Post-Rut Game Time

The air was a frosty sub-40 degrees and shooting light was more than an hour away. As I collected my gear from the bed of my truck, I could feel my excitement rising: it was the premier Saturday opener of the Pennsylvania rifle season. After arriving at the parking area, I reached into my truck bed for a pair of boots and then immediately experienced a heart-sinking feeling when I realized I’d forgotten them. Wearing leather boat shoes in the nippy morning temperatures was less than ideal. I called my brother who hadn’t yet arrived. There was no answer. Then I tried my dad; also no answer. 

I reflect on this hunt often and thank God for good friends. My next call was to a friend who’d already killed an archery buck. He was still sleeping, but readily rolled out of bed to bring me a pair of boots. Without those boots, I wouldn’t have been able to sit in that stand for as long as needed. Had I not been on stand at 11:30 AM, I would have not killed my biggest buck to date. 

Although this is a gun season story, it was late November which is earlier time for a gun season opener. Now, however, late November can be an exclusive reality for PA bowhunters. During November, bucks aren’t quite ready to call it quits as far as rutting is concerned. The ticket to finding bucks continues to be in the areas where doe family groups are relocating for winter preparation. 

Lately, most hunters have probably been thinking an awful lot about big buck beds and robust sign. But now more than any time of the season, doe groups matter most. Young-of-the-year does often come in estrous late in the year. That means your focus should begin to shift to late season food sources and bedding cover. Let’s dig into a few tactics where winning during the post-rut has high potential.

Food, Food, Food: If there is a better time to sit at the edge of a major food source, I’m not quite sure what that time might be. Does prefer to bed close to where they eat, and rut-crazy bucks are closer than ever to the does. Green food sources are a good option if temperatures are slightly warmer than the latest trend. However, cut corn is the major magnet. 

If the area you’re hunting lacks crop fields, don’t sweat it. Take a little extra time to make sure the food source you’re on is prime. Leftover red oak acorns are becoming more appealing as the weather becomes colder. As far as big woods food sources are concerned, red oak acorns will be sought after most; green and red briar patches will be a close second. 

Timing: Pressure has already been as intense as it will get during the bow season. Deer are wary and well-versed in the ways of the crowd by now. You’ll have to do what many people won’t do. We’ve all heard it said “sleep in and hunt the mid-day hours,” but most people still won’t practice that habit. I’m guilty of this myself. I enjoy waking up early and hunting the typical hours of the day. When something becomes a habit, it’s hard to break out of that comfort zone. But if you’re looking for better results, you have to try something different.

Mid-day hours cater to the deer herd for a few reasons: less energy expenditure during cold temperatures and significantly less hunting pressure are at the top of the list. 

I’m not saying skip routine morning and evening hunts altogether, but you should build confidence in a middle-of-the-day focus. 

Calling: This time of year, the peak interest in bowhunting is fading for many. Small game, bears, and gun season are on many-a-hunter’s mind. With fewer hunters in the woods, deer feel a bit more relaxed. Light calling, but with an aggressive nature, is the ticket. Snort wheezes, growling, and mild-to-moderate rattling will likely have a better response than other periods of the deer season. Good response from calling stems from of a buck’s continued need to breed. This time of year, not many does will be in heat, but bucks are still searching. When bucks recognize intruders in their area, they’re bound to defend their dominion. 

I’m a proponent of calling all types of game. It’s fun and it really adds to the “hunting” part of hunting. But deer are a different kind of animal when it comes to their response to calls. A single grunt, growl, or bleat is all you’ll really need. As long as the calls don’t become muffled by wind, stick to short-sequence type calling. When rattling, avoid long drawn-out sessions. During the post-rut, bucks are very familiar with the local pecking order. Extra-aggressive calling will likely be avoided. 

Testosterone levels are falling in all bucks, but especially in younger bucks. Unless there are two big bucks in the neighborhood, real fights will usually not last very long. A few light ticks with a wooden rattle-bag will produce the desired effect more often than not.

Thermal Transition: Post-rut will intermittently produce bone-chilling temperatures. Deer will be beginning to search for the best thermal cover available for the late season shift. Frontal weather, usually associated with some kind of north winds, will often cause longer and more intense feeding times. Morning action may coincide with rising temperatures, so later morning movement can be fairly common. With cold temperatures, food versus security are almost of balanced importance to a deer. Bucks may feel more comfortable utilizing cover that is closer to food than during previous, warmer circumstances. 

Conclusion: Set your ways of thinking on how a buck can utilize his energy best. Also, consider how he may capitalize on the remaining hot does while simultaneously finding a new wintering area. Lastly, don’t forget your boots!