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Patterning southern winter whitetails means something entirely different in the upper part of the region than it does in the lower portions. Let’s take a look at strategies for both.
So, here’s the situation. The end of the deer season is approaching. The weather is the coldest it has been since the season commenced; the prime part of the rut has long since ended; food sources have narrowed, deer habits have changed, and you are still determined to kill a big buck. What should be your game plan?
The first thing that must be said — for most of us, this is the hardest time to tag a bruiser. Many will venture to the same public or private land they failed to tag a trophy earlier in the season. However, as difficult as it may be to kill a late season buck, it is possible and with a bit of work not as hard as you might think.
In this part of the deer-hunting universe, winters are rarely brutal. You can be thankful that you are not dealing with deep snow or a Maine or Michigan winter.
Weather conditions affect all deer and Southern deer just a bit more. A deer in this region will move less at the coldest part of the day, which is most likely to be the early morning period. It will be more likely to feed in the middle of the day — especially if a front is approaching. Also, and as is true throughout the season, the last two hours of daylight almost always offers the best opportunities.
So if work or family commitments restrict your potential time afield, take care of those obligations in the mornings, be on stand by 10 a.m. and remain afield until the end of shooting light. This is the first step to success.
The Secondary Rut
As an outdoor writer for nearly 30 years, I have interviewed deer biologists in every Southern state at one time or another. Whenever the topic is the secondary rut, the general consensus seems to be that its something hunters can’t count on… at least in terms of drastically increasing our chances at killing a big buck. One gentleman even told me the secondary rut was mostly something that sprang from the feverish imagination of outdoor writers.
Some doe fawns come into heat during such a rut, but generally less than 20 percent of these yearlings will enter estrous. At times, in many places, the number of hot doe fawns will be considerably less.
New rubs and scrapes will appear every year in mid-December and we should take note of this sign and spend an evening or two hunting over a buck’s calling card. However, if you decide to sit a stand over a fresh or re-freshened rub line, don’t spend more than two evenings doing so. Those red-hot December rubs and scrapes are the quickest — from my experience — to grow cold.
The Deer Diet
Even if we can’t count on the secondary rut to influence deer behavior during the late season, we can definitely rely on food availability to determine where and when the bucks travel.
Overwhelmingly our best chance to take a wide-racked buck late in the season is to determine where, and on what, your buck is feeding. Finding the food source (food plot, oak grove, agricultural field, maple leaves) is a very difficult challenge.
Over the years, I’ve hunted late-season deer over numerous food sources. The one constant I found was that all of these sources were temporary, and none drew whitetails for more than a few days. One evening, for example, I found fresh droppings in a small grove of red oaks. For whatever reason, these four or five trees had produced a better-than-average crop, and nuts still lay on the ground. I was able to take a buck the next day.
I returned to the same site several days later, only to find the acorns gone and the sign old. To put a stand there would have been foolish. Such is the transient nature of late-season food sources.
Although a bountiful acorn crop was my ticket to punching a buck tag that year, generally such hard-mast foods are not available during December to January. Here’s where scouting and knowledge of local soft-mast food sources is crucial to having a chance to succeed.
I own a number of tree and shrub field guides. Each time I see a plant with a berry on it, I look up the species of flora. Then, I research whether deer will consume the plant’s fruit.
Some soft-mast food sources are common and others are not. For instance, the persimmon grows in every Southern state and deer relish this tree’s orange fruits. They are among the last to ripen of all soft-mast foods.
Other times, it might be some uncommon species of grape or obscure viburnum bush that only thrives in specialized habitat. Some hunters scoff at spending so much time learning about unusual trees and shrubs. For them that may be fine, but it’s put venison in my freezer more than once.
Obviously, food plots, agricultural areas, and openings of any kind can draw deer late in the season. However, before you commit to spending a midday or an evening at one of these locales, make sure plants existing there are edible by deer.
For example, one November I was able to kill a decent buck that was feeding across a green field. The farm was a long drive from my house, and I was not able to return to the site until late December. When I arrived in December the field was brown and largely barren. It was too late to go to another farm, so I spent the last hours of daylight hunting, but it was slow, boring, lonely evening.
December and January in the Deep South is not at all similar to pursuing whitetails in the upper part of the region, according to Slade Reeves, video producer for Primos Hunting.
“When the season is winding down in the upper Southern states, for us, this is when the peak of the rut occurs,” he emphasized. “December and January are the prime months of the rut in much of the Deep South. In fact, a lot of hunters from the upper South come down here so they can experience peak rut hunting again in relatively mild winter weather.”
Some years in this region, we can have a strong secondary rut in late January. Of course, the weather has a lot to do with how strong the secondary rut is here.
Feeding And Bedding Areas
Reeves said the first step to success during December and January is understanding where deer bed, feed and travel during the peak of the rut. “Pine plantations, cedar thickets, and three- to five-year-old cutovers are really important bedding areas in the Deep South,” he offered.
Bedding areas relatively near to food sources this time of year are prime locations. A five- to 10-acre food plot is often a major deer draw in this region in December, and it will stay that way through January. That’s assuming it has been planted with the right deer foods.
Among the most fetching of those foods, Reeves added, are clover, turnips, wheat, oats and various greens. In the Deep South, acorns and soft-mast foods are for the most part long gone by December and January. Here a food plot near hardwoods and evergreen thickets reigns.
Once you establish where a bedding area and feeding area combination is located, the next step is to figure out where the main funnel is between the two, Reeves noted.
“There are two classic pinch points,” he said. “One is where any type of hill or slope in a stand of hardwoods merges with another. The second is where two kinds of habitats meet, like where a cedar thicket or pine grove borders a food plot or field. A stand of hardwoods between food sources and bedding areas is also a great set up spot.
“Those are excellent places during the rut to intercept bucks that are following the does to feeding areas and making and checking rub or scrape lines. One year, for example, I shot a nice buck in a pinch point that was just 30 yards from a food plot. The buck was following behind a group of does.”
December and January deer hunting can be difficult, but if you have an understanding of deer behavior during the winter, you have a better opportunity of patterning late-season whitetails.
Game & Fish Magazine features detailed, local coverage about the best hunting and fishing opportunities broken down by state or region to give you the best local coverage available. www.gameandfishmag.com
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