The next time you find yourself scheduling vacation for deer hunting, consider flipping past Halloween and Thanksgiving and poring over the possibilities around December 10.
Why? Well, it’s not because of the so-called “second rut.” Yes, rut activity sometimes occurs in early December, but it’s minor. The bigger factors are hunger, food availability, cold weather and little or no hunting pressure. When those factors combine before mid-December — and you throw in random late-breeding activity for added spice — you’ll often see deer activity that outshines the main rut of late October through mid-November.
True, breeding activity can tick upward in early December as doe fawns enter heat for the first time and an occasional doe recycles after failing to get pregnant four weeks earlier. But the second rut is more a last gasp than a second wind, and breeding in December north of the Mason-Dixon line results more from convenience and coincidence than relentless pursuit.
Although there’s no guarantee the early to mid-December time frame will produce great deer activity each year, the ingredients for a deer hunter’s “perfect storm” almost always swirl about that time. Those ingredients include:
- Food sources compress and food varieties dwindle. In Northern regions, most crops have been harvested by then, and many acorns and nutritious leaves have been eaten or buried under early snowfalls. Deer congregate on remaining foods and deplete them further.
- The whitetail’s metabolism hasn’t yet slowed for winter, which means hunger can be relentless. They must find food to maintain their energy reserves, and when they find it, they’ll stay longer to eat.
- Snow, wind and cold temperatures cause whitetails to burn more calories, further increasing their need for nutritious, energy-rich foods.
- Bucks are never hungrier. Besides the increased energy demands that all whitetails face, bucks are trying to recover from the rut, when they lose as much as 25 to 30 percent of their weight. But no matter how much they eat, they won’t add fat. All they can do is regain energy and stamina.
- Large agricultural fields often offer the most abundant and accessible foods, and hunger drives deer to make daylight appearances. It’s often possible to monitor feeding activities and find possible setups by driving backroads.
- Hunting pressure tails off by late November, making deer feel more secure when moving at dawn and twilight in the weeks that follow.
- Although it seldom pays to bank on the second rut, late-breaking breeding action sometimes creates opportunities. After all, when female deer congregate on fields of snow-dusted alfalfa, they create a target-rich environment. If a buck encounters an estrous doe while eating, he might have just enough sex drive remaining to pursue her when she first rebuffs his advances. If the doe continues being evasive, her route might drag the buck within range of your bow or gun.
“Perfect Storms” Aren’t Guaranteed
Even so, those seven factors don’t create a “perfect storm” each December on schedule. If you’re cursed with a heat wave, extended rain or a gradual cooling trend that eases deer into winter, early December can prolong your post-rut blues.
But if you’re lucky, snow will arrive in late November or early December, making it easier to scout for feeding areas. Also, hope for temperatures to plunge into the single digits or below zero. Early wicked cold snaps can shock deer into binge eating.
If you find good acorn caches, or fields of soybeans, corn or brassicas, dress for nose-numbing temperatures and get out there. The same goes for alfalfa or other nutritious plants that remain upright, their leaves and stems accessible beneath light snow. Deer will hit these fields if the food is accessible. Setting up along field edges can pay off, especially for late-afternoon hunts. Just make sure you’re upwind or crosswind to the deer’s approach routes and feeding areas.
When you get unseasonable warmth and rain instead of cold and snow, realize that few mature deer will appear on feeding grounds until last light. Field edges can waste your time under such conditions, so get as close as you dare to bedding areas. Your hope is to see them start their feeding run in daylight.
If scouting reveals deer still on their feeding grounds after dawn, study the terrain between their feeding and bedding areas. Try to sneak in and intercept them on their return routes. If you can’t avoid spooking them off fields or acorn flats as you approach before dawn, stay in bed. But if you can find a backdoor entrance, take that long hike and drop into an ambush site near their bedroom.
Hunting Late-Season Forests
Post-rut hunting in big-woods environments can be deer hunting’s biggest challenge. Unlike their farmland counterparts, forest deer exist largely on woody browse, which means their food supply is more varied and spread over large areas.
Still, a different version of “the perfect storm” can unfold when North Woods whitetails move to winter deeryards. If you know which trails deer follow to wintering areas, and you’re there when they evacuate, the buck of a lifetime could walk by. Realize, though, that mature bucks are usually the last ones to leave their autumn range, and it’s not unusual to see mostly antlerless deer and young bucks filing by in early winter.
Again, the triggering mechanism for deeryard migrations is prolonged cold — generally 19 degrees or lower for at least five days — with snow and dwindling food supplies also factoring in. However, forest deer aren’t apt to move en masse. Some deer evacuate early, some stay long after all others move, and still others make false starts, heading out and returning at least once before heavier snows drive them to their yards for good.
Also, hunting along migration trails isn’t the big-buck shopping spree some hunters expect. Researchers suspect deer movements are influenced not only by cold, snow and food scarcity, but also by forest cover and individual deer habits. Further, if brutal wintry storms don’t arrive until long after Thanksgiving, deer have no reason to pull out early.
Hunters with homes or cabins near migration routes can sometimes monitor daily deer activity. Others know a local who stays atop the situation. John Ozoga spent 30 years researching deer at the Cusino square-mile deer enclosure in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and still lives in forests where deer travel 30 miles and more to reach wintering areas. He tells of a deer stand he built along a good-looking deer trail, not realizing it was a major travel route to the Whitefish deeryard 8 miles away.
In 1988, bitter cold and heavy snow settled in soon after mid-November, coinciding with the state’s firearms season. Ozoga and his wife, Janice, saw 74 deer using that trail during their stand sessions during Michigan’s 16-day gun season, all of them does and fawns. Ten years earlier, the Ozogas monitored a trail leading to the Petral Grade Deeryard. Severe weather had arrived in early November, triggering the migration before gun season opened. The Ozogas saw only two deer on that trail during a week of frequent sits, but both were bucks.
When The Party Ends
Once forest deer reach their winter yards and farmland deer emerge from that first severe cold snap, the best hunting opportunities are over. The whitetail’s metabolism slows and they no longer feel the intense hunger pangs that drove them from cover and into relatively small areas to feed during daylight.
Even so, late-season deer activity starts and stops with food, and whitetails are still out there. By staying afield, you might stumble into whitetails, even mature bucks, that leave themselves vulnerable.
Weather still plays a role, too, and you’ll almost always fare best just before storms. Monitor the weather and watch for sudden drops in barometric pressure. Deer sensed it already, and will increase their feeding activity accordingly.
And don’t disregard rub lines from earlier in the year. If a rub line leads between a buck’s bedding and feeding areas, and you find signs that a buck is back on that route, hunt it. Start near the field and try it a couple of days. Move steadily closer toward his daytime sanctuary if you don’t find better options.
Further, don’t be surprised to see or hear bucks sparring and jousting into the Christmas season. Just don’t take it as a sign that another rut is breaking loose. December sparring contests are merely patty-cake clicking and clacking, with few real hostilities between mature bucks. Bucks have lost much of their competitive edge because their testosterone levels have been declining for weeks.
In addition, respect the fact that conditions in the woods don’t favor stealth and concealment. The woods are bare, and sounds get amplified in cold air on still days. Moving your gun or bow silently into position while staying undetected is never more difficult.
Even though deer hunters can only hope that fickle weather supercharges their December deer hunts by unleashing the power of food, hunger and energy needs, they must be ready to hunt should these situations occur.
When the seven critical ingredients come together, hunt your setups as quickly as possible. This high-activity window stays open only briefly. Hopefully, you don’t have to go shopping for cold-weather gear to take advantage of the situation. You should have those things already.
To stay warm during late-season vigils in tree stands or ground blinds, wear several layers of moisture-wicking clothes atop the skin. Before topping off with a jacket or parka, don a wool vest and down- or fiber-filled vest so you don’t restrict your arms and shoulders. Also consider wearing a vest with custom-designed pockets over the chest, kidneys and upper back for air-activated body-warmers. Finally, wear a balaclava that holds hand-warmers behind the ears and neck for extra comfort.
Simply put, you’ll never capitalize on late-season deer if you can’t handle the conditions that trigger late-season deer activity. But if you’re out there when big bucks refuel for winter, you’ll experience action that rivals the hottest rut action you’ve ever felt.