By Tony J. Peterson
We all know we are supposed to hunt the food in December. The bucks are worn down from the rut, the does are purely focused on calories, and blah blah blah. There aren’t a whole lot of secrets left in the deer hunting world and the hackneyed advice is true - you should build a hunting pattern around food.
But if you’re not the title holder to 700 acres of land in southern Iowa that is littered with food plots, it might not be so simple. What if you’re a public land hunter who doesn’t have access to a single field? Or what if your spot is a permission-based farm where every field you could key on has been chisel-plowed and is now covered in snow?
There are still options, but you’ll have to think back to some of the summer scouting methods.
Get Back And Glass
Probably 10 years ago I got an invite to photograph deer at my buddy’s cousin’s place. It was late-December and while the deer had been hunted hard during the November shotgun season, they had pretty much slid into their winter routine by the time we hiked out with camera gear and climbed into one of his blinds.
It didn’t take long before we started to see deer filtering down the bluff. They were highly visible, even in the thick stuff, due to the lack of foliage and the snow cover. What occurred to me over and over was that the deer didn’t just run into the field, they approached from different routes and it took them a lot longer than I would have expected.
It was also clear that the bucks favored a different route than the does and fawns. They seemed to be more cautious, and more interested in using the wind to ensure the field was clear of predators. It was a small case study, I know, but it made an impression on me.
Glassing winter food sources has become a mainstay in my life when I’m looking to tag out in December, and it’s worked for me on public land and private. Sitting back and watching for a night or two will reveal more than you could learn with 40 trail cameras, because it really allows you to see how deer use the terrain. That info is invaluable.
Since that photo session, I’ve spent plenty of time bowhunting late-season deer and it has shaped how I look at my setups. While I’d love to hang a stand on the edge of a picked cornfield that I know is going to see plenty of ungulate action in a given night, I’m more interested in now the deer get to and from the food.
This opens the whole thing up to more ambush options and can allow me to set up for a shot once the deer are past me and looking on toward the groceries. This is my preferred method for all deer hunting these days, with my stand facing away from the likeliest approach so that I get a good broadside or quartering away shot on deer that have moved past my setup.
When it comes to late-season deer and the pin-drop quiet conditions of the north woods where I spend a lot of my time, this is a must because there is a good chance I’ll get busted drawing. I’d rather that happen when the deer are already positioned where I want to shoot them for obvious reasons.
A setup in the cover, overlooking a travel route will do a couple more things for you. First off, it gets you closer to where the deer are bedding, which makes it more likely you’ll run into the late movers (bucks). It can also allow you to slip in and out without getting busted, which is very hard to do on a field edge stand. Granted you can get a night or two of good sits on the groceries, but eventually you’ll blow out the deer and your sightings will dwindle.
A travel-route stand, when planned correctly, can allow you to sneak in and out without messing with the deer’s final destination, which can preserve action much longer.
Don’t Ignore Other Sign
Of course, glassing isn’t possible in every setup. It’s entirely likely you’ll need to get in and suss out some sign through another method. With fresh snow, this is pretty easy. Without fresh snow, it’s still pretty easy. Ground truthing your late-season spots is a simple process but still worth doing. Just because you see a bunch of tracks in your food plot or beanfield doesn’t mean you can sit on the edge and kill those deer. They may have visited well after dark.
Backtrack the trails, figure out the actual routes those deer are taking to the food, and then build your plan. This will allow you to have better options when it comes to access, prevailing wind, and a host of other factors.
This is clean-slate time in the whitetail woods. Even if the deer are using the same field they were back in September, things have changed and your opening-week stands are probably not going to produce the same way. Get on the glass, get on the ground, and figure out how the deer are using your hunting grounds to get to the calories. Then use those sightings and the sign to inform you decisions on where to hunt.