Priorities are shifting back to food in the northern tier, but in the Deep South, things are just now getting good
Kentucky's rifle season ended Sunday (Nov. 28), and for some hunters it was the slowest one in recent memory. Many hunters I know of in the western end of the state had trouble seeing deer, and especially mature bucks. Still, there were spurts of good news and activity, and I got reports of big bucks on the move, in particular during the final few days of season, around Thanksgiving. A trail-camera check today verified that — the biggest buck I've captured on camera all season cruised through a doe bedding area at 11:18 a.m., Nov. 23.
Hunters who are still after it have reported that deer are gradually returning to more predictable feeding patterns. In areas of the state where baiting is legal (that's most Kentucky counties), I've noticed increased activity by mature does, especially in the late evenings, around corn piles. That's a sure sign that most of the peak breeding has come and gone. While out scouting at midday today, I also noticed several fresh scrapes and new rubs — a sign that bucks aren't quite ready to call it quits.
All around, there's a lot of good hunting left in the Southeast. Down in Georgia, Tyler Jordan — reporting from the stand — says the deer are still rutting hard. Yesterday afternoon I heard two different bucks chasing through the woods, and I just had another 3 1/2-year-old buck come by. You could tell he was looking.
Over in Virginia, deer blogger Mike Hanback reported the same. The primary rut is still hanging on, he says. There are reports and sightings of mature bucks still chasing and breeding does into late November.
In more southerly areas of the region, the curtain is just now opening for the main show. Down in southwest Tennessee and northern Mississippi, peak fawn conception is around Dec. 6, meaning right now is when you're likely to see the season's best seeking and chasing action. In Mississippi, gun season with dogs in that region is open through Dec. 1, and then gun season without dogs opens again Dec. 16-23. Gun season is open right now in Tennessee, too, and will remain so through Jan. 2 in most units.
Personally, I spent Thanksgiving week hunting with my wife and son in central Texas, where the deer movement was good, but the rut was definitely on the downslide. Michelle, my wife, shot a great 8-pointer the first evening there. That buck cruised past her stand at 3:30 in the afternoon, checking out the feeder she was watching (I did mention we were in Texas) for does. My son and I were on doe and pig patrol ourselves, but we saw plenty of bucks over the course of four days. As many of them were interested in eating corn as in chasing does, and a good many wore busted-up antlers.
December is a great month to be a Southern deer hunter, whether you live in the northern stretches of the region, where the deer are returning to more predictable feeding patterns, or in the Deep South, where the rut is just now getting exciting. We've got a big warmup forecast for later this week, with highs approaching 70, but that'll be followed by another cold front that should make things a little more seasonal.
Southern hunters can't depend on hard winter weather to concentrate deer on food like they do in the Midwest, and so identifying the dish of the day is all the more important for hunting success. With dwindling mast on the ground and cut crops, look to the green stuff. There's still a surprising amount of browse growing out there. Most clover plots are still plenty green, too, and brassicas, if you planted any, are killer in December. But my favorite food source to hunt in the late season is a field of cover crop wheat. It's about 5 inches tall in these parts right now, and bright green. To find it, just follow the deer.
Good luck out there.