I enjoy pursuing whitetails during the comfortable days of autumn, when a cloak of golden leaves dangles overhead and daytime temperatures seldom dip below the zero mark. But, oddly enough, I also look forward to the late season, when icebox temperatures push downward from northern Canada and even the geese have departed for warmer climes.
In most Midwestern states, when the last rifle or shotgun season ends, hunting pressure drops off quicker than the 2008 stock market. Combine that with cold weather and a shortage of food, and the deer become more predictable. That's when the odds start stacking in our favor.
If you can come to grips with the foul weather, frigid temperatures and a spooky deer herd, you'll stand a good chance of shooting a trophy buck during the late season. Following are a few tips that will help you prepare for the inevitable.
By the time the late season arrives, the deer have seen hunters invading their space for two or three months. As a result, they're downright skittish and most have altered their behavior to minimize their susceptibility to encounters of the human kind. For the most part, late-season deer are nocturnal creatures, spending the daylight hours in thick security cover and feed under the cover of darkness.
It might take a week or more, but eventually the effects of minimal hunting pressure bring the deer out of their hiding spots. Some bucks will resort back to similar travel routines and patterns they used before the season began. The funnels, rub lines and travel corridors you hunted during the pre-rut and rut once again show signs of renewed activity.
FIND FOOD, FIND DEER
When the mercury drops like a rock, deer go into survival mode in preparation for a decrease in metabolism and the grips of Ol' Man Winter. Combine two months of chasing and breeding with the strain of dodging countless hunters, and the deer are understandably worn down. By the time the late season arrives, deer need to regenerate their spent fat reserves. That means refueling with large amounts of food, even at the expense of security by feeding during daylight hours.
Finding deer in the late season isn't that tough if you can find a primary food source. The old saying "find the food, find the deer" couldn't be more true during the late season. In the absence of deep snow, deer will find fields with adequate free grain left from harvest. However, when deep snow and ice prevent them from finding enough food on nearby fields, they'll travel longer distances to find it. If you have the only standing food source within a mile or more, rest assured you'll be pulling deer off the neighboring properties too.
A couple years ago, my wife, Pamela, and I hunted during the late muzzleloader season in Iowa with Andy Timmerman and Travis Paul of A&A Outfitting. A few days before our departure, a blizzard swept across the state and daytime temperatures hadn't climbed much above zero. Upon arriving in Corning, we found two feet of snow on the ground and some roads were completely drifted shut.
Pam hunted all week without seeing a good buck. On New Year's Eve, which was the final day of our hunt, Andy mentioned seeing a big 8-pointer while harvesting a nearby piece of ground. That particular farm hadn't been hunted much and a ton of deer had been bedding in a CRP field during the day. By afternoon, they were making the transition toward 20 acres of standing corn on the neighboring property. If there was ever a piece of ground that begged to be hunted, this was it. That morning, Andy took a ground blind in with a snowmobile and set up within range of the trails coming out of the CRP.
The wind that afternoon was northwesterly at 20 mph and gusting to 40. The temperature hovered at minus-13 degrees, without the wind chill factor.
I dropped Pam off around 3 p.m. and watched while she made her way across the frozen field toward the blind 300 yards away. That might not seem like a long walk to your blind, but the 5-foot drifts on the terraces and frigid temperatures made it tough to say the least. On three occasions she sunk waist-deep into a snow drift, but managed to belly crawl out and continue on. When she was out of sight, I headed back to town to start packing.
I hadn't been gone more than a half hour when my cell phone rang. It was Pam, and the first thing I heard was, "BBD, baby!"
"You're kidding, right?" I said.
"No, I'm not!" Pam said excitedly. "I had just gotten situated in the blind when this 10-pointer came walking out of the CRP field and headed toward the standing corn. I was contemplating whether to shoot when a big 8-point suddenly appeared on the same trail.
"The smaller buck passed by, but when he reached the tracks from the snowmobile, he came to a sudden stop and started acting nervous. The bigger buck caught on to that and started to veer away. Fortunately, he paused just long enough for me to find the vitals in the scope and squeeze off. Instantly, his front legs folded and he started plowing snow.
"He only went maybe 75 yards. It was awesome, and I wish you had been here to see it."
Pam's deer was a classic example of how late-season food sources can be magnets for deer.
WATCH THE BAROMETER
After four decades of hunting whitetails, I've learned enough to know that the weather has a definite effect on when deer feed. Sustained cold forces deer to feed to survive, but when the barometer starts dropping and heavy snow or ice threatens to cover their primary food source, their internal "need-to-feed" mechanism kicks into overdrive.
Past experience has proven that deer feed heavily as a storm approaches and the barometric pressure drops and again shortly after it moves through and the pressure begins to rise again. Being on-stand two hours before and after a storm moves through can pay off big time. This happened to be the case for my friend, Andy, on the last evening of the 2010 season.
Andy had been hunting a soybean field most the week but hadn't laid eyes on the buck he was after. A storm front was expected to move in before nightfall, so he headed to the stand a bit early. Not long after arriving, a few deer began filtering into the field. It started snowing shortly after, and the deer just kept coming. In the final minutes of shooting light the big 10-pointer stepped into the field. He never knew what hit him.
THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX
Hunting with a muzzleloader is tough enough, but getting close with a bow presents even greater challenges. One of the biggest challenges is finding a tree within range that has enough cover to conceal your movements. In some cases, there aren't even any trees to pick from. In such cases, the solution might be as simple as setting up a ground blind. Other situations might require a little more creativity. This was the case for my friend, Dan Nordstrom, last year when he arrowed a big 12-pointer.
Dan had seen the buck feeding with several others in late December in one of his food plots. From a distance, he pinpointed where the buck had been entering the field. Unfortunately, there wasn't a tree anywhere close for a stand.
During the summer, Dan built a mobile box blind on the chassis of an old grain wagon. In September he moved the blind into position, and placed a popup blind on top for added height.
It wasn't until the day after the Illinois gun season closed that Dan climbed into the blind for the first time. An hour later, three bucks skirted the field edge and eventually made their way toward the soybeans. After that, deer filtered into the field nearly nonstop. At one time he counted 13 does and 7 bucks.
With only minutes of shooting light remaining, the big 12-pointer suddenly appeared along the field edge. As he stood watching the other deer, Dan drew his Hoyt bow, settled the 40-yard pin and touched off the release. The arrow flew true and put the buck down within eyesight.
FIND THE DOES
During the rut, bucks stick tight to their home range until the resident does have been bred. However, that doesn't mean their urge to breed has been completely satisfied. Some expand their search for does in the outlying areas. In fact, they've been known to travel three or four miles all for the sake of one last fling.
In areas where buck-to-doe ratios exceed 1:4, you might see a flurry of post-rut activity when a yearling doe straggles into heat for the first time. One hot doe is all it takes to attract every buck on the property -- along with those from neighboring ground too! That's why I target areas with high doe densities, and it's paid off more than once.
HUNT THE BEDROOM
Most deer leave their nighttime feeding areas and begin the transition toward their daytime beds before first light. It stands to reason that primary food sources offer lower odds on morning hunts versus evenings. The odds of intercepting a buck with a full belly are likely better along the natural funnels, travel corridors and transition routes between his food and bedding area. My favorite and most successful morning site finds me hunting within close proximity of a buck's suspected bedding area. I've taken several mature bucks this way but few more memorable than my 14-pointer three seasons ago.
The temperatures were unusually warm and had put a damper on deer movement. I concentrated on hunting the edges of a cornfield the first two evenings, but I hadn't seen a single deer until after sunset. Both mornings, however, I watched several does and a big buck cross a ridge and head toward a cedar thicket at first light.
The following morning found me hunkered between two cedar trees overlooking the ridge crest where the deer had been crossing. As the sun peaked over the horizon, I could hear hooves crunching through the snow in the distance. Minutes later, a half-dozen does meandered out of the timber and started across the field. Shortly thereafter a mature buck stepped out and pranced toward the does. Within seconds, my .50-caliber Knight muzzleloader sent him crashing to the ground.
DRESS TO KILL
There's nothing "macho" about freezing your buns off. Your success -- or lack thereof -- could hinge on how long you're able to withstand anything Mother Nature throws at you. It isn't a matter of bulking up with heavy clothes either, but rather having the right clothing and dressing in layers. Here's how I go about it:
The first is a base layer of long underwear that wicks away moisture even in the most extreme conditions. Cabela's Polartec Power Dry series or Scent-Lok's Base Slayer system are great examples.
Next is the insulation layer, consisting of synthetic fiber material like Thinsulate or Primaloft. My personal choice is Cabela's Legacy Fleece, which is lightweight, warm, and has a Windshear lining that blocks the wind.
My outer layer is also insulated, but has an outer shell that is both waterproof and windproof like that of Cabela's Dry-Plus Silent Suede series and Scent-Lok's ThunderTek series.
On my feet I wear two pairs of socks -- first a lightweight polyester/wool blend, and then a heavy wool sock with a pouch for disposable heat backs. Combine that with a good pack boot like the LaCrosse Burley, and my feet stay warm for extended periods.
On my hands I wear two pairs of gloves: a lightweight pair and a mitten with a pouch for disposable heat packs. For long sits I use an insulated hand muff around my waist that holds two large heat packs. A wool stocking hat keeps my head and ears warm.
A ground blind is worth its weight in gold for warding off the bitter cold and biting wind. On extremely cold days I use a small heater, like the Portable Buddy by Mr. Heater.
When frigid temperatures settle in and the snowballs start flying, some are perfectly satisfied sitting in the recliner watching the NFL playoffs and eating holiday leftovers. Unfortunately, those falling into that routine will miss an excellent opportunity to shoot a trophy buck. Before you add another unfilled tag to the pile, gear up and give the late season a try.