Late Season Low Impact Hunting

Whitetails 365 December-Late Season Low Impact Hunting (A version of this article is printed in the December 2015 issue of Iowa Sportsman Magazine)

My son Forest hadn’t hunted my farm in 2 years.  The last time he hunted was on a late muzzleloader hunt that lasted only 3 days because of our decision to abandon the hunt and work on habitat management efforts.  That was in 2012, the year I bought my current farm in Iowa.  The farm needed a lot of work and after only a short time hunting we both made the conscience decision to abandon the hunt and fire up the chain saws…a move most people would call absurd.  I guess it was a little absurd but we also knew that the prospect of having a good hunt without a good food source wasn’t the greatest.  We had no food.  The drought in southern Iowa in 2012 burned every plant we tried to grow.  For the first time in my life I saw green leaves dried and shriveled falling from the trees in September.  By firing up the chain saws in an effort to improve our farm we were hedging our bets that by sacrificing our hunt we would see greater returns in the future.

In 2012, we made the decision to end our hunt early to focus on our habitat.  Here, Forest is hinge cutting one of many hickory trees on the farm.

In 2012, we made the decision to end our hunt early to focus on our habitat. Here, Forest is hinge cutting one of many hickory trees on the farm.

In many ways, Forest’s 2014 late muzzleloader hunt started in 2012 when we made that decision in late December.  When you are in a never ending process of improving the habitat on your hunting grounds, and you have limited time, well, you do what you have to do.  To have great December hunting you really need two things.  One—exceptional habitat allowing deer to have a secure place to bed and get out of the elements of winter.  Two—some really good food sources to bring them out in the open and to draw deer onto your farm.  With a new farm (and hopefully no more droughts) providing exceptional food sources would be the easier of the two.  Creating exceptional habitat required us to spend the time we did have in 2012 cutting down box elder, hickory, and other trees to open up the timber promoting vigorous regrowth.  It was a huge sacrifice we made that year but we both knew it was an investment in our future that had to be made then.

Late Season Food-If you’ve been following along this year, by now you know that my favorite food source for whitetail is the soybean.  I love soybeans because they provide a good and preferred food source from the moment they germinate in spring until the last bean is consumed in the winter.  Once fall approaches, as the days get shorter and the nights colder, soybeans start to take over in attractiveness.  By December, there isn’t a single food source I would prefer hunting over than a stand of soybeans.  Standing corn might be a close second, but soybeans are my favorite.  I’m not saying that you must have standing corn or soybeans to hunt over to make a December hunt successful…but this is Whitetails 365!  If you don’t have these standing grain crops to hunt, or ever have, you don’t know what you are missing.  Standing grain crops will simply outperform any other food source in terms of attractiveness this time of year.  As snow starts to fall and temps dip into single digits on a regular basis having these crops to hunt can be very exciting.  If you don’t have them, and your neighbors do, hunting becomes a mind game of regrets.

If, because your hunting grounds are too small or don’t have enough open ground…or simply because you have too many deer and grain crops can’t make it to maturity, you have some limited options for a late season food source.  If you didn’t or couldn’t plant grains this year, hopefully you planted blends containing brassicas for bulb production and of course winter rye.  If there are limited options for deer in the area, deer can still be attracted with a good stand of brassicas or winter rye.

The point is, late season hunting is exciting and can be very successful if you have planned for and have good food sources available.  December in the whitetail world is all about eating and building up fat reserves for a winter that is coming.  Breeding age class bucks will often time let down their guards in exchange for the ability to take in more calories.  I’ve seen mature, hard to hunt, reclusive bucks up on their feet eating in the open on good food sources well before dark in December…not just once or twice but regularly.  This can literally be a choice between life and death for these deer.  These bucks are so run down from the rut their only option to build back body weight and fat reserves is to let down their guard and feed heavily.  If you can plan for this and provide standing grain crops your hunting can be exceptional this time of year!

Passive Hunting-If you have preferred food sources; there is no need to get aggressive during the late season.  Let the deer come to you.  Put away the calls, scents, and decoys.  Sit back, as far back as you can, and let the deer do their thing.  For gun hunters, I usually switch entirely from tree stands to ground blinds or enclosed type tripod stands as far back off food as I am comfortable with.  If I am comfortable taking a 150 yard shot, I’ll plan for this shot and back off the food source.  By backing off I’m allowed a little more movement, a little more noise, and it’s easier to get in and out without bumping deer.  It is really important this time of year to use pre-planned entrance and exit routes from your sets.  You need to have a plan for getting out if at the end of an evening hunt there are deer on your food source.  Have someone drive in and bump them with a vehicle is a good choice.  I once set an alarm clock to go off at quitting time to scare the deer off.  I placed it a 100 yards or so from me so that the deer would spook from it and not me.  It didn’t actually work the greatest but better than nothing.  The best method would be to set your blind or stand far enough away that you can sneak out at quitting time.  If you can, have a barrier of trees or use the slope of the land to conceal your exit.  Deer are very sensitive to hunting pressure this time of year…don’t get busted on stand!

Sleep In-If I have a great late season food source to hunt in December, I usually won’t even bother hunting mornings.  Or, if I’m hunting mornings, I’ll hunt in an area that I’m confident won’t put pressure on deer in their bedding areas near my food sources.  Bumping deer on a morning hunt can actually spoil what would have been a good evening hunt over food.  If you have limited time or just want to hunt every minute you can, make sure to pick spots that you can get to in the morning without putting pressure on deer.  A good tactic I have used is to go out just as it is getting light on an exterior food source.  I can sneak in to the spot and glass with my binoculars from a distance to make sure there aren’t any deer in the food plot.  If it’s empty, I’ll get into the blind and hunt the morning on that plot.  A lot of times the deer will take in one last small meal before heading back to bed for the day making it easy for you to get out late morning.  Food plot hunting in the morning might not be the best place to sit, but if it keeps you from bumping deer in the timber while still offering you the chance to hunt—problem solved!

Scouting-I’m about as far from being a gadget guy as you can be.  However, there is one tool I won’t shy away from in the late season…the scouting camera.  Most hunters, me included, don’t have the ability to sit and glass from a distance to scout and pattern bucks.  I will let my game cameras do the work for me on plot cam mode.  Most of my cameras have a plot scan mode that allows me to take pictures at pre-determined intervals on my food plots.  I’ll set them up to watch the last two hours of each day taking pictures every 5 minutes or so.  I can then come back, swap cards, and see what came out, when, from what direction, etc.  This isn’t as good as glassing in person, but it gets the job done.  I can use the data to plan out my hunts, exit and entrance strategies, what wind to hunt, etc.

Using game cameras set on plot cam feature is a great way to scout late season bucks.  The pictures aren't always the best or easy to see...but if you look close you can see "Captain Jack" in this picture.

Using game cameras set on plot cam feature is a great way to scout late season bucks. The pictures aren’t always the best or easy to see…but if you look close you can see “Captain Jack” in this picture.

Having Options-It was December 26th, 2014.  My family had celebrated Christmas the day before and then we headed off to the cabin to settle in for a highly anticipated late muzzleloader hunt.  The whole family was in camp.  My nephew was even along to enjoy some hunting with his cousin.  By the time we got out the first night it was already getting late.  We had two standing bean fields to hunt as options, both with multiple ground blinds to hunt depending on wind direction.  Tonight, we had a NE wind and that left us with only one option…a homemade wooden ground blind to the south of one bean field but back off far enough a NE wind wouldn’t hurt us.  This was the blind set up for a wind coming out of the north.  I had a scouting camera on plot cam watching the plot since December 5th.  We pulled the card and reviewed the pictures while in the blind.  On December 20th, a great buck we had named “Captain Jack” started showing up every day on the beans entering the field from the northeast.  I looked at Forest and said, “In about an hour you’re gonna have to decide if this is the buck you want”.  Ninety minutes later, Forest was standing beside his biggest buck; ending what I would call a hunt that started two years earlier.

Forest with his biggest and oldest buck to date.

Forest with his biggest and oldest buck to date.

Whitetail 365 in 2016-2015 was all about habitat improvements on your hunting grounds.  I spend so much time on habitat because dollar for dollar nothing comes close to improving your hunting than time and resources spent on your habitat.  In 2016, I will cover more habitat material but on an advanced level in many cases.  I will also get into some of my favorite stand sets for archers.  I will introduce to you a concept I call landscape manipulation…a tactic that forces or manipulates deer to move in ways we want them to.   Later in the fall, as hunting season approaches, I want to spend some time on making your shot count when you finally get the chance.  2016 will once again be dedicated to the hunter with limited time and resources…the weekend hunter!

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