Late Season Deer Hunting

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Wisconsin trophy buck
This 8-pointer in Wisconsin was bow killed after setting up on a harvested cornfield in December. She didn’t hunt there until spotting the buck feeding in the field earlier in the week. Hunter shown wearing Lost Camo.

As early winter nears, most deer hunters hang it up for the year, even though snow, freezing winds and dwindling food supplies often make whitetails more predictable by concentrating them near food sources. When deer hunters ask hunting guide and outfitter Tom Indrebo the best six-day period to hunt whitetails in Wisconsin’s fabled Buffalo County, his fingers flip past Halloween and Thanksgiving on his desktop calendar and don’t stop until the page turns to Dec. 10.

“I’d take Dec. 10 to 15 every time, but most guys don’t believe it,” Indrebo says. “Even if they do, most of them assume it has something to do with the second rut. Rut activity can still be a factor then, but it’s minor. The bigger factors are food, hunger, cold weather and little or no hunting pressure. When those factors fall into place right before mid-December and you throw in late breeding activity, I’d take those six days over any time during the main rut.”

Those who earnestly hunt whitetails each year during the gray days when autumn morphs into winter — especially from Colorado to Maryland and Maine to North Dakota — probably aren’t surprised by Indrebo’s answer. They know the folly of looking for shortcuts to post-rut success, and planning vacations or strategies around the so-called second rut. True, breeding activity can pick up a bit in early December as doe fawns come into heat for the first time and a random doe recycles after failing to get pregnant four weeks before. But the second rut is more a last gasp than a second wind, and breeding in December north of the Mason-Dixon line is more about random opportunities than dogged pursuits.

late season deer hunting
If you’re lucky, you’ll get snow in late November or early December, which makes it easier to find where deer feed. Next, hope that temperatures plunge into the low teens, single digits or below zero.

Although there’s no guarantee the Dec. 10-15 time frame will produce great deer activity every year, the ingredients that create deer hunting’s “perfect storm” are constantly swirling about that time. Seven such ingredients come to mind:

  1. Food varieties dwindle and food sources compress. Most crops have been harvested and many acorns and nutritious leaves have been consumed or buried under early snowfalls. Deer congregate on remaining food sources and deplete them further.
  2. The whitetail’s metabolism hasn’t yet slowed for winter. Therefore, hunger can be relentless, driving them to find food to maintain their energy reserves, and forcing them to stay in one place longer than normal to fill their rumen.
  3. Cold temperatures and snow force whitetails to burn even more calories, further increasing the need for deer to find nutritious, energy-rich foods as winter tightens its grip.
  4. Bucks are never hungrier. In addition to the increased energy demands all whitetails face, buckshave the added burden of trying to recover from rigorous rutting activity. But no matter how much they eat, they won’t add fat. All they can do is regain energy and stamina. Their bulk won’t increase again until spring green-up.
  5. Large agricultural fields usually offer the most abundant and accessible foods, and hunger compels deer to show up at these highly visible sites in daylight. In many cases, it’s possible to monitor feeding activities by driving back-roads and locating possible setups.
  6. Hunting pressure tails off, making deer feel more secure moving on their own at dawn and twilight, and staying longer in open areas.
  7. The second rut is often overhyped, but late-breaking breeding action can tweak the picture just enough to create an edge. After all, if most of the farm’s female deer are congregated on a snow-dusted alfalfa field, the buck has a target-rich environment for locating a doe ready to breed. If he encounters an estrous doe while eating, he might follow and pester her just enough to approach within range of your stand.

What situation could be better for deer hunters? At no other time during hunting season do bucks have so many compelling reasons to put themselves in harm’s way. That mature buck is hungry, he has an overwhelming need to rebuild his energy reserves, and while he feeds, he can sidle up to females that need to breed.

Deer Hunting’s ‘Perfect Storm’?

Even so, let’s not pretend those seven factors will swirl into that perfect storm each December as if on a schedule. Deer hunters can only hope a sudden cold snap triggers the convergence. If your area is cursed with a heat wave, extended rain, or a gradual cooling trend that lets deer ease into winter, those six days might be as slow and nondescript as any other period of late autumn.

On the other hand, if you’re lucky, you’ll get snow in late November or early December, which makes it easier to find where deer feed. Next, hope that temperatures plunge into the low teens, single digits or below zero. That first wicked cold snap seems to shock deer and trigger binge eating. The colder the air, the bigger the shock and incentive to eat.

If you know where good acorn caches remain, or where fields of soybeans, corn or brassicas are available, dress for spit-freezing temperatures and get out there. The same goes for alfalfa or other nutritious plants if they haven’t been flattened by heavy snow. As long as plants remain upright, and leaves and stems remain accessible under a frosting of snow, deer will hit those fields.

When you encounter this situation, setting up along field edges can pay off, especially for afternoon deer hunts. Just make sure your stand is upwind or crosswind to the deer’s approach routes and feeding areas. When conditions aren’t so perfect, and you encounter unseasonable warmth and rain instead of snow, few deer will appear on feeding grounds until last light. In those situations, field edges can be a waste of time. Instead, get as close as you dare to bedding areas so you have a chance of seeing them in daylight.

If scouting reveals deer are on their feeding grounds after dawn, study the terrain between their feeding and bedding areas to see if you can sneak in and intercept them on their return routes. Obviously, if you can’t avoid spooking them off fields or acorn flats as you approach before dawn, stay in bed. But if you can find a backdoor entrance, take that long hike and drop into an ambush site on the edge of their bedroom.

Late Season in the Forests

Post-rut hunting in heavily forested regions can provide deer hunting’s biggest challenge. In most cases, these lower-density herds have had just enough hunting pressure to make them wary. Further, unlike their farmland counterparts, forest deer exist largely on woody browse, which means their food supply is more varied and widespread.

A different version of “the perfect storm” can unfold in the North Woods when whitetails move to winter deeryards. If you know which trails migrating deer follow, and you’re there when they evacuate, the trophy buck of a lifetime could walk by at almost any time. Realize, though, that mature bucks are usually the last ones to leave, and it’s not unusual to see mostly antlerless deer and young bucks filing by.

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