No matter if it’s a gourmet feast or a rustic camp supper, a family meal of shared wild game has always brought hunters together
The dusky grouse came from the big slopes of the Flathead and Kootenai national forests, behind Tom Healy’s house in the Northern Rockies. When Fast Eddie, Healy’s wirehaired pointing griffon, locked up along an edge of pines, Healy knew instantly and intuitively that it was no ruffed grouse. “The big duskies like that sunshine, that open ground in the big woods,” he says, standing in the deep shade of a wall tent, stirring a mixture of grouse meat, elk meat, and wild rice. “I knew what was coming.”
Healy harvested this wild rice too, with his wife, in a canoe deep in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters. Now he stirs the dirty rice in a black iron pot as he describes arrowing through the dense rice stalks in the canoe, knocking the grains loose with short wooden batons so they fell into the boat.
There is elk heart in Healy’s dirty rice mix too, and elk sausage from a cow he killed eight days into a Big Hole Valley backcountry hunt. He had a .270 in camp, he recalls, but he carried a slug gun that day. “I wanted to force myself to get a little closer,” he says. “Make it a little more real.”
I glance around the tent. Nearby, a tall, bearded, cowboy-hatted guy sears mallard breasts from a Rocky Mountain spring creek. Another outdoorsman debones a Bristol Bay salmon. There is snowshoe hare and Idaho chokecherry sauce and goose confit in the works. On an open fire outside the tent, skewers of lynx meat sizzle. Getting closer to the heart of the matter seems to be the dish of the day. I’m in Boise, Idaho, at what is arguably the world’s most impressive wild-game meal: the Backcountry Hunters & Anglers field-to-table dinner, held during the group’s annual Rendezvous. Each year, some of the country’s best wild-game cooks put on a fundraiser feast so fine, it’s been written up in gourmet-cooking magazines.
I wander from camp stove to fire pit, sampling beaver meatballs and smoked Lahontan cutthroat trout. I quiz the chefs about each dish, but what I hear most isn’t the merits of wild plums versus the grocery-store variety, or why jackrabbit is underrated on the table. Instead, everyone tells me a story about the harvest. I hear how warm it was that January day on the Boise River when the trout were biting, how the moon lit the trail on the tough hike out with the elk quarters.
It’s been this way, always. This might be one of the fancier wild-game gigs I’ve ever attended, but I’ve felt this same kinship in Cajun squirrel camps, Yukon duck camps, and my deer camp back home. It’s what we do. The earliest art, religion, and connections between human communities were all rooted in the things we chase, kill, and eat. And share.
Spice of Life
Here’s another story: A few years ago, my wife, Julie, and I had new friends over for dinner. I smoked a chunk of pronghorn backstrap and served it with Gouda cheese and red peppers blackened on the grill. It was not terribly different from our normal wild fare. To our guests, though, antelope was the most exotic meat they’d ever eaten. They gushed about its tenderness and sage-tinted bite. They wanted to know where I’d killed it (Wyoming) and how (arrowed from behind a decoy). They asked about my other hunts. They were surprised to learn that I butchered my own deer and aged ducks in the refrigerator’s vegetable crisper. They were unaware of the modern hunter’s connection to this ancient cycle, that wild meat still nourishes soul as much as body.
I asked if they’d like to meet their meal, since the antelope’s head was hanging on my office wall. They politely declined, but still, that one simple meal sparked a conversation about hunting, sustainability, and the honesty of eating what you kill. They still talk about it. Not every wild-game dinner is a conversion experience, to be sure. Sometimes you just want to chew on a squirrel leg. But there’s no doubt that a grilled backstrap is as fine an argument for hunting and fishing as any philosophical treatise.
At the BHA chow-down, I hover over Idaho chef Randy King as he works up a dish of spring rolls stuffed with goose confit. Always a sucker for a good goose dish, I’m about to ask for the particulars of the dish, but King tells a different story. “This is kind of funny,” he says, “in sort of a bad-funny way.” He tells me that he and his 12-year-old son, Cameron, hunted these geese from a southwestern Idaho farm ditch last winter. Cameron was shooting a single-barrel 20-gauge, the kind with an exposed hammer, and with the first shot, the hammer bit the boy on the cheek hard enough to require stitches. Blood gushed. “I felt awful,” King says, “but he is so proud of that scar, you wouldn’t believe it.”
But I would, of course. What hunter wouldn’t? It’s the kind of story that seasons a meal and life long after the hunt, and makes every day on this Earth a sweeter bite of life.
Ask the country’s best whitetail guides, and they’ll tell you that the late season is a killer time to drop a great buck. They’ll also tell you that when the mercury plummets, even the wariest deer will hit the best food sources during daylight. They’ll tell you where to set up, what to bring, whether to rattle or call or use a decoy, and even how far to shoot.
How do we know all this? We asked.
F&S surveyed dozens of top deer guides to pick their brains on late-season buck behavior, top tactics, favorite gear, and more. Some answered anonymously, most gave their names and outfits, but all offered expert tips and advice to help you wrap up your season with a wall-hanger.
Where is a big buck most likely to bed in the late season?
Good cover close to the food 35.5%
Wooded south-facing slope 23.5%
The nastiest thicket he can find 17.5%
In the open, where he can see you coming 8.6%
In overlooked places, like fencerows and old homesteads 5.7%
“The absolute perfect place is dense cover on a south-facing slope close to good food.” —Kevin Small, Midwest Outfitting Co.
True or false: Given the bedding behavior of late-season bucks, hunters should skip the morning hunt now.
“Go ahead and hunt mornings if you want, just make sure you go to a different location from where you’d sit in the evening. A south-facing slope in mature white-oak timber would be my first choice.”—Kevin Small
“Unless you are getting a consistent pattern during the morning hours from a particular buck, you’ll probably do more harm than good by hunting the morning, because you’re apt to bump deer. Sometimes it pays to sleep in and head out just before lunch, then sit the rest of the day. When the temperature and weather conditions are right, deer will start heading to evening food sources very early, and you want to make sure you’re there before they arrive.”—Zach Jumps,Harpole’s Heartland Lodge
What’s the best moon phase for late-season deer activity?
Really? Moon phase doesn’t matter 45.5%
Red moon 12.1%
Full moon 3%
“Full moon is the worst.” —Brian Lindberg
“I like a rising moon in the afternoon.”—Anonymous
“I performed a study of more than 1,700 hunts, including all eight moon phases,and found no correlation between whitetail movement and moon phase.” —Anonymous
Is there really such a thing as the “second rut”?
Yes, and it can be a major factor in mid-December 60%
Yes, but it’s very low key. Don’t expect it to affect your hunting strategy much 40%
No, that’s hogwash 0%
“We always see a flurry of mature buck activity during the second rut. All it takes is one receptive doe, and you can have every buck on your farm after her. Hunt scrapes just ahead of the second rut, then try intercepting a buck on the downwind edge of prime doe bedding areas.”—Zach Jumps
“Estimate the peak of the primary rut, count 28 days later, and mark the calendar. Not long ago, I killed a mature buck chasing a hot doe on December 4.”—Kevin Small
“Doe-in-estrus scent works better in the second rut than at any other time. Use it.”—Tim Clark,Red Dog Outfitters
What is the very best late-season food source?
Standing beans 35.5%
Standing corn 25.8%
Brassica plot 12.9%
A big old bait pile 12.9%
“If it’s cold, go to grain; if it’s warm, go to green.”—Kevin Small
“It’s critical to have a variety of food sources in the late season. Too many people concentrate on having just corn or beans. Make sure to have greens as well. If you get some warmer temps, deer will often take greens over grain. I prefer radishes and turnips then.” —Joel Artis, Buffalo County Outfitters
What is the most important factor for getting late-season bucks on their feet before daylight?
Cold temperatures 80.6%
Late rutting activity 11.1%
Moon phase 0%
“Cold temperatures are essential for getting deer to show during daylight now.” —Keaton Kelso, K&K Outfitters
“Low temps with a rising moon and high pressure is perfect.”—Joel Artis
“Having a good food source to hold the doe population is key. When one of those does goes into heat, the bucks are sure to show up.”—Mark Clifford, Premier Outfitters
What is your No. 1 go-to late-season tactic?
Simple. Camp on your best winter food source in the afternoons 80%
Tracking. There’s nothing more exciting 8.6%
Driving thick cover 2.9%
“There’s nothing I’d rather do than track a buck in the snow!”—Randy Flannery, Wilderness Escape Outfitters
What is the best way to exit a late-season food-source stand without spooking deer?
Get picked up by truck, tractor, or UTV 68.7%
Wait until full dark and slip out 25.7%
“Realistically, no one is going to wait until dark-thirty in December after already freezing their butts off. If you can get a ride, do it; the deer are used to us coming and going.” —Tim Clark
Describe your favorite late-season tactic that most hunters would never think of.
“Tracking and stalking. Head to the big woods and hunt on your feet. It’s a hell of a lot more fun than sitting all day.”—Randy Flannery
“Spot a buck and watch his evening travel route. Then get out there the next day and brush up a good hide at a pond dam or in a fence line to intercept him. Throw him a curveball.”—Tony Sehman, Thunder Ridge Outfitters
“Pull a shallow plow over turnips and beets to bring them on top of the soil. Then hunt.”—Bryan Dawes
“Hunt the bedding areas that receive the first sunlight of the day. That warm sun is a magnet for bucks now.” —Mark Clifford
“Hunt between 11 and 3. My trail-cam pics prove it.” —Peter Martin
On a late-season hunt, I see a non-hit-list buck that’s obviously wounded. Do I kill him or do I go ahead and let him walk?
Shoot him. It’s the right thing to do 52.9%
Let him walk. Bucks are incredibly tough, and he may well survive 32.4%
“That’s on you—but you know what’s right.” —Tim Clark
“Depends on the severity of the injury.” —Tony Sehman
Everyone wants cold weather in the late season. What do you do when it’s warm?
Stay the course, because you never know 52.8%
Use a climber or hang-and-hunt near bedding cover 17.6%
Go for broke and still-hunt 11.8%
Stay home, because the deer aren’t going to move 5.9%
“Hunt green food sources.” —Kevin Small
“We had a client kill a 196-inch buck two years ago when it was 58 degrees—in January. As he stepped out of the truck, I said, ‘Hey, kill a monster.’ He laughed and said, ‘Yeah, right.’ He called me two hours later and said, ‘ I just shot the buck of three lifetimes.’” —Tony Sehman
Should you rattle and call in the late season?
No. Deer are too edgy now 50%
Yes, but only at bucks you see. Start quiet, gauge their reaction, and go from there 28.1%
Yes, but only if you see second-rut activity 18.8%
Yes. Big bucks are especially receptive now 3.1%
“The only time you should call during the late season is when you’re trying to grunt a buck you see into shooting range.”—Tevis McCauley,Whitetail Heaven Outfitters
What about a decoy?
No way. Too apt to spook deer now, and bucks are tired of fighting 73.3%
Yes. A doe decoy works well now 26.7%
Yes. A buck decoy works well now 0%
“Unless you’re with PETA, I’d advise against it.”—Tim Clark
“A head-up doe decoy will spook does, but a head-down doe decoy in a feeding position—in a corn- or beanfield, say—can help bring bucks out a little sooner.”—Peter Martin
Fill in the blank: Late-season deer drives are _____
Unsafe and unethical. I hate deer drives 41.9%
Not worth conducting because they run deer off your property 38.7%
Effective, but keep them small and subtle 16.1%
Fun and effective. Gather up the whole crew 3.2%
“Your neighbors will love your deer drive. Why work on good deer management just to drive deer off so someone else can kill them?”—Keaton Kelso
What’s your best last-day, go-for-broke tactic?
Sit super close to a buck’s bedroom 35.3%
Deer drive 16.5%
Don’t change a thing 14.5%
“Go in super early with a climber and sit right in the bedding area.”—Anonymous
Besides the obvious stuff, list your most important late-season gear items. Top answers:
Ground or box blind
Hand and foot warmers
Extra rangefinder batteries
What is the best and warmest late-season garment? Top answers:
Sitka Fanatic Jacket and Bib
Heater Body Suit
What is the best muzzleloader bullet? Top answers:
Barnes Red Hot
Really, what’s the farthest a hunter should shoot with a muzzleloader?
No more than 200 yards 77.1%
250-plus if the hunter is comfortable with it 22.9%
“If a guy tells me he can shoot 400 yards, he’ll have to prove it to me on the range first. Otherwise, we’ll get closer.”—Tim Clark
Does an Ozonics unit really fool the noses of wary late-season bucks?
It helps 54.6%
Dude, just hunt the wind 39.3%
No, it’s bs 6.1%
“If it gives you a 1 percent advantage, I’ll take it.”—Keaton Kelso
“I use one. But I still hunt the wind.” —Joel Artis
“I don’t believe in these products enough to trust them. This time of year the wind is steady as a rule. Hunt it.” —Tim Clark
What is the craziest thing you’ve ever heard a client say about late-season buck behavior?
“It’s too cold. The deer won’t be moving.” —Brian Lindberg, Soap Creek Outfitters
“Does it make a spark when you hit the deer?” —Keith Miller, Montana Whitetails
“I hope it warms up.” —Peter Martin, Buffalo County Bucks
“The farmers cutting corn will keep the deer out of the area for a few days.” —Derrick Robinson, Buck Country Outfitters
“It’s no wonder that we aren’t seeing any deer. Whitetails travel south for the winter.” —Mark Santos, Whitetail Heaven Outfitters
“Can I hunt the food plot in the morning?” —Bryan Dawes, Brushy Fork Outfitters
“Forget the wind, just hunt.” —Kevin Small
What is the biggest mistake late-season hunters make?
“Not being careful enough entering and exiting stands or blinds.” —Brock Brewster, Sunfish Valley Whitetails
“Overhunting the same spots.” —Mark Liebner, Camp Kay Outfitters
“Not hunting the late season. Huge mistake.” —Anonymous
“Lack of scent control. A lot of hunters think that because they’re in a blind, they won’t alarm the deer with their scent. Try using that logic to fool 30 to 60 deer in a field when half of them are downwind.” —Tony Sehman
“Not resighting your bow or muzzleloader in cold conditions.” —Peter Martin
“Getting locked in on hunting one food source over and over and not scouting for new sign.” —Brian Phillips, Kentucky Whitetail Guide
“Hunting food sources in the morning.” —Bryan Dawes
Wily late-season bucks tend to frequent unusual places. What’s the craziest spot you’ve ever put a late-season hunter?
“In an old abandoned car. Deer were feeding in a food plot. Putting up a pop-up blind would have been too noticeable, so we popped the door of an old Chevy and got both windows down. He was just bummed the heater didn’t still work.” —Tony Sehman
“In a stand on a telephone pole right next to an abandoned farmhouse.” —Anonymous
“In an abandoned combine sitting out in the middle of a cropfield.” —Eric Albus, Milk River Outfitters
“In a cemetery.” —Kevin Small
“In a silo.” —Brian Phillips
“Right next to a busy highway. He arrowed a 194-inch buck.” —Anonymous
“On an old bulldozer in a cornfield. There was freezing rain, and it had a roof on it. He got a nice buck from that dozer too.” —Anonymous
“Hundred yards from barking dogs.” —Tim Clark
Describe your best-ever, eleventh- hour, last-minute, end-of-the-season success story
“On the last week of rifle season, a client got tired of waiting for this particular Booner buck, and so he asked to be moved. Wrong decision. We put another man in the same spot, and in the last 10 minutes of the season, that Booner walked right out into the middle of the cornfield. Boom! I’ll never forget the look on the face of the guy who wanted to be moved. He almost cried.” —Keaton Kelso
“A 211-incher taken by a client on a tough hunt— last day, last hour. Can’t beat that.” —Anonymous
“I had a hunter who wanted to leave at noon on the last day. I talked him into staying, and he arrowed a 172-inch 8-point in the final minutes of the season.” —Anonymous
“Father and son doubled on the last day.” —Zach Jumps
“Last 15 minutes of the last day, a big buck walks across a food plot at 100 yards. Wham. On video.” —Peter Martin
“Last day, last hour, a client shoots a buck and misses. But then reloads and drops him.” —Mark Liebner
“With only one hour before his plane left, I took a client for one last Hail Mary hunt. He shot a 155-inch buck—with 15 minutes to spare.” —Eric Albus
“A man dying of cancer took two B&C bucks. He cried because it meant so much to him.” —Anonymous
Written by Dave Hurteau for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
A whitetail buck’s urge to breed—preceded by a drive to establish home turf and defend it against competing males—is the only real chink in a buck’s year-round survival armor.
How many bucks (especially big ones) would we shoot if whitetails didn’t have a breeding season?
On the other hand, how many bucks could we shoot if we simplified the core ideas of how the rut operates, took a big breath, and re-framed the idea of rut-hunting—instead of just focusing on one week in the whitetail breeding season?
Let’s re-examine the whitetail rut by taking a fresh look at the event’s entire flow. Below we've identified specific hunting strategies and approaches to six simplified stages.
1. Bachelor Days
As mammals, whitetail bucks can actually breed at any time of year. It’s just that the drive to do so doesn’t really start kicking in until summer begins turning to early fall and male hormones start doing their work to stop summer antler growth, harden those head-topping bone structures, and cause their velvet to peel off.
This is, believe it or not, the first stage of the rut. And you should hunt it. Most bucks live in bachelor groups now and will continue to do so for a few weeks until daylight really begins receding.
Do you hunt early season bucks, or talk yourself out of it? The good news is, bucks can be vulnerable during this stage. One secret is understanding that early-season bachelor-group bucks don’t occupy classic, prime habitat. Those are the kinds of places where does and fawns live and feed.
There’s nothing wrong with hunting those antlerless deer (something I am a fan of personally), and you can certainly shoot a good yearling buck in prime habitat too (also something I like to do). But when a bigger buck is on my mind, or yours, now is the time to head back into the kind of gnarly, secondary, sub-quality habitat that early-fall bucks use as they get ready for the rut.
2. Turf Setting
Those friendly bachelor buck pods don’t last forever. As September turns to October, bucks begin breaking off and start looking for—and establishing—territories of their own. The older the buck, the more solitary he will strive to be.
This is when scrapes begin appearing on the landscape. Some hunters believe these first scrapes mark territory against other bucks, and that’s true. But these early scrapes also serve as signposts for does, advertising there is a buck in the area to service the females’ breeding needs.
Yes, some does will come into estrus this early. We’re talking the first weeks of October here. Biology ensures some does are ready to breed early, and some are ready to breed late (all the way into and through December). This spreads out the concentrated spring fawn drop to reduce the chance of a weather or predatory disaster.
I always have to sort of shake my head when I hear other hunters say they are going to wait for the bucks to really get rocking and rolling—what might be called “peak rut”—before they hunt. Say what? Bucks are out there now at turf setting time. They’re dispersing, breeding-ready, and beginning to look for does. Let’s say you have a line of scrapes, maybe with some rubs intermixed. You’re on a travel route—a place a buck has been, and a place he will come back to—so set up and hunt.
This is the best time of the season to use doe-in-estrus scents because few real does are actually in estrus. Now is also a good time to try that buck decoy: grunt a little too, and try to goad the home buck into confronting the intruder.
As late October rolls around and buck turfs are established, breeding activity begins in earnest. While it’s true that most does will come into estrus later, mid-October to late October sees enough doe-in-heat activity that bucks are really starting to get active.
Many hunters make the mistake of sitting out the pre-party too, preferring to wait and concentrate on the full-on onset of the “real” rut. But this is prime time, and it’s when a lot of bucks go cruising all day long for doe activity. This is an excellent time to simply hunt natural travel routes, well-used deer trails, funnels, and pinch points.
Become a weather watcher and make a play when temperatures drop into the 30s during the day, and when it gets frosty to hard-freezing (20s or below) at night. Whitetails get active as the weather gets colder, and bucks will travel all day looking for a party. With their insulating winter coats to keep them warm, deer just won’t travel much when daytime temperatures get much beyond the mid-40s. So make hay when the weather cools.
Call it chase, call it pursuit. Either way, the party is just starting when the bucks really begin working the countryside full-time, and the does begin coming into heat. The females’ hormones are chugging now, too, and the bucks can smell it.
Photoperiod drives everything in the rut. That’s the “macro” driver. But day-to-day “micro” conditions (warm weather, bad precipitation) can curtail deer movement. This is also a good time to be on-call and ready to hunt when conditions get right. Anytime it's cool to cold outside (clear skies or cloudy, it doesn’t seem to matter), hit it hard!
Now is the time to hunt where the does are. They are the objects of the bucks’ affection and pursuits. The beauty of this stage is that the does are just getting ready, but the bucks are far ahead of them in desire. This is why you’ll see does running away from bucks now.
Another good strategy during the party stage is to work the travel corridors and funnels you have scouted—those natural places where bucks are steered or, as I like to say, contoured, as they cruise and chase.
Sooner or later, does begin accepting bucks’ advances. This is when whitetails lockdown and bucks hang tight with does, not leaving their sides. The woods may seem empty, and some bucks may be out of circulation. However, one redeeming quality of the bedroom stage is that not every buck has a potential breeding partner to hang with. Some bucks will still be cruising and looking for a date, trying to get to the bedroom. Breeder bucks will be preoccupied and right on the doe’s tails, and satellite bucks will be working all the angles to try and fight their way in.
There is a specific way to hunt those occupied bucks: Set up in (or right next to) daytime bedding cover—the bedroom—and wait there, where the does (and hence the bucks) want to be. Pack a lunch, get up in a tree, and stay all day.
6. Cleanup Duty
When does the rut end? When you quit hunting for the year.
While it’s true that breeding activity slows considerably as the bulk of does get bred and bucks get tired, it’s also true that younger does (year-and-a-half olds and then, even later, the year’s early-born fawns) come into estrus after the calendar hits December.
It’s cleanup duty now. There are still breeding jobs to be done, but it’s not an active or aggressive pursuit on the bucks’ part. “Opportunistic” is more the watchword.
Now is the time to get into the prime habitat where the does and fawns retreat—good cover near prime feeding areas. Bucks aren’t usually actively on the lookout for does, but bucks still like to hang near the females if for no other reason than to eat well, have an extra set of eyes or two around for safety, and maybe even get lucky.
Hunt The Whole Season Through
Rather than a one-week event in which to put all your hunting effort, the rut is a full process that lasts all autumn long and consists of distinct stages, any of which can, when hunted with the right strategies and approaches, put a buck on the meat pole.
Written by Tom Carpenter for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.