If you hope to succeed in any post rut hunting season, you need to abandon the strategy you employed during the peak of the rut. I was taking that advice as I capped my CVA muzzleloader on a hunt overlooking a stubble cornfield as brisk December winds swirled snow around me. Would a buck arrive before daylight dimmed?
Post rut bucks can be some of the most frustrating deer of the season to hunt. Nobody knows that better than outfitter Chad Schilling, who operates Oahe Wings and Walleyes with his wife Schonda. They specialize in South Dakota ring-necked pheasants and walleye fishing, but Schilling's obsession for big bucks has led him down the road to managing and archery outfitting for whitetails in the Rushmore State.
With more than 24 years of whitetail hunting experience, Schilling knows that post rut hunting can be an excellent window to take a buck that eluded you in November. I turned to him for advice on finding a Booner of my own.
Post Rut Hunting Around Food
The facts are indisputable. Whitetails burn off 20 to 25 percent of their body weight by the end of the rut. If they dip to more than 30 percent, the coffin is about to be closed. That's why when mature bucks sense the estrus cycle is over, they go underground to conserve the little body mass they have left.
They also begin the hunt for the highest quality of food near good cover to assist in physical recovery, especially in the northern half of their range. Schilling sees this shift in homeland preference as the rut winds down and snow blankets the landscape.
"Deer immediately shift from areas they roamed during the rut and instead seek out dependable food near heavy cover," states Schilling.
To ensure bucks he manages stick close to home Schilling plants additional food plots for whitetails in addition to the many plots he farms for pheasant cover. Like managers throughout the whitetail range he relies on proven crops to keep whitetails fueled during the winter months.
"My cover crop is rye, but that's supplemented with interspersed turnips, radishes, field peas and oats. My winter food plots are typically bright green going into winter and they stay green under the snow. I'll get growth that exceeds 18 inches of height so crops are showing above heavy snow, but the deer know where the food is even if it gets covered. You'll see them digging it out even under the worst of conditions."
Post Rut Hunting Around Cover
Whitetails can have a buffet in front of them, but their diet will be hurt if they have to burn a lot of calories going from bedding to food. Post rut cover varies across the country, but regardless if it's forest or field, it needs to break the wind relatively close to a food source.
How close should refuge be from the dining table? Schilling sees deer traveling more than a mile to reach his food plots, but if the area is relatively undisturbed, deer may bed as close as 400 yards away in cover to trek between food and shelter.
"As long as the cover provides solid wind protection and hunting pressure is minimal, deer may only go 400 yards or so away from food. This is especially true when conditions are brutal and deer are requiring more calories," Schilling notes.
Deciding on a field to hunt depends on hunting pressure and the severity of the weather. Pressured deer will likely bed further from food, but if temperatures plummet and snow arrives, they may need to bed closer for pure survival.
Completing the Plan
Finally, once you have food scouted and refuge located, establishing an ambush is your last issue to consider. More than likely food sources will offer more exact targeting than refuge. This means as deer travel to the food, they will become more predicable than when heading to bedding cover.
For Schilling, he prefers to keep some distance between both food and cover when post rut hunting. Nevertheless, he leans toward being closer to the food since more deer will be coming together at that location. He also doesn't crowd the shooting lane and prefers to be 30 or 40 yards away with archery gear and even further if gun season is in play.
"Food draws whitetails into an exact location, so I tend to set up my stands closer to food than bedding cover," Schilling shares. "I also prefer ground blinds in the late season. They break the wind for hunter comfort and if it snows, they are easy to hide. I simply dig out a snowbank, set the blind and cover it with snow again. Whitetails rarely notice the igloo-like object in the white backdrop."
After prepping a site Schilling looks for a cold, snowy forecast. Severe cold and snow drive deer to feed during daylight, giving ample opportunity to see a mature buck before sunset. If it's an unseasonably warm winter, deer can soak up the sun and feed nocturnally. They may never move during the short winter days.
Fortunately for me, temperatures were nose-diving like the falling snow as I caught sight of a dark form leaving the timbered edge. My Nikon's confirmed it was a "shooter" buck and at 110 yards I didn't hesitate to send a Hornady bullet into the browsing buck. My fingers were warmed by the field-dressing chore and the cold didn't seem as depressing with my post rut hunting success.