The last month of the year brings brisk morning air to the hills and valleys of the Tarheel State, and while many deer hunters have put their boots and rifles into semi-retirement, December can be extremely productive in terms of encountering a trophy buck on any of the public-hunting areas distributed across North Carolina, between the Blue Ridge mountains and the coastal maritime forests.

Tactics typically used on private land are often eliminated on public properties, forcing hunters to revert to the basics of ancestral strategies for tagging a big buck, and no doubt about it, this immense acreage has everything needed to grow and harbor bucks suitable for a trip to the taxidermist.

North Carolina's 2 million acres enrolled in the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission's Game Land program allows licensed hunters the opportunity to take game species without the need for expensive private-land leases and hunt-club memberships. But prowling public lands for a big buck comes with its own set of hurdles to overcome and setbacks to endure.

Public properties are littered with roads, firebreaks and trails that give hunters access to the interior of tracts, which can provide ideal places to encounter a nice buck. But don't expect to be able to check things out with quads or any other motorized vehicle; interior roads and trails are open to foot traffic only, reserving the remote wilderness reaches for the adventurous participant.

Beyond access limitations, baiting is prohibited on game lands, which puts hunters on the same level again, reviving the importance of natural food, water, and cover in hunting strategy.

Food and heavy cover rank high on the list of priorities for both bucks and does late in the season. Nevertheless, breeding is still on the brain of most North Carolina bucks this month. It's a fact that few does are still , and hard-up bucks continue to wander aimlessly, like vagabonds, looking to score with a hairy legged whitetail peach.

Even with human scent everywhere in the woods late in the season, and every deer in the country spooked by anything resembling trouble, hunters can still take mature bucks until the last day of the season. In fact, the late season has many things hunters can take advantage of, especially on these large tracts of public land.

By December, natural food sources are limited, concentrating deer in these unique areas and the approaches between feeding and bedding zones.

Tom Miranda, a deer-hunting expert who has had his own outdoor TV show and appeared on countless others, believes the best times to kill a mature buck are early and late in the season - not during the rut.

"If you don't hunt late season, you're missing 50 percent of your prime opportunity," said Miranda, who lets a buck's need for food and a safe bedding area lead him to late-season trophies. "Late-season deer will gravitate to food. Look for mature bucks bedding near available food and accessing any nearby agriculture fields adjacent to public lands in the evenings."

Cooling temperatures and a flagging breeding season will bring deer to any available food source in an area. Does will be hungry, and bucks will be close by, recouping the weight they lost during the rut while still hoping for one last breeding opportunity with any receptive does.

"Sit in staging zones near active feeding areas," Miranda said.

Since deer will be more concentrated around any available food source, hunters must first find these areas. For many weeks, deer have shifted their daily travels to take advantage of ripening food sources and evade hunting pressure, especially on public lands.

Finding spots where the food is just appearing and setting up stands accordingly is the No. 1 concern.

"Late-season hunting is all about scouting," Miranda said. "A hunter must find a mature buck and hunt that buck."

Miranda scouts during the offseason, and he'll hunt areas where shed antlers are commonly found. But hunters without knowledge about public land from past seasons can't benefit from post-season scouting, so he has to get boots on the ground and find places deer are frequenting.

"With foods scarce in December, deer will hammer any available food sources, and tracks will be everywhere, making it easy to locate late-season hideouts," he said.

For nearly 28 years, William Terry of Legacy Game Calls (803-416-2424) has traveled anywhere from 20 to more than 700 miles from his home south of Charlotte to hunt trophy bucks on public land. Late in the season, he focuses on places that provide mature bucks with security, and he hopes to find available trees nearby.

"Get as close to bedding areas as possible without spooking the deer out of there - the thicker the better," he said.

Because vehicular travel is prohibited on game lands, some areas can become late-season sanctuaries for big bucks, with even those deer from neighboring private lands migrating in to get away from highly pressured areas.

That works right into Terry's plans, since he chooses places that are as inaccessible as possible, with extensive foot travel required.

"People are lazy. The farther you walk, the better the hunting will be," he said, explaining why he often hunts public lands that are the most-difficult to access. "Sometimes, the small game lands are the ones that are the hardest to get to."

Because bucks are shy of hunters, they become more nocturnal and limit their movements to those between food sources and bedding areas in thick cover. Miranda struggles with temperamental deer behavior that last few weeks of the season, concentrating on staging areas through which bucks pass.

"The difficulty in late season is finding a tree to sit that will allow non-target deer to pass and not bust you while waiting on mature bucks to come by later," said Miranda, whose best success has come late in the afternoon because deer will arrive just before dark and feed all night. "It's tough to get in a stand with a mature buck watching you at 6 a.m."

All of these factors raise the bar on controlling human scent. Hunting downwind of anticipated travel trails is key, and hunters need to carefully select times they plan to hunt to take advantage of specific conditions. That will prevent late-season catastrophes and bring hunters closer to filling that buck tag.

Public lands in North Carolina receive heavy pressure in certain areas and very little pressure in remote locations. If hunters are willing to walk well off the beaten path, a final encounter with a nice buck is not out of the question, even during the last few weeks of the season on public land.