind site, bear in mind the importance of prevailing winds, natural concealment and clear shooting lanes. And don’t set up too closely to the trail or you risk spooking any deer that might use it. You want to remain undetected at all times.

Sites that allow you to hear and see approaching deer before they pass through your shooting lanes are best of all. They give you time to identify and evaluate approaching bucks before deciding whether to shoot.
Intercepting bucks along travel routes requires great patience, but doing your homework before you select a stand location will help instill the confidence needed to sit patiently for extended periods of time. Again, though, you have to decide if this type of hunt works best for you.

3. Hunt the bedding areas

Hunting mature bucks in their bedrooms is the most difficult late-season strategy, but it’s also the most rewarding. For those with the deer-hunting equivalent of ADHD, there’s nothing more enjoyable than trying to sneak up on a grizzled old buck. It doesn’t require patience so much as it demands constant vigilance. Lose your concentration for even a moment and you’re liable to be left flat-footed as your buck crashes off through the bush.

The two primary tactics for pursuing bucks in their bedding sites are tracking and still-hunting. Both have a tendency to frustrate, as the odds are you’ll hear more deer than you’ll see. But just because a whitetail throws up his white flag, it doesn’t mean you should do the same. With persistence, you can still take your buck even if you’ve spooked him once or twice.

Tracking, as the name suggests, is all about following buck footprints until you come into contact with the owner. This is a viable strategy only when there’s a layer of fresh snow on the ground, preferably less than eight hours old—even better if it’s lightly snowing while you’re on the trail. That way, you’re assured any tracks you find are fresh.

With older snow, you risk not catching up to your deer, getting lost in a maze of tracks or not being able to distinguish buck tracks from a doe’s. Plus, older snow crunches when you walk on it. Remember, silence is the tracker’s best friend.

There aren’t many tricks to tracking, but being persistent and remaining alert are absolutes. Many hunters tend to walk too quickly. In my experience, success is inversely related to walking speed—the slower you go, the more likely you are to eventually find your deer. You should also walk with your head up at all times, stopping to look down only when you need to confirm you’re still on track.

Don’t expect to see an entire deer bedded down, but rather telltale glimpses of body parts, such as a twitching tail or gleaming antler. And when the chance for a shot arrives, it’s likely to be fleeting. Whether you’re tracking or still-hunting, always carry your rifle at port arms so you’re ready for a quick shot.

And remember to dial down your scope to its lowest setting before you set foot in the woods. Too many hunters have blown their chance at a big buck because a high magnification setting didn’t allow them to quickly find the animal through their scope.

Still-hunting is much like tracking, but with a few differences. First, while fresh snow can help dampen noise, it’s not mandatory. Though I prefer lightly falling snow or a slight drizzle when still-hunting, along with colder than normal temperatures, you can still-hunt under any conditions. It’s all about following your instincts and processing data, from the presence of deer sign to prevailing weather to knowledge gained from scrutinizing photos and maps. You need to have a pretty good idea of where you might expect a buck to bed if you’re going to have much success. And as with tracking, hunting slowly and quietly is key.

If you bump a deer, don’t despair. You have three choices: run ahead while it’s on the move so you’re within gun range when it stops; back away to avoid further disturbing the area, then return another day; or, if there’s fresh snow, follow the tracks. Just go with your gut to determine which is the most promising option in any given situation.

Whether you’re still-hunting or tracking, the fear of straying too far and getting lost can conflict with the need to remain persistent and keep after your quarry. You simply have to overcome this if you want to enjoy success. The solution is to carry a handheld GPS unit (and a compass as backup) and mark your starting point. Generally, what takes several hours to cover at a hunting pace can be walked back in under an hour. Let technology set your mind free and you’ll be the better hunter for it.

Ken Bailey

Ken Bailey

An all-around hunter, Ken Bailey enjoys pursuing waterfowl the most. Based in Edmonton, Outdoor Canada's longtime hunting editor Ken Bailey has hunted every major Canadian game animal, in every corner of the country. For many years, he’s shared his deep knowledge of game behaviour, and wide expertise with all manner of firearms with OC's readers. His work has been recognized numerous times by both the Outdoor Writers of Canada and the National Magazine Awards. Ken is a committed conservationist, dedicated to habitat preservation, sustainable harvests, and passing along our hunting heritage to the next generation. He's also an avid fly fisherman, and a pretty darn good game chef.