For Matthew Outlaw, it had been a long season in the deer stand, filled by ups and downs, since the mid-August opener.
In mid-December, with only a couple of weeks left before he put away his gear for another year, he really wanted to take one more good buck.
He was beginning to lose clear vision to his right of rows of corn stubble from a less-than-ideal stand that hadn't produced a racked buck for anyone all season - but had been a no-brainer for seeing does until two weeks before. In fact, the only reason he was in the stand was a nagging feeling that the relative quiet of the remote corner of the property was just what a late-season buck might be looking for.
As darkness fell, he happened to catch movement to his left - a deer making its way to a thick patch of undergrowth on the far side of the field. The deer's slow, methodic stride told Outlaw it wasn't a doe, and to his delight, a quick check with the scope on his .270 afforded him a glimpse of thick-based antlers with at least two forks. Raising the rifle in earnest, he put the crosshairs on the deer's shoulder and gently squeezed the trigger.
In deer hunting circles, December is the month that separates the avid hunter from the casual - the men from the boys, so to speak. While some are busy tuning up duck calls or respooling reels, hoping for a winter-time catfish, the avid deer hunter keeps returning to the everlasting vigil of scanning the woods for just a glimpse of that elusive whitetail. Like all good things, deer season must come to an end, but for knowledgeable hunters, it doesn't have to end on a sour note.
"Up until a couple weeks ago, bucks were running does pretty good," said Outlaw, a St. Matthews native. "Now it's often like a ghost town out there."
Outlaw is in the enviable situation of living in Calhoun County, home to one of the heaviest deer populations in South Carolina, as well as living on his family farm whose chief crops are corn and soybeans.
At 21, he has grown up killing trophy deer that most hunters will never see in a lifetime and has more than a knack for knowing how to read the minds of big bucks.
"There might be a couple of late-season does that didn't take (in November), but for the most part, the bucks are only interested in eating and staying hid," he said.
Because the corn had been reduced to stubble, Outlaw relies on broadcast corn to keep deer coming to his fields. The deer have learned, however, that a free meal isn't cheap, and most take up nocturnal habits after the rut.
"We put out corn, but we also plant some late-winter food plots - mostly rye grass and oats - along the edges of our fields, and especially in the shooting lanes that are cut through the undergrowth around the stands," he said. "Deer don't want to move much, so anywhere there is a good food supply near a thick bedding area - especially if it's back away from other human activity or hasn't seen much hunting pressure - is a likely place to come across a late-season buck. The problem is whether he comes out during the daylight or an hour after you've gone home."
Mike Parrott is another veteran Calhoun County hunter who counts Outlaw as a friend. He believes hunters should abandon their normal daylight-to-10 and 3-to-dark stand times and pattern deer based on the weather.
"The weather here may not get all that extreme in December, but we often get an early cold front that will bring temperatures down below freezing for several days," Parrott said. "If that happens, my experience is that deer will stay bedded down at night, especially if the wind gets up. After a day or so of really cold temps, deer will get up and move during the middle of the day to the closest food. He may not have to go more than 100 yards, but he's out in the open, and that's about all you can hope for."
During these weather patterns, Parrott will stay on a stand all day or go into late and hunt through the middle of the day. Another option on cold, frosty nights is to slip quietly into a stand well before daylight and hope to catch deer moving back into bedding areas after they've fed. That was the situation when he scored his best deer last season, a 10-pointer of near record-book proportions.
"It had been really cold toward the end of the month, and I opted to go in really early and sit along a well-used travel area and try to catch one moving out of the field," he said. "If I hadn't already been there and let everything settle down, I'd have never killed this deer. He was walking along the edge of the woodline, and I barely caught a glimpse of him because there wasn't much light. That's where paying the extra money for good optics paid off. Fortunately, he had to cross an opening, and I saw his rack outlined against the open area, and I was able to see him pretty clear and dropped him right there on the spot."
Many hunters who have passed up does in hopes of seeing a good buck, use the month of December to reduce doe herds on their properties. Outlaw is no exception.
"I look at it as I'm hunting that buck until the sun gets up," he said. "After that, I don't mind taking a couple of does, because they are not as spooky about coming to the corn or into a food plot at the crack of dawn. We get at least three either-sex days down here during the last month of the season, and the limit is two deer per person. We usually invite a few hunters that want to put some meat in the freezer, and they're glad to help us take some does off the land."
Outlaw said having a good doe harvest late in the season winds up balancing the herd on his farm.
"It's not hard to figure out where to hunt does," said Parrott. "When they find a corn pile they like, they'll be tracks all over it. They just seem to prefer one area over another, and that probably has to do with where they are bedding down. We try to space those stands out so several people can see deer without hunting the same deer as the next stand."