The prospects of finding a mature whitetail buck on public land may seem like a fool’s errand and leave you disheartened. You’ve watched truck after truck leave your local public hunting area, presumably all donning firearms and all filling their tags. Why would you waste your time and sit in a proverbial snowbank, trying to fill your deer tag? The truth is, it can be a very difficult time to find a mature buck and kill him.
On the contrary, what do you have to lose? Your expectations are naturally low, so you’ll be pleasantly surprised when you find that other hunters have thrown in the towel and you have nearly every piece of public to yourself. Late-season deer can even become fairly predictable when you factor in their needs during the late season. What they need is a discrete place to survive gun season and access to a quality late-season food source.
Everybody knows that food is king during the late season. But what does a late-season food source look like on public land? Of course, this is highly variable depending on where you hunt. If you hunt big woods deer, where agriculture is abstinent, deer will survive purely on browse. A study by the US Forest Service and Minnesota DNR claims that up to 80% of a deer’s winter diet consists of woody browse. Of the deer studied, the majority of their diet consisted of dogwood, red maple, sweetfern, beaked and American hazel, mountain maple, wintergreen, and blueberry. Logging operations often create the best variety of browse in these heavily timbered environments.
Hard mast can also be an attractant this time of year. A productive oak flat will attract bucks in the public woods, as can the seed pods of a mature locust tree. If you’re hunting ag country, a sunset drive will quickly tell you which fields have abundant spilt grain. Because bucks are conserving energy for winter, odds are he’s bedding near these desirable food sources.
When it comes to locating mature bucks on public land after the rut, you can just about cross off all the super obvious spots that hunters have been hitting hard. These bucks have been educated all season long and avoid these spots like the plague. Hunting sanctuaries is often a good public land strategy, regardless of the time of year, and late season is no indifferent.
However, during the late season, the best sanctuaries become those in close proximity to the best food sources available. To preserve their remaining fat throughout winter, bucks will often make do with obscure sanctuaries that you wouldn’t expect to hold a bunch of deer during the remainder of the season. Think a small, isolated slough, a small thicket tucked away in a small depression and disconnected from the main tree line, a grassy terrace within an ag field, or the little abandoned farmhouse woodlot. Ordinarily, bucks are seeking areas with ample browse and high doe concentrations, but this time of year they’re more concerned with preserving energy and hiding out close to their destination food sources.
Another form of late-season sanctuary is one created by property ownership boundaries. If there’s a large parcel of private land known to harbor deer and not allow hunting, mature deer take note and spend the gun season in these sanctuaries. Finding public land that borders these historic sanctuaries—no matter how anemic and obscure—these little public hidey holes can become worthwhile late-season hideouts.
When the weather gets downright nasty, and the winter wind pierces through every bit of clothing you put on, you can be assured the deer will also be seeking refuge. As uncomfortable as it is, this brutal weather can help you easily eliminate places that won’t have deer. The windward side of a hill, tree line, or any form of a windbreak will likely be absent of life.
If you’ve ever spent a cold December day hunting ducks, you know the value of a slough and the wind-breaking refuge it creates. Furthermore, north-facing hillsides and windswept drainages will likely have deeper snow accumulation relative to the surrounding landscape. South-facing hillsides will almost always have less snow accumulation, which usually means better bedding and easier access to food.
By surveying the current conditions and noting snow cover, exposed food sources, and wind direction, you might be able to eliminate as much as 60% of the landscape. That means you only have 40% of the remaining landscape to cover, all of which should be a fairly high-odds endeavor. Couple this with the knowledge of likely food sources in your area and a theoretical post-gun season sanctuary, and you might have cracked the code to finding a mature late-season buck.
Feature image via Matt Hansen.