The cover didn't look like much at first glance. It was simply a cluster of brush, saplings and briars next to a farmer's rutted gravel driveway.
The more I stared at it, though, the more it seemed like it might be a potential hidey-hole for a late-season buck.
Debating whether I should hunt it out first or head for the big patch of woods on the opposite side of the property, I decided it was worth a chance. Before moving on to the big timber I would walk out the 3-acre thicket.
When I wrapped my tag around a heavy 10 point half an hour later, I was glad I stopped to check out that isolated hidey hole. The buck jump up raucously at the very end of the thicket, and luckily there was a clear opening to thread my 165 grain boattail bullet through.
Once again, hidey-holes had come through with a fine late-season buck.
After weeks of hunting pressure and the exhaustive period of the rut, surviving late season bucks seek out nothing more than a safe, secluded spot to bed down. With the average buck coming out of the mating season with two dozen punctures on his body from fights and weighing 20-25 percent less than before, it's time to lick wounds, nibble a bit, but mostly just rest.
There are lots of places that could meet a late-season buck's cover needs. But if they're easy to reach or stand out obviously, they're not worth hunting. The deer there has either been shot or felt the human pressure and left the area.
Look for mature late-season bucks where most hunters don't even bother to search, places like that 3-acre patch of weeds and brush where I found the 10 pointer. These are isolated, neglected pockets of cover others walk right by on their way to the big woods.
If you stop and hunt them, you might find some of these spots hold monster bucks crouched in the cover. Here's where to look, and how to hunt these areas.
Cluster of tall weeds and brush. This is so inconspicuous of a spot no one could think it would hold a decent buck, let alone a trophy for the wall. Don't bet on it. The biggest bucks seem to have a sense that if a pocket of cover is big enough to hide them, yet so small it looks unlikely as a deer hangout, it will get neglected.
No, not every cluster of brush will hold a good buck, but enough will to make this a prime spot to check out. Find them in the middle or on the edge of a cultivated field where rocks prevented tilling the ground, next to a farm driveway or in a natural meadow with mostly low surrounding grasses. They can be very small, barely an acre, and still worth checking out.
Pocket of pines overgrown with weeds. It was out of just such a stand of low-growing, young pines — one's he had planted five years earlier — that Tony Fulton, of Mississippi, shot a monster 295 6/8 B&C buck.
"The pines had grown up really thick with weeds and briers," Tony told me. That turned it into a perfect buck hidey-hole.
And late in the afternoon on a cold January day, a 30-inch wide, 45-point non-typical stepped out of that thick pocket of conifers. Fulton made his chance count with a good shot on what at that time was the largest buck ever killed by a hunter.
Older, thinned pine plantations are not what we're talking about here. You want trees growing close together, 4-7 years old, with low branches and lots of brush and briers between them.
|Overgrown pockets of brush is an ideal spot for late season bucks.|
Abandoned home site. Locate one of these and you've found a big buck magnet. Deer gravitate to these like a bass hunkers next to structure. It almost seems to give them a feeling of security or a sense that the ramshackle dwelling is now their home.
Often there's a fruit tree or two that used to be in the back yard and is still producing a bit of soft mast. Weeds and brush have grown up, and there may be some clover left from the old yard or other greenery a late season buck relishes. Privet hedges make a tasty snack for a whitetail.
Isolated blowdown. Ask Brian Bice about this type of cover. He walked up on a 256 1/8 inch buck bedded in a blowdown and shot it at 25 yards on a cold, rainy December day in Illinois when he decided it was too wet to stay on stand and he didn't think the deer would be moving much. The thick tree trunk itself, multiple twisting branches off it, greenbriers, honeysuckle and grapevines entangling it — all make a single large deadfall or cluster of them an ideal overlooked hideout for a late season buck.
Small, remote clearcut. Big timbered areas near roads have been pounded hard. You can eliminate those from consideration. Instead, search for a small clearcut an acre or two in size away from the highway. It should have no roads, or maybe just a rough logging trail leading to it. Find that in an isolated area and you've found a late season gold mine.
Bucks will feed on the tops left over after the logging was done and on sprouts regenerating from the stumps. Tender forbs and berries will crop up from the new infusion of sunlight.
By the fourth or fifth year, cover will be head high — thick enough to suit the needs of any wary buck, but too thick for the taste of most hunters. Check with logging companies, the state forestry office or the U.S. Forest Service to find out where such small clearcuts might be located in your hunting area.
Islands. As pressure mounts during the season, some deer head for remote hidey-holes, others take a swim. Small islands in both lakes and rivers will attract late season bucks. Few hunters have a boat handy or waders so they're generally safe once they make the plunge.
Mini-Swamps. Big swamps attract lots of hunters, but find a small isolated one not on topo maps and you may have pinpointed a late season gold mine.
Tornado or windstorm damaged areas. Keep track of where these occur. The tangle of uprooted trees, vines, shrubs and brush make a great hidey-hole spot for a late season buck.
Small overlooked parcel of public land. Most public lands get hammered hard by hunters. Avoid the major tracts and find those isolated parcels with no good parking area nearby. These tend to get overlooked because you can't park and walk in.
|Wind-damaged areas with uprooted trees make a great hidey-hole spot for late season bucks.|
Instead, park wherever you can, even a mile or two away, and walk back to the area. Alternately, arrange to get dropped off by a friend or relative and picked up later. It's worth the extra effort, because few people bother to hunt these 20- to 40-acre tracts.
Stand Hunt — Mature late season bucks that hunker down in these small pockets of neglected cover move little except at night. What traveling they do in daylight is typically right at dawn or dusk when they move back to their beds or out to get a bite to eat. Be in your stand at those times, setting up as far away as you can on the downwind edge while still getting a good shot.
Jump-Shoot — If a pocket is extremely small, such as a cluster of brush and weeds in an open field, I've had luck simply sneaking up to the spot using whatever cover is available and getting a quick jump shot as the deer bounds out. I took two mature bucks — 8 and 11 pointers — using this tactic on a hunt in South Dakota a few years ago. Practice at the range for these quick-draw, moving target shots if you want to try this approach.
Two-Man Still Hunt — A better bet in most cases if you want to try an active approach is to team up and still-hunt with a friend. Approach the cover with one hunter in the lead and one hunter hanging back slightly on the downwind side. The lead hunter might jump a buck and get a crack at it, or it may curl back, giving the flanking hunter a shot.
Drive — If you have more than two people in your party, place one hunter at the most likely exit route on the opposite side of the thicket have another wait at the next piece of prime cover the deer will likely flee to. When those people are in position, have the other hunters work through the cover as outlined above for the still hunt. This way every base is covered.
Whatever tactic you choose, don't overlook hidey-holes. They could be the secret spots that unlock the keys to your late-season trophy. Sure, they won't all produce. But if you hunt ten hidey-holes and one yields a good buck, I'd say it was well worth the effort.