Late Season Deer Hunting

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Western Iowa Buck
This buck was shot in western Iowa a few days before Thanksgiving while hunting a soybean field. Hunter shown wearing Lost Camo.

Again, the triggering mechanism for these migrations is prolonged cold — generally 19 degrees or lower for at least five days — with snow and shrinking food sources also factoring in. However, unlike farm-country deer flocking to standing crops or fallen grains, forest deer aren’t as apt to do everything en masse. Researchers can’t explain why deer family groups, even those sharing overlapping range, don’t all leave at the same time. Some deer evacuate early, some stay long after all others move, and still others make false starts, heading out and returning at least once before heavier snows drive them to their yards for good.

Still, don’t assume that deer hunting along migration trails is window shopping for the trophy buck of a lifetime. Migrations are impossible to predict. Researchers suspect the movements are influenced not only by cold, snow and food scarcity, but also by forest cover and the habits of individual deer. Sometimes wintry storms in late October and early November trigger these movements. But if those storms don’t arrive until long after Thanksgiving, there’s often no reason for deer to pull out earlier.

Deer hunters with the best bet of capitalizing have homes or cabins near migration routes and they monitor deer activity daily. Or they know a local who stays atop the situation. John Ozoga spent 30 years researching deer at the square-mile deer enclosure in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and still lives in forests where deer travel 30 miles and more to reach wintering areas. He tells of a deer stand he built along a good-looking deer trail, not realizing it was a major travel route to the Whitefish deeryard eight miles away.

In 1988 bitter cold and heavy snow settled in soon after mid-November, coinciding with the state’s firearms season. Ozoga and his wife, Janice, saw 74 deer using that trail during their stand sessions those 16 days, all of them does and fawns. Ten years before, the Ozogas monitored a trail leading to the Petral Grade Deeryard. Severe weather had arrived in early November, triggering the migration before gun season opened. The Ozogas only saw two deer on that trail during a week of frequent stand sequesters, and both were bucks.

Is the Party Over?

Once forest deer reach their winter yards and farmland deer emerge from that first severe cold snap, the best deer hunting opportunities are over. The whitetail’s metabolism has slowed and they no longer feel the intense hunger pangs that drove them from cover and into relatively small areas to feed during daylight.

Even so, late-season deer activity starts and stops with food, and whitetails are still out there. If you stay afield, you might stumble onto situations where whitetails, even mature bucks, leave themselves vulnerable. In farm country, deer find food in nearly every valley that held or holds crops. Whether those fields were harvested earlier in autumn, or they still contain uncut crops, deer group up and scrounge for food. Does and their fawns join others from the doe’s blood line to form loose family groups, and they set up residence where terrain and brush provide shelter and easy access to nearby food.

Weather always plays a role, too, and you’ll almost always fare best just before winter storms arrive. Monitor the weather and watch for sudden drops in barometric pressure. You can be sure deer sensed it already, and they’ll increase their feeding activity in the hours preceding storms.

Don’t be quick to dismiss a buck rub line from earlier in the year. If it leads between his bedding and feeding areas and you find signs that he’s back on that pattern, give it a try. Start by hunting near the field, try it a couple or days, and then move steadily closer toward his daytime sanctuary.

Also, don’t be surprised if you see or hear bucks sparring and jousting into the Christmas season. Just don’t take it as a sign that another rut is preparing to break loose. December sparring contests are merely patty-cake clicking and clacking, with few real hostilities. Bucks have lost much of their competitive edge because their testosterone levels have been declining for weeks.

In addition, realize conditions in the woods don’t favor stealth and concealment. The woods are bare, and sounds get amplified in the cold air on still days. Moving your gun or bow silently into position while staying undetected is never more difficult.

Despite such difficulties, some die-hards look forward to late December and early January. They might even don snowshoes to check the far ends of valleys or ridgetops, where swirling winds swept away the snow, and sunlight exposed “fresh” foods. And don’t be afraid to check out sites that appear too close to farming operations. Hungry deer lose their inhibitions, and will mix with cattle at feed troughs. Backtrack them to the stockyard’s edge along the woods and look for tree-stand sites.

Winter Eating Habits

When scavenging for food in food plots or agricultural fields, whitetails prefer to eat corn, soybeans or cowpeas lying on the ground or atop snow. They do not like to pluck food from standing stalks. In fact, they’ll walk past row after row of standing crops and scavenge for hours on harvested fields.

To ensure deer shift their feeding locations to reduce disease risks, landowners can knock down a few rows of crops every few days with a hunting ATV or truck.

Winter Dining Times

Michigan researcher John Ozoga reports healthy deer in winter move and feed most heavily at sunrise, midday, sunset and twice nightly. By midwinter, malnourished deer become most active during the warmest part of the day and greatly decrease nighttime feeding movements. This adjustment reduces body-heat loss to increase their survival chances.

How Much Browse Do Deer Need?

Even with a low metabolism and an inactive lifestyle within deeryards, the whitetail’s basic energy needs exceed the energy it can extract from woody browse such as the twigs and buds of ash, hemlock, aspen, maple, hazelwood and red osier dogwood. The only woody browse that can sustain deer through 100 days in a deeryard is white cedar, but whitetails require 3- to 6-pound quantities daily, a major undertaking in heavily browsed deeryards.

How Much Weight Do Yarding Deer Lose?

Healthy does and fawns with good fat reserves can lose 30 percent of their body weight without dying, but adult bucks can lose 25 percent of their peak weight through rutting activities alone. That leaves bucks vulnerable to starvation when they encounter severe winters and have little access to browse and other winter foods such as arboreal lichens. As a result, when a herd suffers starvation losses, fawns are the first to go and mature bucks are next. Adult does are usually the last to die.

What Triggers Winter Migrations?

Some deer researchers say deeryard migrations are energy-related. Whitetails move into deeryards to seek thermal protection, not food. Little food is available in most deeryards, except for dry cedar fronds that fall to the ground. The deer’s metabolism has slowed, however, so it needs less food.

That leads to another discussion: Which comes first: lower metabolism or food shortages? “That’s like asking why bears hibernate,” said John Ozoga, a Michigan deer researcher. Some say it’s because the bear’s metabolism drops in winter. Others say it’s because they’ve run just out of food and so they crawl into their den, lower their metabolism, and go to sleep for a few months.”

Other researchers say deer migrate to winter yards to reduce predation risks. As temperatures drop, snow deepens and food decreases, deer weaken and become easier prey for wolves and coyotes. By moving into deeryards, whitetails not only find safety in numbers, they can take advantage of extensive trail networks and less snow-cover to elude predators.

Late Season Deer Hunting Conclusion

Even though deer hunters must hope fickle weather factors supercharge their December hunts by meshing with the predictable power of food and the whitetail’s energy needs, these situations occur often enough to warrant a careful watch every year. When the seven ingredients come together, locate the proper setups and acquire suitable cold-weather gear to take advantage of the situation.

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