When the temperature drops and the snow flies, the peacefully silent deer woods seem magical. Snow-laden pine boughs droop with their white frosting; the landscape takes on a brighter complexion; and sometimes, whitetail bucks act differently than they have all fall. The rut is over, and the thin-ribbed bucks can no longer ignore those hunger pangs. Once again, food becomes their priority.
Strangers Magically Appear
The best example I have of late-season magic is when bucks you've never seen before suddenly show up on trail camera photos, or even better, while on stand! And it seems to frequently coincide with an extreme drop in temperature or a heavy snowfall.
Recently, my friend Jeremy Race killed a dandy buck in magical fashion. His older brother Jeb had checked a trail camera at one location in the predawn. Although there were photos of decent bucks, Jeb decided to hunt elsewhere that morning. He called Jeremy and suggested he sit this spot. Since Jeremy's stand had been slow, he gladly switched locations.
The frigid weather, thigh-deep snow, and strategically placed alfalfa-feeding station had the local deer concentrated all around Jeremy's stand that day. Midafternoon, Jeremy noticed movement off in the distance. He just about fell out of his treestand when he raised his binos and glassed the biggest buck he'd ever seen. The never-before-seen giant buck picked up the movement of the local deer and sauntered by to see what was going on. When the buck stopped just 27 yards away, Jeremy maintained his composure and made the shot. The buck ended up grossing 183 inches.
One Tree, Two Trophy Bucks
One enchanted late season, my good friend and hunting buddy Ted Chapman and I each killed Pope and Young-class bucks from the same tree on the same day!
When the snow flew, we began scouting Ted's family's 700-acre evergreen tree farm. We found a spot with several deer trails crisscrossing through the fresh snow and a recent rub line. Since we were miles from the nearest agriculture, we created an artificial yet legal food source, and began seeing deer right away.
Ten days later we had photos of a half-dozen different mature bucks. Then, on the day the temperature dropped from freezing to zero, the bucks showed up during daylight. Several does and small bucks milled around and fed all morning, as nickel-sized snowflakes drifted silently to the ground. At 8:30, one of the mature bucks from our trail cam photos showed up for a snack. I arrowed the 13-pointer, recovered him, shot photos, and was out of the woods by 10 a.m.
Ted climbed into that same treestand around 1 p.m. and sat until dark. In the waning light, with does and spikes acting as live decoys, a beautiful 5x5 eased by and Ted threaded an arrow through a cantaloupe-sized hole in the brush to make a perfect shot. I could hardly believe it when Ted called me that evening with the good news, and the next morning we staged a photo shoot with our two bucks.
Nocturnal No More
Over the years, Ted and I have killed several mature bucks in the late season. Until the temperature dropped and the snow piled up, these bucks had been strictly nocturnal. But just because you only have nighttime images of a certain buck, don't give up completely. Instead, wait until the coldest, snowiest days, and then be willing to sit all day during the cold snap.
One fall our treestand vigils produced nothing but does and immature bucks, even though we had trail cam images of several mature bucks at night. We watched the weather reports intensely, and when the timing was right, one or both of us was on stand when it really counted. Our strategy paid off as Ted killed a heavy eight-point, and I killed an old 10-pointer just a few days later.
It's obvious, from my experience, that single-digit weather and deep snow is the time to hunt whitetails. But in my area, sitting in a tree all day long, when it's zero degrees, definitely requires specialized clothing. The most challenging thing about dressing for cold-weather hunts is striking a balance between staying warm and not having so much bulk that you can't climb a tree or worse, draw and shoot your bow.
I use a combination of wool and synthetic garments to keep me from turning into a human Popsicle on stand. I start with my feet and work my way up, selecting the proper garb based on the temperature and the amount of anticipated exertion.
I've had really good luck with old-fashioned military "Bunny" boots. I've found the white ones that inflate, creating a dead air space, work the best. I also like pac boots with either wool or foam liners. Regardless of brand, I get them at least one or two sizes larger than normal so I can don an extra pair of thick wool socks and trap more dead air space for better insulation.
I also use one of three styles of boot warmers. For years I relied on chemical heat packs, tucked into pouches sewn into the toes of my socks. These worked pretty well, but I had to change them out all the time and they were uncomfortable to walk on. So I bought heated, electronic snow-skiing boot insoles with rechargeable battery packs. The ones I chose were the SmartPack ic 950 made by Therm-ic. They have three temperature settings, and the batteries last between six and 18 hours depending on the ambient temperature and how much warmth your feet require. I also got some new Heated Insoles from ThermaCELL. These are rechargeable and provide up to five hours of continuous warmth. They have a nifty wireless remote control you use to turn them on and off and to adjust the heat of the insoles. This method of control requires a lot less movement then reaching down to the battery packs attached to the boot on those skiing insoles.
Next, I pick my socks. I like wearing a thin pair of silk or synthetic wicking socks next to my feet, and then one or two thicker wool socks for insulation. I find my feet stay warmer much longer with loose-fitting boots and socks than with tight-fitting boots.
For long johns, I prefer wool instead of synthetic fabrics. There are several companies now that make Merino wool long underwear — First Lite and Sitka Gear come to mind — and before your bias closes your mind, realize that the finest fibers of Merino wool are super comfortable and not itchy in the least. However, don't rule out synthetic long johns altogether, because there are some pretty high-tech ones that perform nearly as well as wool for those who are truly sensitive to this natural fiber.
In super-cold weather, I frequently wear one pair of lightweight long johns and another heavier or expedition weight over the light ones. I find two pairs of long johns is usually as warm or warmer than bulkier outer garments, and they are almost always much quieter.
Next I choose the outer pants and torso layers. Whether I select wool or synthetic, I don't want just quiet clothes — I want silent clothes. I suggest you go into a well-supplied hunting store and rub your hand over the various garments. If you hear even the slightest noise in a store at room temperature, I guarantee that same garment, at zero degrees on a graveyard-still evening, will seem loud when trying to reposition on stand or drawing a bow. I can usually get by with two or three layers on the bottom, but I usually need three to five layers on top for late-season hunts.
I certainly do not like to get wet when sitting in a treestand, but I believe it's much more important to be silent than dry. Thus, I prefer single-layer garments whenever possible. Realize, even the most advanced hunting garments will be a tad less quiet every time you add a layer of insulation or a waterproof membrane. Most of the time, except during an all-out downpour, most polyester and wool garments will shed water well enough that you don't need waterproof garments. However, I will say that you will frequently see me in a late-season treestand with the quietest raincoat on windy days. I get way too cold in the wind when it whips right through my silent, non-insulated clothes.
Equipment Modifications For Cold Weather
From growing up in the chilly Northwest and all those years living in frozen Alaska, I learned that the archery tackle I use on warm, early-season hunts is different than the bow I use in the late season. Years ago, I was fortunate enough to draw a lottery musk ox tag in Alaska. While preparing for that hunt, I intentionally practiced with my entire cold-weather garb on. Quickly, I learned the extra bulk of those clothes changed my arrow's point of impact by several inches.
Not only will the bulky clothes most likely alter your arrow's point of impact, it's much harder to draw your bow when muscles are tight and shivering from the cold. Normally, I shoot about 70 pounds of draw weight on warm-weather hunts. Years ago, while hunting whitetails in Manitoba, I sat in a cold, wet, and windy treestand for six days in a row. Right before dark on the last day, a dandy 10-point walked up, turned broadside at 16 yards, and looked the other way. It was the perfect shot opportunity, and although I had intentionally lowered the draw weight of my bow to 65 pounds, I couldn't draw it without extra movement because of how cold and excited I was. When I tried to yank back the bow, I spooked the buck and I went home eating humble pie instead of venison.
Since then, I hunt most of the time with only 55 to 60 pounds of draw weight for my late-season ventures. Realize, you don't need very much kinetic energy to shoot through the chest of a mature whitetail. Pinpoint accuracy and a razor-sharp broadhead out of a bow you can draw slowly and without undue gyrations is much more important than high draw weight or a super-fast arrow. I suggest you sit on your living room floor, legs out in front of you, and try drawing your bow on the level without having to wrench it back to full draw. If you can't do this in the warmth of your house, you are not likely to draw your bow smoothly when you're cold and excited while sitting in a treestand.
Another trick I use to shoot better when it's cold is to shorten my draw length. I either put on a shorter cam or shorten the linkage on my release aid so I can have more bend in my bow arm when at full draw. This trick, plus a simple armguard, keeps my bowstring from smacking against bulky clothes.
I'm also very vigilant about keeping snow and ice from building up on my arrows, arrow rest, and peep sight. I've made all three of those mistakes, and it really stings when you do everything right as a bowhunter and then discover an ice node on the arrow makes it fly off course, your rest's fleece-covered launcher arm is frozen solid to the riser shelf, or you come to full draw on a trophy buck and a snowflake in your peep prevents you from shooting! While on stand I also occasionally draw my bow, when no deer are around, to make sure nothing is creaking.
Make Your Own Magic
To make your own late-season magic, choose the proper clothes and gear, watch the weather reports closely, and when the mercury plummets, the snow piles up and bucks get really hungry, find the best food source in your hunting area and sit all day long. Something magical just might happen right before your eyes!