As the Magnolia State's whitetail deer season enters the "fourth quarter," many hunters are worn out and ready for a little rest. Some of us have been pursuing our hoofed quarry for the last three months, and many may be disgusted with the lack of results thus far.

However, if you didn't manage to score on a good buck during the rut or in the early season, don't give up just yet. If you can manage to drag yourself out of bed just a few more times before the season closes, you'll be getting in on some of the best hunting of the season.

All deer hunters know that the peak rut is probably the best hunting of the season. Many hunters plan vacation time around the rut to maximize their chances in the field. Just as a crappie angler anticipates the spawn, so a deer hunter anticipates the rut.

While you may find slobbering bucks running around like chickens with their heads cut off, running this way and that, searching for and chasing down every "hot" doe in the land during the rut, don't be so quick to put the rifle in the gun cabinet when the rut ends. The days and weeks after the big event concludes can be just as exciting.

The post-rut period has been especially merciful to me. I've taken only three bucks in some 20 years of deer hunting, but it's not necessarily because I've only had the opportunity to take three. Even early in my deer career, I chose not to shoot the first buck I saw, and that has certainly cost me some deer.

The first buck I did decide to shoot was certainly worth the 10-year wait, netting 202 3/8 inches non-typical with more than two dozen scorable points, 6- and 6.5-inch bases and a 7-inch drop tine. I shot that deer on Dec. 31, and his neck was as big around as a 5-gallon bucket.

Fast forward nearly 9 years to the day and a mile south, and out walks a 300-plus-pound 7-point with a 20-inch inside spread and 5- and 5.5-inch bases. He was hot on the trail of a doe as she crossed a lane in the CRP, and I dropped him at 265 yards.

When is the peak rut in my area? Dec. 13, according to the MDWFP, which was better than two weeks prior to me shooting either of those deer. And if memory serves me correctly, the hunters in my area were all pretty much in agreement that the rut was over and the bucks were winding down.

 

Chemistry 101

Shooting bucks two weeks after peak rut may be borderline post-rut, but there is no doubt that big, mature, bruiser bucks are still on the prowl after the main rutting period has ended.

According to biologists, the peak rut is usually observed by hunters about two weeks prior to the mean conception date. Some are ready to breed before this date and some after, but the majority of the does are bred in a particular time period in each area.

The mean conception date in my corner of the Delta is Dec. 25-29. Typically, most of our rutting activity is observed the second week of muzzleloader season. Thus, our field observations of peak rutting activity are spot on with biologists' suggestions that hunters will observe most of the action two weeks prior to the mean conception date.

Yes, the chances of me seeing good bucks running around in daylight hours, breaking all of the whitetail's rules for a long and prosperous life, will be better in the first third of December. But in my limited experience, the big daddies are still acting foolishly toward the end of the month and, to some extent, to the end of the season.

Jon Allison, a tried-and-true Delta hunter from Tippo, offered some advice on taking bucks during the post-rut period in the Delta. As it was in my case of the two deer mentioned earlier, Allison agrees that serendipity plays a part in harvesting bucks in the late-season.

"There are monster bucks killed during this time every year, but there is a tremendous amount of luck involved in most instances," he said. "One reason I think some of the real giant bucks are killed during this post-rut period is because they have not had to move out of their core areas until this point. Food and a number of breeding does have been present in their home turf.

"As the post-rut kicks in, these big boys still have breeding on their minds, and start to venture much farther in hopes of finding a receptive doe. This is a weakness in his armor in that he is moving around in unfamiliar territory and hanging around a major food source where the largest concentrations of does are."

While most of the does are bred the first go-round, there are some that do not get bred early. According to biologists, a doe may be in estrus for five days, but only willing to breed for a 24-hour period. Younger does, does in poor health and does that are not bred during the peak rut will possibly be available for breeding later in the season.

If a mature doe is not bred when she goes into estrus the first time, she will typically go into estrus again 28 days later. These are some of the does sought out by bucks after the peak rut has occurred. And it doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out that where the receptive does are is where the best chance at taking a buck is.

 

The need for feed

"I don't like hunting large green fields and such, but this is a time when a hunter can score on a mature buck in such a setting," Allison said. "I would go a step farther and say that staging areas (50-100 yards back in the timber from food source) would be an ideal location.

"Only problem with setting up in a staging area where a lot of deer are concentrated is you have to have the right wind to allow the first few deer to go by you without setting off an alarm. Large green fields, unharvested grain fields and cut corn fields are three types of food sources I would spend my time on in the late season."

As Allison mentioned, green fields are excellent ambush locations because of the large numbers of does that will be consistently feeding there in the late season. By the time January rolls around, most of the mast crop has been consumed, and waste-grain in farm fields has rotted. Waste corn will last a good bit longer than soybeans, but lush fields of wheat, oats, clover and other cold-season crops will more than likely attract and hold the largest amount of does.

With the unusual weather conditions in 2009, many hunters will not have to search far to find abundant food sources in January 2010. Entire fields of corn and soybeans were left unharvested last fall. These should provide ample food for the herd.

In contrast, wet conditions in the fall delayed or prohibited the planting of many food plots. Many hunters resorted to broadcasting wheat seed on unprepared ground, but a few caught brief windows of dry weather and were able to plant. In the Delta, hunters should have no trouble finding grain fields and green fields to hunt in January.

 

Seeing the signs

According to Allison, the telltale signs of a prowling, post-rut buck may not be all that hard to find. One needs only to look around the perimeter of feeding areas to see if a dominant buck is in the area.

"Buck sign during the post-rut can be very forthcoming with information as well," he said. "When a big boy shows up at one of these concentrated food sources, he usually is going to lay out some fresh sign, sort of announcing his presence since he has not been here before now. Large rubs along the edges of these fields will be a tell-tale sign that he is now indeed here and is open for business.

"Rubs will not be made in the traditional sense like along his travel route in and out, but pretty much just around the edge of the food source itself, sort of like he is drawing a circle around it as if to protect it or guard it. Large food source plus concentrated numbers of does equals a hunter's best chance at a post-rut brute, in my opinion."

According to another experienced Delta hunter, Jerry Caldwell from Indianola, rubs aren't the only sign that big bucks are on the prowl post-rut. Caldwell, who has taken several nice bucks on public land in the Delta, shared one of his secrets.

"When you walk down those roads through the woods and see buck tracks running this way and that, you know those does are about to be ready," he said.

According to Caldwell, the roads will light up with tracks seemingly overnight, and that's when you can tell that the big boys are getting fired up over those late does. It's this sort of mini-rut after the peak rut that sends the dominant bucks into a frenzy all over again. The presence of a high volume of buck tracks on these woods roads signals the start of the late rut, and you'd better be ready to hunt hard for a few short days while the does are ready to breed during this second window.

 

Welcome the winter weather

Another thing to consider late in the deer season is the weather. It is not uncommon to see 50- and 60-degree days in December. Shucks, most of us have probably hunted a few times in short-sleeves in December when the weather felt more like early fall than winter. But it is the January weather that can put an exciting twist on things in the deer woods.

"While we experience very little really cold weather in Mississippi, when it does happen, it changes deer movements from their normal routine," Allison said. "Deer in Mississippi are just not prepared for temps under 30 degrees for long periods of time.

"When you do have a span of three or four days in a row of brutally cold weather, you will see deer movement peak during the mid-day hours on about the third day. Deer pretty much just get in survival mode the first two days and move very little. These events usually come with a lot of wind. By the third day, deer begin to move. I'm talking about lows in the teens and highs only around the freezing mark. This doesn't happen each year, but when it does, it's important to keep mid-day hunting in mind."

Deer, just like ducks and other wildlife, need food to convert energy into heat the colder it gets. There is not much need to feed when the temperatures are 60 degrees, but finding high-energy food sources is critical to survival when the temperatures dip below freezing. Deer simply cannot stay put for long when the weather is extremely cold and live to see next season. They have to get up and eat, and this is where hunting the high-energy food sources like corn and soybeans can pay dividends.

"Also habitat advantages during cold weather like food sources located on the south side of a tree line or such will offer a hunter an opportunity," according to Allison. "This will not only allow for a wind break from a cold north wind but also these areas on the south side will be open to more sunlight, maybe even allowing some ground thawing as temps rise during the mid-day hours.

"While we do not have the temps of states like Michigan or Iowa, does still yard up, so to speak, when we get in the late season. This is probably due to limited food sources, but again this is a hunter's chance to at least look over a lot of deer in hopes of finding a shooter."

So as you sit in your recliner by the fire this January, exhausted from the weeks and months of chasing those wary whitetails, don't resort to watching camera crews on the tube as they knock down those late-winter bruisers. It's not time to throw in the towel just yet. The nastier the weather is, the better your chances of bagging a buck.

"Once the big boy loses his desire to breed and goes back to his core area to lay up and feed to recover from the rut, he is dang-near unkillable," says Allison. "Nocturnal and just plain being tired has him moving only a fraction of time during daylight hours. Forced movement would be about the only method a hunter could rely on once the season reaches this stage."

You might want to pull out the ol' breeding date map and do the math on when the late rut will be in your area, but nothing beats getting out there and seeing it for yourself. Who knows, there could be one last doe out there looking for love, and you may be lucky enough to intercept Mr. Right on his way too see his lady. You'll never kill him from the couch.