Late-season bucks are smart and wary, but by changing tactics, you can beat them at their own game.
Randy Pope climbed into his elevated tree stand well before dawn on a recent hunt and prepared for the morning. Pope has hunted big-game animals all over the world and is an expert at finding, hunting and harvesting trophy whitetail bucks.
On this morning he chose a stand overlooking an old logging road along the edge of a hardwood bottom that borders the deer’s bedding area.
“Around 6:30 two shots rang out across the fields, and I knew the deer were on the move,” said Pope. “Those deer feed in the agriculture fields at night and then travel back to a bedding area that is actually a thicket and sanctuary that is almost impenetrable.
“My plan was to catch a mature buck on his way to bed.”
As deer started pouring across the old logging road, Pope turned his attention up a notch while looking for horns. A trophy buck would be across the 50-foot-wide opening and into the safety of the bedding area in the blink of an eye. In such cases a hunter must be honed in to the situation and ready to make a quick judgment call if he hopes to harvest a trophy buck.
“I’d already seen 15 deer come across the old logging road before a big buck tried to cross the opening some 200 yards away,” said Pope. “He was twice the size of the other deer I’d already seen that morning, so I quickly glassed him with my binoculars, and by that time he was already in the middle of the road.
“I got my scope on him and pulled the trigger pretty fast, before he made it to safety.”
The big buck disappeared behind a bush at the roar of the rifle shot. Pope just sat there wondering if he’d made a good shot, while fighting off a case of buck fever. A couple minutes later, a 6-point buck came out right in the same spot.
Pope waited 30 minutes after the shot until he couldn’t stand it anymore and went down to check on the buck. As he approached the spot, Pope spotted the buck laying just a few feet away, and all he could see was a massive body with a wide rack that was sticking up. The 155-class buck was just tremendous and weighed nearly 260 pounds, making the rack look smaller and thinner on film than it really is. The buck was aged at 7 to 8 years old.
“Bucks like this one don’t give us many opportunities, and this one just waited a few minutes too long to get back to his bedding grounds,” said Pope. “A few minutes earlier, and he might have made it through undetected under the cover of darkness.”
Though the wise old buck had surely made the trek from his nighttime feeding grounds to his bedding area undetected many times, he never knew what hit him as Pope caught him with his guard down. Pope made the 225-yard shot with his Weatherby .300 Magnum outfitted with a 50 MM European Zeiss scope.
“Most deer this age usually die of old age, so it is kind of neat to kill an old smart buck like this,” Pope said.
Over the years, Pope has made numerous trips around the country and harvested almost all of the big-game species, but hunting trophy white-tailed bucks has always been his first love and he’s harvested more than his fair share of those as well.
According to Pope, a deer needs bedding, food and sanctuary, and the sanctuary may be his primary bedding area, but it’s something he needs when the hunting season shifts into high gear and hunters invade most of his territory.
“You’ve got to know the food sources and bedding areas as the whitetail bucks are nocturnal most of the time,” said Pope.
Although many areas are different and don’t lend themselves to the same exact situations, Pope always likes to put himself between the deer’s bedding and feeding areas, whether hunting during the early or late seasons.
“If you can find an area close to the buck’s bedding ground during the early morning hours, you stand a good chance of cutting him off before he gets back to the safety of his refuge,” he said. “Hunting during the rut is a little different, but by late season the bucks are going to be looking for food, rest and recuperation.
“But their main driving force after security and self preservation is food. If you remember that food and security are the buck’s main motivations during the late season, then you’ve got an edge on them, but you’ve got to do your homework and find their preferred late-season food sources.
“Once you find that food source, you’ll be ready to formulate your plan and get your stand placement set.”
While Pope prefers hunting close to the buck’s bedding areas for a chance at catching them going to bed a little late, he does just the reverse in the afternoon.
“During the afternoon, I’ll back off of the food plots or fields a good ways and hunt the trails leading to the feeding areas,” he said.
While you can shoot the does and younger bucks on green fields and food plots, the older, wiser bucks will hold back and enter under the cover of darkness, except on rare occasions.
Secondary late-season rut
If the deer in your area undergo a secondary late-season rut, then the dynamics may change in your favor.
“I’ve pulled several does out of thickets with the Primos Bleat Can during the rut,” said Pope. “And more than a few times they had a buck follow them out like they were on an invisible string.”
And simply put, if the bucks are rutting during the late season, then all you have to do is pattern the does and you’ll likely get a shot at that wise old buck.
“Find the does and you’ll find the bucks,” said Pope.
Hunt the unpressured places
During late-season hunts, Pope advises hunters to find the unpressured places on the property that they hunt, if there are any.
“If you’re hunting private land and have control of the area, then you need to leave a couple of places untouched, or unhunted,” he said. “Having a sanctuary may solve the problem of high-pressured bucks.
“Even if you have as little as 300 acres in a block you can still make a 40-acre section your sanctuary, and the bucks will naturally find that spot and utilize it for their benefit.”
Once the bucks find out that they can live undisturbed in an area, they will naturally gravitate to that location when the hunting pressure ramps up.
“Once you create a sanctuary, or find the buck’s sanctuary, you can hunt the choke points or natural crossings pretty easily without disturbing the deer or letting them know you’re there and interrupting their routine,” said Pope.
Just position your stands close enough to be within rifle range, but far enough removed so as to not alert the deer when you come and go. Move in quietly and keep your movement to a minimum to keep your human scent and activity in their area down, and you’re liable to harvest the buck of a lifetime, or maybe even a couple.
Hunt the creek crossings
Pope is always scouting and on the lookout for deer and prime hunting spots wherever he goes no matter what season it is. Even during the summer fishing and canoeing season, Pope’s thinking about hunting deer and finding out where they roam and which areas they utilize the most.
“My daughter Savannah and I were canoeing the Chunky River one August day when I spotted a tremendous deer trail going up the bank,” said Pope. “We made mental notes and matched up the river bend on the map and came back later and found the trail.”
Though it took a lot of work cutting through briar thickets to get to the river crossing originally, the work has been worth it. Pope put up a two-man stand on the river bank overlooking the crossing in the river bend, and the stand has been a success.
“During the rut, you’re liable to see deer crossing the river anytime of the day,” he said. “But during the late season, the deer usually cross from 7:30 to 8:00 in the morning and then at dusk.”
This particular deer crossing is situated on a shallow ledge in a bend of the Chunky River. Pope installed the ladder stand a safe distance away from the crossing that allowed him to access the stand without the deer detecting their presence and far enough that they never even know they’ve been seen.
“To see a big buck coming across the shimmering river is really special,” said Pope.
And to harvest a deer coming across the river is even more special. Dan Duffy came down from Kansas City, Mo., to get a glimpse of our Deep South “Promised Land” and also got to experience true southern hospitality as well. Duffy had come down on a business trip that included checking out the fantastic outdoor opportunities in East Mississippi and was invited on a deer hunting trip by Pope, who had reserved the special river crossing stand for his trip. Though Duffy is an accomplished wing shooter, he’d never had the opportunity to hunt deer or harvest a buck.
Pope joined Duffy, and the two experienced a day that turned out to be a lifetime memory.
“Trophy hunting is not for the faint of heart and not for everybody, but if you’ve got patience there’s a good chance you’ll be rewarded with an opportunity to harvest a nice buck,” said Pope.
Duffy’s stand for the day was the special river crossing stand, and he was treated with a wonderful day in the southern outdoors. The rural landscape scene was a natural paradise complete with a shimmering river, sand bars and wildlife. And to top it off, a nice 8-point buck provided just the right touch of artistry as it crossed the river and white sandbar, making it come alive with excitement.
Duffy centered the crosshairs on the buck at 225 yards, and squeezed off a shot. As the rifle roared, the buck jumped and took off.
“We found the buck lying on the bank of the river a short distance from the shot,” said Pope. “He jumped up and disappeared into the thick swamp bottom, so we gave him a little time before tracking him.”
Upon their return to the area, Pope picked up the blood trail and promptly found the expired buck and the celebration began. Duffy was really excited and celebrated with the traditional blood on the face signifying his first kill. Since Pope and his daughter found the river crossing, several nice bucks have fallen victim to him and his sharpshooting friends.
Change your pattern
By the time the late season rolls around in January, the surviving deer, and old bucks especially, have patterned most hunters, if they have hunted an area regularly.
“If you have an animal that might be smart enough to pattern hunters, then you might want to get out of your pattern and change something,” said Pope.
Most hunters get in a rut of hunting at dawn and dusk when the game is moving the most. As such, one only has to listen to the ATVs going in at dawn and then coming out mid morning and repeating the process during the late-afternoon hunts to know that it’s easy for the deer to pattern hunters.
“If you’re down to your last hunt, or last couple of weeks, you need to try something unconventional, like trying a different approach or time to hunt,” said Pope. “Many big bucks are caught on game cameras going to food plots in the middle of the day during the late season because they know that the hunters are back at camp or at the dinner table.”
Those bucks have eyes, ears and noses, and are keenly adept at avoiding detection. If they make a mistake, they may pay with their lives, so they’re not apt to make many mistakes.
“I’d recommend that hunters hunt the midday hours if they can during late season to catch the bucks off guard,” advised Pope. “By hunting the midday hours, say 10:30 to 1:30, you just might beat that wise old buck at his own game.”
Hunters who hunt exclusively on weekends really pattern themselves to the deer, so if you can hunt during mid week sometimes, you’ll increase the odds even more.
While many people can’t establish sanctuaries for the deer on their property, they can leave a couple of stands vacant with no human activity allowed during the early to mid seasons. Hunters should steer clear of these areas completely, banning all traffic, including vehicular traffic. At some point late in the season, with only a couple of weeks left, you may make your move. By then the deer will have figured out the routines of the hunters and patterned them completely. Hunters should be prepared to move in stealthily and make a move quickly, quietly and come prepared the first time hunting a stand like this. It may provide the only opportunity that you get at the buck of a lifetime, as they’re not apt to make the same mistake twice.
Pope is a father, family man and lifetime outdoorsman who includes his children and others in his hunting opportunities, and he’s now passing on his outdoors’ heritage to his youngest daughter Savannah. It was on a hunt at a similar stand location that she harvested her first trophy buck.
“Last season, I took Savannah to a stand that had little hunting pressure and it wasn’t long before a couple of young bucks appeared,” said Pope. “Then right before dark we spotted a nice buck looking back in our direction.”
With the last rays of sunlight disappearing, Savannah Pope squeezed off a shot like a seasoned hunter and harvested a nice 170-pound 8-point.