Score on Late-Season WhitetailsDecember 2, 2013 - Dana R. Rogers
My heart raced, and I definitely needed the surge of adrenaline. The temperatures were in the teens, and I continued to flex and move my fingers to regulate my blood flow. I watched the buck as he moved along a faint trail through the tall prairie grass. He’d spent the night in distant alfalfa and harvested grain fields and was now returning to his bedding area as dawn broke the eastern horizon. Luckily for me, I’d planted a few acres of corn bordering this edge of scrub elm trees and a nearby cattail slough.
The buck continued on slowly, pausing periodically to nibble on a few kernels of corn. He was the first deer I’d seen that morning, and fate brought him on a path just 20 yards upwind from my ladder stand. The post-rut had his mind on the golden ears of standing corn, forgetting about any does in the area. All he wanted to do was fill his belly and get to the thick bedding cover 75 yards beyond my waiting figure. Such is the mind and pattern of whitetails in their northern range during frigid December.
He paused just after exiting the last row of standing corn, and I slipped an arrow from my Hoyt Maxxis behind his right shoulder. In less than a minute, my largest archery buck came to rest 35 yards away atop the frost-covered leaves and brome grass. That late-season hunt was the culmination of a lot of work, scouting, and preparation.
The Season’s Twilight
The rut is over, and bucks are back in survival mode. They seek only food, security cover, and rest. Recuperating from the rigors of the rut and replenishing fat reserves for the long, cold winter ahead is the priority. After the firearms seasons have closed and snowflakes begin to fly, most bowhunters have long since hung up their bows, migrating to a couch in their warm living room to watch football. If you still have an unfilled tag, get off the couch.
Sure, there are challenges with late-season bowhunting. You must be prepared to sit for hours in wet, windy, cold conditions, and it can be miserable. The local whitetails have been pressured and hunted since the first day of archery season through the end of the firearms season. Many deer have been killed, and the ones who weren’t are most certainly skittish after being hunted for two or three months.
In spite of all that, with the right conditions and some scouting, the late season can be the very best chance a bowhunter will have each year to cash in on a big whitetail. It certainly isn’t easy to kill a big buck during the late season. Through lots of trial and error, I’ve found you need to scout out the remaining food sources that haven’t received too much hunting pressure. Once those are located and the wind is right, you’ll need to assess the terrain and pick out killer access routes to and from your treestand. Do that, and you might just be able to tap into the best whitetail hunting of the year.
Weather, Travel Patterns, and Scouting
Changes in weather—especially a big pressure drop with forecasted snow—will bring bucks to their feet during daylight. Watch for cold fronts, and you’ll see an uptick in movement and action. The first big cold front of winter is a magical time to be in a stand or ground blind for a bowhunter who has scouted and prepared for such an occasion. Over a period of time, though, the deer will adjust, and you’ll see their daytime movement taper off. In that case, the inverse correlation to cold weather will apply. When it’s cold for a long time and a warm front moves through, that also gets deer on their feet and triggers daylight movement. Watch the Weather Channel and make sure to be on stand the day the front first moves through, as well as the next couple of evenings that follow.
Depending on the number of deer in your area, cold fronts and snow can unleash storms of deer activity. This is something I’ve seen fairly regularly in areas of the North where deer migrate and yard up on wintering grounds. By keeping a close eye on weather patterns and being willing to brave the elements, you’ll increase your odds of seeing deer.
If you are hunting private land, I suggest hanging stands well in advance of the late season. Moving and hanging stands in freezing conditions can be an accident waiting to happen. If you’re hunting pressured land or public property, you’ll need to be discreet and highly in-tune with deer movement patterns. Set your stands or ground blinds to intercept pinch points off the downwind side of trails leading to food sources. Wait for an approaching front, then slip in and hunt it.
As the season gets later and colder, I continue to scout with my trail cameras. They often reveal increased activity between 1 and 2 p.m. once the temperature starts declining. My cameras have pressure and temperature readings to help me formulate a plan based on patterns. I particularly like a crisp, overcast afternoon hunt to catch late-season deer on the move. Wherever you spend your days in the late season, you are much more likely to find groups of deer in and around thick stands of security cover.
Finding Security Cover
Late-season deer need rest, and in their northern range, that often means thick stands of thermal cover. If you own land, lease land, or hunt unpressured areas, you are well ahead of the game here. If not, you will have a hard time controlling this aspect of late-season hunting. Deer will go where the pressure isn’t—if you have any control over pressure, keep it to a minimum.
You may need to cover a lot of ground at this time and find multiple areas to scout in order to give yourself the best chance of finding daylight feeding activity. I rely heavily on my trail cameras, and I also do a lot of long-range spotting and glassing with binoculars and spotting scopes.
If you hunt public land, you’ll have to outwork your competition by hunting smarter. Fortunately, many hunters just don’t want to deal with late-season hunting, the weather, and the skittish animals that come with it. Look for and map out the thickest, nastiest, hardest-to-reach areas. Once you find those, hone in on nearby food sources as likely destinations from which to plot an ambush. I like to look for dense woodlots, dried-up cattail sloughs, and stands of thick native grasses such as switch grass, bluestem, and Indian grass. Stands of dense cedars, young pines, and oak cutovers also provide shelter from wind and predators, as well as browse. Those types of habitats are all favorite hangouts for late-season whitetails.
Deer are looking for security in thick cover. That doesn’t mean a buck will totally abandon his normal range, but he will likely migrate to the thickest parts of it. I also firmly believe that the size of a given patch of cover isn’t nearly as important as the quality of the cover. This time of year, those small, overlooked pieces of property can easily be inhabited by a buck seeking sanctuary from hunting pressure.
Such small islands of cover might be located a few hundred feet from a house, farm buildings, or even a residential area. Don’t make the mistake of avoiding these hidden gems just because the setup might be within sight of someone’s home. In spite of how small an area might be, it pays to check it out if it provides dense cover and food. You might be surprised at the quality of deer that are holing up there.
There are lots of places that could meet a late-season buck’s security needs. Look where most hunters don’t even bother to search. Keep on the lookout for abandoned farmsteads, solitary blow downs, or remote clear cuts. Deer will find the best hiding spots they can to winter in. Find those isolated and unpressured areas and then look for likely food sources nearby.
Slaves to Their Stomachs
In the agricultural country I prefer to hunt, I scout out cut soybean and corn fields where whitetails target waste grains. Alfalfa and winter wheat are also great options. If you are in a big-woods area with little or no agriculture, look for an oak ridge with acorns or a clear cut and set up there. Deer will paw and gnaw through snow to uncover precious calories.
If you are a hunter who had the foresight to plant fall food plots with late-season groceries—brassicas, soybeans, or corn—then you’re going to have a great chance at success. Bowhunters who gave up a few weekends of fishing or camping and put the effort into fall plots are likely to be the guys who will have the best chance to kill a brute during the late season. By putting in that effort, they are ensuring that they’ll have food to hunt over from late November through early December—perhaps the only food for miles. If you haven’t planted late-season food sources before, consider doing so in the future.
I like to hang stands between standing grain or natural browsing areas and the nearest bedding cover. Deer are wary and extremely sensitive to pressure now. They will take the most direct route between those two primary destinations. If you have a food plot adjacent to thick cover, set up and leave the area alone until the time is right. Finding deer can be fairly easy if you can locate the remaining food sources in your area. During the rut, whitetail bucks can lose up to 20 percent of their body mass. This can make their feeding patterns quite predictable. If you are serious about improving your late-season success rates, planting and hunting near attractive high-carb food sources is your best bet. In the North, my food plots typically consist of a fairly even mix of brassicas, soybeans, and corn. In the South, it’s tough to beat a late-summer planting of oats and winter rye.
If you don’t own or lease land but have permission to hunt on farmland, consider buying a few acres of standing corn or soybeans and ask your farmer friend to leave them for the late season. If that’s not within your budget, think about creating a small plot with hand tools and the landowner’s consent. If you explain the reasoning, many landowners will grant permission to create a small plot. It’s relatively simple to put in a great little plot of turnips, radishes, or even a mix. The results will surprise you. Deer love brassicas. They are easy to grow, and if you plant them in mid-July in northern climates, the bulbs will be baseball or softball sized by the end of the growing season. The deer I’ve introduced to these plantings absolutely go nuts over them during the late season.
With some effort, the right gear, and a good spot to bowhunt, you may just waylay your biggest buck to date just as I did. Be optimistic through the challenges the late season brings and, most of all, hunt hard and smart.