By Dana R. Rogers
If you haven’t filled your deer tag yet and rut behavior seems to be waning in your hunting areas, it is probably time to adjust tactics. Take stock of what the current situation is in your hunting areas and adjust your strategies accordingly. If you are hunting areas that have significant pressure, which most areas do, deer that have survived will be seeking out as much safety and security as possible.
After the Rut
During the late seasons, surviving deer often follow easily definable patterns once they have finally located an area that meets their needs where they feel secure. So, what are those needs?
In late November bucks will still seek out any available unbred does that are still cycling through estrus. Then, in December and even later, does and doe fawns that are sexually mature will still come into estrus and be receptive to breeding.
Though breeding may not be their primary focus after the peak rutting periods, bucks will still scent check does and attempt to breed any available mates.
Food is the next most critical factor, and food in proximity to security cover will be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for hunters seeking to fill their tags.
After the few days of frenzy the peak seeking phase holds each November, the late season is by far my favorite time of year to hunt. In fact, when it comes to patterning deer the late season far surpasses the rut in terms of consistently successful opportunities.
For hearty souls that prefer cold weather to the heat and bugs of September and early October, the late-season and post-rut periods are far more enjoyable. Add to that the fact that once the temperature drops and snow and wind blanket the Dakotas, and you can see why most fair-weather hunters have become disinterested by this point of the game.
This is the type of hunting that I prefer, though, with fewer hunters competing and pushing animals around and brisk temperatures that make me really appreciate the great outdoors. That said, let’s dive deeper into what you should be looking for and a few strategies that could really help you fill those late-season tags.
Calling Can Still Work
Light rattling and calling can and should be utilized if you are going to make any effort to draw in a late-season buck. I often prefer to go as incognito as possible with pressured animals, but if you still want to be aggressive and try to lure in a buck looking for those last receptive does, try some light grunting and lightly tickle those rattling antlers.
A fake battle can still work at the tail end of the rut, but if the local herd is well acquainted with each other, they likely already know which bucks are dominant and any remaining bucks have likely already sorted out the pecking order weeks ago. With that in mind, I’d stick to simple light rattling and grunts just to let other deer know there is another doe or pair of bucks in the area. That might be enough to raise the interest of deer in the area to swing by and take a look.
Security cover and safety are, in my opinion, the most important factors that late season deer are seeking out after the pressure has been on for several weeks.
In agricultural areas, the summer and early fall cover of standing corn should be long gone. That pushes animals into any riparian areas along rivers or hedge rows and shelter belts.
If that cover is lacking, dry sloughs and standing native grass patches provide cover for deer. If an area lacks any type of cover in general, then deer often use undulating terrain and seek out hidden pockets in vast, open areas, such as the middle of distant, harvested crop fields where they may find a low spot to hide from prying eyes and traffic.
It really depends on what is available in the areas you hunt. Areas that are tough to access and provide any measure of safety and security from human pressure will act as security cover.
To dive deeper here, get out your maps and aerial footage. Look for areas at least a half-mile away from high-traffic roads, and if you can find any standing structure such as thick grass, sloughs or brush-choked tree groves, that’s a plus.
Find Their Dinner Table
Use long-range scouting options, as well. Get out your good glass and spotting scope. Deer will likely lie low most of the day, but early and later in the day they will move as they seek out whatever destination food sources are still available. To that end, finding the preferred food sources in close proximity to these security areas will put you in the chips.
Grain is typically the preferred food source in the eastern part of the Dakotas and further west where available. Alfalfa is also something that should be sought out and can be the ticket if that’s all that’s available or if any sizeable stand of alfalfa was left uncut or sprouted after the last summer cutting.
In many of the areas I hunt, combined corn and soybean fields get a lot of evening and early morning deer traffic. The deer will still patrol harvested fields in search of any waste grain the combine didn’t catch.
These areas can provide good, consistent opportunities for rifle hunting on fields you have permission to access. Get to those fields early, hide your vehicle and get out on foot far away from the vehicle. If deer stood and looked at a passing pickup truck weeks earlier, I highly doubt that you’ll find that same reaction during the late season.
If you can locate any standing grain, or if you had the foresight to plant your own food plots, you will be sitting on a late-season gold mine. If cold weather comes with snow, deer will be flocking to the carbohydrates and nutrients provided in these ag fields or food plots.
Remember, late-season deer are transitioning from breeding being their No. 1 priority into survival mode. Find some good security cover with a desirable food source in close proximity and get after it.
Set up the Shot
Evening hunts during the late season are what I find most productive, but positioning yourself between a concentrated bedding area and a food source is a touchy situation with pressured animals. If you hunt too close to the bedding area in the morning, you have a very high chance of spooking them when you exit. Unless you are planning an all-day sit or have a foolproof exit plan, the risk may not be worth the reward.
By using your previous scouting information, put together a plan based on terrain and wind direction. Based on your weapon, find an intercept point that is advantageous and puts you in range of the deer’s movement pattern.
Some areas may still have an open rifle season during the end of November or through the early days of December. Most areas will likely be muzzleloader and archery, though, so you’re probably looking at a short-range setup.
With the distinct possibility of freezing temperatures and even colder wind chills, I like to use a ground blind or a previously positioned box blind, but remember that deer will need to get used to an obvious change like that in their surroundings. If a ground sit or tree stand is your best option, make sure you dress in layers to protect yourself from the elements.
Do Your Part
Ranch depredation can be a huge issue during severe winters. If the Dakotas receive some significant snow and weather a bit early, deer often yard up and put a lot of pressure on the livestock food stores of farmers and ranchers. If you find such a situation, gaining private access may be easier during these severe conditions.
You should be on the lookout for opportunities like this, as helping out a producer that is experiencing financial loss due to wildlife can be a great way to establish a relationship. And, in my opinion, it is also part of our responsibility as hunters and conservationists. By taking excess antlerless deer at this time of year you can help reduce pressure on producers as well as keep wildlife in balance with the habitat and landowner tolerance levels.
So, if you still have an unfilled deer license the last part of November or December, don’t give up! Change your strategies and tactics and locate what the deer really need during this time of year.
Please always remember when you are afield, respect the land, respect the landowner and respect the wildlife.
About the Author: Dana R. Rogers grew up in central South Dakota before serving in the U.S. Air Force. He now lives in the Black Hills and can be reached with questions or comments at [email protected]