Hunters who need to see a lot of deer may find this day a little maddening. On the other hand, it’s the day after Thanksgiving. So, you can eat leftovers and visit with the relatives who’ve overstayed their welcome, or you can pack a turkey sandwich and go hunting. Oh, and you could tag the biggest buck of your life—which is why this coming Friday is my pick for the Best Day of the Rut No. 6.
The key is to go into it with the right mindset. At this point in the season, most deer are tired, hungry, and skittish. You’re not going to see them bouncing around the woods or waltzing into the fields. On the other hand, this is one of the very few times during the season when the absolute biggest bucks are truly vulnerable. So, on Friday, you’re swinging for the fences. You may get cold and you may get bored. But if you stick it out, you may wind up with a new focal point for trophy room.
Rut Phase: Late Pickup Breeding
Now that peak breeding is fully in the rearview, younger bucks and does are focused primarily on feeding. They’ll bed close to food to conserve energy and try to avoid contact with mature bucks. These deer are whooped from the rigors of the rut and on edge from a week or more of the heavier hunting pressure that comes with gun season. The don’t want to move far to feed, and they’re wary about stepping into the open before dark. The exception to the rule here are the handful of late-cycling does that are just now coming into estrous. And that’s where the big bucks come in.
Mature bucks—those massive old warriors that were so hard to find during peak breeding—are still on their feet, covering ground in their search for the final few does. Even this action feels comparatively subdued, with bucks plodding, rather than trotting, to their next rendezvous. But it’s the only action you need to have a one-in-a-lifetime hunt, if you’re sitting in the right place.
November 25 Morning Hunt Plan: Watch a Funnel
One of the best times to kill a giant is also one that requires the most patience and diligence. If you’re gun hunting in farm country or on the prairie, choose a stand along some type of travel corridor where you can also see a long way. Big, old bucks determined to find straggler does will cross open ground, or at least skirt the edges of it, right now, and you simply need to be there when they do. Keep you binocular handy and settle in for lots of long-range scanning. If the terrain and permission allows, this is a great time to spot and stalk a whitetail bedded or traveling slowly. If you’re bowhunting, look for a pinch point where several cover types meet, say, where an ag field, CRP, and timber are connected by a wooded fencerow. In heavily wooded habitat, gun or bow, it’s back to sitting macro-funnels that connect prime habitats that may be separated by miles; bring warm clothes and that turkey sandwich, and settle in for a long vigil.
November 25 Evening Hunt Plan: Stake a Fake
I’m lucky to bowhunt some prime Midwestern farm country, and now is my favorite (and last) time to set out a buck decoy in what I call my grassy knoll set-up. (If the gun season is open, check regs about the use of decoys in your state and use all common-sense safety precautions.) As the name implies, I’m searching for a higher point in relatively open cover. Ideally, there will be large “sentinel” tree in the spot that any buck covering open ground will naturally gravitate toward. That said, it isn’t necessary as long as your fake is highly visible. Big bucks are looking hard for deer right now—not just does but also rival bucks that might have a doe nearby. Meanwhile, there are very few real deer on their feet at this time, which helps your fake stand out. Any passing buck that sees it is likely to investigate. If you spot a distant buck cruising past that doesn’t see your fake, call or rattle just enough to get him to look over, then stop, as a lot of bucks are tired of fighting at this point and may shy away from aggressive calling. Otherwise, just sit back and let that decoy pull a midday traveler into range. And hope that he doesn’t catch you napping. (Don’t ask me how I know about this.)
Hot Tip: Sit a Community Scrape
A lot of hunters pretty much ignore buck sign at this point in the season, but according to hardcore southern hunter and Backwoods Life co-host Michael Lee, that’s a mistake. Lee likes to go back to hunting community scrapes during the late pickup breeding phase. “Bucks will start working the best ones again, especially those on the edges of bedding areas,” he says. “I like to use drag rags around these areas now, as bucks are going to follow any scent trail they find. And I’m never afraid to use a grunt call and issue a loud and long series of tending grunts. I’ve had bucks charge in looking to take that doe with a fight if they have to.”