Late-season hunting can be challenging, but with a little determination and grit, there are ways to close the deal on a mature buck.
The Iowa shotgun season had ended only days before, so the deer were still very skittish.
When the cold weather rolls in, any remaining stands of field corn or soybeans will be sought out by hungry whitetails. As the saying goes, "Find the food . . . find the deer!" The author surprised this mature buck just after first light while hunting the transition route between a known winter food source and a bedding area.
With the exception of a couple of yearlings, the bucks were lying low, and most refrained from moving out to feed in legal shooting hours. After a week of hard hunting, I still hadn't laid eyes on a mature buck, so I made plans to hunt a few days during the late muzzleloader season with friends Andy Timmerman and Travis Paul in southwestern Iowa.
During the November rut, I'd had close encounters with two big bucks on one of their farms. According to Andy and Travis, that farm hadn't seen much pressure during the shotgun season, and neither buck had been taken. Knowing this, I was banking on the deer being a bit more cooperative than they were in my neck of the woods.
Three days before my departure, several inches of wet snow fell across the state. To add insult to injury, a layer of freezing rain fell a day later. The crusty top layer of ice made for tough hunting conditions. For sure, it put a damper on going to and from a stand undetected.
MAKING IT HAPPEN
Upon arriving at the property, I spent the first afternoon scouting the timber and surrounding crop fields. From the amount of fresh sign around the bordering cornfield, it was obvious the deer were hitting it pretty hard. At that point, I wasted little time setting up a ground blind near the field edge.
Backtracking from the cornfield took me across a CRP field to a cedar thicket riddled with rubs and beds on the south slope of an east-west ridge. There was no doubt it would be a good place to ambush a buck returning in the morning with a full belly. However, the only tree big enough for a tree stand stood in the far corner of the CRP field, 200 yards away. I hung a stand there, figuring I'd move closer to the cedar thicket if it didn't pan out within a day or two.
The remainder of the afternoon was spent scouting and glassing a cornfield on the north side of the property. Knowing that field had been harvested in early November, I figured there wouldn't be much free grain left to draw any deer. Nevertheless, I spent the last hour glassing from a fence line a good half-mile away.
As the sun began to drop below the tree line, I spied a small 8-point slinking along the timber edge. The buck didn't attempt to search for corn, but instead crossed the field and headed south. A few minutes later, a doe and two yearlings dashed across the field and headed in the same direction. That pretty much confirmed my suspicions that the majority of deer were feeding in the south cornfield.
I hunted the ground blind the first two evenings, and the corner both mornings. The temperatures had climbed above freezing and put a damper on deer movement. In fact, I didn't see any deer move toward the cornfield until after sunset. On both mornings, I watched the silhouettes of over a dozen deer on the far ridge cross the CRP field and head toward the cedar thicket at first gray light. By day three, I figured it was time to abandon the stand and move closer to the bedding area.
The following morning I made my way across the CRP field before first light and hunkered between two cedars on the ridge crest deer had been crossing. As the sun peeked over the horizon, I heard the sound of hooves breaking through the crusty top layer of snow. Minutes later, a half-dozen does came meandering out of the timber and started across the field. Then, for whatever reason, they stopped and stared at their back trail.
That's when I saw the antler of a mature buck bobbing through the tall grass. Before I could even second-guess myself, he stepped into the open, and my smokepole belched out a cloud of smoke. The buck ran back the opposite direction, and seconds later I heard him crash. I was one happy hunter. My trophy was a mainframe 10-pointer with 4 stickers.
New Jersey's Walter Burbela (left) anchored this awesome 12-pointer in southwestern Iowa last January, while muzzleloader hunting with Andy Timmerman of A&A Outfitters. The late-season bruiser had a 24-inch inside spread and grossed 179 3/8 inches, with a net of 170 1/8 typical.
STICKING IT OUT
In most Midwestern states, as well as in many other parts of the U.S., by late season the majority of deer have seen two or three months of intense hunting pressure and have become extremely wary. Not only has the number of antlered deer been slashed by at least 30 percent, but a fair number of survivors have might even have dropped their antlers. Combine all of this with occasional heavy snows and frigid temperatures, and the lion's share of hunters have called it quits.
Well, I've never been a quitter, even when the odds are seemingly stacked against me. I know from experience that the surviving bucks are often the oldest and wisest. Combine that with a lack of competition, and the odds of shooting a trophy buck begin to turn in my direction. I don't claim to have all the answers, but here are a few proven tactics that could help you score during late season.
There might be several ways to scout for that late-season trophy, but it won't take much poking around to send an already skittish buck hightailing it for deep cover. There will be times when intrusive scouting is necessary, but it's usually best to keep that to a minimum.
Since the objective is to first locate a good buck or two, perhaps glassing suspected feeding and bedding areas from a distance makes the most sense. From that, you can often determine where a buck enters and exits a field or bedding area. This in turn reveals the best location for a stand or ground blind. As part of the plan, note the best wind condition for each setup. For example, if you need a northerly wind condition to carry your scent away from the expected approach route of deer, steer clear of that setup until the conditions are right.
It's a given that deer travel routes and bedding areas change very little from one year to th
e next. If you're familiar with the property, you probably know where all these places are. If not, visit the county Farm Service Agency (FSA) office, or one of many popular Web sites offering aerial photos and topographical maps of the property. While you're at it, pick up maps of the surrounding or adjoining properties, too.
Study the maps and identify potential travel corridors, including pinch points, timber fingers protruding into crop fields, inside/outside corners, and the like. Also, try to locate thick cover that butts up to field edges and the southern slopes of hillsides. It's been my experience that deer often seek out these spots when the weather takes a turn for the worst.
If you've hunted a few days and haven't seen any deer, some old-fashioned ground scouting might be in order. As you scout, look for fresh tracks, beds and rubs. Some whitetail experts claim rub lines are best hunted early in the season, but I've taken too many bucks from rub lines late in the year to agree with that. Regardless of the date, if a rub line shows recent activity, I hunt it!
Old tarnished rubs were likely made the previous season, but fresh shavings beneath a tree indicate the buck is still alive. Look for a series of rubs that form a straight line through the woods. Note which side of the tree was rubbed to determine where the buck was going. More often than not, rubs facing toward a food source are made in the morning and point toward a bedding area. Conversely, rubs facing away from a food source are typically afternoon transition routes that begin at the bedding area and end at the field edge. From this, you should be able to figure out where and when to hunt a rub line.
FOCUS ON FOOD
Most serious hunters know that deer are very unpredictable the first few days after the gun season. However, give them a few days of uninterrupted vacation, and they'll begin to relax a bit. Feeding and travel patterns will slowly emerge. A buck that has spent the last two months chasing and breeding does probably lost most of his fat reserves. His survival could very well depend on replenishing the fat reserves that will carry him through the winter.
Although foods such as corn, soybeans, sorghum and milo are generally good bets for late season, winter wheat, alfalfa and honey locust can attract hungry whitetails, too.
Since most feeding activity takes place in the late afternoon and throughout the night, the best odds of bushwhacking a big buck in these spots generally are during the first and last two hours of light.
For mornings, it doesn't get much better than a stand overlooking a buck's transition route from food to his daytime bed. You'll also stand a good chance of seeing the same buck in the afternoon leaving his bed and heading to his primary food source.
The other option is waiting for the buck to arrive at the food source. This was the case for New Jersey hunter Walter Burbela last January. Having drawn an Iowa tag, Walter was excited, to say the least. After all, Walter had hunted with Andy Timmerman of A&A Outfitters twice before, so he knew the caliber of deer he could expect to see.
HOLDING OUT FOR MR. BIG
Walter had opportunities to shoot several bucks in the 130 to 140 class over the course of the first three days, but he'd set a goal of shooting something that would go 150 or better.
With the clock ticking, Andy decided to spend an evening glassing an area from a hedgerow overlooking a spot that hadn't seen much pressure all season. The 160-acre field consisted of CRP, cedars and a couple of plum thickets, making it a great bedding area.
Andy hadn't been sitting long when he spotted several does and a couple of young bucks filtering out of the CRP. The majority of deer crossed a low spot in the fence and then continued toward a cut soybean field. Eventually, they made their way to a cornfield 300 yards away. Over the course of the next hour, a steady stream of deer crossed the fence in the same exact spot. With only minutes of shooting light remaining, a huge buck suddenly appeared from out of nowhere. From what Andy could tell, the deer sported 6 points on each side.
The buck crossed the fence and continued toward the cornfield. Andy watched the deer until dark and then slipped out undetected. If the wind held steady and the deer continued their feeding frenzy, Andy knew the exact spot where Walter should be the next evening.
Arriving around 2 p.m., Andy and Walter slipped into the area without spooking a single deer. They quickly built a makeshift ground blind within 10 yards of where the deer had been crossing the evening before. They had no more than settled in when another hunter came walking right through the area where Andy was expecting the deer to come from.
After being informed that he was trespassing, he turned around and left.
SALVAGING THE HUN
Figuring the evening had been spoiled, Andy decided they should move to another area with hopes of salvaging the last hour. However, as they crested the hill, they spotted a deer in the soybean field. At that point it was too late to move to yet another spot, so they decided to hunker into a plum thicket on the hillcrest where they could see both sides of the hilltop.
Over the next 45 minutes, more than a dozen deer filtered out of the CRP and headed toward the fields. Several of those were bucks that ranged from 130 to 140 class. Around 3:30, Andy spotted antlers coming across the CRP field. Even at 300 yards, he could tell it was the big 12-pointer. The buck eventually ended up in the soybean field feeding with the other deer.
Unfortunately, instead of moving closer, the buck bedded down in the middle of the field. Andy and Walter were getting a bit worried, but as the sun began to set, the big buck got up and began to meander closer. Within minutes, several does and small bucks walked right past the plum thicket where the two hunters were hiding. The big buck, however, disappeared in a low spot.
Andy and Walter sat patiently waiting for the buck to reappear on the knoll, but he didn't.
Then, after perhaps another 10 minutes had passed, a noise caused Walter to look back in Andy's direction. His eyes grew to the size of silver dollars as he whispered, "Big buck right behind you!" Obviously, the buck had sneaked around behind them. Walter managed to get turned around and ease the muzzleloader up to his knees without being seen. As the buck passed at under 20 yards, the New Jersey resident took steady aim and fired. At the sound of the shot, the buck took off running across the field and went down within 60 yards.
"I don't think I've never seen anyone so excited about shooting a deer," Andy said.
"Walter was absolutely ecstatic. He ran out in the field, dropped to his knees and gave the deer a big bear hug. If I'm not mistaken, he may have even shed a few tears."
Although I could cite numerous others, this is a prime example of how deer can be pattern
ed to a food source during the late season when the "need to feed" mechanism kicks in!
WATCH THE WEATHER
Although food availability plays a key role in success during late season, so does foul weather. I know from experience that when the temperatures plunge, or when heavy snowfall occurs, I can almost bank on the fact that the deer will seek out two things: food and security cover.
I'm not an expert on predicting the weather by any means, but I know falling barometric pressure means a front is approaching. Conversely, when the barometer rises (high pressure) a front is moving out. So what does all this mean? Deer typically go into a feeding frenzy just before a storm, but when it hits in full force, the majority will seek shelter until it subsides. Afterwards, they emerge from their beds and make another grocery run.
This reminds me of a bruiser buck my buddy Craig took a couple of seasons ago. Craig had to work that day, but he kept tabs on the weather and the storm front that was approaching. As it turned out, the temperature steadily fell throughout the day, as did several inches of fresh snow.
Knowing deer would likely start traveling to food right after the storm moved through, Craig headed to his stand on the edge of a picked cornfield. Sure enough, with not more than an hour of daylight remaining, the storm petered out. Shortly thereafter, a half-dozen deer came out of the surrounding draws and made their way to the field.
Craig sat patiently, but it wasn't until the last few minutes of light that he spotted a huge buck crossing the field. Unfortunately, before the buck came within range, he veered off and disappeared into a deep draw. Needless to say, Craig was disappointed.
Then his luck changed for the better; the stud reappeared in the draw behind the hunter. A quick whistle stopped him long enough for Craig to take steady aim. At the sound of the shot, the buck scrabbled across the hillside, but went down within eyesight.
Although I seldom participate in deer drives, they do have a time and place. For example, when deer "hole up" in thick cover and don't move until dark, sometimes it pays to run a slow push drive. This was the case for Travis Paul last January.
Andy Timmerman had been hunting the small timber a couple of days before and had seen two nice 10-pointers. Since the timber was surrounded by crop fields that had been harvested, the biggest problem was getting to the timber without getting busted. Every time anyone tried to approach, the deer would slip out the back door. We put together a plan to make a drive.
A small pond was located on the lower end of the timber. Travis figured that if the deer came out the lower end, they would likely skirt the pond or cross the dike. With that in mind, he slipped into the timber below the dike and set up. Andy Timmerman, Walter Burbela and I spread out and started a slow push through the timber. A couple of does and one small buck squirted out the sides and headed across the field right from the get-go. It wasn't until we had almost finished the drive that we heard Travis shoot.
Long story short, a big buck had been bedded in the timber the entire time. For whatever reason, he let us walk by before attempting to escape across the dike. Big mistake on his part!
The late-season hunter must accept that the odds won't always run in his favor. Nor will the weather always cooperate. Sure you can hope for frigid temperatures to drive deer into a feeding frenzy, but that's not a given. Regardless, knowing where the primary food sources, travel corridors and bedding areas are located will help level the playing field.
You might not see a ton of deer, but in many cases you'll have the woods to yourself. Hunt hard and smart, and you very well could tag a late-season wallhanger!
FOR YOUR INFORMATIONFor details on booking a hunt with A&A Outfitters in southwestern Iowa, contact Andy Timmerman (712-785-3670) or Travis Paul (712-621-0914), or visit their Web site: www.aaoutfittersofiowa.com.