The post-rut whitetail season feels a bit like the day after the Superbowl or World Series – the big climax that we’ve been waiting for has come and gone.
Unlike those other sports, however, bowhunting continues through December and even January for some of us, offering a perfect opportunity to tag that trophy deer. A great article in this month’s Field & Stream highlights post-rut whitetail hunting as one of the “late, great” hunting opportunities in North America. They even offer a nice strategy for it which I’ll cover below.
First, let’s talk about what happened over the recent weeks for whitetails during the peak of the rut. Before the rut, bucks were mostly in a somewhat predictable bed-to-food pattern. Then the rut arrived and all predictability went out the window, as mature bucks spent all of their time seeking out, pursuing, and breeding does in estrous. They bedded with or near the doe groups. They forgot about food unless there was a doe eating nearby.
Buck Behavior After the Rut
So let’s put together what we know intuitively about buck behavior in the period after the rut. I’ll supplement this with what I’ve seen while scouting over the past week.
- Bucks are still able and willing to breed available does, even if the peak of breeding activity. My impression is that they’re still checking does to see if any come into estrous; this should continue until the second rut later this month. The two biggest bucks I’ve spotted in the past week were on the trail of does or doe-and-fawn groups.
- Deer movement seems to be high, even during daylight hours. Case in point: the image at the top right of this article (a still frame from my HD Flip cam): a gorgeous 10 point buck that showed up at NOON on Saturday, about 30 yards from my back door.
- Feeding is a priority. A lot of energy was burned over the crazy rut period, when bucks spent most of their time chasing tail. They’re hungry. By the way, so are the does, particularly those that have been bred.
- Cold-weather patterns will soon become established. That’s hard to picture in Missouri where we had an all-time record high of 75 yesterday. But the weather will get colder. South-facing slopes will become attractive bedding areas as the deer try to keep warm. See my article on cold weather deer hunting strategies for more advice here.
Post-Rut Hunting Strategies
A number of things have changed since the pre-rut that affect our ability to hunt whitetails effectively.
- Less cover. The leaves have fallen, much of the ground cover has died off. There are reasons to like this — it increases visibility and shooting lanes — but it also puts bowhunters at a disadvantage. Keeping out of sight and setting an ambush is harder. Also, buck travel lanes shift to take advantage of what little cover remains. My impression is that they’re using terrain features (such as ditches and creeks) a lot more.
- Different food. Likewise, many of the warm-weather food sources have died off or been depleted. I wish I were an expert on winter food sources for deer; most of those I’ve spotted have been browsing in fields or along field edges. The bad news is that these are harder to predict, but the good news is that (once you find them) they’re easier to hunt with a bow than big open fields.
- Survival of the fittest. Deer that we see now, especially mature bucks, have survived the fusillade and the vulnerability of the rut. It’s no accident, either: these are the craftiest, wariest, and least predictable whitetails. Otherwise they’d already be at the taxidermy shop.
Hunt Prime Food Near Choice Bedding
Because deer are moving and we know their growing primary need is to feed, that gives us a place to start. In this month’s Field & Stream is an article on the 20 best late/great hunts. One of those: Ambush a hungry buck. “The recipe is simple,” writes Will Brantley. “Prime food near choice bedding. Deer don’t move any farther than they have to at this time of year.” Supporting this idea: every buck I’ve seen since Thanksgiving was at the edge of thick cover and moving out into the open to feed.
Limited Calls and Lures
Because it seems that some bucks are still checking does, I suspect that limited use of deer calls and lures may be productive. Subtlety is the key here; it’s not the time to break out your buck roar. But contact grunts and doe bleats (possibly with The Original Can) may pay off. See my article on when and how to call deer.
The subtlety rule goes for scents and lures as well. I’d be nervous using the “buck bomb” overload of doe-in-estrous scent. Simple doe urine might work better here; you want to attract a buck’s attention without spooking him.
Take Advantage of Snow to Track Deer
I find it hard to think about snow when it’s 70 degrees outside, but in Missouri we might get a couple of rounds before archery season closes, and northern states could get significant amounts. Few things are as informative about deer patterns and hideouts as a fresh coat of snow. If your area has even half an inch of snow that sticks, get out in the field as soon as possible. If not to hunt, then at least to scout. Last year we got a light snowfall literally on the last day of hunting season. I went out in a last-ditch effort and got some valuable scouting intel for this season.
Pay attention to your camouflage when hunting in snow, as dark forms on a white background are very easy to spot. Also, the crunch of your boots could also be a giveaway, especially if the snow has a crust to it. Finally, remember that snow shows your footprints and traps your scent better than bare ground. A mature, wily buck knows exactly what it means when there’s a bunch of boot prints around the base of a certain tree.
Get Out There Before the Holidays
With Thanksgiving behind us and Christmas ahead, many of us family-man-first hunters are in a very brief “window of hunting opportunity.” Kids are back in school, and most holiday festivities don’t begin for a couple of weeks. Now’s the time to get out there!
Besides, who wouldn’t want some venison steaks, sausage, or jerky this holiday season?
Share Your Post-Rut Hunting Tips and Stories
If you have any more tips for post-rut whitetail hunting, I’d love to hear them in the comments section. And if you have success, I definitely want to give you a shout-out here or on Twitter.