Here’s how to get those late-season tough bucks

Late season thick cover such as this make for great habitat for deer.
TERRY MADEWELL/Clarendon Citizen - Late season thick cover such as this make for great habitat for deer.

December is the time of year when getting a big buck begins to get a bit tougher. But according to the S.C. Dept. of Natural Resources historical record keeping data on trophy bucks, a lot of record book bucks are taken during the month of December.

The key is that during late season as the rut wanes, deer become more nocturnal and less likely to present an easy target. But there’s still a lot you can do.

Patterning has become a term used quite frequently in the out-of-doors. Fishermen talk about patterning bass, duck hunters speak of patterning waterfowl, and deer hunters discuss patterning deer. What some outdoorsmen fail to realize is that deer pattern human activities and they adapt to hunting pressure which enables them to  survive. The older the buck, the more quickly he learns to pattern hunters. To take a trophy buck, then your being able to think like an old buck is an absolute necessity.

The greater the hunting pressure, the easier the people and the deer are to pattern. Young bucks often die quickly. Older bucks that rely on their instincts from years past know when, where and how to retreat for cover when man enters the woods. If you hope to take a woods wizard, you must understand the mature buck deer. Each buck in every situation is different. In our area we have a great diversity of habitat types which create several scenarios. We have swamps, agriculture fields, mature hardwoods with acorns and other mast as well as some places where lots of food plots are specifically planted for late-season deer hunting. There are unique situations for each type of hunting scenario.

Hunting agriculture fields is a good example. Some of these fields have been cleaned of the food source and are no longer attractive or a draw for deer, but some are still viable hunting spots. I know from personal experience that as the season goes on, the fewer bucks will enter the field before dark. Even doe deer will not venture out as much. You may get lucky in the late evening but odds are good a field buck is a wise, older deer that can be seen feeding in fields and pastures all summer and at the beginning of hunting season.

But just about the time the sportsman decides to enter the woods, the buck vanishes. He can be spotted in the field at night, but rarely will he be seen during daylight hours. This buck realizes there’s danger in the woods once hunting season begins.

Since the buck feeds in the field at night, the trick to bagging him is to find the route he takes to and from the field. The outdoorsman must be able to navigate through the woods in the dark, using his GPS (Global Positioning System) and florescent tacks placed in trees earlier.

The later in the season a hunter tries to hunt a field buck, the further the buck will be away from the field during daylight hours. But by following this buck’s travel lane from his field to his bedding area, the hunter has two chances of bagging him – at first light or 30 minutes before dark.

Once the buck’s route from the field to the bedding area is established and a tree-stand site has been chosen, be in that stand well before daylight, about 45 minutes to 1 hour before sunrise. The other chance at this buck may come 30 minutes before dark.

In studying bucks on hunting preserves, where green-field hunting is the only means used for harvesting, many sportsmen have learned that trophy deer have staging areas, a region 100-300 yards away from the field that they come to and wait for nightfall before entering a field. The hunter may get a shot at that trophy buck when he arrives at his staging area.

Since the older, bigger, smarter bucks learn quickly to pattern hunters and how to avoid them, during hunting season in high hunter-pressure areas, these bucks will hole-up in areas where the bucks will be safe from hunters, and where a hunter rarely thinks of looking for a buck. Sometimes these are almost inaccessible thickets in remote areas of your property. But some bucks will hide in ditches right beside main roads leading to hunting camps. The buck soon learns that vehicles go up and down the road during hunting season, but that no one ever stops to hunt these places, assuming that the traffic up and down the road spooks the deer. However, mature deer have learned that the vehicles themselves don’t pose a threat, but rather what’s in the vehicle brings the harm.

To find one of these honey holes that may contain a trophy buck, get an aerial photograph of the land you hunt. As you diagram the hunting pressure, you soon will locate the regions that are overlooked. These sites probably hold the biggest and the smartest bucks, because only by avoiding hunting pressure have they been able to survive. If you’ll hunt the places no one else does, you’ll have a good chance to bag a big, late-season buck.