Hunting Late-Season Bucks

If the whitetail rut comes and goes, and you still have an unpunched tag, don’t put away your bow and sulk.

Hunting Late-Season Bucks

I’ve been involved in the sport of bowhunting for whitetails for more than 50 years. As one might suspect, I’ve developed my own train of thought regarding which parts of the archery season offer hunters their best chances for taking trophy bucks. 

Now, I’m not going to argue that far more mature whitetails are taken by archers during some phase of the rut than during any other part of the season. And I’m sure there are a fair number of big bucks taken each year during early archery season.  

But be that as it may, I’m one of those bowhunters who absolutely loves chasing big whitetails during the late season period. And trust me, because I grew up and still reside in northern Wisconsin, I’ve had more than my share of experience with hunting late-season bucks. It’s become a pursuit I absolutely love.

Wisconsin Winter Whitetail

One of my most treasured and memorable late season hunts took place on a December afternoon way back in the early 1990s. I well remember sitting in my office grinding away on an article for a hunting magazine when the local weather report popped up on the radio. According to the forecast, a major winter storm was scheduled to hit our area some time later that night. 

As I continued to listen, the forecaster added that the wind would be blowing lightly from the northeast prior to the storm arriving. This was exactly the wind direction I needed to hunt one of my favorite stand sites, which prompted me to immediately shut down my word processor and start getting my gear organized for a late-afternoon hunt.

An hour later, I was settled in a treestand that overlooked a large and quite lush alfalfa field. Though there was a bit of snow on the ground, the alfalfa was far from covered up. So the local whitetail herd definitely was still using the field as its primary food source. And I was counting on the approaching major winter to stimulate those deer into a daylight active feeding pattern.

As it turned out, my prediction of seeing some daylight activity proved to be spot-on when a half dozen antlerless deer walked out from a small wooded bluff to the left of my stand site. Just a few minutes later, the group of whitetails had fed to within 15 yards. And that’s when things suddenly became very interesting.

I heard what sounded like another deer walking just inside the edge of the wooded bluff. And when that deer suddenly strolled out into the field, I could hardly believe my eyes. Not only was it a buck, it was a GIANT buck!

Just as the antlerless deer had done earlier, the big whitetail ended up feeding in the alfalfa directly in front of my stand. Unfortunately, the buck was standing at an almost direct head-on angle, so there was no immediate shot opportunity.

But after patiently waiting for what had to be close to 2 minutes, the old whitetail finally offered an acceptable shot angle. The hit was pretty much picture perfect, and I watched the trophy deer go down in the alfalfa field after running about 100 yards. With a gross score of 202 5/8 and a net score of 193 7/8, the 17-pointer ranked as the fourth largest archery killed non-typical ever taken in my home of Wisconsin at that time. And he still remains my best-ever archery buck.

This giant Wisconsin non-typical, taken on a late season hunt in the early 1990s, remains the author’s all-time largest archery whitetail.
This giant Wisconsin non-typical, taken on a late season hunt in the early 1990s, remains the author’s all-time largest archery whitetail.

Deadly Cold in North Dakota

It’s a fact that some secondary rut activity will occur during the late-archery season. And it’s most likely that such activity will be concentrated somewhere near a preferred late-season food source. This is simply because whitetails, especially those found in northern regions, place a huge priority on food from the first day the weather begins to turn nasty. 

But while late season weather conditions can sometimes become borderline unbearable, the truth of the matter remains: As weather conditions become worse, daylight deer movement (including mature buck movement) can often border on unbelievable.

I well remember a bow hunt in northwest North Dakota from a few years back. Though I grew up and still live in northern Wisconsin, which means I have experienced some brutally cold weather conditions, the two evenings that videographer, Matt Tande, and I spent in a ground blind on that hunt created a new definition for the term “brutally cold.” In fact, it could better be described as “inhumanly cold!”

Now, I’d like to make one thing perfectly clear here. When I say the weather conditions were brutal, I mean they were darn near unbearable. During the first 2 days we were in North Dakota, nighttime temperatures dipped south of minus 30 degrees, while daytime temps struggled to reach minus 10 degrees. But thanks to growing up in northern Wisconsin, Matt and I had plenty of experiences in dealing with absurdly cold weather. We’d also learned the way whitetails react to and behave when such weather moves in.

Anyway, after talking over the situation with our buddy and North Dakota resident, Brody Moreland, Matt and I saw absolutely no reason to climb into a ground blind until there was only an hour of daylight remaining. Thanks to a couple of scouting cameras Brody had earlier placed near the edge of a picked cornfield, we knew for certain that deer weren’t showing up until about 30 minutes of legal shooting time remained.

True to what the trail camera had shown, the first deer to show up at the cornfield appeared right on schedule. And from that point forward, a steady procession of whitetails waltzed into the field. Then, just as the sun was slipping below the western horizon, the buck we were after strolled into view and ended up stopping a mere 25 yards in front of our ground blind. After a near perfect hit, Matt and I had the pleasure of watching the whitetail crash to the ground in a shower of snow after running less than 50 yards. 

Though the author had been on plenty of cold-weather late-season hunts in previous years, the temps he endured during a hunt for this North Dakota whitetail proved to be the most frigid of all.
Though the author had been on plenty of cold-weather late-season hunts in previous years, the temps he endured during a hunt for this North Dakota whitetail proved to be the most frigid of all.

Kansas Heat Wave

While I’ve talked about having to deal with cold temperatures, there have also been occasional instances when late-season weather conditions have turned out to be something far from brutally cold. And to be very honest, I’ve been on late-season hunts where the daytime temperatures bordered on downright hot. Of course, a late-season heat wave can have the direct opposite effect on the daytime activities of whitetails. One such December bowhunt in southern Kansas comes to mind.

My son, Jake, and I had leased a fair amount of high-quality whitetail ground that particular year and, in fact, Jake had taken a dandy buck from our Kansas property during the November rut. Based on Jake’s valuable information from his hunt, I knew pretty much exactly where I’d be concentrating my efforts during late-archery season.

But where Jake had been the fortunate recipient of fairly decent cool weather conditions during his rut hunt, I received no such benefit during my late-season foray. Put simply, daytime temps were uncomfortably warm, especially for December. And those temps didn’t cool down much during the nighttime hours. As one might imagine, the conditions meant daylight deer movement was pretty much nonexistent.

After spinning my wheels in the hot temps for a few days, it became quite obvious I was fighting a losing battle. So early on the morning of day four, I packed my belongings, checked out of my motel room and headed to the property I was hunting. It was my plan to grab the treestands and scouting cameras I’d put up earlier. It was time to surrender.

After retrieving the stands and cameras, I then made one of those last-second decisions that sometimes prove prophetic. Rather than packing the cameras away, I decided to check the memory cards — just in case. It proved to be a very wise move, as the first card I checked contained a number of photos of a big 4x4 buck. Making the discovery even more intriguing was the fact that the vast majority of the photos had been captured during daylight hours. It made no sense, but I couldn’t argue with the proof.

I immediately walked back to the spot where the pics were captured and put a portable stand in the same tree from which I’d just removed it. I then drove to town, checked back into the motel, took a quick shower and slipped into my hunting clothes. A half-hour later found me perched on the stand, fully pumped by the anticipation of having the 4x4 make another daylight appearance. I didn’t have to wait long before things got interesting.

I seriously doubt that 30 minutes had gone by before a doe strolled into view some 75 yards away. And just a few seconds later, I caught a flicker of movement behind her. A quick look through my binocular showed it definitely was another deer, and one that sported a set of antlers!

While keeping a close eye on the two deer, I slowly reached for my bow and then promptly got into a good shooting position. It proved to be a wise move, as the doe had already closed the distance to 20 yards before dropping her head to feed on some acorns scattered on the ground. 

As if hearing my wishful thoughts, the buck did the exact same thing. Waiting until he was broadside, I came to full draw, anchored my 20-yard sight pin on his vitals and released an arrow. The hit was near perfect and the 8-point Kansas whitetail went less than 100 yards before going down. Just an incredible way to end a hunt that I was ready to give up on only a few hours earlier. Talk about pulling a rabbit out of a hat!

After spending several fruitless days chasing Kansas whitetails in abnormally warm December temperatures, the author finally closed the deal on this Kansas 8-pointer.
After spending several fruitless days chasing Kansas whitetails in abnormally warm December temperatures, the author finally closed the deal on this Kansas 8-pointer.

Post-Rut Reminder

I believe the three hunts I’ve chronicled in this article firmly back up my claim that weather conditions often can be the biggest hurdle for late-season whitetail bowhunters. But the second biggest hurdle has to be that, throughout a big part of the country, mature bucks will be firmly entrenched in post-rut behavior patterns. 

What this means is that, for at least a little while, big whitetails will often restrict their travels to the hours after dark. And it’s at this point that some late-season bowhunters make a crucial mistake. Rather than backing off and waiting until targeted bucks begin moving during daylight hours, they continue to put pressure on those deer.

While I’ve long been a believer in the old saying that goes something along the lines of “you can’t kill ‘em if you aren’t out there trying,” there are those rare occasions when not being out there is the exact approach we need to take. Remember, we’re talking about the post-rut period here, which means we’re dealing with bucks who are no longer being distracted in the least by the breeding urge.

While post-rut bucks are no longer consumed with the breeding urge, they do become very consumed with a particular survival instinct. And that instinct sees them acquiring a strong desire to keep their bellies as full as possible with protein-rich foods. 

In agricultural areas, I tend to concentrate my late-season hunting efforts near standing and/or recently harvested corn and soybean fields. And my many years of experience with hunting big woods environments during late season has shown that resident whitetails really key in on browse this time of year. Logged forested areas that are anywhere between their second to fifth year of regrowth seem to be an especially attractive source of browse for late-season whitetails.

Final Thoughts

When it’s all said and done, I can’t and won’t deny that I still much prefer chasing trophy whitetails during the late pre-rut and then all the way through the rut. However, on those occasions when my archery tag remains unfilled after the rut is over, I simply adopt a different approach. And therein lies the main reason I do and always have loved bowhunting for late-season whitetails. It truly is a challenge! 


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