For the die-hard deer hunter, there's no need to rely on recent recollections of whitetails running amok in the heart of the rut or to sing a reminiscent ode to the glory days of October. Late-season hunting may mean a decided nocturnal inclination on the part of deer, and success may require a much larger ration of patience and persistence.
Nonetheless, for hunters with the proper mindset and a willingness to employ tactics at considerable variance with the long gone days of soft mast and acorns, the latter part of November and the entire month of December can be delightful.
Here's a look at a variety to tactics and techniques that might help you make the final months of deer season memorable.
Beautiful Bad Weather
A long-time friend, Roy Turner, once was about as serious a deer hunter as you could find in South Carolina.
He's slacked up a bit as he introduces his two boys to the sport, but I've never forgotten a thought he shared with me years ago.
"I love it when the weather turns nasty," he said. "I don't care whether it's the kind of cold we only get once every three or four years, a bit of snow or a prolonged period of rain."
His explanation made perfectly good sense. For starters, bad weather means wimps, couch potatoes, fair-weather hunters, indeed, most everyone else stays at home. Accordingly, he has the woods pretty much to himself.
Beyond that, foul weather can often translate to increased deer activity. That is especially true in the case of bitter cold, for deer need additional nutrition in order to keep warm.
When it comes to snow, one of the beauties of an inch or two of soft, white covering is the manner in which it enables a hunter to "read" what has been happening. There's no easier way to discern well-traveled trails, favored bedding spots, feeding areas and the like than after a snow storm. Even in the case of long, drenching rains, sooner or later deer will tire of lying in a bed and get up to browse a bit, stretch their legs, so to speak, and move.
If you're afield when others aren't, you can take advantage of all these situations.
Today, probably 95 percent of all deer hunting is done from "on high." That is to say, hunters pursue their quarry from elevated stands that more appropriately might be called "sits," because that's what they do while playing the waiting game.
We talk and write about climbers, Loc-Ons, ladder stands, tripods and shooting houses. All except the latter usually place the hunter anywhere from 10 to 25 feet off the ground, and increasingly, shooting houses have become tree houses.
Yet this approach to hunting is a development belonging almost entirely to the last two generations. Indeed, one of the great deer hunting writers of yesteryear, Archibald Rutledge, thought an observation platform he had constructed in a huge live oak at Hampton Plantation so novel that he wrote about it in considerable detail.
Hunting was done, without question and without second thoughts, afoot. Sometimes it involved taking a stand and waiting for deer being drive by dogs; on other occasions hunting afoot involved covering a lot of ground by easing along through the woods.
The latter approach still has a lot to recommend. For starters, hunters cover a great deal more ground. Beyond that, and this is especially the case for public lands, taking shank's mare may be the best way to get to little pressured deer, and a person can cover a lot more ground comfortably without a climbing stand strapped to his back.
The man who is unquestionably the finest deer hunter I have ever known, North Carolina's Joe Scarborough, used to the Palmetto State border because we have a longer and more liberal season.
"If a man's a good woodsman," he would say, "he doesn't need to worry about tree stands and such like."
Rest assured Scarborough, who did three tours of duty as a sniper in Viet Nam, fit the bill. He could move through the woods in a fashion so stealthy that you caught yourself looking back to make sure he was still there.
The lesson? Brush up on your woodsmanship skills, especially when it comes to quiet movement; knowing how to use the terrain, wind direction, and thermals to your advantage. Just flat-out learn to outsmart your prey.
You might find hunting afoot to be a refreshing and rewarding alternative, although keep safety concerns and the potential of interfering with others firmly in mind.
Go a 'Fur Piece'
Scarborough was a man who loved to hunt, as the dean of American campers once put it, "back of beyond."
He did it afoot but was also aware that whether a hunter stalked, walked or took the trouble to carry a stand (or build them) in really remote areas, getting well off the beaten path had distinct advantages.
"Pressured deer move into areas where they aren't pressured," Scarborough was fond of saying, "and to deal with them you need to be where they are."
That's especially the case with older, savvier bucks once the rut has come and gone, and that's precisely the period of the hunting season we're talking about here.
So long as a hunter is reasonably fit, doesn't mind getting up a bit earlier, walking a lot farther, staying out a bit later, and working extra hard to get a deer out when Dame Fortune sees fit to smile, one of the best things to do is to venture into really remote areas.
South Carolina has plenty of them, from the steep ridges and deep hollows of the mountains around Jocassee in the upstate to the vast swamp lands found along some of the rivers at the Low Country and at portions of the Francis Marion National Forest.
Start by studying maps such as the South Carolina Atlas & Gazetteer (DeLorme Publishing) and those of Game Lands produced by the Department of Natural Resources and soon a hunter should have a pretty good idea of where he might want to venture to get off the beaten path.
If there aren't any roads in the area ... good. If there are not roads and no maintained trails ... even better.
Take a GPS, compass, a topo map, and some basic survival essentials, put them all into a day pack, and hit the trail afoot or possibly by canoe.
The points just made about venturing into remote locations will take hunters to terrain where few others hunt.
But it's also possible to find such places without covering miles. It may mean venturing into a thicket or vegetative hell hole, wading a few hundred yards to reach an elevated area in a swamp, or maybe just going where others don't normally hunt.
For example, if the members or your hunt club like to spend their hunting hours looking at food plots, why not consider putting a Loc-On stand near a trail leading to such places? Or give some thought to a stand that covers a well-used crossing that others overlook because it doesn't offer much sight distance.
With some clippers and care a hunter can clear a shooting lane or two in even the thickest of areas, and take a chapter from the bow hunter's book - learn to deal with deer up close and personal.
It also helps to out think deer, but it doesn't hurt to out think other hunters as well.
Hunt deer where other hunters ain't and use other hunters as an unwitting tool to force deer in your direction, and you can benefit.
Sign Post Up Ahead
Recently, in the course of casual conversation with Captain Darryl Smith, a man who makes his living guiding for catfish but whose personal outdoor passion is deer hunting, he made an insightful comment.
"I've killed more than 500 deer in my life," he said, "and that should mean I've learned something about the sport.
"If you asked me what the most common failing among deer hunters is, I reckon my answer would have to be 'failure to notice or read sign.' "
Smith elaborated by saying most everyone noticed obvious things such as well-used trails, tracks made by big deer, scrapes, rubs and droppings. However, in his view they failed to take, more often than not, the next logical step.
That involves analyzing and interpreting sign. It can tell a hunter about preferred bedding areas, where deer are feeding and what they are eating, places where they prefer to cross a stream or jump a fence, and much more.
The wise hunter, especially late in the year, should check natural signs and try, with a great deal of intensity, to figure out what they mean. The more a hunter understands deer sign posts, the more he'll learn and understand.
And knowledge certainly translates to power when it comes to success in deer hunting.
The annals of American frontier history are filled with tales of the exploits of what were known as "long hunters" (men who hunted far from home and were often gone a long time).
Similarly, in today's world of deer hunting, articles frequently reference an individual as a "hard hunter." That immediately brings to mind someone who pays his dues in the coin of lots of hours afield, careful preparation, and most of all, due attention to patience and persistence.
Common sense tells us that the hunter who is willing to stay on his stand later in the morning, get there earlier in the afternoon, and remain on red alert at all times will see more deer and have more chances for shots. Taking matters a step further, a hunter who manages to stay in a stand from before daylight until the passage of the last shooting light will have his rewards.
Obviously a stand needs to be well chosen from the standpoint of location, and it helps if it is in a position, such as at the edge of a power line, gas line, or even a railroad, where distant lines of sight are available.
Of course, seeing is one thing and shooting is another.
The hunter whose location enables him to see deer for great distances also needs to be able to execute shots to match the situation. Most of us have limitations of 250 yards or less, but if a hunter knows his weapon, understand its ballistics and the performance capabilities of his choice in ammunition, uses a range-finder, takes windage into account, and most significantly of all, practices, appreciably longer shots are reasonable.
The disciplined deer hunter is one who knows the value of waiting 'em out with determination. When that approach is combined with the ability to utilize a flat-shooting rifle such as a .243 or .270 to good effect, it's a deadly combination.
Give these pointers due consideration, apply them as they fit individual hunting situation and ability, and they should translate to greater success late in the season.
About all that remains to be added is the undeniable fact that hunters can't kill a deer in November or December, or for that matter any other time, unless they are "out there." Those grey days of the late season, when fall gives way to winter and the hunter's horn seems to have lost its ringing note, often belong only to hardy, die-hard devotees.
Yet for those who love loneliness and solitude, who joy in having the woods to themselves, and who savor the rich rewards sometimes available at this season, November and December can present hunts to be remembered.