December 17, 2015
How many times have you heard a whitetail expert say that late season deer hunting is all about setting up on the best food source and letting a buck's hunger get him in trouble? That's great advice if you have a spot with lightly pressured deer that will move during daylight into a food plot or picked cornfield. What about if you're hunting 20 acres of woods with no food source, or the property you're on gets pounded by hunters? What about public land?
There are a lot of variables to deer hunting. One thing is for certain - with the short days of the late season and the effects of months of hunting pressure - conventional hunting advice stinks for most of us. This time of year a buck simply has to either stay bedded, or remain in the thick stuff for about 11 hours and they are good to go. Eleven hours of relative immobility is nothing to a buck when compared to the potential of broadhead-induced death.
It's a tough task, no doubt. However, the good thing is that even if you don't have that dreamy late season deer hunting food plot to sit over, you can still fill your tag in the waning days of the year. It just takes a strategy and a willingness to keep hunting.
It all starts with scouting.
Everything Has Changed
In my home state of Minnesota, everything I counted on before the firearm's season is wiped away by the presence of 500,000 gun hunters. That requires me to scout for fresh sign and set up to observe actual deer movement - and you should do the same.
If there is snow, this is a no-brainer considering it's pretty easy to find fresh tracks. As far as observation is concerned, the main benefit of sitting behind a spotting scope during December isn't that you'll see deer enter their food sources - but that you can usually spot them in the cover. Any sighting of a deer in a cattail slough, overgrown homestead, or simply deep on a wooded ridge is worth 10 sightings of deer in a picked bean field.
Use observations and fresh sign to develop a plan for late season deer hunting. This will not only involve hanging a few new sets, but also developing a plan for how to get into and out of the stands. Late season survivors won't tolerate sloppy hunting, although this is the time of the year when we tend to phone it in.
Late Season Deer Hunting Setups
Ground blinds are more comfortable during for late season deer hunting, but to be a killer it might be best to get into thinner air. I like to set my stands in the 16- to 20-foot height range, and at least 20 to 25 yards from the trail I expect deer to follow. This necessitates a couple of things.
The first is that pre-hunt practice is extremely important. No one shoots as much in December as they did in August, and it pays to brush up on your skills before each hunt. It's also necessary to plan for a farther shot, which is not something everyone wants to do, or even can do. I'd much prefer to shoot deer at 12 yards, but during the late season when it's brutally cold and often silent in the woods, getting drawn undetected at spitting-distance-close deer is tough.
Past experiences have led me to love the 25- to 30-yard range for December deer. It's much easier to get drawn on deer at that distance, and if I've done enough shooting, making the shot isn't difficult.
Forget The Hit-List
The current trend to give bucks silly names and develop hit-lists makes me feel about as comfortable as if my mother-in-law made a drunken pass at me. In fact, I despise the trend, and I'm not entirely sure why. My grumpy opinions aside, the reality of last-chance bowhunting is that it's terribly difficult, unless you've got a great hunting spot.
If you don't, get real about your chances. The deer that make my personal hit-list during December are the deer that are legal. It's that simple, and to be brutally honest, my favorite late season deer are often those that sported stippled coats seven months earlier. That's right, I love fawns. They are easy to drag, easy to butcher, and absolutely delicious. I don't necessarily target them, but I don't give them a pass if I have an antlerless tag.
Take a long hard look at what kind of December deer would make you happy, and shoot that sucker if it walks by. If that's a mature buck, so be it. If it's a little buck, doe, or a bleating fawn with cartoon eyelashes and a little milk-stache, go for it.
There's still time to fill a tag late season deer hunting, but not much. Spend some time assessing current deer movement, bust out your portable target, and get serious about shooting something — even if that something is a fawn.