December 15, 2023
When you think of deep snow, cold temperatures and the wind blowing in your face, what comes to mind? For most people, I’d venture to guess a nice night inside with your feet up next to the fireplace by the Christmas tree is what is first to mind. But not for deer hunters — unless of course you’ve already got your tags filled by the late season.
For most of us though, those conditions trigger the thoughts of big mature bucks. In fact, almost half of the bucks I’ve shot have come in the month of December. And in almost every case there’s been heavy snow involved, along with brutal temperatures. Living in northern Minnesota and spending a lot of my late seasons hunting Minnesota and North Dakota, I’ve encountered about every nasty condition possible while hunting the month of December and even into January.
And those nasty conditions have provided me with some of the best deer hunting I’ve experienced. To pull it off though, you’ve got to know not only how the deer will be affected, but also how you’ll need prepare to stay out in the elements.
FOOD COMES FIRST
It gets talked about ad nauseam, but it’s for a good reason. When we get into December in the north country, heavy snowfall is accompanied by the changing of season. And in many cases, snow is the most important thing you can locate to kill a mature buck. Depending on where you hunt, food sources can look different. For me, they vary as well. In my home state of Minnesota, I hunt mainly suburban neighborhoods, so there are no ag fields to speak of. The main food source in many of my hunting locations is buckthorn. It’s a nasty invasive species that most people don’t like, but deer hammer the little berries that buckthorn produces late in the season.
But when I head out to North Dakota, agriculture is what I’m looking for. Food during this time of year can be scarce at best. When you do find a good food source though, deer can be herded up like you wouldn’t believe. To drive home this point, I want to go over two different stories from bucks I’ve killed in December in North Dakota.
The first hunt occurred in 2016. I was hunting North Dakota, and when I hunt late season, I usually take the first day of the trip to drive around looking for “herds” of deer to figure out what they’re feeding on. In 2016 it was particularly tough because we had a ton of snow on the ground. Most picked corn fields were covered in deep enough snow that it was tough for deer to get deep enough to find kernels of corn.
As I was driving around, I located a standing corn field on a piece of non-posted private (meaning that it was a huntable piece of ground by state law at that time). Additionally, there were two very small woodlots on this property, one on the southeast corner and the other on the northwest corner, with the standing cornfield in the middle. Immediately I figured this plot of land had to have every deer in the area on it. I quickly scouted the farm and found a couple major trails leading into the corn. So I setup a ground blind and my scouting day instantly turned into a hunting day.
Now when I say if you find the right food source, with the right late season conditions that you could stumble into a lot of deer, I’m not making it up. As temps plummeted in the blind, pushing into -40 degrees Fahrenheit range, deer started piling into the cornfield. At one point I lost count around 70 deer. As I was counting deer, I heard something to my right. I glanced and there was a lone buck standing at 20 yards. He was a big mature 9-pointer. As I turned to get a shot, he knew something wasn’t right and bounded to 30 yards. He stopped and looked back at me, and I sent an arrow through him. It was absolutely the perfect storm, but when you have heavy snow combined with brutally cold temperatures, the key is finding the right food source.
The next hunt I’ll share with you occurred in December 2021. It was a very similar occurrence, except there was one major difference: I was already familiar with the area. I had been hunting a spot in North Dakota during the rut and had some great hunts. But upon returning back in December, the deer had shifted from where they were originally spending time. Heavy snowfall was the reason. Again, all the deer in this general area were piling into one field — this time a cut corn field.
The field was cut poorly, and there was a lot of stalks left. Deer were feeding in it like crazy. I managed to build a blind out of snow, get on the edge of the cornfield, and after four days of hunting, I filled my tag on a beautiful mature 7-pointer. When you are hunting heavy snow in December, if you can find a great food source, you’re most likely going to be in the game.
DEER DON’T MOVE FAR
If there’s one constant I’ve learned hunting whitetails in heavy snow, it’s that they don’t like to move very far. Deer want to save as much energy as possible, meaning that they’ll often bed close to their food sources. So, if you can’t hunt the food source for whatever reason (maybe it’s on the neighbor’s property, deer aren’t hitting the food source until dark), you may have to push in close to their bedding area. The buck I killed in Minnesota in December 2019 illustrates this point.
I was hunting a big timber stand, and we had been blasted with heavy snowfall early in the month. After hunting one evening, I was doing some driving around and noticed a few bucks feeding around someone’s yard. I was hunting a suburban area, so this wasn’t uncommon to see. I couldn’t hunt in those people’s yards obviously, but after looking on my maps I noticed there was a small chunk of timber I could hunt a couple hundred yards away. That’s where I figured the deer to be bedding and staging on their way to feed.
The next day, I jumped in that timber, pushing in slowly and quietly until I started to notice some beds in the snow. Not wanting to jump anything out of there, I hung my stand and waited. On the first sit in there, deer started piling past me. I even was able to get eyes on deer bedded in thick thermal cover and watch them get up and start heading my way. Not more than two hours into the sit, the buck I was after came by at 60 yards, but I couldn’t get a shot. Knowing that these deer don’t like to move far and conserve energy, I figured he’d do the same thing the next day, so I opted to try the stand again.
Low and behold, he did. But this time he took the trail that went by my tree at 30 yards, and I was able to harvest him. Once again, scouting ahead of time and understanding how deer move in heavy snow was a big reason I was able to put that buck down.
GEAR UP TO STAY WARM
Often in December, frigid temperatures go hand-in-hand with the heavy snow. To stay in the field as long as possible, I highly recommend a good clothing layering system. In most cases, the walk to your stand or blind won’t be fun when there’s a ton of snow. Walking in deep snow is taxing, and you don’t want to go into your spot fully dressed.
What I like to do is wear my base layers and bibs on the walk in but keep it as light as possible up top. Obviously, this can vary based on how cold it is. But if I can keep my top layers limited to a moisture-wicking thermal underlayer and a hoodie, that’s perfect for walking into the stand. You may be a little chilled on the walk in, but it’s much better than sweating bullets by the time you arrive to your stand, which in turn will affect how quickly you get cold.
Remember, when selecting your clothing it’s important to consider your surroundings. If you’re hunting from the ground or in trees that are snow covered, be thinking about white camouflage. When I’ve hunted from the ground utilizing white camo, I simply wear a very light “jacket” over my warm clothes. Heck, even altering a white sheet and using it as a parka can help break up your outline in a snow-covered landscape. Had I not been in white camo last December in North Dakota, I don’t believe I would have been successful on my hunt.
Another mission-critical item for cold weather hunting is footwear. Again, hiking through deep snow can straight up be not fun. You want good boots that are easy to walk in, but that also keep you warm. A trick I’ve learned is that some type of sheepskin insole that wicks moisture can help tremendously in keeping your feet warm without having to wear a massively insulated boot.
And lastly, coming from a guy that hates hunting out of ground blinds, if there’s ever a time to use them it’s in December. Snowfall works wonders to make ground blinds blend into the landscape. Plus, they really help to keep you out of the elements, allowing you to stay warmer and hunt longer. I’ve even used a little heater in my blinds as well. These simple things can go a long way in helping you tag a mature buck in the heavy snow during late season.
Hunting late season, especially in heavy snow and less than ideal weather conditions isn’t for everyone. But as I’ve spent countless days hunting in December in some of the coldest and most heavily snowed-in areas, I’ve learned one thing: the worse the weather conditions, the better the hunting in most cases. So don’t be afraid of the cold, wind, or heavy snow. Use it to your advantage and punch that tag.