Late-season tips for deer-hunting success

(Photo by Michael Bibb)

Try these seven tips for late-season deer hunting and use a few tags as the end approaches.

Many hunters put deer hunting in the rear-view mirror after Thanksgiving, because deer patterns change dramatically and hunting can get tough. Tagging late-season deer is realistic, but it requires hunters to adapt to changes in deer behavior.  

These seven considerations for late-season deer hunting can vastly improve your odds of success.

Any available strip of open land can turn into a great, late-season food plot that will have deer coming on a regular basis for the productive greenery. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

Food is again high priority

With the rut ending in most areas of the Carolinas, food is again a high priority for deer, but natural food is becoming scarce in December.

  Darryl Madden, a 61-year-old deer hunter from Leland, N.C., said hunters can perform some “self-help” by giving deer fresh greenery. 

“The late-season pattern of diminishing natural food creates a scenario where hunters can gain an edge by creating attractive food sources with food plots,” he said. “Deer need to eat to withstand cold weather.”

Madden, a longtime member of the Bass Pro Shops and Mossy Oak pro staffs, said cold-weather food-plot crops are different from summer and fall plots, so pick the crops best suited for your area. 

“Wheat and rye are good choices for most areas, but other food sources can be highly effective depending on the soil, moisture and location,” he said. “Another plant I’ve seen work well in many areas is turnips. 

“Location is a key element to successful late-season food plots,” Madden said. “One tactic is to plant small food plots in now-depleted agriculture fields that deer used for food earlier in the season.

“I want my food plot to be the best option for deer, so it needs to be close to where deer live,” he said. “Deer travel long distances during the rut, but during the late season, movement is restricted to a core home area. A food plot with succulent green offerings in their core area is a deer magnet.”  

Mike Johnson, manager of the Clinton House near Clinton, S.C., plants food plots of all sizes, from big fields to small strips along roadsides.

“Any place I can get something green to grow is a potential deer attractor,” said Johnson (864-316-1371). “And corn/bait stations are a high priority for late-season.”

I.D. post-rut travel routes

Madden said identifying travel routes for late-season hunting creates opportunities to see more deer.

“Late season typically means the best hunting will be during low-light time periods,” he said. “The truth is, the window of time to see deer, especially big bucks, is short if you wait on them to come to openings or food sources. With the use of trail cameras and boot-time scouting, hunters can identify travel routes from bedding to feeding areas. Setting up on that travel route improves the odds for a shot, with ample available light, and it is applicable for bow and gun hunters.”

Do whatever you can to hide your deer stand as the end of the season approaches, covering it with camouflaged fabric or dressing it in natural cover.

December deer are typically wary because of heavy pressure, and Madden said travel routes typically utilize heavy cover, so they are not always the shortest distances from beds to the food source. 

Placing late-season stands

Steve Cobb, an elite hunter from Union, S.C., will use trail cameras, scouting and seat time in stands to pinpoint cold-weather core areas. 

“Once I have that area determined, I focus on the best places to hunt with minimal human intrusion,” he said. “Identifying and supplementing food sources and patterning the travel routes helps me locate stands to take advantage of their travel and eating options.” 

Cobb, a member of the Hunter Specialties pro staff, said generic considerations for stand placement can include setting up to overlook a southern slope of a cutover; that can be productive on cold, sunny mornings.

“Locate stands to provide the best view of as much of the core area as possible, with the least physical intrusion,” he said. “Deer are wary in late season, so minimize human disturbance.” 

Hide your stands

Cobb said late-season deer need to feel protected with cover, yet still have food sources nearby. The stand type and location must be subtle. 

“Climbers are ideal if you have the appropriate trees,” he said. “If you use ground blinds or lean-up stands, hide them well and cut small openings for shooting. Stealth is crucial, and major changes in habitat or placing a new stand in their core area in the wide open can cause deer to change patterns.”  

The luxury of having leafy cover for backdrops and hiding deer stands is in the past, and hunters must cope with this dramatic change.

Terry Heirs at Blackwater Hunting Lodge in Ulmer, S.C., said another option is to increase the distance to the bait station or target area.

“We’ll use stands that haven’t been used that year and locate them further from the bait station,” he said. “Distance can be an equalizer, and if a gun hunter is comfortable at 130 to 150 yards, the odds of seeing deer improve compared to stands much closer that were quite appropriate when we had abundant natural cover.” 

Heirs (803-671-4868) said this distance buffer, along with using available cover to hide a stand, mitigates small movements and provides additional protection regarding scent.

“I only hunt stands with the right wind, but you never know what direction a deer will approach and the distance improves odds of success,” he said. 

Deer pro Darrell Madden said a buck’s route from late-season bedding to feeding areas may be much shorter.

Prevailing wind conditions 

Weather patterns transition from late summer to early winter, and the prevailing wind direction is certainly one of these potential changes. 

Willie McCutchen, an elite bowhunter from Kingstree, S.C., has monitored and recorded wind-direction patterns for years, and the overall pattern has changed where he hunts. 

McCutchen researched wind-pattern records and compiled his own data that goes back several years. 

“Not only does the wind change seasonally as a natural occurrence, but where I hunt, the overall tendencies of wind patterns have changed significantly in the past several years,” he said.

“Ten years ago, the prevailing wind direction was southeast 75% of the time, throughout the season,” he said “In recent years, the wind direction is now 50% northeast throughout the season. This dramatically impacts where I place stands or use climbers. 

“Whatever the wind direction tendency is in a given area, hunters need to understand that pattern to properly structure their stand-placement process,” he said. “Monitor wind patterns, and regardless of the wind direction, use it to your advantage and adapt daily and seasonally as it changes.”

Ingress and egress 

Many of these factors, including barren hardwoods, ultra-wary deer and changing wind patterns, should influence how you get into and sneak out of your stand. 

“Ingress and egress patterns are crucial to late-season success,” Trey Phillips said. 

Phillips manages the Clarendon Club, a large hunting facility near Summerton, S.C. “It’s always important, but by late season, unless we shoot at a deer, I don’t want to leave a trace that we were ever in the stand.” 

Phillips (803-478-2010) said when selecting late-season stands, ingress and egress routes based on prevailing winds and using natural cover to shield movements are essential.

“We typically park further away from the stand than earlier in the season and walk a longer approach route to ensure we don’t alert deer,” he said. “We approach via routes deer are least likely to use and that have a favorable wind. The same is true when we leave; we literally sneak out.”

Phillips said proper ingress sets up the hunter for success, and the stealthy egress ensures the stand can be productive the next time the wind is right. 

“We can help ourselves with a little planning strategy, and during late-season, we need to utilize every edge to be successful,” he said. 

Good optics are a key to utilizing the first few and last few minutes of legal hunting time as the end of deer season approaches.

Quality optics, perseverance

Cobb said details usually dictate the level of success, including use of quality optics. 

“Adaptation is essential in late-season hunting,” Cobb said. “During the rut, a lot of daytime movement occurs, but now the last few minutes of the evening are a precious hunting time.”

Early morning offers potential, too, he said, but that time is often short and movements less predictable, so most hunters prefer evenings. 

“My recommendation is to use the best-quality optics you can afford to take advantage of those valuable last moments of light,” he said. 

Cobb said hunters can potentially see a deer at any time of the day late in the season, but low-light periods have produced the vast majority of his sightings. But in low light, deer are often difficult to see without optics.

“Their coloration, combined with the type cover where they’re usually found, helps them blend with the cover in low light,” he said. “I get into the stand early, but those last few minutes of light are typically more productive than all of the hours prior to those last-light moments. Quality optics can extend productive hunting time by several minutes, significantly enhancing the opportunity to shoot a big buck.”

Perseverance is crucial at this time of the year, he said. 

“I hunt until the last second that I can clearly define the target,” he said. “Many bucks have been taken in those last few moments because I was constantly scanning with quality optics and was rewarded for this patience and perseverance.”

About Terry Madewell 812 Articles
Award-winning writer and photographer Terry Madewell of Ridgeway, S.C., has been an outdoors writer for more than 30 years. He has a degree in wildlife and fisheries management and has a long career as a professional wildlife biologist/natural resources manager.

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