Deer Hunting: Late Season Trophy Deer

By Josh Honeycutt

whitetail deer with good sized rack


Taking a big buck in January is not easy. By then, some of the best have already been tagged. Food is dwindling, the cover all but gone. Mature bucks are on high alert following months of hunting pressure. Yet most states hold a late dear season that extends into January, and if you are holding a tag, there is still time to get it done and maybe even take an impressive buck. They still have their horns, you know.

My friend, John Kirby, and I tagged two such bucks in three days, hunting last January in Ohio. We live in Kentucky, and most seasons we harvest a couple of local deer. That doesn’t quite scratch the itch. So, year before last, we leased an 80-acre farm in the rolling hills of southeastern Ohio, a region known for its trophy whitetails.

The key to tagging bucks late in the season (or anytime, really) is doing the homework. It’s a five-hour drive to our out-of-state hunting grounds, and we still spent much of summer and early fall learning the property, scouting and patterning deer. Then we spent several days in October, November and January hunting the place. We passed on shooter deer. We were looking for something special and had seen some great bucks. So, we were still holding tags come January.

When the weather forecast scripted good hunting for the state’s late muzzleloader season, January 4-7, we loaded Kirby’s Tacoma and left in time to arrive for opening morning.

We decided our best bet would be to split up. I hiked into a small clearing on the northern end of the property. Kirby lit out for a stand overlooking a bigger green field on the other end.

As daylight approached, I just knew one of us was going to burn some powder, and my faith was rewarded. Moments after legal shooting time arrived, Kirby’s Remington 700 echoed through the woods like a peal of thunder.

Kirby had settled into a natural ground blind overlooking the still-lush field. Two big bluffs towered over either side, split by a ravine that brought trickling water down to the grassy 1-1/2 acres. He hoped the deer wouldn’t pick him out of the thin cover. With a breeze in his face, he knew scent wasn’t going to be a problem.

Fog settled in as shooting light arrived, reducing visibility. But he could see the area of interest, including trails around him that led into the field.

Maybe 5 minutes after legal light, a rack bobbed through the brush at the edge where one of the trails entered the open field. The first glimpse told him it was Tall Boy, as we had dubbed the buck when we first saw it in trail camera photos.

Being extra careful not to spook the deer, he slowly raised his muzzleloader and settled in for the shot. The deer fed around the edge of the timber as Kirby waited for the right opportunity. When the buck turned broadside, he inhaled, exhaled, and pressed the trigger. The buck disappeared in a swirling gray cloud.

Thirty minutes or so after hearing that shot, I hiked over to check on my friend. Because of the smoke, Kirby wasn’t sure of the hit. We decided to back off and give it some time. We didn’t want to push the buck off the property if it hadn’t expired.

Since Kirby hadn’t seen the deer running elsewhere, he was pretty sure it had darted into a thick area we left as a deer sanctuary.

Several hours later, we set out. We discussed the shot for maybe the hundredth time as we looked for blood. We didn’t find any, and the tracking was slow, following tracks but mostly just disturbances in the ground cover. Turned out the buck had only made it 125 yards before tipping over—right where Kirby expected to find it in the sanctuary bedding area.

We also found one of the buck’s sheds from the previous season in the thinning weeds just 10 yards away.

With Kirby’s tag filled, it was my turn, and my No. 1 target was a deer we called Buckets because its impressive beams wrapped completely around and not only touched but crossed. On paper, the deer had a negative tip-to-tip spread.

Because of the disturbance we’d made finding and retrieving Kirby’s buck, I decided not to hunt that afternoon. We’d learn that was actually a mistake, as a card pulled from a camera revealed Buckets walking through the same clearing in broad daylight later that afternoon, which I still consider confounding considering a shot had been fired there, and then the commotion we had made finding and dragging out a buck just a few hours before.

The second day of muzzleloader season, I didn’t see Buckets or any other deer. Our farm had become a ghost town.
The next day, we decided not to hunt the morning shift given the possibility of bumping deer in pre-dawn darkness. Instead, I got some work done before we headed out for an afternoon sit. I had decided to hunt the southern end exactly where Kirby had taken his deer two days before. It was Buckets’ core area, and he had been photographed there the previous afternoon.

The sky was clear and the afternoon sun fairly warm, not what you’d hope for a late-season hunt. But when the sun dipped below the horizon, the winter air cooled quickly, and with steam starting to roll from my nose, I felt the thrill of the hunt building.

We didn’t see a deer until the sun was setting. Then one walked down the timbered hill, weaving through cover straight toward us. I was sure I had caught a glimpse of Bucket’s unmistakable rack, but 2 minutes later, a young 5-pointer instead stepped into the field 80 yards away. It looked straight at us, and we froze. When the young one lost interest, it dropped its head to munch on something.

I was wondering if Buckets was following his young sentry, and I didn’t wonder long. The stud stepped out right behind, and same as the young deer looked right through us. This time it was a 4-minute staring contest. Buckets blinked first, and when the big deer started walking along the edge of the field, I slowly raised the muzzleloader, put the bead on the vitals and pulled the trigger.

This time the smoke cloud did not obscure the view, and I watched Buckets barrel through briars and brambles for three or four seconds. Then the woods fell silent, like the songbirds and squirrels were honoring the king that had reigned over their meadow; at least that’s how it seemed in my hyped imagination.

A mix of emotions flowed as the adrenaline slowly drained from my veins, but I knew the deer had not made it far.

First came the tinge of remorse over ending the animal’s life. Then thankfulness for the venison, and also pride in having bested such a worthy opponent late in the game. Then came the realization that I would no longer be playing the game with that worthy opponent.

It didn’t take long to find Buckets, and when we did, we stood and admired the incredible animal. Through the swirling emotions, one thing stood out—I’d shared a special hunt with a good friend, and he’d also tagged a great deer.

As noted, hunting mature bucks during the late season can be challenging. You can also have a magical couple of days like the ones Kirby and I shared in Ohio. Certain things spur a buck to move during daylight. Some we experienced on this hunt, others we didn’t.

Incoming weather fronts can bring late-season success. A system pushing through really gets the deer moving. Oftentimes, they’ll be out and about a day before it hits and still on the prowl a day or two after it passes through.

Temperature drops often follow such systems. You might also see this without a cold front passing through. Regardless, it also gets the deer moving. A 10-degree decrease in the daytime high is big, and anything over 15 is huge. The number of days during winter when this occurs are minimal. Take advantage of them.

Rain is more common and another reliable motivator, especially when it begins late in the afternoon, maybe two or three hours before dark. For some reason, this always seems to get deer on their feet.

Some studies suggest rising barometric pressure sparks deer movement while other studies don’t. In my experience, I think it does hold some merit.

The moon overhead or underfoot is another plus. Deer tend to get up and feed when the moon is positioned this way. When these times line up with early-morning or late-afternoon daylight hours, it can make for a magical moment.

Despite conventional wisdom to the contrary, according to research, mature bucks don’t mind windy days. The studies show that it can increase how far deer are willing to travel in daylight.

If you know exactly where the deer bed and the trails they take, it should be possible to set up where the wind may seem to be in the deer’s favor but is off just enough to carry your drifting scent cone a little left or right of them.

Weather, wind and moon aside, the final thing is female deer coming into heat late, typically yearlings entering estrus for the first time. That can definitely drag a buck out in daylight hours. Maybe it’s not something you can scout for, much less bank on, but where steady food helps doe fawns pack on the weight, as many as half of them end up being bred by bucks, and this often happens in January.

Even without a wild card, grub and water close to secure bedding cover can be a winning combination, and that’s the hand we played on our Ohio hunt.

One final thing to consider is that regardless of other influences, a buck that you have seen more than once during legal hunting hours is a daylight-walking deer. If you have been scouting or hunting a buck with that proclivity, that’s the one to hunt late in the season.

Of course, none of these factors guarantee anything. Hunting trophy bucks isn’t that simple. Put in the work and preparation. It’s the journey not the destination, that we long for between seasons, right? So enjoy it while you still can. It’s the same game, just being played a little later in the season.

A battle-scarred buck that’s been chased by hunters for months on end will have every danger-detecting sense cranked up to 10. The snap of a twig, a rustling jacket, or careless turn of the head can send that buck packing.

But you already knew better than that, didn’t you?

whitetail deer with hunter