Late-Season Strategies for Whitetails
I live and do a majority of my deer hunting in Missouri's Ozark Mountains. Missouri offers bowhunters two buck tags. One tag is valid from Sept. 15-Jan. 15, with the exception of a nine-day, statewide gun season. The second tag is only valid after the statewide gun season, which usually closes just before Thanksgiving. That season/tag structure is one reason I enjoy hunting the late season.
As a wildlife biologist who specializes in deer behavior and management, there are even more important reasons I enjoy hunting the late season. Deer are slaves to their gut. That is to say deer must feed regularly to maintain their health â€” usually multiple times each day. In most areas, there are fewer preferred food sources available during the late season. Most forage crops have stopped growing, grain crops have been harvested and a large portion of acorns and native foods have been consumed.
Farm and Forest
Any grain fields that are still standing will be prime feeding areas! Deer need and seek grain (carbohydrate-rich foods) during the late season. Fields where more grain was spilled (maybe due to an older combine, etc.) or portions were left standing often become preferred feeding areas at this time.
During the late season, a more significant factor when scouting grain fields is the amount of hunting pressure that field has received during the early season. Deer, especially mature bucks, tend to avoid feeding during daylight in areas they associate with danger. Finding a soybean field or cornfield that hasn't received as much hunting pressure as other fields in the neighborhood can result in some extraordinary hunting!
There's a similar, but not as obvious, pattern in forested areas. Most white oak acorns will have sprouted or rotted by the later portions of deer season. Acorns from white oaks are not as bitter during the early season. If you have a stand located in an area where white oak acorns are plentiful, it may be very productive during the early season. But that same stand will most likely not be as productive during the late season unless it is located in a travel corridor or offers some other feature that makes it attractive to deer.
Red oak acorns have higher tannic acid content than white oaks. These chemicals keep the red oak acorns from rotting as rapidly as white oak acorns. They also make red oak acorns less palatable to deer. However, once the white oak acorns have been consumed, sprouted or rotted, deer will readily seek and eat acorns from red oak trees. When hunting in hardwoods, I strongly prefer stands located near red oaks during the late season.
Watch the Mercury
Each hunter needs to know the deer's preferred food source for each time of year in their area. In addition, remember there is a strong relationship among the amount of food available, abnormal weather patterns (hotter or colder than normal) and how likely deer are to be feeding during daylight hours.
If temperatures are mild during the late season, deer won't require as many calories to maintain their body temperature. This means they won't be feeding as frequently, and therefore probably won't be on their feet as much. The opposite is also true: If temperatures are lower than normal, deer tend to spend substantially more time feeding during daylight hours.
I'm always amazed at how active deer are during daylight hours in the late season when temperatures are lower than normal for several days in a row and food is scarce. Knowing where food sources are during those conditions can result in seeing more deer in a single day than you might in a month when conditions are "normal."
During the late season, I typically don't hunt food plots or row crop fields during the mornings, because deer will commonly be feeding in these areas while I'm approaching the stand. So, there's a high probability I'll alert deer and limit my chances of seeing mature deer from that location any time soon. However, there is an exception.
If the temperature is way below normal, deer tend to let the sun come up and the temperature increase before leaving their bedding areas and moving to feeding locations. Just as the sun comes up is usually the coldest time of the day. During these conditions, deer often begin feeding around 9 a.m. or later.
They avoid moving during the coldest time of the day because temperatures are so cold they may burn more calories trying to stay warm than they would gain by getting up and searching for food. In such instances, I grab some extra clothes and heat packs and head to the stand right around daybreak. I really enjoy mid-morning hunts during those late-season days that are colder than normal.
There are some disadvantages to hunting the late season. First and foremost, there will be fewer deer to hunt! Between the start of season and the late season, some percentage of the herd will be killed by hunters, and predators, accidents, disease, poaching and other factors will have taken a toll as well. Another factor is that there are far fewer daylight hours than early in the season. So, it's much easier for deer to limit their activity to before and after hunting hours.
In most areas, deer will have been pressured and conditioned to avoid hunters by the time the late season arrives. Deer, especially mature bucks that survive to the late season, are obviously skilled at avoiding hunters, poachers and predators. They are not easy to tag.
With that said, hunger is a powerful motivation! Deer that have been able to avoid being harvested during the first portion of the season may now have behaviors and activity patterns that tip the odds in the hunter's favor if the temperature is colder than normal and food is scarce.
I usually start hunting the opening day of season, and I certainly don't pass any deer that meet the harvest criteria where I'm hunting. Still, there is always a part of me that hopes I have a tag left for the late season.