If you believe the deer hunting chamber of commerce hype, then the only time of the year worth being outside to chase big whitetails around is during the peak of the November rut.
That’s cute, but don’t tell that to Grayson County bowhunters who are still chomping at the bit with several weeks to go before the Jan. 1, 2017 end of the season arrives. Because the truth be told, the upcoming month of December is often one of the best months of the year to actually take a big whitetail in the local backyard.
With that in mind, here are seven late season hunting rules to contemplate between now and the end of the season:
1. Early Post Rut Can Be Good — While most bowhunters in Grayson County take their vacation days in early to mid November each season, I’m not so sure that the days after Thanksgiving aren’t a better time to hunt.
Want proof? Then consider that the biggest typical buck ever tagged by a hunter in Grayson County — the 175 2/8 inch net typical taken by Sherman’s Jimmy Lillis back in the fall of 2007 — was actually killed on Nov. 30th that year.
On that Hagerman NWR hunt nearly a decade ago, Lillis heard something rustle behind him, slowly turned to look and saw a giant buck that he grunted at once. Moments later, Mr. Duck brought his Mathews bow to full draw and prepared to unleash an Easton Axis arrow at the buck of a lifetime.
“When he went behind a tree about 90 degrees to my left side, I came to full draw,” said Lillis after his historic hunt. “When he started moving again and came out into my shooting gap, he stopped, I put my sight pin right where I wanted it and shot him at 18 yards.”
2. Don’t Stop Rattling — As I’ve stated in this space before, early December is also a great time to grab the your rattling horns to try and rattle in a wise old buck.
But don’t take my word for it. Instead, take the word of Mike Hanback, author of Mike Hanback’s Big Deer blog (www.mikehanback.com) and the popular TV show host of the Big Deer television program on Sportsman Channel.
“For the last few years I’ve been telling anyone who would listen that the first weeks of the post-rut, when gnarly old bucks cruise for the last hot does, are prime for trophy hunting,” wrote Michael Hanback a few years ago in an article for Outdoor Life magazine (Deer Hunting Tips: Rattling Research That Will Help You Get Your Buck).
“Once the rut starts winding down, it’s a good time to rattle again,” agrees Realtree Outdoors executive producer David Blanton. “A lot of does have come in and out of heat, but the bucks are still aggressive.”
Such thoughts are backed up with biological science in addition to in-the-field hunting observations. That is apparent after a study in South Texas several years ago by wildlife biologist Dr. Mick Hellickson who noted that the best time to rattle up a mature buck is in fact…you guessed it…during the post rut.
Which is exactly why you should have your set of rattling horns, a rattling bag or a synthetic rattling system in hand over the next week or so if you’re going to climb up into a treestand.
3. Hunt Funnels — The proverbial book on whitetail hunting says that when the post-rut arrives, it’s time to start hunting food again.
But what about that in between phase as the rut begins to wane but isn’t totally over just yet? My suggestion would be to hunt funnels, bottlenecks and travel corridors that are located near food sources — food plots, corn feeders, native vegetation, etc. — that lead from bedding areas to the chow halls.
Why? Because the does will begin to relate to food once again over the next few days as the rut wanes, the weather gets colder and abundant food starts to play out. Eventually, the bucks will do the same, but probably not just yet.
Because of that likelihood, you’ll want to position yourself along travel routes where cagey old bucks will likely be cruising, trying to get down wind of food sources that are beginning to hole numbers of does once again.
Since these wise-guy bucks may not come all the way into the food sources right now, it pays to be waiting 50 to 100 yards away from these chow halls where you can intercept a buck that comes in to scent check for love one last time. And if you’ve played your cards right, you’ll be waiting in the wings to send a broadhead tipped arrow into that big buck’s boiler room.
4. Guard the Food — As Old Man Winter makes his presence increasingly known on the December landscape, you’ll want to guard the chow hall again, especially in places that provide a high calorie meal for local whitetails.
That’s what Robert Taylor did at the end of the season in 2012 when he arrowed one of the largest bucks ever shot in North Texas, a huge non-typical buck that scores well north of 215 inches.
The key to Taylor’s hunt — which came on the evening of Dec. 29 as cold weather and the remains of the region’s 2012 White Christmas dotted the landscape — was food.
That food was the combination of corn and a food plot that promised local deer high caloric intake during the cold snap. That was enough to lure in several does, a good 10-point buck and the huge bruiser that Taylor ended up shooting.
A similar scenario played into the harvest of another top Boone and Crockett non-typical taken here in Grayson County, this time on the final weekend of the 2007 deer season when Mike Benson of Sherman guarded a food source on a chilly winter evening. Before shooting time, a 201 1/8 inch net non-typical sauntered into range and Benson put his name into the B&C Record Book.
5. Hunt the Secondary Rut — While the November rut gets all of the headlines, a secondary rut can occur in December when does that weren’t bred in last month’s breeding frenzy cycle into estrous again approximately 28 days later.
While some biologists and hunters roll their eyes at the concept, Dallas hunter Sherman Wyman shrugs his shoulders and points to his wall.
That’s because Wyman capitalized on the secondary rut on Dec. 24, 2005 when he shot a Boone and Crockett Club non-typical buck that netted 226 4/8 inches on his low-fence ranch near Wichita Falls.
“I’ve shot a lot of big deer around Christmas time,” said Wyman. “(Up in North Texas), everyone thinks once Thanksgiving or the first of December has come and gone, you’re done.”
Obviously not in Wyman’s mind, especially when he is able to find scrapes that have been reopened; to identify and hunt preferred natural food sources that mature bucks tend to key on; and to be in the woods when late-born fawns come into their first estrous cycle in late December.
6. Punch the Clock — As I’ve mentioned in this space before, longtime Grayson County bowhunter Dale Moses gives more proof to the idea of “late being great” thanks to the giant non-typical buck that he arrowed as the final hours of the 2013-14 ticked away.
The big Grayson County buck, a bruiser that the now retired game warden had nicknamed “Captain Hook,” first showed up on Moses’ trail cameras back in November of that season.
That began an exhausting cat-and-mouse game between Moses and the huge deer that went on for several weeks.
By the time Moses finally caught up to the big whitetail and arrowed it on Jan. 2, he was all but devoid of vacation time and had logged many, many hours in a stand chasing the buck. But arrow it he did, putting a 184 0/8 inch net non-typical into the Texas Big Game Awards program and becoming the cover boy for an issue of the Journal of the Texas Trophy Hunters magazine.
“I wasn’t sure if I would get him or not because he wasn’t showing up much and several other hunters were after him too,” said Moses. “But in the end, it all worked out. I feel very blessed to have taken him.”
7. Remember the F8 Rule — If you want to tag a December buzzer beater buck, then you’ll do well to remember the deer hunting version of the photographer’s “F8 and be there” rule.
For photographers, that rule means to put your digital camera on manual, set the f-stop to F8 and be there for the shot.
That idea rings true for late season deer hunters too.
Former Sherman area hunter Mark Wade practiced this rule just before Christmas in 2000 when he carved time out of his busy holiday and professional schedule, braved cold weather, and got to the nearest deer stand as the season wound down.
He was rewarded with the fourth biggest typical buck ever reported in Grayson County, a 163 5/8 inch net typical, a wide and beautiful racked whitetail that adorned the good doctor’s Christmas cards that year.
Ray Petree, a Texomaland bowhunter with several Grayson County Record Book (GCRB) bucks to his credit, has also made a habit of punching the clock with late season hunting success over the years.
To the tune of arrowing a good late season buck or two over the years including a 2002 typical that nets 165 4/8 inches and ranks number three in the GCRB standings.
Want to do something similar this year as the 2016-17 season winds down? Then get out of that easy chair, leave the warmth of the fireplace behind, get into your deer stand and put one or more of these seven late season rules into practice.
“How many guys do you know that were out on a (North Texas) deer stand on Christmas Eve?” said Wyman of his big buck harvest.
The answer is not many, only those who have learned to never take take no for an answer when it comes to deer hunting.
Because in the Red River Valley of North Texas, the truth is that sometimes, the best hunts actually get saved for last.