Traditional late-season advice on finding and killing December bucks tends to center on food sources. You’ve heard it many times—from many people who have good places to hunt with quality late-season food sources.
What if you don’t have a cut cornfield or plot full of brassicas that deer gravitate to every afternoon as they try to get a caloric edge on the coming winter? Well, you’re not alone. Most of us don’t. The truth of the matter with that advice is that it’s not just about having the right whitetail buffet open and available to the local ungulates.
The real secret to killing bucks on a late-season food source, or anywhere else, is to mostly leave them alone.
Earlier this month, I drove to southwestern Wisconsin to muzzleloader hunt. The first night on stand, I saw a spike and four does. I didn’t shoot any of them, which I came to regret the following three days, during which I never saw another deer. Not one.
The problem was that the landowner had spent some time rifle hunting the prime spots right before I got there. That put the deer down, and then I showed up, and my presence put them down further. Even in a high-deer-density area on a solid property, late-season pressure is no bueno.
When I left that spot, I stopped by a good friend’s place to hunt Minnesota on my way home. He said they hadn’t set foot on his place hardly at all for nearly a month. We saw 12 does and three bucks in three hours. This was on a property that shouldn’t be nearly as good as the Wisconsin ground I had just left.
If you have private property that you don’t think will get hunted, save it. Plan your hunts around the right conditions (super cold weather, incoming or outgoing fronts, etc.). Be surgical in your hunts. Go in when the time is right and the deer haven’t been messed with, and you should have better movement.
Every break you give the deer is a chance for them to slip into natural daylight movement patterns. Every day that you hunt them is a chance for them to revert to nocturnal habits. Think of it as a balance you have to maintain through careful, strategic sits.
Now, what if you’re sharing ground with other hunters? What if you don’t have a dreamy food source on your dirt?
If you’re a public land or permission-based hunter who has company in the woods, you’re at a disadvantage, but it’s time to look for the positives. You can pretty much assume that most of your competition is going to follow the sit-the-food strategy if it’s an option. If it is, you know that the deer you might kill will be in the cover.
Work their movements back from the food and the obvious pressure, and follow the advice given at the beginning of this article. Hunt with the right conditions, and only when you can get into what you believe is a high-odds spot. Pay attention to your presence, because even though you can’t control your competition, you can control how sloppy you are. This is so important.
Now, if you don’t have a food source that allows you to reverse engineer travel from, you’re going to have to get on onX or in the pickup, and figure out where the deer are feeding. This is the most important piece of the puzzle because it’ll tell you where to start looking for ambush sites as they travel to and from the groceries.
In some ways, properties without a destination food source but that are positioned near one are my favorites for late-season hunting. They often allow for better access for both morning and evening sits, and since the deer are often just moving through, you have a better chance to scout without bumping them off of food or bedding.
The key to the whole thing for most late-season hunters is just to mitigate their presence as much as possible while hunting smart. That’s it. The more the deer know you’re after them, the more you won’t encounter them.
So, tread as lightly as possible during your fourth-quarter hunts.
Feature image via Matt Hansen.