With some of the highest deer densities in the nation and a hunting season that spans over a third of the year, one would assume that scoring on a Mississippi trophy whitetail would be an easy task. However, the reality is that many Magnolia State hunters find themselves empty-handed going into the New Year, and are ready to call it quits.

But a few experienced hunters have discovered that late is better than never when it comes to taking that buck of a lifetime.

November and early December are often referred to as "late-season" in many states. But in Mississippi, our "late-season" doesn't begin until the start of the New Year. By January, deer season in some form or fashion has been going on in the Magnolia State for three solid months. As a result of intense hunting pressure, most mature bucks have become nocturnal.

For most areas of the state, the peak of the rut occurs around Christmas. As we move into January, most bucks have entered the post-rut phase. During this "lull period," the majority of does have been bred, giving the remaining bucks a little breather to help recuperate from an exhausting breeding season.

For some unexplained reason, many deer hunters have called it quits by the end of December and headed home. Deer can sense this reduction in hunting pressure, and react accordingly by becoming less nocturnal and in a sense letting their guard down. That is why those hunters who are persistent and take advantage of opportunities offered them during the late season are the same hunters who consistently take big whitetail bucks year after year.


Persistence pays

"Just one more step … a little farther to the right," I whispered under my breath to the huge whitetail across the field from my ladder stand. A 250-yard shot would be challenging enough without the added difficulty of finding a clear shooting lane through the dense branches of an 80-year-old water oak. But I knew my limitations as well as those of my .280 caliber model 77 Ruger. I had made this same shot several times before. All I needed was an open shooting lane to squeeze off a round, and the heavily palmated antlers of this magnificent brute would proudly hang on my den wall.

But this monster buck would not be mine - at least not this day.

One of my favorite books by Charles Dickens begins with the passage, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …" And so it was for me that particular deer season. The season would prove to be the best and worst season of my life. Strictly by accident, I learned the importance of persistence when hunting late-season whitetails.

For three years, I had diligently pursued a specific buck. Not just any buck mind you, but a magnificent specimen. He was the kind of buck that haunts your dreams, the kind that wakes you in a cold sweat. Extremely heavy main beams, forked brow tines, long matching sticker points and a body that would easily exceed 250 pounds made this monster very easy to identify.

Having collected the buck's shed antlers from the previous two years, I knew that this 14-point buck would be a contender for the new state archery record. Finally, this was going to be my year. I had the buck patterned from his bedding area to his feeding area, and had several stands strategically placed along the way. All I needed was to be in the right place at the right time.

Being in the right place was quite easy, but being there at the right time would prove to be more difficult. On three separate occasions the old bruiser came within 20 yards of my treestand, but fading light and the fear of wounding such a magnificent animal prevented me from taking a shot with my bow. As with most heavily pressured mature bucks, he had gone almost completely nocturnal.

The decision to maintain my ethics and refuse to take a questionable shot came back to haunt me a few weeks later. A neighbor called to inform me that a poacher had killed the buck I had been hunting. A quick comparison of the previous year's sheds and the antlers on the huge buck confirmed that he was indeed the same buck I had been hunting.

At first, I was extremely upset. After all the time and effort I had invested in hunting the big brute, I felt as though I had been cheated. Besides, it was unfair for such a fine buck to be taken in such an unsportsmanlike manner. The experience left me feeling empty inside and lacking any desire to return to the woods for the remainder of the season.

Fortunately for me, I did return to my hunting area, and discovered just how productive it can be to hunt Mississippi's late-season bucks. On Jan. 11, I returned to my favorite stand hoping to harvest a doe for the freezer. Arriving at the stand with less than an hour of shooting light remaining, I didn't have long to wait before two mature does and a yearling entered the field. While waiting for the does to present a better shot, I caught a flicker of movement on the back side of a water oak thicket located in the middle of the field.

I could hardly believe my eyes. Standing across the field was a magnificent palmated-antlered whitetail. Although this buck was not quite as big as the one taken by the poacher, he was still a trophy in anyone's book. Placing the crosshairs on his shoulder, I waited patiently for him to step into a clearing in the oak branches. My finger tightened on the trigger as I prepared to take the buck.

And that is when a great situation got even better.

Just as I was about to squeeze the trigger, I noticed the nearby does suddenly raise their heads and come to attention. A quick glance in the direction they were looking caused my jaw to drop and the hair on the back of my neck to stand on end. Standing broadside at less than 40 yards was a 160-class 9-point buck. Without hesitation, I swung the barrel of my rifle from the palmated buck and settled the crosshairs on the shoulder of the much closer trophy.

At the rifle's report, the buck broke for the nearest cover, showing no sign of being hit. I remained seated in the stand for half an hour trying to calm down and going over in my mind what had just happened.

A heavy blood trail indicated a good hit. I began the task of tracking the buck with the aid of a small penlight. As I followed the trail to the crest of the hardwood ridge, the tiny beam of light reflected off a huge set of antlers. Even with very poor light, I knew instantly that this was the best whitetail I had ever harvested. Needless to say, I shouted my thanks to the Lord for such a wonderful gift.

Back at the skinning shed, the huge racked buck tipped the scales with an amazingly light live weight of only 145 pounds. But what the buck lacked in body size, he more than made up for in the antler department.

That late-season hunt taught me a valuable lesson about hunting pressured whitetails. You can greatly increase your chances of taking a mature trophy buck by being persistent and hunting the late season. And the proof is in the pudding. Of the close to 50 deer mounts that adorn the walls of my trophy room, the vast majority of them were late-season harvests - taken from Christmas to mid-January.


A prescription for success

Eddie Lipscomb, a veterinarian from Port Gibson, has spent a lifetime hunting trophy whitetails throughout much of the Magnolia State. Having hunted with "Doc" on several occasions and knowing that he consistently takes monster bucks during Mississippi's late hunting season, I asked him to share some of his thoughts on hunting late-season whitetails.

"My favorite time to hunt is during the latter part of the season - from the last week of December through the middle of January," he said. "Sure I like to get out and hunt some in the early and mid-season, but the late-season is the time when I get really serious about hunting trophy bucks.

"The primary reason ... is because that's when I have had the most success at taking really big bucks.

"By the end of December, most of the does have been bred and the rut is starting to wind down. This is the time when the mature bucks seem to change personalities. There are fewer hot does out there requiring the services of a big buck. That combined with reduced hunting pressure in the late-season results in mature bucks becoming more mobile and less wary. They have to cover more ground if they want to be the lucky buck that finds one of the few does still in heat. That is why I prefer to hunt areas that let me cover the most territory possible. Power lines, clear-cuts, gas lines and open fields are great places to hunt when late-season bucks are on the move.

"Sometimes it seems as if big bucks are coming out of the woodwork. This is especially true if an early January cold front blows in, dropping the temperature drastically. That is when the really big bucks that have remained safely hidden all season long start showing themselves. Not only are they on the move in search of hot does, but they are also looking for food to help rebuild body fat that was lost during the rut. Locating an area with a good food source that is being frequented by lots of does will greatly enhance your chances of encountering that buck of a lifetime."


Green Is gold

When it comes to hunting trophy whitetails, you would be hard pressed to find another hunter more passionate about the sport than Don Hynum. Also from Claiborne County, Hynum discovered early in his hunting career that the late-season can be very productive, and based on the number of monster whitetails he has taken in January, Hynum has mastered the techniques necessary to consistently score big in the late-season.

"Hunting trophy whitetails during this time of year calls for paying attention to detail," said Hynum. "Oftentimes we overlook the obvious because we expect something more complicated. Just remember that during the late-season anything green is gold."

Hynum's late-season hunting strategy revolves around lush green food plots - and for a very good reason. By the time the New Year arrives, several things in the whitetail's world have changed drastically, and fortunately, whitetails are masters at adapting to changes in their environment.

By this time of year, the acorns have either been consumed or gone bad; the freezing wet winter weather has set in; the rut has started tapering off; and fewer hunters are in the woods. Deer respond to these changes by returning to more predictable patterns and becoming less wary.

"The colder weather forces deer to hit the remaining food sources, which consist primarily of food plots," Hynum added. "The does start moving to green fields and the bucks follow. I focus my attention on food plots at least an acre in size because the deer seem to be less spooky in these larger plots."

Hynum also recommends staying in your stand all day long. Rather than the typical early morning and late afternoon movement patterns, deer will begin to move throughout the day. At this time of year, you are just as likely to encounter a big buck on the move in the middle of the day as you are at daylight or dawn.

"Any cold front moving through is a great time to hunt," said Hynum. "The deer have to eat more often to maintain their body condition and temperature. Really cold nights cause the grass to freeze. This causes the deer to feed earlier in the afternoon before the frost sets in and later in the morning after it has had time to thaw out. Under these conditions, your chances of crossing paths with a shooter buck are greatly enhanced."


Attitude Is everything

Maintaining a positive attitude is extremely important when chasing late-season bucks. Having confidence in your abilities and your hunting location will help you stay more focused on the job at hand. This inner confidence makes it much easier for you to keep your head in the game, remain in your stand longer and take advantage of any opportunity a trophy buck might afford you.

Once in your stand, it is time to leave any second-guessing at home. Block out thoughts of what might be happening at your other stands, and focus completely on the stand you have chosen. With very few exceptions, such as sudden weather changes, it is always best to stick to the game plan you formulated the night before. There will be plenty of time for questioning your game plan after the hunt is over and you are headed back to camp.

Every single time you go afield, you should believe that you will encounter a trophy buck. Without a positive attitude, you may just as well have stayed at home. Remaining confident all day long is extremely important.

If you still think that late-season deer hunting consists of long hours on a cold stand seeing nothing but trees and squirrels, then you need to give it another try. While it can definitely be frustrating at times, hunting this time of year can also yield great rewards for the hunter who is both patient and persistent.

One thing is for certain, the only way to find out how good late-season deer hunting in Mississippi can be is by giving it a try yourself.