By Gerald Almy - email@example.com
Rifle hunting for whitetails is finished for the year, but bow and crossbows are still legal and muzzleloader season opened Dec. 15 and runs through Jan. 5. Here are some insights on how to hunt these late-season animals.
After weeks of hunting pressure and the exhaustive period of the rut, surviving bucks seek out nothing more than a safe, secluded spot to bed down and recuperate.
There are lots of places that could meet a late-season buck's security needs. But if they're easy to reach or stand out obviously, they're not worth hunting. The deer there have either been shot or felt the human pressure and left the area.
Look for mature late-season bucks where most hunters don't even bother to search. These are isolated, neglected pockets of cover others walk right by on their way to the big woods. Here's where to look, and how to hunt these areas.
Cluster of tall weeds and brush: These spots are so inconspicuous no one could think they would hold a decent buck. That's why big, old deer choose them.
Not every cluster of brush will hold a good buck, but enough will to make them prime spots to check out. Find them in the middle or on the edge of a cultivated field where rocks prevented tilling the ground, next to a farm driveway or in a natural meadow with mostly low surrounding grasses.
Pocket of pines: It was out of a pocket of low-growing, young pines -- trees he had planted five years earlier -- that Tony Fulton, of Mississippi, shot a monster 295 6/8 B&C buck. "The pines had grown up really thick with weeds and briers," he told me when I interviewed him. "That made a perfect buck hidey-hole."
On a cold January day the 30-inch wide, 45 point non-typical stepped out of that thick pocket of conifers and Fulton made a good shot on what was then the highest scoring buck ever killed by a hunter. Older, thinned pine plantations aren't the answer. You want trees close together, only 5-8 years old, with low-growing branches and lots of brush and briers between them.
Abandoned home site: Locate one of these and you've found a big buck magnet. Deer gravitate to these like a bass hunkers down next to structure. It almost seems to give them a feeling of security or a sense that the ramshackle dwelling is now their home.
Often there's a fruit tree or two that used to be in the yard still producing a bit of soft mast. Weeds and brush have grown up, and there may be some clover left from the old yard or other greenery a buck would relish.
Isolated blow-down: Ask Brian Bice about this type of cover. He walked up on a 256 1/8 inch buck bedded in a deadfall and shot it at 25 yards on a cold, rainy December day in Indiana when he decided it was too wet to stay on stand. The thick tree trunk itself, multiple twisting branches coming off it, greenbriers and grapevines entangling it -- all make a single large deadfall an ideal overlooked hideout for a late season buck.
Small, remote clearcuts: Big timbered areas near roads have probably been pounded hard. But if you can find a small clearcut an acre or two in size away from the highway with no road, you've found a late season gold mine.
Bucks will feed on the tops left over after the logging was done and on sprouts regenerating from the stumps. Tender forbs and berries will crop up from the new infusion of sunlight. By the fourth or fifth year, cover will be head high -- thick enough to suit the needs of any wary buck, but too thick for the taste of most hunters. Check with logging companies, the state forestry office or the U.S. Forest Service to find out where such small clearcuts might be located.
Four tactics work for these late season hidey holes. Here are some tips for employing each of them.
• Stand Hunting: Mature late-season bucks that hunker down in these small pockets of neglected cover move little. What traveling they do is typically right at dawn or dusk when they move out to get a bite to eat. Be there at those times, setting up as far away as you can on the downwind edge while still getting a good shot.
• Jump-Shooting: If a pocket is extremely small, such as a cluster of brush and weeds in an open field, I've had luck simply sneaking up to the spot using whatever cover is available and getting a quick jump shot as the deer bounds out. I took two bucks -- 8 and 11 pointers -- using this method in South Dakota a few years ago. Practice at the range for these quick-draw, moving target shots if you want to try this approach.
• Two-Man Still Hunt: A better bet in most cases if you want to try an active approach is to team up and still hunt with a friend. Approach the cover with one hunter in the lead and one hunter hanging back slightly on the downwind side. The lead hunter might jump a buck and get a crack at it, or it may curl back, giving the flanking hunter a shot.
• Drives: If you have more than two people in your party, place one hunter at the most likely exit route on the opposite side of the thicket and have another wait at the next piece of prime cover the deer will likely flee to. When those people are in position, have the other hunters work slowly through the cover. Make sure everyone knows their safe shooting lanes and wears blaze orange.
Good luck, and keep safety foremost in mind.
-- Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.