In most of North America, hunting during December’s post-rut is a far cry from the helter-skelter action that takes place during the previous month’s rut. The difference between November’s rut and December’s post-rut can often be as different as night and day. There are a few reasons for this.
A whitetail’s biological make-up at this time of the year and the amount of human pressure it has encountered from September to December help explain why post-rut bucks can be the hardest of all whitetails to hunt.
By the time a buck makes it through November’s breeding ordeal and inches into December he’s a far cry from the muscular rutting machine he was when November’s full moon hung high in the sky. A white-tailed buck in the post-rut is typically 20-25% lighter in weight than when he entered November.
As a result, it’s not uncommon to see mature whitetail bucks at this time of the year on the verge of physical meltdown. Consequently, their priorities have changed from sex to survival, in spite of the fact that 10 to 15 percent of the does are yet to be bred.
There is no doubt that many hunters question a buck’s decreased desire to breed in December in the North, especially when magazines tout the virtues of the so-called “second rut”. A buck’s ability to keep up the rutting chase in the post-rut moon is possible, but in most cases highly unlikely. Why? Research (Lambase 1972) shows that a buck’s sperm count in December is about half what it was in early November. So, physically, their drive isn’t there. As a result, bucks are calmer, more collected animals when the post-rut arrives.
Because survival is now his main objective, a buck becomes a different creature in December and early January. Oh, he will still breed, and often does, but generally, he isn’t moving about looking for does the way he was in October and November. Rather, he feeds, rests and takes what comes his way.
When December arrives in the North, the entire deer family group gravitates toward known food sources, such as cornfields in farm country or cedar swamp yarding areas in wilderness regions. The main objective of bucks and does during this time is food, food, food. As a result, trying to hunt rub and scrape lines as you did in October and November is, for the most part, a waste of time.
Man’s Influence on the Post-Rut
In addition to being worn out and hungry, the whitetail has another thing that keeps him from moving about—the constant presence of man. The hunting pressure incurred during September, October, and November cause many bucks to become nocturnal. When formulating a hunting strategy for nocturnal post-rut bucks, it’s important to understand that all white-tailed bucks are not the same. They fall into two categories, yearlings and adults. This is especially evident in areas where hunting pressure is heavy.
Yearling bucks are much easier to hunt, and it takes a lot of pressure for them to become truly nocturnal. The sex urge in November’s prime breeding season overwhelms most yearling bucks, keeping them constantly on the move. This makes yearlings huntable even in the post-rut. However, if a buck is lucky enough to survive his yearling season, he becomes a totally different animal the second season when he is 2 1/2 years old. These deer, as well as older bucks, really go underground in the post-rut.
Contrary to popular belief among hunters, bucks do not move out of the country when hunting pressure increases. Telemetry studies conducted throughout North America indicate that whitetails do not abandon their core range during hunting season. Bucks simply hunker down, find the thickest cover possible, and limit their movements to nighttime or the fringes of daylight. Couple this with a buck’s weakened, rut-ravaged body and it’s easy to see why hunting the post-rut is the most challenging time to bag a buck.
I’m an opportunist when it comes to hunting right after November’s rut. Though some does will be bred during this time, I know behavior will be much different. I intensely hunt food sources close to thick cover. This is the heart and soul of hunting the late season or post-rut. By concentrating on food sources and bedding areas, I’m able to get close to doe groups and bucks that have survived to this point in the season. Remember, does, and particularly bucks, need to gain and maintain body weight to survive winter, so everything else takes a back seat to food—even sex.
To be successful, hunting post-rut nocturnal bucks requires that you scout smart for them. In my twenties, I hunted the same way the entire deer season. This amounted to hunting the scrape areas I’d found early in the season. The only thing wrong was that once full-blown breeding arrived and gun season began, scraping activity dwindled to almost nothing. And as gun season progressed, deer sightings decreased significantly.
Then I changed my way of thinking. My buck sightings and opportunities increased dramatically when I began wondering, “If I were a buck, where would I be hiding when the tail end of the season arrived?” As might be expected, I looked intently at the thickest cover I could find in close proximity to known feeding areas.
Bed and Feed
To save time and energy, I use aerial photos and topographical maps to locate prospective bedding areas. When areas coincide with the topo map’s steep elevation lines, it’s an indicator of where deer will be bedded. Note that whitetails love to bed just over an edge where they can watch downwind and, and at the same time, have their backs to the wind, enabling them to smell danger in the direction they can’t see.
A bedding area’s relation to food and water can’t be emphasized enough, for it reveals how a buck moves to and from the bedding area. During the post-rut, try to find bedding areas that are close to the whitetail’s feeding areas. Bucks are weary and don’t want to travel too far for food if they can help it. As a result, you’ll often find them bedding in thick cover less than 300 yards of standing field crops or mast sources. If standing corn exists both bucks and does will probably be bedding right in the field.
When a trail is found leading to or from a bedding area, look at the tracks closely. If most or all are heading toward the feeding area, the trail is probably being used late in the day. If the tracks indicate movement into the bedding area, the trail is being used in the morning, most likely before dawn. Knowing a whitetail’s escape routes will help you plan hunting strategies and determine ambush locations.
I plan my ambush of a post-rut buck by being as inconspicuous as possible. This means I do not spend a lot of time in the area. I hang my stand near the bedding area’s known escape routes or where sign and cover is thickest. And, I hang my stands as close as I can to known bedding area without spooking deer. In addition, I make sure the stands are hung at least a month before I intend to hunt the area. Because of their size and the amount of noise required to build them, I seldom use permanent stands when hunting nocturnal bucks in thick cover. It’s just too risky. If you make too much commotion in the buck’s bedroom or close by, he’ll move out. With the stand in place, I take time to cut several small shooting lanes. And lastly, I make sure my entrance and exit can be done quietly. This last point is critical.
Though I will not dwell on this a great deal, it’s important to note that a whitetail’s feeding times in the post-rut can change drastically from what they were prior to November’s rut. In the North, where winter usually begins in early December, there will be more activity mid to end of day in the post-rut, especially if hunting pressure has not been intense. In my experience, the hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. to nightfall have offered the greatest deer activity during the post-rut.
Post-Rut Breeding Phase
If fawn births are on schedule, meaning mid-May to early June in the North, and favorable conditions are present in the form of good nutrition, a portion of the doe fawns will come into estrus in December. However, don’t expect this to be nearly as spectacular as what took place in November. Unfortunately, by the time the post-rut rolls around, the adult buck population has thinned significantly. As a result, the post-rut breeding phase might not be noticeable, unless more than one buck is vying for the same doe. Then a little chasing may take place.
The thing to remember is that breeding activity is very probable during the post-rut. So, concentrate on doe groups because if one doe happens to come into estrus and there are bucks in the area, you’ll be in position to take advantage of it.
Call a Buck Into Range
The use of antlers and deer calls is associated with hunting the rut. There’s no question that November is the time when both work best. However, don’t put them away after Thanksgiving, because the post-rut is also a great time to use antlers and calls. Over the years, I’ve had many close encounters with bucks because I rattled and called.
When I do rattle during the post-rut, I imitate sparring bucks rather than two that are in a full-blown rumble. Seldom will two bucks try to kill each other after the flurry of the rut has passed. So, I find less aggressive fighting noise works best. I might lightly tickle the tines or bang the antlers slowly together. Typically, I do this for less than two minutes, then hang the antlers up for 45 minutes before repeating the process.
The set-up is critical when rattling in the post-rut. By being close to the bedding area it isn’t necessary to make the sequence loud. But it needs to be loud enough for the bedded buck, wherever he is in the bedding area, to hear it. Also, I don’t like to rattle unless I’m in thick cover and have a clear shooting lane downwind from my stand because bucks often circle downwind as they try to locate the combatants. Though I love to use antlers in the post-rut, my call of choice is a good grunt tube and bleat can. By making several guttural grunts before and after rattling adds realism to the calling sequence.
When the Going Gets Tough
Though stand hunting is my favorite way to hunt the post-rut, silent drives in the late gun season can also be productive for hunting wary bucks. I’m a loner when it comes to hunting anything and seldom do I venture into the woods with more than one person. However, late in the season when it appears all bucks have left the country, I like to put on what I call my Cloverleaf Tactic with another hunter. It works like this:
One hunter positions himself in a tree stand in the heart of a prime bedding area. Then, one lone still-hunter proceeds to make big loops from the stand hunter. The still-hunter hunts away from the stand, makes a big loop, and then comes back. The still-hunter comes back to where he can almost see the stand, then he makes another loop, continuing the process until he has gone a full 360 degrees around the person in the stand.
How far out the loop takes the still-hunter depends on the size of the bedding area, but generally the loop takes place in the area about 400 yards from the stand. If you were to look at this strategy from above, it would resemble a four-leaf clover, with the stand in the middle. Over the years, I’ve killed several bucks using this technique. I find it to be a real ace-in-the-hole when post-rut hunting gets tough.