As slowly as the opening of deer hunting approaches through the long, torturous summer, the season’s end comes so quickly hunters count the seconds of each passing January day in the stand.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
And, then, it’s over — Jan. 31 for most of Mississippi, Feb. 15 for the southeast corner of the state.
We interrupt this story for a moment of silence ….
It’s that sad a time. No more deer hunting until the fall.
Making matters worse, there’s all those honey-do’s waiting at home — you know, all those things neglected during the pursuit of whitetails.
What agony awaits after the shooting ends?
But lifelong hunter George Thomas marches to a different beat.
“Not me, man,” Thomas said of the post-season trap. “I figured out a long time ago to take care of those chores at least one day a week during the season. It keeps peace at home and makes it so I’m still free to go to camp in February.
“One of my most enjoyable times of the year is right after the season ends. That’s when I go learn things. I start working on next deer season, and I do that by spending a lot of time cruising the woods that I wouldn’t dare cruise during the season.”
There are some real benefits to combing the woods this month.
“I’m no longer scared of bumping deer; what’s it going to hurt?” Thomas said. “I’m no longer scared of putting my scent in the woods. I’m free to go anywhere and look for anything I can use to learn about deer.”
Like Thomas but unlike thousands of hunters, who trade in their center-fire rifles for small-game guns to chase rabbit, squirrel or even crow or snipe, Gluckstadt’s L.J. Watson remains true to deer hunting even after the shooting stops.
“I’m not in a big club with scores of members; I hunt private family land that only a few of us have access to,” Watson said. “But with nearly 1,000 acres, there’s plenty of places that we just don’t see a lot during the season, land that we can’t cover without more cameras than we can afford to buy.”
So he gets with it after the season closes, searching out likely hunting spots for the next year.
“I go looking for trails. I go looking for rubs and scrapes, trying to find any sign of a buck that we may not have seen at all during the season,” Watson said. “I may sit in a stand without a gun — we don’t have pigs — or I may even bust up into a cutover or other bedding areas and see what I can jump.”
Thomas and Watson agree on one point.
“It’s amazing, but I swear deer sense the season is over,” Thomas said. “I’m serious. It’s like on Feb. 1 they all of a sudden know it’s safe and I see more movement than I’ve seen in months.
“By the middle of the month, they’re out nearly all day long.”
Watson offered the 2014-15 deer season as an example of the value of February “hunting.”
“We had this one buck we’d been seeing that summer and early fall, but then he disappeared,” he said. “When I say he disappeared, I mean he went completely dark. We didn’t see him the entire season. Our neighbors didn’t see him. Our cameras didn’t catch him. The neighbors’ cameras didn’t catch him.
“Believe me, this was the kind of buck that if anyone had killed it or seen it, we’d have heard about it. We had even put most of stands on that side of the property.
“I was determined to find out what happened, so I started walking the property immediately after the season and focusing on areas where we didn’t do a lot of hunting.”
That effort paid off.
“I found a scrape line in an area where a few trees were torn up from rubs,” Walker said. “He had taken up residence about a mile away from his summer haunts in a small 8- to 10-acre mix of timber and marshy area that fills with water when a creek backs up. The farmers never cleared it.”
Watson went back in March and found the buck’s sheds — one full side and one that had broken off just past the G2.
“I decided to add a food plot over there and put out a protein feeder in the summer,” he said. “We moved a camera over there, too, and late this summer he started showing up again.
“One of the youngsters in our family was able to get him this year, but danged if the antler wasn’t broken again. Had it been full, it would have pushed 180 inches non-typical.”
Plotting for success
Thomas also uses February to score his food plots and feeding areas.
“It’s fresh on our minds, and we can go out and actually measure the grass in the food plots to see which ones are getting hit the hardest,” he said. “I can look at when the best (green patches) were planted, what they were planted and fertilized with, and at what rates and how long into the winter they hold up and provide a food source.
“One thing that we always do in all our food plots is to block a small area to prevent deer and other critters from reaching them. The grass in those control areas will be a foot or 2 high, but the rest of the food plot will be chewed down like a putting green. That gives us a look at how good the grasses grew and how much the deer were hitting them.
“We know in March and April exactly what we need to do next year.”
That could mean eliminating some plots and looking for new sites.
“It’s rare that we completely eliminate a site, but we have done it before,” Thomas said. “Two years ago (2013) we moved two sites because of timber clearing that we weren’t expecting, but because I had my records we were able to choose new sites, and knew what and when to plant them.
“The deer that had been displaced by the timber work found those plots and relocated to that part of the property. I know that because we had a piebald doe that we’d caught on camera several times at the original spot start showing up on the new site. We won’t shoot her, and she was still there this year.”
For Terry’s D.K. Partridge, the end of deer season means it’s time to concentrate on pigs at his camp along the Mississippi River in Southwest Mississippi.
The property is full of the big, black Russian boar-looking giants.
“We’re overrun with them, and we kill as many as we can during the deer season while we’re hunting — but in February we go to work on them and do it pretty much 24/7,” he said. “We still notify the local conservation officer to let them know we’re hunting at night (which is legal), just so he can answer the calls he might get.”
The high Mississippi River should make the hogs easier to locate.
“This year, that’s going to be pretty easy because it appears the flood waters are going to help,” Patridge said. “The pigs will be pushed up out of the swampy areas because they’ll be several feet underwater.”
The landowner tasks the club with killing as many as possible.
“If things work out right this February, the water will start falling and the pigs will start coming back down into the fields to root and eat,” Partridge said. “We can sit up on the edge of the hills and light them up.
“By that, I mean about once every 30 minutes we’ll turn on Q-Beams and scan the fields. We’ve got this one hilltop overlooking about 400 acres of grain fields where we can cover so much ground.”
Tinkering with guns
Tommy Sutton of Columbia is a perfectionist when it comes to his deer rifles and those of a few fortunate friends. So he stays busy in February, both in cleaning and repairing guns.
I sought out Sutton’s advice at the end of one season after I missed two trophy bucks a few days apart during the rut in early January.
“Come on down and let’s check the gun and hope it’s not user error,” he said laughing. “We’ll get on the table, put the gun in a sled and see how it’s shooting.”
Sutton knew the gun. He helped build the .264 Winchester Magnum, a caliber he also shoots, and he loaded the 120-grain ballistic tip bullets to match the rifle.
At the range in October, it was grouping three shots in the size of a silver dollar at 200 yards.
In the sled in February, it still produced the tight groupings in the middle of the paper. My three shots hit just right of dead center and Tommy’s trio of holes were all in the red center ring.
I hung my head in disgrace, but Sutton wasn’t ready to diagnose it as a case of buck fever that had caused me to miss the giant 8-point at 180 yards and a modest 10-point at 225 yards.
“OK, now you need to shoot from a shooting house-type situation,” he said, moving some boards to the shooting table to simulate a window ledge in a ground blind.
My next three shots all hit over a foot low at 200 yards, progressively falling lower on the paper. His three did the same.
“Aha: That’s what I thought,” Sutton said. “You’re pulling down on the rifle, but it’s not all your fault. I noticed the trigger was tight when I shot it in the sled.
“Somehow, that trigger tightened up since we shot it in October.”
We took the rifle back to his shop at home, and he put a scale on the trigger.
“Eight pounds,” Sutton said, finally getting the trigger to snap. “That’s your problem. In a sled or on sandbags, it’s not a problem because you can’t pull the barrel down. But in a stand, shooting off a window ledge or a bar, you’re pulling so hard on the trigger that it is forcing the barrel downward — and it only takes a fraction of an inch to equate to a foot or more at 200 yards.”
I left the gun with Sutton and three weeks later he called and said it was done. A new trigger with slightly less than a 3-pound pull produced tight groupings in the red at 200 yards in the same shooting house-type situation.
“You pull it out in November next year and you’ll be good to go,” Sutton said. “Good thing we caught it now or you’d have been without it a while next fall.”
Gunsmiths like David Swann of Swann’s Gun Repair in Jackson also recommend getting the work done as soon as the season is over, whether it’s a simple year-end cleaning or some serious makeover.
“You come in with a rifle in October or November when we’re slammed and it could take a while,” Swann said. “Why put it off? Any problems that you might have had are fresh in your mind and you can tell us exactly what was happening.
“We can get it fixed right, clean the rifle and next fall all you have to do is check it at the range and go hunting.”