Find the food, and you’ll find late-season deer. Here are a few tips.
The last leg of deer season in the Carolinas arrives this month, in the middle of the holiday season, when many hunters are taking full advantage of their remaining vacation days.
After nearly three months, they have beaten down woods trails in search of a big buck. While many have a full freezer and a heavy rack at the taxidermist, some are still holding out for that trophy that has eluded them for most of the season.
It may be the last hurrah, but it’s not close to being too late. Food availability and a limited number of hot does will funnel dominant bucks to specific places, and hunters with a tight grip on their properties can prevail before Jan. 1.
Deer are simple creatures with a few biological needs throughout the year, including food, water and cover. When fall arrived and deer entered the breeding season, daily activities made a dramatic shift, and the craziness began.
During the rut, deer start chasing, and hunters begin to see deer all over the place: travel corridors, bedding areas, food sources — anywhere deer frequent can be good places to observe deer activity. There aren’t too many bad places to hunt during the peak of breeding activity, but situations change as the season progresses and winter arrives.
Natural food availability diminishes drastically during December, and surviving bucks battle it out for the few unbred does that remain, scattered across the landscape. Bucks are defenseless in the face of still-raging hormones when sweet-smelling estrus scents trickle through the woods. Hunters can zero-in on the right spots to find a wall-hanger during the season’s final month.
On farms that have been heavily hunted in past seasons, hunters will know places to go and what types of tactics to employ to increase their odds of seeing one of these elusive bucks. Trey Phillips, the huntmaster and co-owner of the historic Clarendon Club in Summerton, S.C., near the Santee Cooper lakes, has a long history of hunting and guiding on club property that has given him the ability to pinpoint the right places to set up his hunters for success.
“For more than 25 years, we have hunted the 1,800 acres at the Clarendon Club, and our food plots become the hot spots for our hunters from Thanksgiving through Christmas,” said Phillips (803-460-0797). “At the end of October, we plant 60 acres of food plots with oats, rape and some other options, specifically for our late season.”
Food-plot size, placement
Phillips scatters food plots across the entire club’s land-holdings. With an average size of 5 to 6 acres, the plots have adequate volume to withstand heavy browsing.
Deer become vulnerable to natural food shortages. If planted and fertilized properly, food plots will provide deer with a significant food source when natural food is diminishing. That will both bring in does and bucks.
“Our food plots get a lot of attention this time of year, and our rutting activity lasts well into January as well,” Phillips said.
The deer population at the Clarendon Club is high, and many does fail to be bred in October and November; that extends intense rutting activity well into December. Does will be hunting a solid food source, and naturally, any buck still standing will show up, both to recover from its own, short-term weight loss and to breed any available does.
Phillips makes sure these feed lots remain active for the rest of the season, and if browsing pressure exceeds the capabilities of his plots, he will supplement with corn to keep the deer in these areas.
Don’t forget acorns
Some areas of the Carolinas have natural food available in December, and Phillips does, too. His acreage is in an area littered with mature, hardwood forests next to and within wilderness corridors. Deer are accustomed to the heavy acorn production in these bottomlands, and acorns remain available well into the winter While food plots are high-profile areas for Phillips to concentrate his hunters, he can’t ignore the massive, oak-covered bottomlands within the club’s boundaries.
“The acorn flats are great. We typically find extensive rub lines going through the oak flats, and we focus on them,” Philliips said. “We have a lot of oak flats, but the white oaks are the best flats to hunt that hold the most deer.”
After Thanksgiving, many hunters put up their deer rifles, but December is still a great time to find a trophy buck looking for a potential mate. Prime food sources will concentrate deer, and hunting these areas can sure make that last few hunts worthwhile and maybe produce another trip to the taxidermist.
Be invisible to deer as December arrives
Deer hunters in the Carolinas get more shooting days than hunters in more than 75% of other states, but more days in the woods doesn’t always equate to better opportunities, especially on heavily hunted properties.
Deer become accustomed to hunter intrusion and will adjust their movements to stay away from human interference. It’s critical for hunters to become invisible to deer during the season’s last month, especially if a mature buck is a hunter’s target.
By Dec. 1, some properties across the Carolinas have been under fire since late summer, and on some, the hunter footprint is excessive with daily play. As the season progresses and hunters move to new areas on their properties, a no-trace footprint should be used to ensure the deer don’t leave or turn nocturnal.
Trey Phillips of the Clarendon Club in Summerton, S.C., switches up the timing of his hunts late in the season.
“We primarily hunt our food plots in the afternoons during the late season,” Phillips said. “It’s hard to get into the food plots in the early morning, because deer are already on the plots before daylight.”
The bottom line is, by Dec. 1, every deer in the woods has been pushed by deer hunters at one time or another. Any disturbance caused by a hunter can push a mature buck out of his pattern, and it’s more of a problem late in the season than any other time.
At a minimum, Phillips encourages his hunters to always hunt stands where the wind is favorable. Any buck walking the woods in December is well-educated, and a hunter tackling a stand site on an unfavorable wind will end up empty handed.
Phillips also encourages his hunters to avoid using any active hunting tactics like grunting and rattling.
“Deer get a lot of pressure, and being quiet and invisible to deer is the best tactic for late-season success,” he said.