When I first met Academy Sports + Outdoors pro Jeff Danker a number of years ago, I immediately came to understand a couple of key things about the man.
First, he is as passionate about whitetails as just about anybody out there, a man who lives, sleeps, thinks, and breathes whitetails 24/7/365.
Second, he's not only passionate about the craft of putting an unused deer tag on big whitetail, he's also really good at it. As this is written, Danker has already sent several big bucks to the taxidermist in 2019, including back-to-back Boone and Crockett record book candidates.
Such passion and hunting excellence have propelled Danker forward over the years, helping him become one of the most recognizable figures in the deer hunting game as host and co-host of such television shows as Buckventures Outdoors TV, The Woodsman, and more.
So, when the idea comes up about how to win the fourth quarter of deer hunting—the post rut period of the whitetail autumn that grips North America in December and January each year—it’s a good idea to turn to Danker. Because his thoughts about the late season are deer-hunting gold.
"I am always excited about it," said Danker as I caught up with him on the way to another autumn deer camp. "You've usually still got a few deer that aren't broken up, and if you play your cards right, the hunting can still be good."
If there's a first step that Danker takes after the rut has come and gone, it's reapplying strategic placement of trail cameras — and Academy has plenty of models to choose from in an effort to see what's still out there.
"That's my number one strategy at this time of year," said Danker. "At this stage in the game, it's all about knowing what's going on and that's where relying on your (trail) cameras again is a big key. In the post rut, it's not going in to climb in a tree and hope a deer walks by, it's more about wanting to know what's going on and formulating a game plan around that. I often say about this time of year that it's not going out to hunt per se, but you're going into the woods to get in the right spot to kill a specific deer."
Once Danker's supply of trail cameras are up and running and giving him valuable information about what's happening in the deer woods, he'll take a good look at the deer on the property he's hunting, an end-of-season inventory, if you will. He’ll note which shooters made it through the rut, which bucks are broken up in the headgear department, and what patterns these deer are following.
Such information will most often be gleaned in and around the second key to Danker's post rut strategy, a key food source as the end of December approaches.
"At this time of the year, bucks are going to be going back to food for sure," said the Academy pro. "Deer are certainly more predictable in the post rut than they were during the November rut. Plus, they're beat up from the rut, they're hurting, and they're trying to feed up to get ready for wintertime."
In Danker's mind, the best strategy for a fourth-quarter deer hunting win is to turn back to his playbook for the first quarter as the season began.
“You’ve got to treat December like September," he said. "You have to be very aware of things where you're hunting, where they are bedding, where they are feeding, what their travel habits are, and what time all of that is happening. It's why I primarily hunt evenings at this time of year because their beds will be close to food again."
While Danker says that late-season deer hunting strategy often revolves around figuring out what food source is hot for a particular region—think corn and soybeans for the Midwest, wheat for Oklahoma and Kansas, food plots and corn feeders in Texas, or green fields down South—equally important is knowing where deer are going to be laid up resting and recuperating.
"I want to know where they are feeding, yes," said Danker. "But I also need to know where they are bedding, too. So, I look at the map and think, 'Where would I bed down now?' If you've got a good cedar thicket where you hunt, at this time of the year, that's usually where they'll bed in many parts of the country. Out in Oklahoma and Kansas, where I do a lot of hunting, sometimes a late-season bedding area can even be out in a big grassy field where there's no hunting pressure and no cows roaming.
"A big shooter buck, he simply wants to feed and lay down," he added. "At this time of the year, it's all about security and food; it's not rocket science.”
But if figuring out a post-rut hunting strategy isn't too complicated, Danker reiterates that successfully employing that strategy can be. Like a football team moving down the field towards a winning touchdown in the waning moments of a big game, the margin for error now is slim.
"You have to have the mentality that I'm going in to target and kill a specific buck and even then, a lot of things have to go right," said Danker. "You can't step in on them and just go hunting, moving around without any thought. If you do, you'll push these deer out. They are beat up, so you've got to go easy on them, but if you use your head, the good bucks that are left are really killable at this time of the year."
A third key that Danker relies on for post-rut deer hunting success is to wait for the weather to be right—if mild, calm weather grips his hunting ground, he'll likely wait for a change in the weatherman's forecast.
"If you've got hot weather at this time of the year, you're probably going to see (very) little in the way of daytime movement," he said. "So, stay out (of your hunting area), go take your wife to the dang movie, and wait for a cold front to roll in."
Keep in mind that there can be an exception to that rule—deer may often get up and move around after a bitter cold snap finally gives way to warming trend.
"Use your head," said Danker. "If there is a big change in the weather, one way or the other, it can cause deer to get up on their feet. Big changes in weather, which raise or drop temperatures considerably, they can all be good."
If temperature changes and frontal passages are one key to hunting the weather correctly, so too is embracing a windy day according to Danker.
"People need to realize that the wind is actually your friend," he said. "Now a lot of us screw up by thinking that they won't move much on a windy day in the wintertime. But it can actually help you get into and out of the area, particularly if you're near a bedding area, especially when it is blowing constantly in one direction.
"A 20-mph wind in Oklahoma is good. But a frosty still morning in Iowa can be bad because the deer are so beat up, so skittish, and if you spook one deer, you've spooked all 50 that are feeding in that field."
A fourth idea that the Academy pro incorporates into his late-season hunting strategy is to often stay on the ground, choosing against the aerial hunts high up in hanging treestands.
"It's much harder to successfully hunt out of trees at this time of the year," said Danker. "They can be harder to safely get into on those cold mornings when you're cold, stiff, and all bundled up. Plus, they've lost their leaves, so it's much easier for a deer to skylight you."
What's the solution? Simple says Danker; a pop-up ground bind like those sold at Academy.
"You want to have a blind that is easy to slip into and out of, one that you can get into without making a lot of noise," said Danker.
In addition to being safer and easier to successfully use, a pop-up ground blind in the post rut offers some distinct advantages.
"Since you're hunting food again, hunting in December is like it is in September when you've got a lot of younger bucks and mature does milling around feeding. That means you've got a lot more noses and eyes to stay undetected from. So, you need a stand that is bulletproof from those deer as they feed and move around."
Danker says to be careful in the placement of such ground blinds, being sure that you've got the wind just right for the particular location that you are hunting. Also be sure that the blind is far enough off main trails and food sources so that you can sit undetected until it is time to shoot. And don't forget to brush the blind in really well, often letting it sit for a day or two before climbing in for a hunt.
For a fifth and final post-rut hunting strategy, Danker says to play it safe to a point, yes, but also don’t be afraid to reach into the playbook for a last second “Hail Mary!” pass as you seek the winning touchdown at season’s end. When it comes to post-rut bucks, sometimes, a morning hunt near a bedding area can actually be the winning play.
"Yeah, normally, you want to hunt in the evenings for post rut deer," said Danker. "But you can sometimes find success in the morning hours too. If you really know your hunting area, if you've got a history with that particular farm, and you know exactly where they are bedding and feeding, then you can get away with a morning hunt. You can hunt a backdoor stand at the edge of a bedding area, get in there really early, and catch him coming in from a night of feeding as he gets ready to bed down. When that happens, he'll be by himself and that's money."
To make such a last-gasp bedding-area hunt strategy work, Danker said that knowledge is once again paramount.
"Observation is a good thing," said Danker, who is willing to sit on stands just to look, watch, and decipher what is going on with the deer living on the ground that he is hunting. "It's all about knowing what's going on. Again, it's less about going hunting and more about moving in to kill a specific buck at this time of the year. Use your head instead of just waking up and thinking 'I'm going to go hunting.'"
Danker knows full well what he is talking about, having multiple late-season bucks on the wall to prove his late-season deer hunting strategies work. One was an Iowa bruiser a few years ago, a huge buck that Danker made a TV star after a successful last-second play. The end result was good video, venison for the freezer, and a great set of antlers for the wall.
"It was negative 20 degrees," said Danker. "But the deer were using a standing-corn field to feed in, and it was just unreal to watch all of those deer coming in. I spent some time observing what was going on, came up with a game plan, and went in for the kill, literally sitting on the ground just to the right of where they were coming in. I had to be on the right side of the trail for the wind, but I was able to get it done. And he was a good one, scoring 172 inches."
The best news is that no matter where you hunt during the late season, you can win the game if you'll put Danker's late-season, post-rut deer hunting strategies into play.
"They are very sensitive at this time of the year, but if you'll find where they are feeding and bedding, play the wind right, use your head and come up with a solid game plan, you can go in and kill a good buck," said Danker.
Even in the waning seconds of the deer hunting game as the buzzer prepares to sound for another year.