A thick blanket of frost and ice covered the entire windshield of my truck during opening morning of the Illinois late-season muzzleloader hunt. The thermometer on the rearview mirror read minus 11 degrees, and there was at least a foot of snow on the ground. The snow had shut down many of the roads in the area.
One thing was certain: This Kentucky boy had never hunted during such extreme cold-weather conditions. By the time it broke daylight, my cameraman's eyelashes had actually frozen together, and the punishing high winds seemed to cut right to the bone. To make matters worse, the deer were not very active and the minutes seemed to pass by like hours.
On the last morning of our hunt, after studying some topographical maps of the area and consulting with Ben Plattner of Timberland Outfitters, we decided to change locations.
The forecast predicted a break in the weather, and we figured that the deer that had been holed up in low-lying thickets for the past couple of days should be on the move, looking to feed. We set up on a point of timber along the back pocket of an isolated cornfield that was surrounded by thickets. The full moon illuminated the snow-covered cornfield, generating just enough light to pick out movement of deer during the early predawn hours.
All of sudden, a large-bodied deer worked its way along the edge of the thicket across the open field from our position. I could barely make out the cross hairs on my scope, but I knew that, given its bulky size, this deer had to be a buck. Finally there was enough daylight to see, and I spotted the buck with my binoculars about 300 yards away on the lip of a small draw toward the upper end of a cornfield.
We immediately moved to the backside of the field and crawled to the opposite timberline in hopes of closing the distance. Moments later we had managed to stalk our way up to a point of timber that ran out into the field and concealed our movement.
Quickly, I crept to the outer edge of the tree line and ranged the buck at 140 yards.
This was a pretty good distance, but I felt completely confident making this shot with my .50-caliber Thompson/Center Pro Hunter muzzleloader. From a kneeling position, I rested the T/C on the shooting sticks and settled the 150-yard circle of the Nikon Omega scope on the sweet spot of the kill zone. A gentle squeeze of the trigger generated a heavy thud as the sabot smacked into the buck's ribcage, ending a perfect late-season hunt in Illinois.
THE COLDER, THE BETTER
During the same season, Jeff Foxworthy, one of America's favorite comedians, was also able to tag a cold-weather monster in Kansas on a hunt with David Morris while videotaping for "The Bucks of Tecomate" TV show. Jeff found a way to turn up the heat and drop the hammer on a 170-class giant during extremely harsh weather conditions. Jeff acknowledged that his hunt in Kansas was tough because of the weather, but his decision to stay in the woods paid off with a really nice buck.
"It was a bone-chilling 13 degrees and the wind was blowing well over 20 mph on the day of the hunt," Jeff said. "Saying it was cold would be an understatement. David and I were hunting right before a major cold front and winter storm that fortunately had the deer on the move. We were actually lucky on this hunt by shooting the buck and leaving camp before the heavy snow hit. If I had not taken the deer on that day, we would have probably been snowed in for at least a week!"
Without question, Jeff's success story clearly shows that when temperatures begin falling, big bucks have a tendency to let down their guard and move more during daylight hours. This creates a window of opportunity, and it is exactly why you should hit the woods hard when the weather takes a turn for the worse.
Hunting during cold weather or before frontal periods can create some action-packed trips that can pay off with a buck of a lifetime. The following cold-weather hunting strategies will enable you to face the elements and connect with a bruiser cold-weather buck next season.
FOCUS ON FRONTAL PERIODS
Over the years, I've tagged some of my best bucks by being in the woods just before cold-weather frontal periods hit. In general, animals will be on the move and feed heavily prior to changes in weather like winter storms or dropping temperatures. Even veteran bucks that have survived a few seasons and are on a strict nocturnal schedule will get off the bed and move as a front approaches.
In many cases, simply watching the weather forecast and strategically picking the best time to be in a stand is all it takes to make something happen.
A deadly frontal-period tactic is to set up along the edges of known bedding or staging areas with the wind in your favor. Bucks will often linger around these locations before moving to a primary food source. Keep in mind that positioning a tree stand in close proximity to these sensitive areas can be risky, and you could potentially bump or spook deer. However, carefully planning your entrance and exit routes to these high-impact areas will enable you to slip in unnoticed and close the deal before the buck knows what happened.
PINPOINT REMAINING FOOD SOURCES
In many states, cold weather generally hits during the later segments of the season at a time when whitetails are facing serious limitations relating to available food. By this period, many of the food sources have either died out or have already been consumed by residential herds. On the plus side, a limited food source can really take the guesswork out of choosing a productive stand location.
Earlier in the year, the deer had an unlimited amount of possible food choices, making it difficult to figure out daily patterns. Now the deer are forced to utilize a remaining food source, creating an opportunity to exploit a trophy-class buck. The competition for remaining food encourages bucks that were previously nocturnal to feed during the daylight hours. In fact, it's not uncommon for veteran bucks to make daytime appearances around late-season food sources, especially if the location is isolated from human activity.
Pinpointing cold-weather food sources like winter wheat, oats, honeysuckle or late-picked cornfields near thick cover can be very productive during the remaining weeks of the season. Setting up a stand or ground blind that overlooks a cold-weather food source or allows you to intercept deer as they travel to and from these locations can really turn up the heat on a cold day.
HUNT LOW-LYING THICKETS
Whitetails can be extremely tough to deal with when you're hunting during periods of extreme winter weather. Facing heavy snow, ice and dangerously cold temperatures really adds a whole new dimension to deer hunting. During these periods, deer will generally take cover in low-lying thickets that are out of the wind and provide sufficient amounts of browse.
When remaining food sources are covered in snow, the thickets provide cover and food for the deer until the cold front breaks. It's not uncommon to find large numbers of deer holding in thickets during harsh winter weather.
Without question, easing into these thick sanctuaries and hanging a stand can generate some phenomenal cold-weather hunting. During the midday hours, the temperatures will often rise a few degrees, causing deer to get off the bed and browse. This can be the perfect time to be in the stand overlooking the thickets.
However, in order for this strategy to work, you need to hunt the backsides of the thickets or along the edges to prevent jumping deer on the way to the stand. In the past, I have dropped a number of impressive bucks dead in their tracks during the mid-day hours using this strategy.
TIPS FOR STAYING WARM
When hunting in periods of cold weather, it's imperative that you're able to stay comfortable in the field for extended blocks of time. If your fingers and toes feel numb enough to break off, it's going to be difficult to stay in the stand. The following tips have allowed me to handle just about anything Mother Nature can throw out during the winter.
First, start with an insulated hat and facemask to prevent heat from escaping from the top of your head. Next, make sure you have a good pair of waterproof thin gloves along with some hand-warmers to keep your fingers functional.
A good pair of waterproof boots like the LaCrosse Road Trips series, with 1,200 grams of Thinsulate, combined with socks that wick away moisture can be a lifesaver. I also like to use foot-warmers in conjunction with the boots to keep my toes nice and toasty. Lastly, you want to wear a light base layer of clothing when walking and pack your insulated clothes to the stand to prevent sweating.
It's also important to wear layers and make sure your outerwear is 100 percent waterproof. Try to stay away from bulky clothing that hinders movement or could prevent you from making the shot.
The Ambush Jacket and Trail Pants from Rivers West are extremely warm, waterproof, lightweight and ideally suited for cold-weather hunting. These are the items I depend on when the weather is miserable and when the deer are on the move. Don't allow tough winter weather to knock you out of filling your tag. Take advantage of late-season hunting and utilize these strategies to drop the hammer on a massive cold-weather buck.
Get out there and make something happen!