In case you haven’t noticed, it’s the fourth quarter of deer season.
The warm, lazy, hazy days of the early season and its evening hunts for bucks nonchalantly cruising into a late summer food source are long gone.
The October lull and the pre-rut phase of autumn also has run its course. And ditto for the frenzied days of the early November rut when big bucks were chasing does, grunting loudly and generally causing quite a ruckus in the woods.
Heck, even the waning days of the rut in the last half of November have now passed by, a time when a big buck could – at times, that is – be found cruising the woodlots in a quest for one last dose of estrous-doe love until next fall rolls around.
But all of that was then, the first, the second and the third quarters of the annual whitetail season.
And this is now, a time when many hunters are hanging Christmas lights, shopping for a final holiday gift or two and watching gridiron pigskin action while waiting on the New Year to arrive.
What’s left now for the deer hunter who refuses to quit while there’s still an unused tag in the back pocket? A gray landscape barren of leaves and food, deer that have gone underground to recover from the rigors of the rut and a season full of hope a few months ago, one that now gives way to the despair of watching the sand quickly run out of the hour glass.
So what should a deer hunter do in mid-December? Pack it in, finish the Christmas Day holiday preparations and sit by the fireplace poking the embers while nursing a hot beverage?
Hardly. Because fourth quarter or not, many big bruiser bucks are still tagged by enterprising hunters who set the alarm early and get out during the final month of the year.
Like to be one of them? Then put this five-step game plan into play for the final days of the season and see if the result isn’t venison for the freezer and a big set of antlers for the wall:
1. Hunt Travel Corridors: You know the drill here, from saddles to funnels to pinch points to the intersection of several trails. Starting with the early season and continuing on through the heart of the rut, this tactic can produce all the way to the season’s final bell.
In my opinion, there is never a bad time to put a stand in a travel corridor, especially one that leads from a bedding area to a feeding area. Particularly as bucks recover from the rut and turn their attention to filling their bellies again, gaining weight and trying to survive the winter season.
2. Don’t Forget Rattling: Conventional wisdom says that rattling a set of antlers together typically works best as the pre-rut gives way to the breeding frenzy, especially in areas with good buck-to-doe ratios where there is a lot of competition among bucks to breed.
But the practice also works during the early stages of the post-rut too. In fact, as I pointed out in a recent article, a three-year long landmark study by several universities and former King Ranch chief biologist Mick Hellickson actually found that the post-rut produced a significant number of mature bucks responding to horns being clashed together.
Translated, that means that December rattling – especially in Texas and across the southern reaches of the nation – can still produce a hefty taxidermy bill even as old St. Nick prepares to power up the sleigh.
3. Find the Preferred Food: Gone are the mild days of October when white oak acorns were raining down from trees like raindrops falling from a spring gully washer.
The same thing applies to soft mast crops too – tasty things like persimmons – food resources that often find a November doe showing up to munch on them.
And with any luck, perhaps a giant buck will show up too.
But now? Food – in easy to find quantities, at least – is pretty much gone from the Deer Season landscape. Which leaves deer to scrounge around to find sustenance from leftover acorns and browse, the green of a winter wheat field or a late-season food plot, and in Texas, of course, from the golden nuggets being thrown out of a metal corn feeder.
While the current spate of mild El Nino weather doesn’t have the internal combustion engines of December whitetails revved up yet like it is in most years, the deer are still fighting off the cold and trying to pack away the calories in an effort to recover from the decreased body weights that November’s rut have left behind.
That means that the deeper into the final month of the year that the 2015 calendar gets, the more deer hunting becomes about where the local whitetail chow hall is located.
Put simply, find the food, find the deer, at least in December.
4. Don’t forget the Second Rut: According to a study a few years ago by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the peak of the rut for my region of North Texas typically falls around November 15, give or take a few days.
But that doesn’t mean that all of the does get bred during that mid-November period of time. Sometimes, the odd mature doe may fall through the cracks and not get bred. It’s rare, I guess, but if that happens, 28 days after coming into estrous in November, she will cycle again.
And don’t forget that young doe fawns of the year will also pop into estrous for the first time during the month of December in many states. And when that happens, it will almost always draw some attention from a few old gnarly bucks still looking for love.
Need a case in point? Then consider the 240-plus-inch non-typical whitetail that Dallas, Texas, hunter Sherman Wyman shot several years ago in the Red River country near Wichita Falls.
Hunting on Christmas Eve, Wyman put his crosshairs on the giant buck – one of the biggest non-typicals ever reported in Texas – as the deer roared into the area in front of Wyman’s blind while chasing after a young doe fawn in heat.
5. Stay Persistent: At some point, the sand in the hourglass of the season across the nation will finally run out, leaving hunters to spend the next year dreaming about the return of hunting action a year from now.
But that doesn’t mean that the opportunity to harvest a giant buck is gone for another year, especially for those enterprising hunters who will stay persistent until the final bell has sounded.
While a buck’s drive to breed isn’t pushing him across the landscape as often as it was a month earlier, the second rut can still bring some sporadic rutting action – just ask Sherman Wyman, mentioned above.
And with Mr. Big Boy’s need to start hammering the winter food sources, evening sits near whitetail chow halls can still produce big antlered results.
The key, in both cases, is that a hunter simply has to be persistent to the end, punching the clock, putting himself or herself in the best situation possible and hoping for the best.
Because sometimes, the very best whitetail hunting of the year is in the waning days of the season, not in the weeks and months before.
Just ask my friend Dr. Mike Benson, a North Texas physician who arrowed a 201 1/8-inch net non-typical Boone & Crockett buck on the last Friday of the 2007 season.
Or ask another physician, Dr. Mark Wade, who arrowed a 163 5/8-inch net typical in the Red River Valley of North Texas right after Christmas back in the year 2000.
Don’t forget to ask my friend Dale Moses, a local game warden who knocked over a big non-typical buck scoring 184 0/8 inches at the end of December a couple of years ago.
And certainly don’t forget to ask Robert Taylor, a construction contractor from a small community north of Dallas, who tagged a 219-inch non-typical at the end of December in 2012.
I could go on with more examples, many from other parts of the country where exceptional big bucks have gotten killed by hunters braving it to the season’s bitter end.
Hunters that prove that as long as the season is still open and big bucks are on the hoof, there is hope enough to head for the woods.
All in an effort to find some big buck hunting action that is good to the season’s last drop, fourth quarter or not.