Late Season Whitetail Tactics on Public Land - Last Ditch Efforts
Four years running I’ve found myself looking back at the earlier part of the season trying to pin point what I could have done differently to fill my Ohio buck tag. Not this year, at least not yet. Instead I’m closely watching the weather for bow opportunities and prepping my trusty Austin & Halleck .50 cal. muzzleloader in hopes of one last ditch effort to kill an Ohio public land buck.
On a topical level, we all hear whitetail gurus speak the same strategy…. wait for a big weather front and sit over the area’s best available food. I’ve personally said and done just that over the last few years but still I have been unsuccessful. Leaving all caution to the wind, this year I’m getting technical and precise to layout a detailed plan and checklist to execute against for late season whitetails. In my mind, this is something I will be able to use year over year (hopefully it’s not needed!) for late season whitetail tactics so I thought maybe a person or two would also find it valuable.
Keep in mind, this is laid out specifically for me and my scenario, locating and hunting pressured Ohio public land bucks.
If you are anything like me, at this point in the season your gear is extremely unorganized. Rode hard and put away wet, literally. Knowing my sits will be limited to just a handful of sets and encounter percentages will be fairly low, I need to know my gear is not going to be the cause of a blown opportunity. To me that means zero unexpected noises, a straight-shooting weapon, warm clothes, and trail cameras that won’t miss a beat.
Stand and Sticks
Knowing I will be 100% hang and bang over the remainder of the season, my objective is simple. Make sure my set up is quiet, safe, and easily carried for long tough access routes.
Early in the season, whenever I was a bit sloppy or in a rush, I noticed potential for unwanted metallic noise from several different pieces in my system. To remove those potential noises, I performed a few quick inexpensive modifications. On my XOP Vanish stand I wrapped paracord around any portion of the stand that had potential for metal on metal contact. On my XOP sticks I wrapped the body with training tape and also added rubber sleeves over the cam lock buckles.
- Straps/buckles are in good working condition
- Platform cables are in good working condition
- Transport system is on point
- Noise free
This is something that is so easily overlooked until that first long hike, battling sliding shoulder straps and uneven weight distribution. At the end of the day, it's not make or break but it sure is a moral boost!
Just to be frank, I haven’t nearly shot my bow enough this year. And it got worse throughout the season. At this point, I’m embarrassed to even admit I have not let an arrow fly since the first day of rut camp back on Nov 3rd. What’s great about that is, I haven’t had the opportunity to let that bite me in the butt. Given the chance and little good fortune my mind will never go to that thought of “was my bow/gun off or was it me”?
Checking shot accuracy at 20/30/40 yard groups from an elevated position on both a broad side and quartering away target.
Checking shot accuracy with open sites at 50/75 yard groups. Going almost 10 years without firing this gun it will take me a few hours as I have to play with powder loads and bullets to see what is performing best.
Pretty basic here. Know the weather, be organized, and make sure the layers needed fit into my pack.
- Match layers to conditions
- Hand/body warmers
One might expect me to elaborate here but it's simple. Round up and prep as many available RELIABLE cameras as possible.
- New lithium batteries
- Formatted SD cards labeled to match the specific camera
- Accurate date/time stamps and the correct settings for the specific set
Late Season Whitetail Tactics
This is where it gets interesting. Generally speaking it’s still based on a bed to food pattern coupled with weather. However, with extreme weather fronts food becomes a much more weighted part of the equation. To get into the details I’m breaking it down into a binary strategy based on two categories. High value thermal bedding and the best available late season food sources. My strategy is pretty simple, locate a new target buck with my cameras. If that doesn’t pan out just sit over the best available food in hopes that it’s my lucky day.
High Value Thermal Bedding
I am no means the first to talk about this and in fact much of my strategy comes from advice of a few great whitetail hunters (Jeff Sturgis, Don Higgins, Cody D’Acquisto, Dan Infalt to name a few) coupled with my personal observations of where I hunt. I truly feel this statement is the most important for any whitetail hunter to realize…Take in as much information as possible from respected whitetail hunters, apply it to your style and properties, note what worked and note what didn’t.
In hill country I am looking for a few different areas depending on the weather but they all will have one thing in common, a high stem count that will cut down the direct exposure to wind. Southeast facing slopes that receive the most sun light is generally where I start. If the specific day I am hunting has any type of high wind out of the SE, I am looking on the NE side of the ridge. For that matter, regardless of wind direction if the wind speed is high, I’m looking to areas opposite of the wind direction. From reading topography maps and digital scouting, I’m looking for points, short benches, or other topography features near the upper 1/3 of elevation and meet that criteria.
On swamp ground most of the early season island bedding is now underwater so naturally I am crossing those areas off of my list. With wind exposure still a priority areas of phragmites, cat tails, tall grasses, or other areas with a high stem count gain my attention (In relation to wind direction). Again, turning to digital scouting with a topo map I’m looking for any areas with higher elevation lines inside the swamp that could potentially be dry. If they do not exist, my attention is going to points and hardwood transitions on the swamp edge.
I cannot speak on other types of terrain or properties with confidence simply because I do not have the experience with them but the general theme still applies. Find the high value thermal cover in relation to sun exposure, wind direction, and wind speed. If you are looking for more, I’d recommend reading or listening to Dan Infalt’s thoughts.
Using cameras, specifically cell cameras, my objective is verifying the bucks exit route from the bedding area. The challenge here is getting close enough to bedding to find his exit without negatively impacting the movement for your future hunt. In my scenario, I’m using a cell camera or two setup on terrain features and sign coming from bedding. I’m going in no less than 3 days prior to the day I plan to hunt to set these up. Keep in mind, scouting and reading sign on the way will influence the final resting place of the cameras. If I end up with photos sent to me within an hour of shooting light it’s enough evidence to throw a sit at it.
Moving in for evening sits with a mobile tree stand set, the goal is to get within 100 yards of where I believe the deer is bedding. Some folks may think that is crazy but on public land this late in the year there’s not much to lose. With hopes of the weather front getting him to his feet earlier than normal and everything else falling in line I’ve done all I can do to put myself in a position to have an encounter.
Late Season Food Sources
The majority of serious whitetail killers will all say late season is the easiest time to pattern a mature deer. I personally find that to be true unless you are hunting big woods settings with no agriculture. In 2016 the specific piece of big woods Ohio public land I was hunting had a tremendous acorn crop which made it nearly impossible to pattern or predict where deer would be feeding. With grounded acorns on nearly every ridge it seemed as though deer would and could go anywhere to feed. Having gone through that scenario more than once, this year I’m trading in the big woods for swamp ground public land tucked away in ag country.
Being pretty straight forward, I am looking at destination food sources that are the best in the area not necessarily the best late season food source possible. I think there is a big misconception that if you are without standing corn, beans, or other type of dedicated late season food plot, it isn’t worth hunting. In areas with limited agriculture and zero food plot opportunities the deer still eat. They may shift inside their home range closer to hard mast stands, high browse areas or maybe even ag ground but they still eat. As mentioned, the odds of patterning a deer go down but at the end of the day we all have to play the hand we were dealt.
My personal destination food source priority list, which is completely subjective to my personal observations, is below. Any list will work if your eyes see it differently.
While most of these food sources will not be found on public ground there's a good chance there is an adjacent property nearby with decent food on it. Keep an open mind while digital scouting and it may pay to take a drive around the block and verify what is in the neighborhood.
Again using cameras on the highest priority food source available, my objective is verifying the buck’s route entering the food source or simply that the food source is being used within an hour or so of shooting light. In ag ground or in a food plot setting walking field edges to cut tracks is also a great way to confirm usage and should help pinpoint camera locations.
Confirmation of usage coupled with weather data from the days the food source was visited will dictate my evening stand placement. Ideally, I’d love to have daylight photos or at least photos at last shooting light but in reality most public land bucks have been pressured all year and are likely not to show until dark. With this in mind and knowing a front is rolling in, any data within an hour of last light is enough for me to brave a few cold weather sits.
The fact is throughout the 2018 season I haven’t been able to put myself in the right position, for one reason or another. As previously mentioned it’s not the first and I’m sure this won’t be the last late season I have a tag in my pocket. What I am sure about is, using this late season checklist/tactics guide will increase my efficiency and odds for years to come.
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