The rut is a marathon for both bucks and hunters. We find ourselves run down, tired, hungry, and thirsty when it's all over. We retreat to our fridges and pantries while the bucks do their best to find a soft spot to lay down with the wind at their back close to food and water.
Good bedding and food can come in many forms and locations, but water is often limited and hard to come by when temperatures drop and things start freezing. Honing in on a late-season water source can offer the opportunity you've been searching for all season.
We are masters at overcomplicating the strategy of ambushing a buck. Sure, there're plenty of challenges, but don't overlook the simple truths. This time of year, bucks are pressured and worn down, so their daytime activity will likely be limited, and they need essential resources to rebuild strength and survive.
This post-rut phase can also mean some welcomed predictability after we just spent a month trying to keep up with erratic movement. Most folks focus on food sources this time of year, which can definitely pay off. But if you're on a property without food source destinations, you could be hard-pressed to find a destination that concentrates deer.
Now that the craziness of the rut is over, you have to find where a buck is recovering. Water sources can help you narrow your search by showing you where the freshest sign is. Look for fresh, big tracks and unpack the direction of travel.
Boots on the ground is always best for this kind of scouting, but if you're worried about spooking deer that could be bedding close to the water source, cross reference the direction of travel with your maps to determine nearby bedding and food sources. This sounds a bit oversimplified, but by starting with finding a good water source, you can begin piecing together a strategy to get into his core area by reading tracks.
This method also helps simply locate where deer are in general. This is half the battle once the late season arrives. Be careful not to overlook small water sources as well. Drainages, feeder creeks, ponds, and even pools within larger creeks and small rivers can be deer hotspots this time of year.
When it comes to chasing whitetails, the wind is always a priority. However, once the post-rut sets in, the importance of considering wind direction is amplified. Remember, bucks just spent a month expending all their energy—using the wind to aid in detecting danger but also to efficiently check does and areas that does frequent.
But now that they're run down and tired, they’ll be ultrasensitive to detecting danger. They'll also be quickly checking areas like water sources for that last straggler doe that's late coming into estrus or possibly didn't get bred in November. Use this behavior to your advantage.
If you find a water source getting used right now, think through the downwind side carefully. Analyze how a buck will likely come in for a drink with the wind advantage. Also, consider any paralleling trails that a cruising buck might use in route to security cover or a food source. The best setups are where you can position yourself downwind of these trails but still be in range of the water source.
I rarely hunt private land, but the strategies and approaches always intrigue me how hunters with access to private land can employ creative ways to put themselves in range of bucks throughout the year. I have a buddy in Iowa that loves to position small water tanks in and around food sources. Over the years, he has observed that once the late season hits, bucks will often come to a water source before heading to a destination food source.
He's had a lot of luck this time of year getting bucks in range in the evening when they come in to quench their thirst at one of these small tanks. He likes to tuck them just inside the timber, edges of tall grass, or some structure that provides a sense of security to bring the bucks in during daylight hours and lower their guard enough for a few gulps of water before moving off. He says these locations can be effective during the early season and the rut, but movement tends to be most predictable during the late season as long as the water is kept open and isn't frozen over.
The ultimate jackpot for a post-rut water source is a secluded pond or small body of water that's spring fed. This keeps the surface from freezing and will be a magnet for deer when the temperatures fall. A creek or river with a strong enough current to keep it from freezing is also a great location when everything else is turning to ice.
While scouting, mark these locations on your map to check them when the cold weather hits. If you find yourself without these gems in your hunting area, you can still employ some useful hacks to keep water sources from freezing. Growing up, my family used a trick for cattle and sheep watering tanks during the harsh Michigan winters by placing a flotation device like a ball or plastic tube in the tanks to disturb the water's surface, preventing it from freezing. The concept can be carried over to the deer woods by placing a limb, log, or something that will move across the surface, keeping the water accessible and pulling deer in around the area.