Late Season Whitetails (A version of this article appeared in the December 2014 issue of Iowa Sportsman)
You would have to be crazy to be hunting in this I thought. And for a doe? Why on earth would anyone, at least anyone with any amount of sanity be sitting in a tree with 20mph winds and temps below zero? My head was tucked between my arms and knees trying to block the wind. My toes felt frozen. Every minute or so I would sneak a peek of the surroundings and then tuck my head back where it was warmer. I had hunted these conditions before and knew it was a great time to hunt…but this was just dumb. Dumb…not dumb but committed I tried to convince myself? Then another peak and the cold went away as I saw a group of deer moving in front of me. Any does I wondered? No…only bucks. Two, no three bucks together and one good one. They moved to my right side, worked back behind me, and then out to the standing corn field I was hunting. It wasn’t long before they disappeared into the corn and the cold came back. This time it was unbearable. I had enough.
I was hunting late December with archery equipment. I never would have been out there; except my son still had a buck tag and wanted to hunt (I had a doe tag left). It was good hunting, but the cold was more than I could handle. I was getting down a good half hour before quitting time; I would walk slow back to where I was meeting my son at the end of the hunt. Maybe his luck or determination was better than mine!
Late season whitetail hunting is mostly about food sources. Mostly! But just having or finding a preferred food source in the late season doesn’t guarantee you good hunting. On the other hand, not having a good food source to hunt over in December or early January and you are probably wasting your time. Of course there are exceptions and I would be one to never say never. So, in writing an article about late season whitetail hunting I should really get into all the different food sources you can hunt and why they draw deer right? Well, I’m not going to get into food all that much. Instead I want to share with you some things I have noticed over the years that might help any hunter trying to narrow in on a good buck this time of year.
To set the stage for late season hunting, I do want to spend some time reviewing the overall landscape of the deer and their habitat this time of year. By late season, bucks of all age classes are mostly done with the rut. Most adult does have been bread. Some fawns are coming into heat, but the huntable part of the rut is winding down or done for all practical purposes. In most parts, deer have seen a fair amount of hunting pressure for the past 2 months or more. In some cases, deer have been exposed to extreme amounts of hunting pressure. In areas where deer drives are common, deer have been driven from their core ranges. Except under rare circumstances, the fall harvest is completely over. Many Ag fields have been tilled and agricultural food sources of all kinds are running low or are virtually depleted. Doe family groups are grouped up or starting to group up and buck fawns are being displaced by their mothers and can be found bumbling far from home in search of a new, lifelong home range. Bucks of all age classes are forming groups very similar to bachelor groups found in summer months. All deer are mostly congregated around the best, most preferred food sources. These food sources can range from highly preferred ones like standing corn or beans to just natural habitat and woody browse…and everything in between. The days are very short now and temperatures are getting colder. A deer’s metabolism will actually start to slow this time of year making it easier for them to live with less to eat. Each year, by this time, deer are concentrating on two things in their lives…food and security!!!
Preparing for the late season and setting up for a good hunt starts way before December or January. Making sure food is available through natural habitat and food plots is a whole other article. Limiting the pressure on the local deer herd is something we should always strive for and is something we can control—usually! In general then, keying in on areas that deer find secure, adjacent to food sources is important when hunting bucks during the late season. However, there are other details to consider that might help a hunter sitting out on those cold late season days.
My dogs will always, given the chance, bed down in a patch of leaves or on the car hood if they can expose themselves to a nice warm bath of sunlight in the morning or afternoon. This is especially true on cold fall or winter days. The same goes for the local deer herd. Southern facing ridges or slopes are preferred by deer during the late season when picking bedding locations. The warming of the sun has its greatest impact on surfaces that are exposed to it. Even in thick pine or juniper thickets, small openings letting the sun in will render the best bedding spots. And, on the coldest of days with northerly winds a southern facing slope acts as a wind barrier as well. Deer love to bed with their backs to the wind and will even switch bedding locations during the day if the wind changes. Thick and brushy points and ridges that run east and west offer great bedding opportunities for late season deer on the south facing side. These same locations are the first to melt off any snow that accumulates. Snow hides potential food sources on the ground floor. These southern exposure bedding areas don’t have to be big. Deer will take advantage of any terrain feature that gets them out of the wind and allows them to soak up some warming rays of sun. During October and November, this might not be such a big deal but during the later parts of the season deer sometimes congregate around these favored bedding areas.
For hunting purposes, I like when the weather is changing. Especially after prolonged periods of any kind of weather pattern. After a week or so of high pressure, I’ll take a good low pressure front to bring in some precipitation and a wind change. Hunting seems best right during and immediately after the change in weather. Same goes for a stretch of lingering low pressure…give me a sharp high pressure edge with strong northerly winds settling into colder days of brilliant sun and cold temps and the deer will move again. I don’t know why it is, but deer move when the weather is changing. Maybe I have always thought that they get nervous about what is about to come. Not having the latest weather forecast and instinctively they feed so that they can sit out the more inclement weather? Of course, as a deer’s metabolism slows during the late season they can actually stand to sit out some inclement weather…but bring in the bone chilling cold and throw in some snow and they will move. They almost have to. During last year’s walloping cold snap in late December and early January there were deer on their feet even during mid-day feeding in my standing soybeans. All things considered, give me some changing weather, throw in below average temps and even some snow and the deer hunting can get very good.
I don’t think deer reason the way we sometimes want to believe they do. I don’t believe for example that they have the cognitive ability to lay in their beds and think or reason about the best way to travel to a food source so as to not get shot or chased by coyotes. If they had the ability to reason or think the way we do they would be all that more difficult to hunt. Instead, I believe they react to stimulus. And those that react the best or change their habits based on those stimuli are the deer that in general make it to older ages…thus breed more…and those traits get passed on to the next generation. This has been going on for a long time. That is why deer almost seem to have a sixth sense. They can sense pressure in their lives and react in ways that keep them from getting killed. The deer that don’t react correctly or sense certain pressures are the ones that die at a young age or get very lucky. I bring all this up because by the time you get to hunt these deer in December and into January they have had several months’ worth of pressure put on them. In July, riding by a bedded deer with a 4 wheeler might not provoke that deer to do anything…do this on December 20th and it’s over. Walk into a stand of timber in the early archery season and you might get away with it…try this in early January and you could very well clear the whole woods. I’ve seen a barking gray squirrel make a field of deer nervous enough to have every last deer clear off the field a half hour before dusk…in the late season. Car doors slamming, atv traffic, loud talking, are all examples of things you just can’t do. It is never more important to get to and from your stands without bumping or disturbing deer. If you are hunting with a firearm I always suggest backing off as far as your confident distance is to keep pressure low. Using archery equipment, try setting up so that the deer walk past you on the way to a food source; or hunt an edge or some terrain feature that keeps deer from getting all around you. Many times, bucks especially mature ones are the last to make it to a food source…you can’t allow other non-target deer to bust you and clear out before they show up.
Don’t hunt mornings. I know…you have the time you might as well go right? I have just never had an encounter with a good buck this time of year on a morning hunt (except during an open firearm season). But by late December and January during an open season I would consider hunting only evenings if your goal is a good buck.
Low Impact Hunting
We’ve all read about or heard about the second rut or late rut. And while it’s true some does that didn’t get bread in mid-November are now coming back into heat, and some fawns are as well, using rut hunting tactics is not all that smart this time of year. Unless you have hundreds or thousands of acres of land with very little to no hunting pressure using calling or decoys this time of year will probably spoil your efforts. Instead, it is probably better odds to be as least aggressive as you can. Sitting back and hunting food sources or travel routes to food sources is your best bet. I also very rarely enter the timber this time of year choosing instead to hunt edges or food plots that I can get to without walking by any timber at all. If a good buck senses your presence he is likely to respond to the stimulus by moving less or after dark. This is just like early October hunting in that you are trying to put a feeding pattern together recognizing that the deer are much more agitated if they are disturbed. A mature buck this time of year may only come out during daylight hours once or twice, hunting low impact but putting your time in can pay off.
Sticking it Out
As I walked back to meet my son that cold December evening and turned the last corner to where I was meeting him, I saw he was already there himself. Good, I thought. I wasn’t the only one that couldn’t sit in this cold. Only his story was a little different. He was sitting alongside a narrow strip of standing corn. In front of him and up wind was the corn and farther away still was a southern exposed slope loaded up with deer. The slope occupied about 40 acres and had seen no hunting pressure for the past month. His stand was actually on the edge of a piece of timber void of deer because of hunting pressure it endured during the gun seasons only a few weeks ago. An hour before quitting time and deer came pouring out of that southerly facing cover to feed in the standing corn. With frozen fingers he was able to make a perfect shot on a very good buck. It seems as though at least for that night, it all came together!