6 Tips For Buzzer-Beater Bucks
Before I could finish a thought, I caught a flash in the far corner of the field and raised my binoculars. The buck walked toward the other deer, head slung low and brassy rack glinting. It was high and heavy, 10 points, 170-class. The closer he got, the bigger the drop on his left beam became, until it was a thick, 10-inch club, black-bottomed with hardened-on velvet.
At once the does jumped, skittered out of the field, and looked my way. Drop didn't bolt, but he veered off into the woods and looked. I cut my eyes to 10 white tines bobbing in the grass 80 yards to my right. The 160-inch giant was clean—with just a quick peek, I could see that his rack didn't have more than five inches of deductions. He strode out into the field like he owned the joint. Drop Tine was older, but the 10-pointer was the dominant boy in these parts.
I was all over him, crosshairs locked on lungs. The shotgun roared, and the chunk of copper smashed shoulder bone. He kicked up his hind end and took off.
The motto of the story: Find and hunt the last strips or scraps of grain. That is where you will find the deer in December and January, and that is where you will fill your tag on a late-season giant if it is meant to be. So take heed of these late-season tips.
BIG-WOODS DEER FEED
A lot of you hunt the woods where there is no grain for miles. Still, you've got to home in on the last scraps, like leftover acorns, apples, or other mast. Hunt close and you'll see a few deer...and hopefully a buck. Concentrate on logged areas with woody browse. Say, for example, you find a cedar swamp with oak ridges above it on either side, or maybe a 3-year-old clear-cut within a half-mile. You'll find deer there.
WINTER DEER COVER
Biologists say that for most of the year, whitetails use trees, saplings, and brush capable of screening 90 percent of a standing deer at 75 yards or less for security cover. But when the mercury plunges in December in northern and midwestern states, many does and bucks shift their movements to bona fide thermal covers scattered throughout their range. There's far less snow and wind inside a block of pine, cedar, or hemlock than on the outside. Studies show that conifers cut the wind's velocity by 50 percent, and the ambient temperature inside a thicket is 10 to 15 degrees warmer than it is outside in the hardwood timber.
Evergreen trees 10 to 25 feet tall with closed canopies of 50 to 70 percent provide the best deer cover. Check an aerial photograph for spots like that. The more diverse the habitat and the more thermal covers, the more whitetails it will hold.
In states like Illinois, Iowa, and Kansas, where it gets darn cold but not as bitter as in northern Minnesota, whitetails seek out different kinds of thermal cover. During the day, many deer bed in south- or east-facing ravines or on the same directional slopes where the cedars are spotty but not too thick. The animals want some sunrays to hit them and warm them up.
It's easy to rule out poor covers and home in on the hot spots. If there's little or no feed within a mile of a conifer block or swamp, few if any deer will stay there for any length of time. On the other hand, a thicket of cedar or pine near a field with leftover soybean or corn morsels will attract and hold whitetails.
BEAT THE PRESSURE
Learn to beat the odds. Anywhere in the land, the previous months of hunting pressure have wired the bucks now. You're apt to see some does and 4-pointers in and around the feed or covers, but many days the surviving mature shooters have gone underground, or so it seems. To get a last shot at one, you have to factor that pressure into your plan.
One of America's top biologists, Dr. Grant Woods of Missouri, turned me onto some mapping and geographic-analysis studies that he has conducted on hunting properties across the land. It has changed the way I hunt, especially late in the season. In every case, Grant's data showed that hunters set their stands or blinds within a quarter mile or so of logging roads, crop fields, and similar easy-access areas. The other 90 percent of the land became a sanctuary where a lot of the old bucks go to hide out.
Get an aerial map of your land. Mark in red spots where guys have parked their trucks and driven 4-wheelers into the woods since October. Avoid those spots. Check your map for thick buck holes a half-mile or farther from the pressure points. Scout them for fresh tracks. Look for terrain funnels nearby. Check for old mast and thickets of honeysuckle or other greens where bucks will browse. Hang a tree stand or take a blind into a strategic spot. It takes time, work, and smarts to find and hunt the buck holes, but that is how you fill your tag this time of year.
A few years ago, Iowa big-buck hunter Don Kisky hunted a double-drop-tine buck on a corn plot for several evenings. It was cold that December, the kind of cold that hurts, with afternoon highs in the teens and single digits. Kisky knew the whitetails had to feed a lot and early every day, so he kept sitting on the plot, figuring it was just a matter of time until the big deer showed up in shooting light. He never did. It was smart.
But so is Kisky. He knew of several narrow, south-facing CRP ditches in the general direction the buck was coming from. One afternoon, he sneaked back into one of those ravines a couple hundred yards off the feed and set up on the ground. At twilight, he looked up and shuddered—Double Drop was walking straight to him! Kisky's muzzleloader belched smoke, and the buck went down. The rack scored 150, and it was going downhill. The critter was 8-years old!
That hunt taught Kisky a lesson we can all learn from. Late in the season, don't get caught up in only hunting a food source, he says. Some old bucks hang up back in cover until dark, regardless of how cold, snowy and miserable it is. Sometimes you've got to go for it and sneak close to a thermal cover where you think a big deer beds. You can shoot a giant that way.
If you can stop the wind and keep your feet warm, you can hunt all day, even in single digits. That's important. The longer you're out there, the better your odds of shooting Mr. Big.
Try a base layer of Under Armour Cold Gear shirt and leggings, topped with fleece top and pants lined with Scent-Lok. Used together, these garments will block the stiffest north or west wind. Top off with an outermost layer of Gore-Tex, and you can hack it for hours in the windiest, wettest conditions.
Since I do most of my winter gun hunting on the ground, I use camouflage insulators that slip over my hunting boots. Some of the old-school insulators were bulky as clown shoes. But today's new styles, like ArcticShield Boot Insulators, are thinner, lighter, and easier to pack into the woods. Once you're in your blind and set up, slip the insulators over your boots, toss in a couple of Hot Hands, and wait for a big buck to show.
COLD-WEATHER SHOOTING TIPS
A rifle, slugger, or muzzleloader zeroed in hot, steamy September might shoot a few inches off when its barrel gets ice cold. Leave the gun outside for a few hours on a cold December day, and then fire a couple test shots. Check the bullets' point of impact; tweak the scope if necessary. While hunting, don't breathe on or near a gun's scope or you'll fog the outside of the eyepiece. Every once in a while, check the scope and wipe off moisture or condensation.
For archery, wear an extra-long arm guard that runs along the inside of your forearm and up onto your bicep. Strap it tight so your coat sleeve won't grab the bowstring. On stand, draw your bow every 30 minutes when deer aren't coming to warm and loosen your muscles.