Gerald Almy: Avoiding mistakes late in season
If you’ve already bagged all the deer you want for the season, congratulations. But if you decide to continue hunting with bow, crossbow, or during the late muzzleloader season, one of the best ways to improve your chances is to eliminate tactical mistakes.
Often those mistakes are a matter of neglecting important opportunities, rather than actually committing errors. Avoid these seven common late-season mistakes and your chances of scoring should improve dramatically as the last few weeks of deer hunting wind down.
Underestimating the importance of the secondary rut: Once the main rut is finished, most people think breeding activity is finished. Well, it is for 80-90 percent of does. But those remaining ones that have not been bred are a strong draw, especially for mature bucks that want to mate with every doe possible.
Concentrate on smaller yearling does, and in areas with excellent habitat, also female fawns. Big bucks will shadow these young does that are most likely to come into estrous 28 days after the main rut. Find them hanging off to the edge of the main doe herds and look for ones with their tails crooked to the side or straight out, pacing and looking nervous. A big buck will likely be hanging nearby.
Overlooking scrapes: This mistake ties in with the one above. While most people focus on scrapes 7-14 days before peak breeding, a new cycle of scraping also occurs about 7-14 days after the main rut. Bucks want to leave their calling cards to attract the last few does that haven’t bred and let other bucks know they’re still in the area and still the boss. Look for the freshest ones possible with a bent licking branch overhead. Find thinly-outlined trails that lead towards them and hunt those approach routes right before sunset.
Neglecting water sources: These can be hot locations for early-season hunts. But deer need water in late season, too. Some water sources may be frozen over, so pinpointing those that are open from current or springs can be especially productive.
Overlooking secondary foods: Deer hunters today seem infatuated with food plots and agriculture fields. And these are great late season deer foods. But many bucks have become super-wary and reclusive by late season from the bow and gun pressure and spend more time feeding on less obvious foods where hunters are scarce.
These will vary by area but may include greenbrier, autumn olive, honeysuckle, grapevine, mountain laurel, blackberry, raspberry, persimmon, and fallow fields with forbs. Find fresh sign near these foods and then set up a stand or still near them.
Overlooking freshly logged areas: You might think chainsaws roaring would scare deer away. In fact, whitetails seem to know that logging activity often means food. When trees are cut the tops are left and that means a bounty of food is available in the branch tips, leaves and buds. Deer will pile in soon after the loggers move to the next spot, sometimes within hours. Be there waiting for them.
Hunting cover that’s too open: While bucks sometimes are forced to use open fields to feed late in the year, the oldest, heaviest-racked bucks typically do so at night. The rest of the day they’re often ensconced in some of the roughest, nastiest cover you can discover. Most hunters avoid these areas because they’re hard to hunt. But if you hang a stand on the edge of such an area where you’ve found fresh sign or still hunt it, you may find a mature buck hunkered back in these thickets. A two or three-man low-pressure drive can also work.
Ignoring south and southwest facing slopes: When north winds blow hard and temperatures plummet, south and southwest facing slopes are magnets for bucks. They can soak in the afternoon solar heat while escaping the strongest north winds. Find a few persimmon trees, some honeysuckle, or oaks with acorns in these areas, and you’ve found a late-season hotspot.
If the stories of hunters I’ve talked to are any indication, success has been hard to come by this year. By avoiding the mistakes listed above, maybe you’ll catch up with your quarry before the final days of bow and muzzleloader season wind down.
Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.
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