Late-Season SimplicityDecember 20, 2012 - Steve Bartylla
There’s really not much to hunting after the rut. It all boils down to two things: staying warm and finding the hottest food sources.
I have a lot of fond memories of hunting late in the season. One time, after just hanging my stand, I spotted deer running through the snow to the soybeans. Looking behind, I tried to determine what was chasing them. It only took a few moments to realize that they were just hungry. Later on, I was treated with a 150-inch 10-point—only 15 yards away, gobbling beans.
Another time, I was hunting from a tall white pine that overlooked a 3-year-old clear-cut regrowth. I could look down into almost the entire 10-acre offering of tender woody browse. It was amazing. I’d never seen so many deer in a big woods setting in my life. The fact that it was heavily hunted public lands made it even more unbelievable. Before drawing on an old 9-point, I’d counted more than 40 deer browsing in the deep snow.
And last season, after threading the last stalks of corn into my freshly set blind, I slipped into my Heater Body Suit. A full three hours before dark, deer were already pouring into the cornfield—a promising sign for a fantastic sit.
Sure enough, before the sun even began to set, a huge-bodied 8-pointer joined the still-growing school of feeding deer. Ranging him at 52 yards, I came to full draw and waited for him to bury his nose in the snow. Placing the pin on his heart, my Mathews sent the Titanium Rage tipped arrow to its mark. A short, incredibly easy blood trail later, and I’d beaten the Minnesota elements and was rewarded with another great late-season buck.
As these three examples show, for as much as one may try to complicate late-season hunting, it really all boils down to staying warm and finding what the deer are feeding on.
Layering For Warmth
It all begins with staying warm. Make no mistake about it: Staying warm and comfortable, while still being able to effectively shoot, can be a major challenge later in the season. It may not be an exciting topic, but its importance can’t be overstated. Simply put: If your mind is focused on how miserable you are, or if the bulky clothing throw off your shot, you may as well go home. Both are one-way tickets to a bad ending.
The traditional method of beating the cold is layering. The approach begins with a thin base layer that wicks moisture away from the body. This is critical, because the walk in to your ambush often overheats the body, causing the hunter to sweat.
Next, one wants a heat-trapping layer. Although many options are available, wool is a very good choice. Because of its many insulating air pockets, this old reliable is still as good as it gets for layering.
At this point, one can go one of two ways—either wear an outer layer with wind-stopping properties or use a technique I used to rely on. A cheap, thin windbreaker can make the world of difference in staying warm. Furthermore, it allows the hunter to go with a soft, thin outer layer. Unfortunately, despite the advances in cold-weather gear, the best outer layers are still thick and bulky (and, unfortunately, often noisy).
A simple windbreaker allows the hunter to skip the traditional outer layer. It can also be removed easily, if the hunter finds he or she is overdressed.
Of course, feet also require special attention. Thin, moisture-wicking socks, covered by thick wool socks, are tough to beat. Partnered with a good pair of insulated boots, the hunter is set. Just remember to buy the boots a half to a full size bigger than normal, because thick wool socks add to the size of your foot.
For brutally cold temperatures, I also recommend a pair of boot Blankets. Remember that temperature ratings for boots refer to when the person is active. Boots that are rated for 30 degrees below zero when walking can numb toes surprisingly fast at 10 degrees if the hunter is sitting in a stand.
Both head covering and gloves are also important. For the head, I’ve found the best results by wearing a scarf and a bomber-type cap that covers one’s ears.
For gloves, I like the mittens that have a flip top, allowing one to use their fingers. Because they trap air and allow the entire hand to share its collective heat, mittens work better than gloves. Also, as you will soon read, they take better advantage of chemical heat packs.
Personally, I hate shooting with a thick glove on my release hand, so I wear a flip-top mitten on my bow hand and a very thin glove on my release hand. This is certainly doable when used in conjunction with a hand muff.
If you insist on two thick gloves and use a strap-style release, cut a V into the wrist where the release head sits. This allows the strap to go under the gloves and removes the release torque that thick gloves can produce.
All this should then be topped off with the liberal use of chemical heating packs. At a minimum, they should go into each boot and in the palm of the gloves. I’ve found that placing one in each jacket pocket also does wonders.
Finally, it can’t be stressed enough that this method requires one to practice shooting with all these layers before hitting the woods. No matter how effective these layers in keeping the cold at bay, they create bulk and run a high risk of altering the shooter’s form. The time to realize that the jacket snags the string or that the bulk throws the arrow 4 inches to the left is before shooting at that late-season buck.
Finding the Food
Next is finding what the deer are feeding on. In farm country, grain crops are tough to beat. They are also relatively easy to find. The biggest trick is finding sources that deer are actively feeding on and gaining permission to hunt them. Obtaining permission is an issue by itself, so let’s focus on what differentiates those sources that support feeding activity from those that don’t.
More often than not, location and ease of feeding will combine to determine how much deer feeding occurs. For starters, it doesn’t matter how prime the food source is, if it’s located a long way from a winter
bedding area or sits far from protective cover, it will go relatively untouched. Although food location can influence bedding choices in areas that receive significant winters, prime winter bedding locations are even a bigger consideration.
The extreme can be seen in the regions where deer concentrate in traditional “yarding” areas for winter. In these areas, deer will consistently abandon standing grain crops to eat woody browse that surround these traditional yarding spots.
In areas that experience significant winters that are, even so, not severe enough to experience annual yarding, deer will still often go for a slightly less desirable food source located near a prime winter bedding area rather than the best food source in areas only offering marginal bedding options. For example, they may paw through snow for crop waste and bed on the southern side of a ridge instead of feed on standing crops, where only northern-exposure bedding is offered.
Luckily, either an evening invested in observing the field or a quick, low-impact walk of the crop field’s edge will quickly reveal if it’s being used as a primary food source. All one must do is repeat that process until he finds one that is drawing high numbers of deer.
In big woods settings, it becomes a littler trickier. When available, 1-to-5-year-old clear-cut regrowths are often the best options. When not available, meadows and oak groves can produce. Both are past their primes, because the grasses are dead and the best acorns are already gone. Nevertheless, in the absence of better options, they can do a good job of drawing deer.
With the food source determined, the next trick is selecting the right stand location. Each situation is different, but there are several factors that apply to all.
The first is the need to play the wind, which is even more crucial during this time of year, since strong winds can, and will, blow. The perfect setup is one where the wind is blowing back into an area of the woods that the deer aren’t coming from.
Next, one must have an exit strategy from the stand. Hunting food always offers the challenge of getting out undetected. Late-season food sources loaded with deer can be the toughest. Selecting stands with a backdoor exit on the food sources or getting back into the woods a bit is the ticket.
Finally, one needs to be on, or close to, the trail that Mr. Big is using to enter the food source. Luckily, 2 or more feet of snow forces bucks to be very consistent in terms of which trails they use to enter a food source. In this case, blazing their own paths requires them to expend too much needless energy. Since they just lost 20 to 30 percent of their body weight during the rut, that’s energy they don’t have to waste.
Again, locating that trail can be accomplished through investing an evening observing the food source. Another method is placing scouting cameras on promising trails. Finally, one can simply rely on maps, photos and good, old-fashioned knowledge of deer behavior to pull it off.
As complicated as we often try to make hunting, consistent late-season success really comes down to
staying warm, placing our ambushes near prime feeding areas and making the shot. Do these three things, and it can be a great time to take a bruiser buck.
The Power of Maps
A good contour map and aerial photo can do wonders for finding feeding and bedding areas. All one must do is learn how to recognize certain features to accomplish this.
In regions where the temps drop into the teens and lower, deer most often concentrate and bed in groups. When doing so, they look for one of two features in bedding areas.
Areas of dense pine or cedar cover help provide protection from warmth-stealing winds. They also create a ceiling effect that helps trap the body heat produced by deer. While a ceiling of evergreen branches may seem insignificant for its heat-trapping abilities, it can serve to keep the temperatures 2 to 3 degrees higher for a group of bedding deer. With each degree of cold causing deer to burn more energy to survive, those couple of degrees can make the difference between life and death.
The other highly sought-out option is high ground that offers a southern exposure. With hot air rising, the temperatures on the ridge area are higher than in the valley. Along with that, the southern exposure allows the deer to sun themselves during the daylight hours. This combination creates the ideal cold-weather bedding area.
Both types of bedding areas can be found on maps and photos. With a little practice, a trained eye can easily pick out thick stands of evergreens on photos. On the flip side, contour maps clearly reveal the areas of high grounds that offer a southern exposure.
In farm country, late-season food sources are relatively easy to find. Photos really help in locating fields hidden from the roads and more recent clear-cuts in bigger woods settings. However, to find the 1-to-5-year-old clear-cuts, one needs a relatively recent photo.
That’s where Mapping The Outdoors (mappingtheoutdoors.com) products shine. Each year, this website
updates its aerial photographs. The result is that most are less than a year old. This allows one to access the most up-to-date bird’s-eye view of their hunting land.
Mapping The Outdoors also offers a contour overlay on its photos. Not only does this allow one to find those southern-exposure bedding sites, but seeing the topography also helps determine deer travel routes between food and bedding.
During the late season, deer are merely traveling between bedding and feeding, using the most direct route that ease of travel and safety allow. Reading the topography will most often reveal how they travel between the two. When a pinchpoint sets in that path, one has a killer stand location. Maps and photos allow the hunter to find all these things—without having to crash the woods with extra foot scouting. —S.B.
Heater Body Suit
As tried and true as the layer method is for staying warm, I’ve come to rely exclusively on a better method for the past 15 years: The Heater Body Suit really is as good as its manufacturer’s money-back guarantee.
With it, I simply wear the same clothing I would use for a 40-degree hunt. I then add chemical packs to the boots and gloves, as well as wearing the same head and neck gear that was described in the layering section of this article.
The advantages of this approach are seen in overall cost savings, comfort and hunting efficiency. When all the layers are added up, one can either go cheap and get cold or spend more than $500 to truly protect against the elements. Another knock against layering is the difficulty of hitting the perfect balance in layers to avoiding sweating and still being warm during hours of inactivity. Finally, there are the shooting form issues layers create.
The Heater Body Suit addresses all these issues. The goal is to dress lightly enough to be a little chilly while walking in and then slip into the suit when on stand. This easily accomplished feat cuts down on the odor issues, keeps one warm on stand and provides unaffected shooting. For late-season stand and blind hunters, it truly is one of the very best products to come out in the last 20 years.
A couple of tricks I’ve learned from years of use make an already great product even better. The first is to invest in a good bow holder. With that, one can position the bow right where it’s needed, reducing extra movement.
Next, when unzipping, apply slight pressure out while zipping down. That makes an already quiet zipper action quieter still.
Finally, use the zipper to control the comfort factor. The Heater Body Suit works on a “cocoon premise”: trapping the body’s own heat to maintain comfort in even the most brutal conditions. I routinely use the suit in temperatures as high as 40 degrees. When doing so, I simply zip the suit down far enough to allow more heat to escape. As the temperatures drop with the sun, I merely zip up to the point of comfort. It really is that easy and effective. —S.B.