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Deer Hunting Tips For Late Season Hunting In The Upper Midwest
Impromptu Field Setups
Be flexible. If you don’t have tree stands or ground blinds pre-positioned near field edges to take advantage of changing winds, take a climbing stand if bowhunting; and a seat cushion, back rest and bipod if firearms hunting. Don’t stubbornly hunt a predetermined tree stand, hoping the wind will favor you at crunch time. Arrive early and set up quietly. Half-wall portable turkey blinds work well for gun-hunting, but ensure your blaze-orange clothing remains visible to others.
Seek Accessible Alfalfa
Deer in farm country feed heavily on alfalfa or other nutritious plants if their stems and leaves are poking through light snow-cover. As long as succulent portions remain upright and accessible, deer will paw through light snow to reach this food.
Put Them on the Cafeteria Plan
Deer hunters who maintain food plots often debate whether corn, soybeans or brassicas work best for late-season forage. Corn is likely the least beneficial for deer and hunting, partly because it’s so common in farm country, making it difficult for relatively tiny food plots to compete with neighboring industrial-sized cornfields. Try planting varieties of all three, staggering their planting time, variety and locations to disperse feeding activity and increase the time window in which late-season deer visit these sites.
Knock it Down
When late-season whitetails target crops, they prefer to eat foods like corn, cowpeas and soybeans that fall onto the snow or ground. They do not like to pluck these foods from standing stalks, and will usually walk through uncut crops to scavenge for hours in harvested fields. To ensure deer shift their feeding locations to reduce disease risks, landowners can knock down a few rows each week with a hunting ATV, truck or snowmobile.
What About Forest Foods?
To assess food availability in Northern forests, check for fresh jack-pine needles or white-cedar fronds (foliage) on branches within 6 feet of the ground. Whitetails across the northern Great Lakes often strip everything within reach in high-concentration areas. Whitetails can’t meet their full energy needs from most woody browse, such as the twigs and buds of ash, hemlock, aspen, maple, hazel-wood and red-osier dogwood. White cedar is the only woody browse that can sustain deer through 100 days in a deeryard. Each deer, however, requires 3- to 6-pound quantities daily, which strains most wintering sites.
The Low-Down on Fallen Fronds
Fresh green fronds on northern white cedars aren’t the only deer food worth noting. Cedar fronds continue to provide nourishment after dying, browning and falling to the ground. During the 1990s, researchers at the University of Maine found that deer will vacuum brown fronds from the snow. Typically, deer eat fresh fronds until exhausting the supply, and then switch to the brown deadfalls.
Plucking Food from the Old Man’s Beard
Another favorite item on the deer’s winter menu is “Old Man’s Beard,” a gray arboreal lichen resembling Spanish moss. These lichens grow on dead or dying spruce and balsam trees. If you find deer tracks converging on a long-dead tree that toppled recently, look for lichen “beards” on branches beyond the deer’s reach. Lichens are part algae, part fungus, and are rich in nutrition, especially the “micro-nutrients” that apparently help deer survive harsh winters. Whitetails seldom miss a chance to eat these beards, which is why they’re seldom within six feet of the ground.
Follow the Signs to Whortleberry
Chances are you’ll overlook the leaves and stems of late low blueberry -- also known as whortleberry – unless you’re following deer tracks through shallow snows. If the tracks abruptly halt and mill about in large colonies of ground-hugging plants with browned leaves, look for nose prints in the snow where deer pushed into the plants to eat. Whortleberries grow in clearcuts, and along roads and abandoned pastures. You might also find them on rocky outcrops, especially around upland bogs and sandy riverbanks.
Forget the Fruit; Pass the Leaves
Wild raspberries grow nearly everywhere and, like whortleberries, their fruit usually gets all the attention. Except from whitetails. Deer often slide along the edges of wild raspberry patches in early winter, picking off whatever brown leaves cling to the stems. Once the leaves are gone, whitetails target the plant’s fresh, fuzzy stems designed for next year’s berry crop.
How Long Do Deer Eat Dead Leaves?
Whenever you suspect late-season deer are eating something but can’t find twigs and stems with rough-cut tips chewed by whitetails, they might be eating dead leaves. Wisconsin deer researcher Keith McCaffery documented that whitetails often eat the brown, brittle leaves of aster and goldenrod as long as they hang on stalks or lie atop snow.
Monitor Migration Routes
If winter hits the Northwoods early and you know which trails deer follow to distant deeryards, the buck of a lifetime could walk by at any time. Realize, though, that mature bucks are usually the last ones to leave their home range, and it’s not unusual to see mostly antlerless deer and young bucks on these trails. Forest deer seldom do anything en masse. Even deer family groups on overlapping range don’t leave at the same time.
Dress Loose, Apply Heat
To stay warm during late-season vigils in tree stands or ground blinds, wear several layers of moisture-wicking hunting clothes atop the skin. Before topping off with a jacket or parka, don a wool vest and down- or fiber-filled vest so you don’t restrict your arms and shoulders. Also consider wearing a vest with pockets over the chest, kidneys and upper back for air-activated body-warmers. Finally, wear a balaclava that places hand-warmers behind the ears and neck for extra comfort.
Dial it Down
When preparing for late-season bowhunts, consider cranking down your compound’s draw weight about 5 pounds. Cold, long sits cause muscles to tighten, making it difficult to pull the bow past its “break.” To avoid changes in broadhead flight and readjustments to the bow-sights, don’t reduce the weight beyond 5 pounds.
Keep it Chilled
When deer hunting with a muzzleloading rifle in the late season, keep it outside in a protected area overnight. If you don’t, you risk ruining the powder charge. After hunting all day in the elements, the rifle’s barrel and breech assume the outside air temperature. If it’s brought indoors or laid inside a warm truck cab, imagine the “shock” of that cold metal hitting 72-degree air. The resulting condensation can ruin any powder charge.
Take the Low Road
When still-hunting a late-season woods, skirt lowlands where they merge into south-facing hillsides. Resist the temptation to walk ridgelines, where you’ll often be silhouetted. You’re hunting deer, not grouse. Deer often bed on south-facing slopes to absorb the sun’s heat, but this also puts the sun in their eyes. Stay along the hillside’s base and move slowly into the wind or crosswind with the sun behind you, and try to sound like a deer, turkey or squirrel as you move. Your view of the hillside is often better from below than above, so stop often to search for deer bedded or feeding ahead and above you.
Some die-hard deer hunters look forward to late December and early January so they can don snowshoes or cross-country skis to check for deer in the far ends of long valleys or ridge lines. Once there, they check hillsides, knolls and corners where swirling winds swept away the snow, and sunlight exposed “fresh” foods. Don’t be afraid to check sites near farming operations. Hungry deer lose some of their inhibitions, and will mix with cattle at feeding areas. Backtrack them to the woods and look for tree-stand sites.