Lounsbury: Late-season deer hunting is special timeframe
As expected, I never slept a wink the night before the recent opening morning on Sunday. Opening day is a unique timeframe all on its own, unlike the remainder of the firearm deer season.
Sometimes I’m lucky that day, and sometimes not, and luck (of being in the right place at the right time and doing matters properly) plays a key role to success, at least for me.
When it comes to hunting local whitetails, I personally look upon any time spent in the field after the November 15 opening day as “late-season” deer hunting. The suddenly intense hunting pressure enlightens deer right away that the game is on, and they begin to react accordingly.
In many localities, whitetails actually live in almost a fishbowl existence, especially when you figure in their day-to-day interaction with humans and becoming very human-wise and knowing immediately when the unusual occurs.
They are very challenging big game animals to hunt and, in my opinion, are much more wary than their counterparts found in less hunter-pressured settings.
The heaviest hunting pressure put on Michigan’s deer herd occurs on November 15 and 16, which entails the majority of the annual deer harvest. Matters after that tend to slow down for a couple of reasons -- first, because most deer are hunter-wise, and secondly, the hunting pressure has lightened a bit (and can sometimes be spotty at best), which in turn leads to deer being out on the move with fewer hunters being out and about on a steady basis. I’ve seen all of this as major factors relating to late-season success.
Personally, I dearly love late-season hunting for local whitetails. It is a pastime I’ve grown to truly cherish, and I view it all as very similar to a game of chess.
Whenever I hunt, I make sure my “move on the board” is done constructively after much thought and paying astute attention to weather reports. Projected wind direction, of course, is always very important, but so are approaching storm fronts and related temperatures.
This gives me a clue as to where to hunt, how to approach it, and what hunting method to employ.
There was a time when the majority of deer hunters were stump-sitters, still-hunters, trackers and deer-drivers who offered more animation in the deer woods, usually keeping deer more on the move on a regular basis. I readily remember those days.
However, it seems a majority of deer hunters today remain static, either in the trees and elevated stands, or in ground blinds. Just watch the outdoor TV shows, where practically the vast majority of whitetail deer hunting involves static-style positions.
Although I use a variety of ground and elevated stands/blinds, I like to employ diversity in my hunting techniques. I enjoy still-hunting, spot and stalk, tracking when conditions allow, and nothing beats a good old fashioned deer drive. The latter is the one dependable hunting technique that can shake matters loose when nothing else will. During any given deer season, I will try it all.
One key, for certain, is to maintain a positive attitude and keep at it by hunting constructively, and a bit of diversity never hurts. A method I often use, which works for me, is using deer vocalizations.
I’ve had my best results with doe calls combined with tending “young” buck grunts just before and shortly after the typical mid-November peak rut. During the actual peak of the rut, a lot of bucks have a doe close by they are hotly pursuing, and tend to ignore calling efforts (this is often referred to as the “lockdown” period).
I can remember November 15 opening days when every buck I observed was with a doe and my calling efforts received nothing but a casual glance from the bucks, since they had a hot date already close by.
However, just a week later, local bucks were finding hot dates a bit scarce and I was able to call more effectively.
I’ve had excellent results using deer vocalizations during late season. Bucks I have called in during this timeframe have always been solo and searching for love. An example of this was my 2013 eight-point I called in just a few days before Thanksgiving.
The Thumb had just experienced three straight days of gale-force winds, making the woods an uneasy place to be in the event of falling branches and trees (known as “widow-makers”), and deer movement was next to nothing.
The deer were clearly hunkered down and so was I, but the first morning the wind had subsided found me on a favorite hilltop in the woods, which required nothing more than a simple seat cushion on the ground against a handy, large tree-trunk.
Thanks to those strong winds, the ground was fully carpeted with a deep layer of freshly fallen and very dry leaves. I scooped a copious amount of dead leaves around and over my lower torso and legs to help in concealment (with not much poking out other than my gun barrel, shoulders and hunter orange hat), and began calling at first light.
I was just about to let out a second series of calls when I picked up motion in the brush down near the bottom of the hill and immediately kept mum.
A mistake often made is calling too much and letting the incoming deer peg the hunter’s exact position, which whitetails can uncannily do. I checked with my binocular and could see it was a nice buck that was real interested in my calling efforts and coming in a fast-striding and stiff-legged gait with a very pugnacious attitude, which entailed ears flat against his skull, tail straight out and back-hair standing straight up.
By using my H.S. “True-talker” mouth call, I had just put out tending young buck grunts blended in with a long, drawn-out “mature” doe bleat, and this buck was coming up the hill in his swaggering, stiff-legged gait to settle matters.
There was no way he was going to allow some “young punk” buck to do any serious courting in his neck of the woods. It truly was a sight to behold.
I was locked on, cocked and ready with my cut-down single-shot (smoothbore) H&R 2-gauge. equipped with ghost ring peep-sights (a favorite deer gun of mine which is very light, compact and real handy), when the buck crested the hill and had just cleared a tree trunk which finally allowed for a shot in a world of large hardwood tree trunks.
That was when he suddenly picked my scent up on the cross-breeze and abruptly stopped while popping up his head and ears, too, and I immediately touched the trigger.
He did a downhill dash but didn’t go far before somersaulting over and plowing a furrow through the deep carpet of leaves. The 20-gauge Winchester (Foster) slug had done its part.
I’m not a “trophy hunter” by any means and couldn't care less about antler “scores”. Living right next to my hunting grounds and being able to literally hunt every day allows me to be picky, and I’m in no rush to fill tags. I couldn't care less what other hunters shoot (as long as it is legal and ethical) because it is a matter of personal choice.
I also truly appreciate Michigan’s “two-buck” tag system because less than 5% of Michigan deer hunters statewide ever fill both tags – causing it to be a money-maker for the Michigan DNR while allowing more recreational hunting opportunities for successful hunters, without having an impact on the resource.
I’m very thankful my hunting area still offers both non-restrictive and restrictive buck tags, because I have a heck of a time accurately counting points in the typically heavy cover I prefer, and when one uses deer calls, matters can take place quite suddenly.
Such happened on Thanksgiving morning last year while I was calling from a ladder-stand and picked up motion in the dense brush 30 yards away, which was a big white antler attached to a dark silhouette. And since the buck had just moved in directly downwind of me, I didn’t hesitate.
I put the crosshairs on the buck’s shoulder through the brushy haze and smacked him right down for the count with a 300-grain Federal bullet.
I was using my Mossberg “Patriot” rifle in the popular .450 Bushmaster caliber, with a Leupold 1.25 – 4X “Pig-Plex” scope set on the lowest power, which is real handy in heavy cover for quick decisions.
Well, folks, that buck turned out to have only one antler with four points and the other had been sheared off at the burr, and there were deep tine-slash marks in his left hindquarter. He had obviously taken a thorough whupping from another buck. Despite being a “half-rack,” that buck was good enough for me!
Presently, the Lounsbury family “deer-tree” is well decorated. My son, Josh, managed to call in and bag a very unique buck with his crossbow the day before the firearm opener (it featured a large spike on the right antler and a dandy four points on the left antler).
Josh would also stalk up on and bag a very nice 10-point on opening evening, and another son, Jake, tagged a huge doe. As for me, I got lucky and feel blessed to have tagged a “none-too-bad” eight-point on opening day (during brutal weather).
Whether or not I fill the second buck tag is not important to me. I just truly appreciate the opportunity to be able to keep trying, which is why I thoroughly enjoy late-season deer hunting.
Email Tom Lounsbury at firstname.lastname@example.org