January is an ugly month for deer hunters.
The peak of the rut is in the rear view mirror in most areas, and that means that finding a trophy buck has become near impossible. Either they have returned to their nocturnal normalcy or they have returned deep into their dense core areas.
That means that hunting them becomes harder and their behavior more difficult to pattern.
Bottom line: In January, well, big bucks are where you find them.
“There are so many variables in play this time of year, a hunter has to think through all the possibilities to come up with a plan,” said deer biologist William McKinley of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. “We know there is another, lesser rut in January, as does not bred in the main rutting period cycle and re-enter estrus. Also some early fawns and late yearlings will enter their first estrus. So hunting (antlerless deer), even around food plots is not a bad idea.”
McKinley explained that severely stressed does may have missed the first rut, but could have improved with the rain — yes, last fall’s drought finally ended — and green-up enough to enter estrus.
That said, a rut pattern could still be a wise choice for the savvy hunter. Creating a man-made scrape and the use of scents and lures will still work in January, just as it did in December.
“A dramatic recovery is not a sure thing, so don’t bank on it,” McKinley added. “We may not know just how bad the 2016 drought affected the deer herd until we see fawn recruitment numbers next summer.
“Those areas where water and mast were plentiful and herds are balanced will see good results. Where the drought was severe and acorns were short, will see something less, perhaps far less.”
Still every year good bucks come from a variety of settings during January. Private land has the potential to be managed, if the tract is large enough. This is one way to insure quality bucks will be around after New Year’s Day.
But, what about the large contingent of hunters who rely on the public lands for the venison to fill their larder?
“I wish I could tell an exciting story of a long stalk or skillful patterning, but it just didn’t happen that way,” said Mike Moss of Pulaski, talking about a 10-point he killed on the Caney Creek WMA in Smith County. “The truth is I was in an area that looked good because trails there were converging in a natural funnel and there was a well-used creek crossing. Acorns were plentiful and some signs in the area were promising that the rut was happening. I guess good bucks are just where you find them.”
And, plenty of them can be found on the state’s Wildlife Management Areas.
“The WMAs of Mississippi are some of the most under-utilized property in the state,” said Jeff Mangrum, an MDWFP Wildlife Management Coordinator. “Based on the soil type, every area has a different expectation for what is considered a trophy buck.
“In most management areas the resource is managed for the largest number of deer the resource can safely manage. No open area is getting more pressure than the deer herd can handle.”
Richard Latham of Lena, who annually hunts the Panther Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in the Delta, believes finding a good place to hunt on public land is not that difficult.
“Just look for the nastiest, thickest, most impenetrable thicket and set up as close as you can to it,” Latham said. “Such a thicket, if on high ground and is surrounded by shallow water, is extra special.
“It may take some scouting, but finding a thicket near a feeding area, such as a bean field, makes hunting there a no brainer. The deer will live in the thicket and feed in the field. The hunter just needs to be in the middle.”
Latham says windstorms and tornados have blown down trees and opened the forest floor to sunlight. The result is a rapid growth of the understory, producing briars, bushes, small trees and the like. These create thickets that are the sort of places deer utilize both for food and for bedding areas. Finding them takes time.
“The more you hunt there (Panther Swamp) the more you learn the lay of the land,” Latham said. “The more you learn, the better equipped you will be to kill a trophy buck. And be aware of the wild hogs there, I’ve seen them just about every time I go there.”
Panther Swamp is a part of the Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge Complex and a fee is required to hunt the area. Details can be found about this and other NWR properties at www.fws.gov/refuge/Panther_Swamp.
Whether you hunt public or private land, accomplished archer Barrett Van Cleave of Wilkinson County believes in concentrating on travel routes and the extensive use of scouting cameras.
“Smart deer live to become older deer, and older deer become bigger deer,” Van Cleave said. “Old, smart deer become trophies. Even these big wise bucks have their weaknesses, but these are the deer an average meat hunter may never see.”
High on Van Cleave’s list of must-have abilities is stealth.
He suggests that a hunter move slowly and deliberately, breaking up his or her outline by walking trails that provide cover.
He advises against walking in the open, like in the middle of the road, even if it is just a fire lane or a log road.
And, since all deer hunters, including archers, are required to wear 500-inches of unbroken hunter blaze orange during all open gun seasons, sticking to thickets will help break up the deer’s perception of the necessary orange, without comprising the safety aspect.
Van Cleave is more emphatic about a buck’s sense of smell, which he says is about 15 times more effective than a human’s, and he is fanatical about proper scent usage. He uses Natchez-made Vapor Trail Scents products (www.vaportrailscents.com), and especially 33 Point Buck and the Vapor Maker.
Finally Barrett hunts trails between bedding areas and food plots almost exclusively. He may be hunting within sight of the plot, but never on the plot.
“A buck will approach a plot and stop well short of entering the open,” he said. “He may then stand there for a very long time before he is confident the plot is safe to enter. That pause can make the difference in getting a shot or watching the scene go dark. For this reason I set a stand well back of the plot, so I can see the bucks when they approach. Even then I sometimes get no shot before the light fades into darkness.”
What else can hunters to do to increase their odds of getting a trophy buck.
C.M. Golden of Taylorsville, who has killed over 100 deer in the past 40 years, said one answer is simply spending more time trying.
“Plan to stay in the woods for as long as you can, especially at mid-morning when other hunters are getting down and moving around,” Golden said. “They will bump deer they may never see and cause them to move past your stand.
“Try to hunt through mid-day when others are back at the camp getting lunch and a nap. Deer hunters as a rule ignore the mid-day movement. The best 10-point I ever killed was as it followed a doe across a cutover at 11:45 in the morning.”
Golden’s other advice is to be in the woods on the coldest days. Deer have to eat to stay warm so they have to move about to eat. When they do bed down it will be on the south side of a hill or in a field where the sun will provide warmth and shelter from the wind.