Late-season bucks are the survivors—the smartest, most reclusive deer in the woods. To tag one now, you’ll have to work harder than ever to earn it. Here are seven extreme tactics from some of the country’s most diehard deer hunters
They’re still out there—huge bucks lurking in your woods right now. They’re the diehards. They’ve survived this long because they’re the toughest deer to kill. But that’s not the only reason. A lot of guys packed it in weeks ago, because their woodstoves are so nice and warm. Or because their couches swallowed them up. Mostly, though, because tagging one of these winter trophies takes more gumption than some folks had when the season began.
But that’s not you.
You, too, are one of the diehards. You’re going to keep at it until your last tag is filled or the season’s last day closes with you picking icicles from your mustache. And to help you get it done, we asked seven of the whitetail world’s most successful big-buck experts to share their best, most extreme late-season tactics. The final push will not be easy, but the reward will be huge.
Hardcore Hunt No. 1: The Hill Workout
Expert: Jared Schefler
Years’ Hunting: 20
Location: Western Wisconsin
Owner and producer of the Whitetail Adrenaline video series, Jared Schefler and his buddies have documented 67 buck kills since 2008. All of the animals were taken during D.I.Y. hunts on public land and roughly half were P&Y-class trophies.
In the bluff country of western Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota, big, pressured whitetails take refuge on bedding points near the tops of 500- to 600-foot-high ridges. Hiking up one of these hills is a brutal workout, but Schefler and his buddies will make the climb several times a day to fill a late-season tag.
Schefler’s favorite tactic now is a two-man drive that he and his crew perfected on a particular bedding ridge with a sharp dogleg. “If there was a big buck there,” Schefler says, “he’d bed just off the edge of the slope where the ridge made that bend.”
When a buck bedded in a spot like this feels pressure, he’ll usually bomb down toward the valley floor. “We had to figure a way to keep him from doing that. So the driver starts at the bottom and climbs slowly and quietly, just to the upwind side of the buck.” About halfway up, the driver tosses a large rock down to the bottom, which makes a racket. “That makes the buck think there’s something down there he doesn’t want to encounter.”
Meanwhile, the poster has climbed up the opposite slope and silently taken position along the ridgetop, down- or crosswind of the buck. When the driver reaches the top, he snaps a twig or rustles the leaves. “Now the driver has the buck’s attention, but the sound of that rock is still in the deer’s head.” As the driver works toward him, the buck sneaks away by going along the ridgetop—and walks right to the poster. “The first four years we did that drive, we killed three bucks.”
Hardcore Hunt No. 2: The Wind Trap
Expert: Jim Hole
Years’ Hunting: 40
Location: Edmonton, Alberta
Jim Hole owns Canada’s Classic Outfitters and has a wall full of giant whitetail bucks, including a 192-inch net B&C typical.
Hole’s secret to tagging good bucks now is to make sure the wind is almost perfect for the buck, and almost wrong for the hunter. “You have to give him enough wind that he’ll feel comfortable moving, but you won’t get busted,” he says.
To that end, the guide hangs enough stands ahead of time to cover almost any wind direction. “On a 150-acre farm I may have 30 or 40 stands. Having a stand just 25 yards from another can make all the difference on a big winter buck.”
The other option is to do a hang-and-hunt each evening, slightly tweaking your position based on the wind. “I also use this approach, but it demands total stealth. If you can’t be silent and keep your scent from the buck’s bedding area, forget it. I’ve placed hunters in stands so tight that they’ve watched a buck rise from his bed at 45 yards and shake the snow off his back. Not everyone has the skill to do that.”
Hardcore Hunt No. 3: The Track Attack
Expert: Randy Flannery
Years’ Hunting: 45
Location: Northern Maine
Registered Maine Guide and renowned North Woods deer tracker, Randy Flannery owns and operates Wilderness Escape Outfitters.
To track a winter buck, you need to master the skills of aging, sexing, and reading deer tracks. But that’s not the half of it, according to Flannery. “Seventy percent of tracking is mental,” he says. “You have to be relentless.”
When Flannery finds the fresh track of a good buck, the first thing he does is set his mind. “I tell myself that either I’m going to kill this buck, or I’m going to run out of daylight trying.” Even the end of daylight doesn’t always mean the end of the chase. “If I think it’s a real good buck, I’ll get right back on that track in the morning—and I’ll repeat the same mantra over again before I start.”
In the romanticized version of tracking, you follow a buck’s prints to his secret lair, slip in unseen, and shoot him in his bedroom. “But that’s not how it usually works,” says Flannery. More often, after hours tracking, you hear a crack, see a flag, and he’s gone. “That’s when most guys give up. But instead you’ve got to reset your mind—as many times as it takes.” If you jump a buck twice, Flannery warns, you need to rest him for a half hour to 45 minutes. “Give him a while to forget about you. But then get back on him.”
If daylight ends and Flannery has to leave a hot track, he’ll come back well before daylight the next morning. First, he checks any surrounding logging roads or snowmobile trails to see if the buck crossed there. If not, he gets back on the original track. “When you give up the track for the night, a buck will realize he isn’t being hounded anymore and will often bed right down,” he says. “So be careful in the morning. He might still be bedded right up ahead of you.”
If he isn’t—if his tracks look a little old and are lining out ahead—you’ve got some catching up to do. Steel your mind yet again, and get after him. Flannery has killed or helped clients kill many bucks on the second day of tracking, sometimes after jumping the deer a total of four or five times, and after covering a dozen or more miles. “It all comes down to having the stubbornness and determination to do what most people won’t do. That’s how you get it done.”
Hardcore Hunt No. 4 : The Perfect-Plot Ambush
Expert: Jeff Simpson
Years’ Hunting: 32
Location: Southeastern Kansas
Kansas crop farmer, outdoor photographer, and owner of 39 North marketing agency, Jeff Simpson has taken six gross Booners with his bow.
Simpson loves the late season. “There aren’t many hunters out, and it’s the absolute best time to kill a giant—if everything is perfect.” And that’s the key: Simpson is fanatical about making everything perfect.
Long before deer season, he starts by identifying fields that abut south-facing slopes, where deer love to bed in cold weather. Then he plants soybeans along the north edge of the field, and hangs a stand in the wood line, preferably near a pinch point. Next, he fences off a triangular portion of the plot—all in bow range of his stand—to keep the deer out and the plants full of forage until winter. If necessary, he also plants screens of Egyptian wheat to hide his entry and exit.
In late September, Simpson overseeds the bean plot with oats, to provide the green winter forage deer crave then. “When harvesttime comes for the area farmers, they tend to take everything, and my place becomes a deer magnet,” Simpson says. Finally, as the late season nears, he removes the fence and waits for the mercury to plummet. “The colder, the better. Those really frigid temps always come in on a north or northwest wind, which is perfect.”
Snapping the trap is a simple matter of waiting for a huge buck to show. What isn’t so easy is keeping ultrawary deer from catching on. Exiting the stand—after a bunch of hungry deer have come to the plot—is the biggest challenge. “I sometimes sit in my stand until midnight, waiting for a good buck to get off the plot.”
It doesn’t usually come to that. “There are always going to be deer in the field, so you can’t just walk out,” he says. If the spot is accessible by vehicle, he calls his wife to pick him up. Otherwise, if the big deer are not out yet, and the others are at least 75 yards off, he waits for full dark and slips out along a ditch or creek bed. He goes super slow and uses binoculars to watch the deer, whose dark bodies are visible against the snow. “If there’s a big deer out there, I’m waiting. No matter how long it takes. It’s all worth it when he comes out a little earlier next time.”
Hardcore Hunt No. 5: The Call of the Wild
Expert: Drew Myers
Years’ Hunting: 27
Location: Northwestern Ontario
Most whitetail hunters walk maybe half a mile to a stand where they know deer are nearby. Myers, who hunts the vast Canadian woods near the northern limit of whitetail range, commonly hikes a dozen miles or more in a day just to find a good buck. “I kill whitetails with my boots,” he says.
Like most big-woods habitat, Myers’s ground has very low deer densities overall. “There are pockets with good concentrations of whitetails,” he says, “but in between are huge swaths of nothing. Plus, we have wolves, which means that you can locate an area with deer, come back in a week, and find they’ve simply moved out.”
So Myers’s big-woods strategy starts with covering a ton of ground, but it’s not a random search. “I focus on ridges with fairly open timber close to thick security cover, like a clear-cut or beaver pond.” Myers moves quickly from one pocket of prime habitat to another, looking for big, fresh tracks and buck sign. But once he’s convinced there’s a buck nearby, the chase is over. Now, he makes the buck come to him.
“Wilderness deer, especially in my area, can be very naive when it comes to rattling and calling,” he says. “I’ve had bucks come running to the horns or a grunt tube, and I’ve shot more than one buck I thought was going to crash into me.” He sets up in a good position to shoot before making a sound, because the action can go from zero to 60 in a hurry, he says. “Most of my shots are well under 50 yards.” Then the really hard work starts. “My longest drag was 4 miles. I killed the buck at 9 a.m. and got back to the truck after dark.”
Hardcore Hunt No. 6: The Four-Day Deer Drive
Expert: Mickey Hellickson
Years’ Hunting: 39
Location: Southern Iowa
One of the country’s top whitetail researchers, Mickey Hellickson has taken three giants—a 160, a 170, and a 196—on late-season drives.
A native Iowan, Hellickson lives in Texas but returns home every year to hunt the state’s late shotgun season with family and friends. “I love the camaraderie and teamwork of the gun hunt,” he says. It’s a good thing, because the strategy his team employs requires that they work in perfect unison. In a highly coordinated multiday campaign, Hellickson and his crew combine stand hunting and driving to put their ground’s biggest bucks right where they want them. The tactic is designed to make each day better than the last.
“We sit early and late, and make drives at midday,” he says. “On the first day, we push small blocks of timber on the outskirts of the hunting area, moving deer toward the interior of the property.” On the second day, they drive tracts slightly inward from the day before. “We repeat this each day, always moving deer closer to the center of the property. By the last day, we are pushing timber that is just chock-full of deer.”
Over the years, Hellickson and his crew have paid very close attention to what big bucks do when they get pushed, which has helped them dial in exactly where to position the posters. “If you’re on watch during one of those last-day drives, you’d better be on your toes because the action will be hot. We’ve had pushes where four or five mature bucks have run past one stander.”
Hardcore Hunt No. 7: The Long (Cold!) Vigil
Expert: Garry Greenwalt
Years’ Hunting: 30
Location: Eastern Washington
Garry Greenwalt, owner of Washington’s Wild Country Guide Service (wildcountrygs.com), has taken 13 P&Y-class bucks.
We all know to sit a hot food source when it gets really cold, but most of us are proud if we can endure a couple of hours on stand this time of year. Greenwalt pulls dark-to-dark sits during mountain weather fronts that pile up snow and drive the mercury down to “this is insane!” levels.
“On the coldest day I’ve ever sat, I had one of my guides drop me off two hours before light, and because he was taking care of clients, he couldn’t pick me up until an hour after dusk,” Greenwalt says. “The warmest it got that day was minus 25 straight temp, and winds were steady in the 10- to 20-mph range. I was borderline hypothermic when I finally crawled out of that treestand.”
But if you’ve got a good late-season food source, it’s worth it, says Greenwalt, because a good buck is almost bound to show up eventually. He stresses the importance of sticking it out through midday. “A mature buck is just as likely to feed from 10 to 2 now as he is at dawn or dusk.”
So convinced of this is Greenwalt that he tells his clients that he’d rather have them skip the so-called prime time of early morning or late afternoon than miss midday. “Plus,” he says, “every extra minute you’re out there ups your odds of tagging a really good buck. When my busy time with clients finally calms down and I get a chance to hunt for myself in the late season, I’m going dark-to-dark, no matter how cold it gets out there.”