y the first of December, with a month left in North Carolina's deer season, careless behavior by the deer population is long gone, except in the extreme western mountains where the rut is in full swing.
Mostly, you won't run into many trophy bucks chasing does across wide-open places. You'll have to work or think two or three times as hard to fill a tag, but for the clever hunter who is willing to change tactics, there's still plenty of hope.
Any buck that's made it through 10 weeks of guys carrying bows, muzzleloaders, then shotguns and rifles, has earned an extra stripe for surviving another period of weakness brought on by Mother Nature and the opposite sex.
Most mature bucks are taken between Opening Day and Thanksgiving, having made fatal mistakes in their summer pattern with their guard down, or while forgetting their senses chasing does during the rut. With the rut largely finished by the first of December, big bucks return to their senses and become super sensitive to unnatural odors and disturbance.
They are suddenly hungry, having lost around 10 percent of their body mass during the peak breeding season, and with bone-chilling weather on the way, they turn to rich food sources near heavy cover. Basically, deer will be concentrated around the best and most-abundant food sources late in the season, but for a hunter to have a chance to encounter a mature buck during daylight hours, the food source must be secluded and unpressured.
Taylor Spruill, owner/operator of Spruill's Pasture Hunting Club in Bertie County, plants cool-season food plots in remote areas to attract pressured mature bucks for late-season hunts.
"We give them something green to eat. We plant a mixture of oats, chicory and brassicas in isolated areas of our farms specifically for the late season hunts," Spruill said. "This mix will bring them in heavy when many natural foods in the area are depleted.
"Deer will rarely eat the brassicas much earlier in the fall. It takes a few hard freezes for the deer to start feeding on the rape and turnips."
Food plots provide deer with exceptional nutrition, especially brassicas and oats late in the season. These crops offer deer a perfect mix of protein, carbohydrates and fat to prepare for the winter months, and they are even better if they're resilient to heavy browsing or mature later in the fall.
Spruill reserves the cool-season food plots for hunts later in the season. He limits vehicles and hunters from the areas, trying to limit the disturbance to deer, which gives bucks a greater sense of security.
Secluded plots deep in heavy cover can give a hunter the opportunity to encounter a trophy buck during daylight hours late in the season. If they're truly secure areas, deer from surrounding properties will hone in on them, too, looking for refuge and sustenance.
Food plots provide deer with ideal nutrition and are the best choice, but cornpiles may be even more effective for the late season. Spruill keeps his cornpiles and feeders fully-stocked through December.
"We try to plant as many food plots as we can, but cornpiles are hard to beat," he said. "Deer will bird-dog to corn when cold weather strikes."
Chris Manley, an accomplished hunter from Clinton, believes mature bucks become waterlogged, gravitating towards swamps and river bottoms far from the fair-weather hunter's beaten path.
"Deer naturally retreat to water for safety, especially when dog-hunting is the popular hunting method within the area," said Manley, who almost exclusively hunts river bottoms during the season's final month. Deer will travel on established routes in these areas, leaving highly-visible trails. Often, these bottoms are major travel routes in the late season; they will be far away from roadways and disturbances. "The late-season hunter must hunt a little deeper in the woods where deer are less pressured," he said.
pruill pays close attention to heavily-used food sources, but he will not necessarily hunt them directly. He counteracts the clever actions of mature deer by becoming mobile, using portable tree stands and ground blinds. As the season progresses, deer pattern hunters and will stage in a safe area before going directly to the food source after dark. Spruill places a portable stand on trails leading to the cornpile or food plot to catch the deer slipping into these staging areas before feeding.
"Deer pattern hunters, and I try to catch them on these trails leading to the food source," Spruill said. "Our trail cameras show mature bucks feeding on our food plots, agricultural fields and cornpiles regularly during the late season, but almost exclusively at night."
Spruill will shift his efforts to the travel corridors between the groceries and the main bedding areas.
"Bucks can be caught heading back to bedding areas from their preferred feeding areas," he said.
By December, mature bucks are well educated and will avoid dangerous situations, staying in the protection of heavy cover for most of the day. As long as pressure remains low, mature bucks will travel along the same paths between their bedding and feeding areas.
But all hunters should be cautious during this time. Scent control is always important. Mature bucks have fought with continued pressure and blankets of human scent around every corner for more than three months, especially if they've survived several seasons. But many farms get pressured hard, and human scent will be scattered across every flat and bottomland in the area. Before traveling down a trail or entering a major food source, mature bucks will check out the area downwind and scent for any danger lurking in their path. In fact, food is very important in December, and deer will become creative enough to find ideal situations to visit that when hunters are away. Mature bucks learn to pattern their pursuers.
Manley will alter his hunting times to try to catch a deer changing their routine.
"Break cycle and hunt different times of the day," he said. "Mature bucks will pattern hunters and will sometimes visit secluded food patches in the middle of the day when hunters are gone."
By the end of the season, deer are really concentrated and will be found in a few choice areas. At the beginning of the season, food is abundant everywhere, and deer are relatively undisturbed, but later on, they have been pushed out of many places and back into heavy cover, still be in search of the best food source available. In essence, mature bucks will be roaming in smaller, but more predicable places.
Late-season ideal for bowhunters
For many bowhunters, the bow makes its way to the deer stand for a few weeks in the 90-degree weather just as the season arrives. Very few archers are left toting their gear in and out of the tree stand after Thanksgiving, but preferred late-season stand locations are often ideal for them.
The long-distance views and vistas of the early season and rut are just not the places to encounter a mature buck late in the season. The ideal late-season setup will be in tight quarters, hunting along hidden trails and secluded food plots. Mature bucks will be traveling to these protected food sources from their secure bedding areas, far from the reach of the average hunter. Any trails leading to and from these bedding areas should be watched closely from above.
Even with the heavy hunting pressure in neighboring areas, deer will be driven to feed. They will travel great distances from other properties to take advantage of a prime food source within a protected area.
Generally, most properties have remote areas where mature bucks will hang out late in the season. Hunters who know their hunting grounds should recognize where bucks head when the season moves toward its close.
Bowhunters have an added responsibility to choose their late-season stand locations before the season every starts. All cuttings and clippings necessary to allow an arrow to fly true should be conducted during the summer prior to the start of the deer season.
If placed in the right location along a heavy travel route or within a secluded food source, the bowhunter can have some of the best action of the year without having to negotiate with the buzzing mosquitoes of the September bow season.
Drive 'em out
As the season progresses, deer receive major hunting pressure and become nocturnal, even in the most-remote areas, staying close to food sources but in heavy cover.
One of the best ways to take a mature buck in this situation is through a well-designed man drive. They can be a very successful, and it is always a surprise to see what jumps out of hiding.
By December, deer will feed through the dark hours and find secluded places to bed down during the daytime. With cold weather settling in and many natural food sources diminishing, deer, especially mature bucks, will associate with the best food sources in the area. Bedding areas near the best-available food sources are ideal places to set up a man drive.
The best way to drive deer out of seclusion and into the sights of a fellow hunter can be relatively easy - with proper planning. Even when pressured, spooked or jumped deer will continue to take the best travel route to safety. Understanding the lay of the land and the areas of high deer traffic is very important for hunter placement. Deer should be driven towards these expected travel routes to encourage their natural flight path. Deer will also try to flee into the wind as well so they can detect danger ahead.
Some of the best places to set up a man drive are in heads of woods or peninsulas extending into agriculture fields planted with winter crops. While the bottleneck is the best place to encounter fleeing deer, heavy pressure during the drive will force deer across the open fields, too. These areas should be covered.
During a late-season man drive, deer will take flight towards water, including swamps, rivers and cypress ponds. These routes traveling towards water should be covered well.
While a man drive can be very successful during the last month of the season, safety measures should never be compromised. Hunters should always be aware of where each stander and driver is located. Hunters should always choose safe places to shoot away from the direction of any member of their hunting party. Even though rifles can be safe in the right situation, shotguns with buckshot are preferred. Hunters should always be precise of their targets. An extra layer of blaze orange is recommended.
Even though a man drive may not be the most glorious way to kill a trophy buck, the planning and execution can be quite rewarding.
Hunt hard during extreme weather
Even though December is just the beginning of the winter, the Tarheel State can quickly turn into a winter wonderland overnight under the right weather pattern. With the rut trailing off and food resources diminishing quickly, a period of harsh temperatures and snow cover will route deer to the best food sources available in a rush.
Cold weather signals a survival instinct among deer, and bucks are among the most vulnerable and susceptible to the rush for food. Bucks are coming off the exhaustive breeding season and need to eat several times per day to regain the lost energy.
Hunting pressure takes its toll on deer during the season, and mature bucks will evade dangerous areas with little reservations and retreat to the protection of heavy cover. However, harsh weather will loosen up their inhibitions and trigger a more-instinctive approach to their daily routines. Out of instinct, deer will begin to feed heavily during cold snaps and sometimes throughout the day and night.
Taylor Spruill of Spruill's Pasture Hunting Club in Bertie County gets excited when a cold front approaches late in the season, especially around a new moon.
"Cold fronts are huge," Spruill said. "Deer become nocturnal in December, but the combination of an approaching cold front and a new moon is deadly. Deer will try to fulfill their energy requirements when cold weather approaches."
Spruill hunts the three days before and after a new moon in December. With moonlight absent, deer must feed during daylight hours, and they can become vulnerable during this phase as extreme weather arrives.
As cold fronts and periods of extreme weather blanket the landscape, deer hunters should take off work, if possible, and put in overtime in the deer stand. Deer will feed throughout the night and day during these periods to intake as much energy as possible. Rich and stable food sources, as well as, trails leading to and from these areas are prime places to set up and encounter a bruiser buck looking for groceries.