December 28, 2018
The snow was coming down hard, with a strong north wind and subzero wind chill. The standing beanfield was filling up with does and young bucks as I glassed into the timbered thicket beyond it. And finally, with only 30 minutes of legal light left, I spotted a solid 140-inch 4x4 at the edge of the trees. Minutes later, the buck jumped a fence and headed to the standing grain I’d left in front of my ground blind. Easing myself out of my Heater Body Suit and removing my right mitten, I readied for the shot. My 40-yard shot was lethal, and the buck raced for the security of cover, taking over two-dozen feeding whitetails with him. It was December 14, and I’d been waiting all year for this scenario to play out.
Most bowhunters can’t wait to hunt the opening week of the season. More still pine for the fast and furious days of rut action in early to mid-November. By the time the late season hits, many bowhunters have hung up their gear and decided that a warm fire, soft couch, and football on the television is a better way to spend their time. But that can be a big mistake because, under the right conditions, there may not be a better time of year to find a good buck on a more definitive pattern.
During the last days of November and the month of December in the whitetail’s northern range, bowhunting can really heat up even as temperatures plummet. Food, cover, and security are key, and in the snow-covered North, finding these three things is absolutely critical to coming up with a successful plan to consistently end your season with a punched tag and venison in the freezer.
Those deer that made it through the firearms seasons are quite patternable now. Do your homework and tread lightly though, as deer in the late season are also very skittish. It’s far better to spend time nailing down the best spot for a couple good hunts rather than bulldoze in and spook deer on feeding patterns in survival mode after they’ve already being pressured for weeks, or even several months.
When the temperature drops like a rock, deer go into survival mode and their metabolism can significantly decrease. Deer need to regenerate some of the fat reserves lost from the rigors of the rut. They’re now looking to refuel with large amounts of food high in carbohydrates and fat. They oftentimes even look to feed at the expense of security by feeding during daylight hours when possible. Bottom line: During the post-rut late season, find the food source and you will find the deer.
Much depends on where food lies in proximity to cover, and if there’s snow cover, how deep it is. When deep snow and ice prevent them from finding enough food on nearby combined Ag fields, whitetails will have to travel longer distances to find it. If you have the only standing food source within a mile or more, you’ll be sitting pretty like a kid in a candy store.
The late season is driven not only by food, but also security. Job number one is scouting to find that food in proximity to security cover. Deer can lose up to 30 percent of their body weight during the rut. Depending on what latitude you’re hunting, rut activity is likely over, or severely waning by late November. In the South though, it may be just starting to fire up. In the North, where I do most of my bowhunting, if doe fawns gain enough body size they can come into estrus in December or later, so some late rut activity can be present, but I never count on it.
In the North and Midwest, late-season food means corn and soybean fields with harvested stubble, or in standing food plots. Where available, brassicas, winter wheat, and alfalfa are also staples. In the South and parts of the East, look for green browse, soft mast, and any remaining hard mast.
Although there may be minimal late-cycle rut activity, I always focus on feeding-to-bedding patterns this time of year. You likely still have your trail cameras out and running, so check those and get a starting point on local activity. While important, I don’t just rely on cameras alone. I really like to scout food sources at a distance via long-range optics from country roads and high vantage points in semi and open country. In thicker cover, you may have to get down and do some low-pressure foot scouting. Scout food sources and trails for fresh tracks in the mornings once deer have moved deeper into bedding areas. Look for tracks, droppings, and even buck sign. It’s not at all uncommon to find fresh rubs and scrapes weeks after the peak of the rut. When you find the sign you’re after, hang a few new cameras right away to capture the most recent information as quickly as you can.
For evening scouting, I definitely want to use optics from a distant observation post or stand. Take in every detail you can about where the deer come from, and the routes they take to get there. If the conditions are right for an ambush, move in quietly with a stand or brushed-in blind and hunt the next day.
If you’re hunting in the timber and the food sources aren’t as obvious as they are in farm country, focus on security cover and sanctuaries. Look for untouched and out-of-the-way areas that haven’t been pressured all season. Late-season bucks can seek refuge in some crazy off the wall locations, like slash piles, blow-downs, drainages, old farm machinery piles, and even fencerows. Check these areas for fresh sign and hang a camera if you find anything interesting.
If you’ve set the table with high-quality food plots, or located a hot food source, the next task is drilling down on the most important part. That’s going to be an undetected entry and exit. Finding the food and deer isn’t always the hard part. Setting up where you can get into your stand or blind without being noticed can be challenging. So, you have used your trail cameras and optics to locate a target buck on a hot food source, now what?
To find that safe and undetected entry and exit route, you need to really watch the topography and any line-of-sight visual mistakes from the bedding areas. Use aerial images and topography to fine-tune a strategy now that you’ve located deer on a food source. Look for southern-exposed slopes that gather more sunshine during the cold late season, and other areas where deer can get out of the wind and cold temperatures while still catching some warm rays. Thick stands of native grasses and regenerative timber are often thermal traps deer seek out that can also obstruct their view and help you sneak around undetected. Use that screen, as well as elevation changes you can navigate like bluffs, creeks, and erosion ditches. Obviously, all of these terrain features can be used for ingress and egress points, but keep downwind. Whitetails are extremely sensitive during the late season, so you have to be able to park and slip in without being seen or smelled.
If the conditions aren’t perfect don’t risk it, or you’ll bust them out. Wait for the right wind and weather pattern. When conditions are right with regard to weather conditions, it can make all the difference in the world. Watch your weather forecasts for fronts and changes in barometric pressure. A cold front can bring temperature swings of 10 degrees or more in a day’s period. Both cold and warm weather fronts should be noted, as any significant change can have an impact on movement. A strong cold front is absolutely dynamite in the open plains of the big Ag country I hunt most often. Barometric pressure changes are also something savvy bowhunters should be watching.
A high, stable barometer is good hunting. But whitetails seem to move best when the pressure is between 29.90 and 30.30 inches, with the best movement occurring at the higher end of that range — around 30.10 to 30.30 inches, according to the studies I’ve read.
I’ve had minimal success hunting mornings in the late season, and far better success with afternoon hunts. My opinion is that afternoons have tended to be more productive during the late season because I’ve found deer much easier to spook during a morning sit, as they are already up and moving while I’m going to my stand. However, if you locate a foolproof exit close to a bedding travel route, you can be productive.
Deer behavior absolutely changes in the post-rut. In addition to watching the food-to-bed patterns and watching the weather, wind, and pressure, you’ll also have to deal with many more eyes, ears, and noses due to changes in behavior. Bucks are much more tolerant of one another post-rut. Doe groups are back together, and fawns are back with their mothers. All of these deer will be looking to spend the majority of their time in the safest location they can find in close proximity to food, so they’ll be stacked on top of each other to an extent. Bumping one will likely mean bumping every deer for a few miles. Deer movement will be more restricted, and they’ll only venture out in daylight if they’re unpressured. Focus on funnels and travel routes that you already hunted during the rut, in between any food and cover being used during the late season.
While I’ve found morning hunting close to bedding areas to be very dicey, I’ve experienced a good bit of success in the evenings. Many whitetails will leave their beds and stage up within 100 yards of a food source before taking a direct route to feed just prior to dark. If you can find a point to intercept them in a pinch-point without busting them from their beds, this is one of my favorite setups. It stands to reason that primary food sources offer lower odds on morning hunts versus evenings. The odds of intercepting a buck with a full belly are likely better along the natural funnels, travel corridors, and transition routes between his feeding and bedding areas.
After food sources, bulletproof entry and exit strategies, and watching the weather patterns, I’ve also used another trick or two to help up my odds. If you have a situation where you have more trails than you can cover, you may want to try blocking trails with brush, or by felling a few trees across trails where you have permission to do so. If that’s not an option, I’ve used my own human scent in the form of clothing placed upwind, or directly on a few trails, to help move deer where I want them to go. Be mindful that this is a risky proposition though, because you don’t want to blow deer out of the area.
Just because the rut is over doesn’t mean you can’t find some fantastic bowhunting late in the season. So get off the couch, and get out there and punch that tag!