The late season is tough; most hunters get discouraged when they realize just how tough it is. It only takes a few days of freezing and seeing nothing to put a damper on even the rosiest late-season hopes. But under the right conditions, the late season can be very good. Not everyone has those conditions available, so in this feature, I am going to discuss what it takes to have great late-season hunting. If you can pull this together, you will enjoy some action-packed evenings in the stand.
I used to think great late-season hunting required cold weather, but that is only half true. After years of hunting nearly every day of the late season, I have realized what is really required to get deer moving is not so much cold temperatures but any significant break in the weather. If temperatures have been seasonal for a period of time, a cold snap of even 10 degrees below the norm will get deer out of their beds and into the food earlier. If, on the other hand, the weather has been frigid for weeks, a warm spell will serve the same purpose.
One of the best stretches of hunting we have had on our farm took place toward the end of the 2008 season. My friend Mike Sawyer and his cousin Chris Mack were hunting the edge of one of my alfalfa fields shortly after a warm spell broke the icy grip of winter that had locked everything down for most of December. By the time they started hunting on New Year’s Day, the warm spell was three days old; all the ice was finally gone, opening up the fields. It was amazing how the deer responded to their new — and much-needed — food sources.
Mike was bowhunting and Chris was filming. But Chris was also carrying a muzzleloader. If a buck passed out of bow range, Mike would grab the camera and film Chris.
Over the next three days, Mike shot four does with his bow. And Mike filmed Chris as he shot a mature, 130-inch, 9-pointer that passed just beyond bow range on Jan. 2. The next evening, Chris returned the favor as he filmed Mike shooting an incredible, 180-inch 8-pointer! Mike made a 40-yard shot as the buck headed past the stand toward the open fields.
Here is the kicker; all but one of those six deer came from the same stand! They were so focused on the open fields made accessible by the warm front that they streamed past despite all the human activity that had taken place in that area. It was almost as if they were oblivious to it. It was the most amazing stretch of action we have ever seen anywhere on this farm — let alone from one treestand.
I had been hunting nearly every day of December (either for myself or with the kids) and things had gotten really slow after the brutal cold set in. At first, the deer moved heavily and then they locked down waiting for the conditions to change. When the weather warmed, they went nuts. I actually filmed an employee shoot a really good buck the day after the thaw started. The 150-inch 8-pointer came out at 50 yards and I let Chad take him with the muzzleloader. After several weeks of laying low under brutal conditions, it took a warm front to get all the bucks going.
Last season, it was a cold snap that did the trick. The cold that settled on the Midwest at the end of the year produced a classic example of a late-season feeding frenzy. It was brutal in late December. Starting right after Christmas, I was getting daylight photos of a couple of big deer near one of my food plots. When you have a situation like that, you have to make your move right away.
Though I didn’t have a stand in the right place, the opportunity was too good to pass up. So, I went in early carrying a couple of stands, put them up while trying not to sweat and hunted that afternoon. I had great action; the deer started pouring in before I even got the stands completely in place, more than two hours before dark. I saw one of the biggest bucks on the farm that evening. We got it all on video — a great hunt and a great memory, one of the most enjoyable hunts I have ever spent in a tree.
A few days later, on Jan. 1, 2011, the wind was right again and I went back to that stand. The temperature was still low single-digits, with wind chills well below zero. It was rough staying on stand for more than a couple of hours, but the deer sightings kept just enough adrenaline pumping that my blood never had a chance to freeze. Forty minutes after we got into the tree, a nice 8-pointer a friend had missed back in November came within bow range. At the same time, one of the bucks I had been hunting all season showed up on the other end of the plot. Ah, a dilemma; take the bird in hand or wait on the whopper?
I had to make a quick decision and opted for the bird in hand. During the late season, any mature buck is a trophy, and I was as proud as I could be to shoot the old boy. When he ran off, the bigger buck on the other end of the field never even looked up. Sometimes, late-season bucks are so focused on feeding they are less sensitive to danger. I had two tags in my pocket — maybe I would have a chance for a double!
Although the bigger buck fed my way, he did so slowly and didn’t get to me before dark. I had to call in the reinforcements to drive up to the plot and run him off so I could climb down without spooking him.
In all, I saw eight bucks that evening, and all of them came out well before dark. I never see action like that during the rut. Under the right conditions, the late season is even better.
Although I have focused a lot on weather changes and the impact they have on late-season hunting, it is a misconception to think temperature is the most important key to late-season success. While a temperature break will usually push deer to abandon normal caution in areas with moderate hunting pressure, these breaks are not absolute necessities. They serve to concentrate the action, but we have shot many nice bucks on average winter days. However, that didn’t just happen by chance.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE FOOD
The stress of the rut forces bucks to feed heavily during the late season. If they are not being pressured hard, they will fall into feeding patterns that bring them out during daylight by season’s end. However, if they are being pressured you will need more help in the form of unseasonably cold weather to cause them to set aside caution in favor of food. Either way, food is the key — whether it is food alone of food mixed with cold weather.
If you don’t have a highly attractive food source in your hunting area, the late season probably won’t be much fun. You need to imprint that deeply into your mind. During the late season, it is all about the food. If you have the food, you have the deer. It is that simple.
I plant quite a few acres of food plots on our farm each year. If you are careful about what you plant, and how you plant it, you can get some attractive plots in place without breaking the bank. Truthfully, my food plots aren’t all that useful during the rut. I often hunt near them, and they do hold does in the area, but I could have decent rut hunting without the food plots.
However, my entire late-season strategy revolves around those food plots. For that reason alone, they aren’t optional. If I want to shoot something after the rut, I have to have food. That is when food plots pay for themselves.
The best possible food sources in the most isolated areas will produce the best action. You can learn a ton from placing a trail camera (or maybe two) on your best food sources to determine when and where the bucks are coming out.
Many of the better cameras on the market today have a time-lapse mode that allows you to take a photo at set intervals during certain times of the day. For example, you can set the camera to take a photo every 30 seconds for the last hour of daylight. When you go back to study these photos, you will start to see patterns develop that you could never piece together any other way except being there yourself. It is a simple strategy: place the camera, set the mode and check it every three days. When you start to get daylight photos of a nice buck, move in and hunt.
Late-season deer tend to move much more in the afternoons than the mornings. One researcher found that most deer finish feeding about two hours before sunrise. They then pick their way slowly toward their bedding areas. This makes morning hunting a risky proposition when the rut is over.
Another challenge comes in the form of compressed home ranges that occur during these winter cold snaps. The deer bed very close to their food. You have to be very careful in the routes you take to your stands, because the deer are likely to be nearby.
Bucks won’t use the same trail to enter their feeding area each day. In fact, they don’t always come out before dark each day. So, don’t read too much into a single sighting or photo. You have to play things carefully by placing your stand in a spot that will give you a shot without letting the deer figure out you are there. One option is a warm ground blind. Have someone drive in and spook the deer from the field at the end of legal shooting time so you can sneak out.
Mature bucks usually wait to come out last, following all the does and immature bucks. Sometimes they won’t even make it to the food by dark, but they will be nearby, watching and waiting. So, even if you only spook a couple of does while heading back to your vehicle after an unsuccessful hunt, you’ve just educated his advance guard and have made it more difficult to tag the buck on future hunts. Make sure you can get out of the area without alarming a single deer. If you can’t, you’re too far into the feeding area.