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This middle part of the annual deer season is often a slow one from a harvest standpoint, but hunters should know that the whitetail rut is still in full swing but will begin to wane in the next week or two. If you want to increase your odds for seeing a big buck this season, get out there this week and next. After that the deer population will be a) smaller and b) more reclusive as winter’s cold and snow approach.
Now that the leaves are down and the woods are gray and somber, the odds of seeing deer in open fields and meadows during the day are slim at best. There may be a few whitetails spotted in distant field corners at dawn or dusk, but for the most part they will keep to the thickets and swamps and only come out when it’s well past legal shooting time.
The hunter’s strategy for this middle part of the season is to spend more time in the woods and to spend it in the thickest cover he can find. I am partial to clear-cuts that are tangled and overgrown with young saplings (because the deer love the escape options) and the vast evergreen swamps that deer use for travel and feeding at all hours of the day.
Truth be known, I have shot the majority of my 100-plus whitetails (I hunt a lot!) in the swamps, even though a “long” shot in those places can be no more than 30 yards. I like the dark, overhead canopy, the stillness and the quiet of moss underfoot; I suspect the deer do as well because the number of beds, trails and tracks I find in there is astounding.
Perhaps one of the least-known facts about swamp hunting is that the deer go in there to feed on old man’s beard, a soft, hanging moss that is gray-green in color and grows in clumps on dead and dying softwoods. If you can find a big, dead spruce or fir that is covered with this moss, pick a stand nearby and be there at dawn and dusk. If the tree is down on the forest floor, get ready because deer will find it and feed heavily on the stuff all night long. It is interesting to find one of these trees during the open season because it’s amazing to see what lengths the deer will go to devour that tasty (?) moss. The tree’s dead branches will be broken off and trampled in to the forest floor, and the moss will be cleaned up as if someone had vacuumed it off the limbs. You won’t get more than a day or two of hunting from such a fallen tree because the deer will have browsed it clean in short order, but when you do happen upon such a food source, plan to hunt it immediately and especially that afternoon and next morning.
It’s not often easy to determine where to hunt a swamp because most such areas are vast, monotonous and so full of sign (tracks, trails and beds) that one place looks as good as another. For lack of a better option, I’d recommend hunting the very edge of a swamp, picking a stand on the lower slope of high ground where the hardwoods meet the evergreens. Stand in a place where you can see 30 yards or so into the swamp and an equal distance up on the high ground, and work the wind so that it is blowing away from the swamp and up over the hardwood stand. In most cases the deer will be bedded in the swamp or traveling through it, so they are less likely to smell you if your scent is drifting away from them.
The key here is to be on stand before daylight and don’t quit till one-half hour after sunset. Late-season deer don’t move around much, and when they do it’s furtively and slowly during those dusky periods of low light. Most will use the swamp-edge corridor for traveling to and from bedding areas and browsing areas, but they seem to put great faith in the swamp’s somber mood, trusting that they won’t be seen or surprised by anything with teeth, fangs or rifles! All of the swamp deer I’ve shot were moving slowly or standing still, and none of them ever knew I was there. For some reason the windless quiet of the swamp soothes their anxieties, putting them at ease as they meander along well-worn trails.
Some of the swampland deer I’ve tagged were close enough to touch (one buck was so close I just had to poke my rifle into his ribs and pull the trigger!). It’s no great feat to make a clean, killing shot on a deer at 25 or 30 yards, but those are the high-odds opportunities I like. You can have your 250-yard power line or pasture shots because the odds are great that something will go wrong. I have not missed a swamp buck in 45 years and never had to fire a second shot at one. I like to know that any deer I see in the cedars is close enough to shoot and that it’s not going to go far after the shot.
There are a few drawbacks to hunting the evergreen lowlands in November. As I said, you won’t be able to see a country mile there, and after a few hours you may find yourself bored to tears with the few trees, stumps and downfalls you can see. Also, it’s going to be cold in there – cold as a tomb, actually. With no wind, little sun and the low elevation you can feel the pool of cold, still air around you all day long. Simply prepare for it!
Dress warmly, bring plenty of water (or make tea if you have to) and plan on staying put till “dark.” Of course, swamp hunters are usually the first ones out of the woods because it is so dark in there – you’ll lose maybe 15 minutes of legal shooting time only because you can’t see anything in there anymore! At this point, simply move into the open woods a few yards so you can take advantage of the last minutes of shooting light.
Hunt where you will for the rest of the season, but remember the rule: No quitting! Hunt when it’s cold, windy, rainy or snowing and utilize every available hour. Soon the season will end and you will regret passing up a chance to go if December comes and you’re still eating bowls of cold oatmeal instead of lean, red venison!
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