Some Big ‘Ole Bruisers Are Still Out There…
Michigan has had crazy weather this fall, heavy rain, frost the first week of October and now freezing temperatures are in the forecast. While I prefer to hunt deer in above freezing weather, come late season my adrenaline gets pumping because the orange army of gun season is gone and I have a buck hunting strategy that works like magic. Some big ‘ole bruiser bucks are still out there, but leave your rut tactics at home. Focus on food sources and thick cover and stay put on stand, let ’em come to you.
I first spotted the wide-racked 10-point in a hay field with an August bachelor group. I got a glimpse of his huge form during the rut in early November as he chased a young doe past my treestand. His tracks were everywhere, in the mud by the creek, throughout the cornfield, in the dirt under the farmer’s apple trees and huge rubs and scrapes could be found on the Washtenaw County property. But the big buck was like a ghost, seldom seen, yet always present and it was apparent he had gone nocturnal.
During late season mature bucks slip into night mode for two reasons. First, their metabolism changes, they become somewhat lazy and as bucks age they naturally move less during broad daylight. No buck goes completely nocturnal but they definitely make the switch to the night shift when cold weather and threatening snow changes their feeding habits. You see, deer are naturally nocturnal. They can see at night and quickly learn they can avoid humans by dancing and prancing by the light of the moon. Come November when bitter cold swirling winds and snow drives them into winter haunts, deer bed during the day and spend time feeding under the cover of darkness.
Secondly, Michigan has the distinction of being one of the most heavily hunted states in the Midwest, with an average of 7-10 hunters per square mile. In heavily hunted areas, it is common for bucks sporting their first set of antlers to be heavily targeted by hunters. Soon bucks become conditioned to hunting pressure and wise deer learn the only way they can survive the onslaught is by making the switch to the night shift.
However, during cold weather bucks make the common mistake of moving to feeding locations just as the setting sun brings a drastic change in light. The quickly diminishing light causes deer to rise from beds, begin browsing after a long day nap and critters eager for food resume night activities. This point is best made by the following anecdote.
The woods were especially bright as I trekked to my stand in search of the Washtenaw County buck. The sky was clear, winds calm and the light snow from the evening before had melted in patches facing the southern sun. I stalked my stand moving slowly, quietly through the fallen leaves and brush to the stand. The location was ideal, found close to stubble corn and located in thick brush where several runways filtered from the underbrush past my loft. Deer prefer to move when the wind is calm and they can easily hear approaching predators. The setting sun brought quickly falling temperatures and I soon placed foot warmers in my boots and gloves and told myself I’d stick it out until sundown. If nothing showed by then, I’d head to the warmth of the farm house and sip hot coffee.
At 4:30 my confidence soared when I heard deer skitter through the leaves in the thicket and a doe with fawns walked past my stand toward the cornfield. I strained to look through the mass of brush and caught a glimpse of antlers coming directly at me. My heart rate soared as I reached for my Ultimate muzzleloader and put my thumb on the safety. A small 4-pointer came trotting out of the thicket, ran down the same runway used by the does and headed to the field. That’s when I heard a branch snap and figured it was the small buck, but much to my surprise a large-body deer carrying a wide rack materialized. It was the big boy I was hunting.
My heart cranked into overdrive and I could feel my pulse in my fingertips as I shouldered the Ultimate and prayed for a clear shot. Out of nowhere came a smallish doe and she danced through the underbrush and ran directly past my stand. That was too much for the bruiser to take. He put his nose to the ground, pranced or trotted after the receptive doe, ran in a tight circle around the thicket and stopped broadside in a small opening.
The smoke pole roared as 200 grains of Pyrodex sent a 275 grain bullet at lightning speed through the big boys shoulder. The fast-moving bullet had enough energy to literally lift the huge deer and slam the bruiser to the ground. Gray smoke hung in the air as I climbed down to see my prize. I did not reload because the buck was down for the count and in seconds I was holding the 150-class 10-pointer in my trembling hands.
It might seem that bucks disappear come late season. No, they are still there but they are much more wary, rarely show themselves and you must make changes in your hunting tactics if you want to score.
We already talked about hunting pressure If a buck has survived after bow and gun openers, he’s learned how to avoid hunters. Deer are wary critters by nature and they quickly adapt to human pressure and an educated buck is one of the smartest, wariest animals in Michigan. Respect the animal’s tenacity and survival maneuvers when putting together your late season hunting plan.
Bucks Love Brush
During late hunts the woods are void of leaves and cover. This means there are far fewer places for a buck to hide and some hiding locations are gone. Sure a buck can travel anywhere through the woods but generally they seek cover, thick cover.
One of my favorite places to hunt for a big buck in late season is in the brush, the thicker the better. Oh sure, bucks can hole up in standing cornfields, cattails, pine groves, cedar swamps, anywhere they find safety and the cover that blocks hunters from seeing them. Some-times they seek secluded islands in marshes or they will find where high winds have tumbled trees and they curl up next to blow-downs. In my neck of the woods they often end up in thick purplish colored alders and brush. The kind of cover that holds rabbits, highlighted by entwined thorn bushes, brush so thick that you have to turn sideways in order to slip through the tangled mess. Smart deer love a thick sanctuary where a big buck can lay down, hear any intruders and bound to safety without being detected.
You can rest assured a big buck’s hiding spot is a location that is not being frequented by hunters. It is my opinion that wise deer find areas that are not hunted. I think they use their keen sense of smell to locate stands or blinds, determine routes hunters travel and they select a resting spot that is overlooked. The larger the sanctuary the better but a hiding spot does not have to be very large. On one piece of property I hunt there is a brushy knoll covered with raspberry plants, fallen trees, super thick brush and tall grass. Guess what? Every big buck taken on the property has come from the thick patch, which we hunt around but do not enter. Here’s why.
If you walk through every bit of cover on your hunting ground a deer will pick up your scent and vacate the area. This happens at night, when you are fast asleep and deer are on the move. Come daylight wary bucks have located a new hiding spot that has no human scent. Try to create a sanctuary on your land and set aside property that you do not hunt. Deer will be there, guaranteed!
Folks who hunt near large plots of private ground, city limits, ranches, private farms, managed leases or any location where deer are protected can have exciting late season hunts. The trick is to find a spot where deer are protected and you get permission to hunt adjoining property. In my neck of the woods, southern Michigan, some trophy hotspots exist on land adjoining parks, airports, cemeteries, private land that does not allow hunting, private housing complexes and more. Many cities do not allow hunting and deer are protected but if you set up on adjoining properties you can have a trophy hunt.
Find The Dinner Table
Come late season food becomes scarce. Nutritious leaves and buds are gone and natural mast like acorns has been picked over. Most farm crops have been removed from fields and plenty have been chisel plowed, ruining the chances of a deer finding an easy meal.
This is the time when bucks must eat in order to stay warm; they need to take in calories. As dangerous as it is to venture from hiding, a buck has to eat and he is going to travel in order to scrounge up enough grub to meet his needs. In the big woods up north deer begin browsing on twigs, branches and greenery. When fall completely turns to winter deer in North Country make the switch to evergreens and they move into yards best identified by large groves of white cedar that offer winter nutrition.
Many parts of Michigan have a good mast crop this year. Some oak trees were covered with acorns late this year and there are still acorns on the ground from those trees. Find them and you are in business. Deer will find acorns even when buried under snow and they will keep coming back to the food source until it is all gone.
My deadliest tactic during cold weather is to scout farm country, looking for deer eating grain from harvested crop fields. Beans and corn rank at the top of my list. Find a standing corn field or stubble field where plenty of ears are on the ground and you are in whitetail heaven. Some fields draw bucks from long distance, sometimes several miles and others have enough grain to maintain a healthy herd for the entire winter. Locate a honey hole, find the mother lode and set up shop in the dinning area and you can expect some exciting hunting.
Try to set up a stand without disturbing Mr. Big. Try high noon on a sunny day, slip into the area silently and get out without alerting deer to your presence. Don’t make the common mistake of penetrating too far into the woods before you set up. Many times the best hunting is on the edge of the field, near a low spot, tall grass, pines, fallen trees, close to the thickest brush, often in a valley, where animals can move freely without being spotted from the nearest road.
Always assume that the deer are bedded within hearing distance of their food source. Sneak to your stand, stalk it, move when the wind is blowing, stop when the air current subsides and always make frequent stops while approaching any hunting location.
Wait until the wind is in your favor before entering a stand. You do not want your scent to blow into the bedding area. Wait until the wind is blowing human odor into the open field; unless you are a weekend warrior and can only hunt a specific day and you must go hunting regardless of where your scent is blowing. Keep in mind that rookie hunters make the mistake of alerting deer to their presence, the result is deer vacate the area.
Slip into your stand when deer are taking a nap. Stay alert and sit still on stand. Avoid getting fidgety, leave the cell phone turned off and look for deer body parts in the thick cover. Stay calm when deer appear and try not to freak out when a large racked buck walks your way. Slowly get into shooting position, control your breathing, and try not to look at the antlers when you are about to shoot.
Concentrate on the vitals; hold steady, get off an accurate shot. Watch the deer after impact and note how he reacts. If the animal runs, note where you saw him last and try to visualize how it acted on impact. Did the buck kick like a mule, run with tail down, stumble, run into trees, or did you see it fall down? Many times late season hunts end when you follow running tracks in the fresh snow and bits of blood eventually lead to a fallen buck.