Most hunters live for the rut and invest the bulk of their vacation days in this unpredictable yet exciting time of year in the whitetail woods. But Neil Dougherty isn’t most hunters.
A wildlife habitat consultant with decades of land management and whitetail success under his belt, Dougherty would trade all of November to hunt just a few days in the late season. While hunting the rut is largely a game of luck, he said, the late season is about pure strategy.
“Everybody is equal in the rut. It’s pretty much just grinding out the time in a tree, and sooner or later you might be lucky enough for him to run by you. Or, the buck you’ve been thinking about and dreaming about could be three miles away the day you’re out there,” he said. “For my personal hunting property, forget about the rut.”
Dougherty devises post-rut strategies that, with a little cooperation from Mother Nature, can result in filled buck tags in a matter of a couple days.
“If you have the ability to work with a piece of ground, the thinking game and the strategy begins once we get through that whole rut mess,” he said. “When we get to this late season period of time-this whole strategy session and designing the mousetrap of the property and strategic hunting of the piece and pressuring and non-pressuring areas—all this stuff can come together and start to almost put the deer where you want them to be.”
Switching Gears Dougherty recognizes three limiting factors to consider when targeting bucks in the late season.
First, he says it’s important to know where other hunters are. You can play off that information to control pressure as much as possible.
The physical condition of the deer in your area will also influence your strategy. Worn-down bucks that are beaten up by the grueling rut marathon will behave much differently than bucks that are still fat, happy, and healthy come late season.
But Dougherty says the biggest factor is weather. Cold temperatures that burn calories and force bucks out of hiding to feed where they’ll be exposed are critical to late-season success.
Perfect Storm Dougherty says conditions that beat you up in the tree will also give you the best odds of tagging a rut-worn buck. Temperatures 10 degrees below normal, blustery winds, and significant snowfall can trigger a major feeding event and push bucks out of bed before dark. During this type of weather window, Dougherty says you can cautiously chip away at the corners of a field or food source where deer will keep coming because they have to.
But if you’re facing above-average temps and healthy deer in the late season, Dougherty says hunt frequency shouldn’t exceed two days on then seven days off, even on properties in the 1,000-acre range. You should also limit morning hunting pressure and stick to evening hunts on the coolest days in the forecast.
Food Sources & Deerscaping If you’re hunting a property where you don’t have control over the food plots or crops, Dougherty recommends looking for natural vegetation such as thick pockets of brush and weedy, grassy fields filled with shrubs. These spots typically don’t see a lot of hunter pressure. And even after they begin to dwindle following the first frost, they’re still a better bet than hunting in the woods—unless those woods are filled with acorns, the “magic bean of the deer world.”
If you’re hunting ag land or food plots, however, winter wheat, clover, and brassicas perform well when the weather is warmer than average. But once the ground freezes, Dougherty shifts to dried soybeans followed by standing corn and turnips in the late season.
For hunters who have the ability to plant plots, Dougherty suggests laying down a little bit of everything so you’re not sunk if the weather turns one way or the other. He also says wind should be the key consideration when choosing what to plant and where based on the time of year.
Drone Strike While it’s tempting to spend every minute on stand when you’re down to the wire, Dougherty recommends erring on the side of caution, collecting data via cellular trail cams and observation sits, and then striking when the moment’s right. He warns that being too aggressive and bumping a mature buck from his bedroom after the breeding season could change his pattern and even push him onto a neighboring property.
“Unless I have good intel that tells me go to the core, go to that perfect little inside corner and hunt the food plot, unless there’s something that’s compelling me to go there with camera data or something else that I’ve seen, I’m hunting the fringe, observing from as far away as I can, just hunting to kind of keep track of things,” he said. “But I’m not going right in there unless I have a good idea that I’ve stacked the deck as much in my favor as possible.”
Once he knows a shooter buck is showing up to a food source within an hour of dark four days of the week, Dougherty will move in. But if he commits the cardinal sin of putting too much pressure on that prime location, he’ll back off to give deer a sense of security before returning.
“Sometimes the best hunting strategy for this late time of year is just to leave them alone and wait and capitalize on one or two days when it’s right,” he said.
Dougherty says if you’re hunting private land and truly want to cultivate world-class deer, you might even want to pass up a borderline buck for next year.
“It’s a long chess match and it doesn’t have to necessarily end at the conclusion of the season.”
To learn more about Neil Dougherty’s late-season strategy, tune into episode 82 of the Wired To Hunt Podcast.