Keeping at it through the snow and cold for elusive late-season rewards
Deer are often much more visible during late-season. Wintry settings allow for easy long-range scouting and observation.
It had been a long autumn--antelope in August, elk in September and whitetails in October and November. Now, as I trudged through the icy-cold December woods, I seriously questioned my resolve, and sanity. With a whitetail tag still in my pocket, I wondered if I could "stay hooked" during this time of the bow season when it seemed that everything was against me. The firearm season was past; many bucks had been laid to rest and the ones that had survived were much more wary. Most of the breeding was over and daytime movement was minimal. Cold winds were blowing through a desolate and lonely landscape. Could I really hope for success, or was I just going through the motions?
The western Oklahoma plains were an unusual place for me to be in December because traditionally I'd be found in an Illinois or Kansas woodlot. But this year was different. My November hunts had been very good to me, and my midwestern tags were filled. As a matter of fact, with a couple of trophies already under my belt, I wondered why I put myself through the rigors of winter hunting. But when you've got the fire inside, well, you know what that means.
Cold Bucks, Bad Luck
Crunching through the ankle-deep snow, I slowly made my way to the old cottonwood tree. Staring up at my tree stand, I took a deep breath and mentally prepared myself for the long, cold vigil ahead. Climbing upward, I carefully placed each foot on the steps, oversized boots making the task a challenge. Brushing snow from the rungs of the platform, I strapped in, climbed aboard and folded down the seat, quickly planting my rear-end there.
Reaching into my backpack, I pulled out some extra clothes and sock hat, hoping to conserve the warmth that I'd created on my hike and climb. Engrossed in my efforts, the distant movement nearly escaped my attention. Freezing in mid-motion, my eyes became riveted to the forms of two deer that were running across the nearby alfalfa field. Even at 150 yards it was immediately clear to me that I had a situation on my hands, one of the deer was a whopper buck and the doe that he was chasing was quickly headed straight toward my location!
Ill-prepared archers in bulky clothing have given plenty of deer the opportunity to live through the late-season. Make sure to practice in the clothing that you will be hunting in to see if anything interferes with your shooting form or accuracy.
Hurriedly throwing my extra apparel on a nearby limb, I grabbed my bow, knocked an arrow and clipped my release on the string. This accomplished, I quickly glanced back toward the fast-approaching deer, once again realizing that they were most-certainly headed directly for my hide. Pulling my bowstring back to my face, I prepared for a moment that would become forever frozen in my memory.
Even though it was late-December, it was clear that the yearling doe was in full estrus, and the monster buck had no intention of letting her get away. Following her with all caution thrown to the wind, the monarch was quite a sight lunging after the much-smaller female. Watching the fast-approaching show around the side of my peepsight, my heart raced with adrenaline. In seconds, the small doe was trotting past my location, 20 yards to my left. Swinging my top sight pin onto the middle of the buck's ribcage as he followed, I snapped off a shot. In a millisecond, I knew that I'd blown it. The arrow had deflected off a small, unseen limb.
Grabbing another arrow, I quickly reloaded as the two deer stopped only a short distance away. Glancing around my tree, I spotted the big buck coming up behind the small doe, head outstretched, lip curled. Clearly oblivious to any disturbance, the big guy had one thing on his mind. It was at this point, that I saw the proportions of the buck's headgear--a certain B&C contender! In a state of meltdown, yanking my bowstring back, I quickly leaned out from my tree stand and "let'er fly" once again.
Big bucks make it through the early archery season and the firearms seasons every year. They turn extremely wary, but are still vulnerable to savvy archery hunters.
In seconds, the area was cloaked in solitude, my quarry long gone. Knowing that my second shot had deflected also, barely clipping the top of the buck's back, I was instantly in a state of massive depression and anxiety. As I looked down at the long, dark-brown hair on the snow a short distance away, I knew that I'd blown a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Sick to death, I sat in the stand for the rest of the evening, unable to enjoy the other deer that appeared randomly.
By sunset, the single-digit cold drove me from my perch. As I trudged toward my truck, I reflected upon the fact that that my late-season hunting efforts had provided me with an opportunity to harvest one of the largest-antlered whitetails that I'd ever seen. I knew that I'd be back, every day possible, until season closed, or until I filled my tag. Yes, I would go down trying.
A Matter Of Perspective
As far as bowhunting for big bucks during the late-season is concerned, we can view the glass as half full, or half empty. In other words, we can focus on all the obstacles against us, or on all the possibilities to succeed. Certainly, on the average, the greatest odds for consistent success on big bucks comes from a strategy focused on the main breeding season of November. But there are plenty of trophies out there in October, and in December also. Such being the case, it only stands to reason that a hardcore archery hunter will be out there putting forth a diligent effort at these times also.
Finding reasons to be afield in October is easy because the weather is warm, and a fresh crop of bucks is available. But it's usually only the addict that remains when late-season rolls around. It's only through a passionate love of the sport that a hunter will judge the late-season pain to be worth the gain. You must have a consuming love of the out-of-doors to see the beauty of a black-and-white winter landscape. It takes a special sort of fellow to get a thrill from having "braved the elements" and came out richer for the experience.
Even more than the physical challenges involved i
n winter bowhunting, it can be the mental challenge that becomes our undoing. Yes, it's hard to convince yourself that there are still some big bucks out there after the firearm seasons have come and gone, but there are. Yes, it's hard to convince yourself that big bucks move around very much during daylight hours at this time of year, but they do. And yes, it's hard to convince yourself that all the effort and discomfort will be worth the gain, but it is.
Gleaning The Rewards
Actually, there are some real benefits to being afield at this time of year. For starters, you'll have the woods virtually to yourself because the majority of archery hunters have already "hung'er up." If solitude ranks high on your list of bowhunting priorities, then here's your grand reward. Also, with human activity greatly reduced, deer activity will become more relaxed, concentrated and predictable.
A combination of harsh weather and limited food sources will motivate large numbers of deer to yard up in small areas. Deer are often extremely visible at this time of year, and long distance scouting can be a very good approach to success. These facts, and many more, are reasons to view the glass as half full, not half empty. Keep these things in mind; combine a positive outlook with toughness and good woods savvy, and the late-season can be a goldmine of bowhunting opportunity.
Late-season is a great time to sit a food source and try to arrow a few antlerless deer for the freezer.
To top it all off, another dynamite reason to be afield in December revolves around the fact that another flurry of rutting activity will occur mid-month as a few random does come into estrus. In addition, it's not uncommon to find a situation where a yearling doe has reached the age where she is coming into heat for her first time and this can occur well into late-December, and even into January. Let me give you a prime example of just such a scenario that I experienced a few days after Christmas of 2002.
I'd filled my Kansas buck tag in November, on a 140-class beauty. Deciding that I'd like to put a couple of does in the freezer, my wife Peggie and I headed back to our hunting area shortly after the Christmas holiday. Spending a little time scouting, I determined that a certain winter wheat field was receiving heavy use by the local deer herd. During a midday time, I placed a few tree stands around and near the field and Peggie and I were ready to hunt.
Our first evening afield provided me with the harvest of a nice doe, and Peggie with plenty of close encounters, but no shooting opportunities. With the arrival of the next morning, my little bride "opted-out" of the hunt, owing to the fact that the temperature was about 10 degrees. Going it alone, I found myself greeting daylight in a tree stand that I'd placed in a brushy pasture a short distance from the wheat field. Shortly after sunup, distant movement caught my attention. A small doe was moving through the nearby field, with a group of seven bucks in tow.
The first, and evidently the most dominant, was a 160-inch bruiser. Of the remaining six bucks, two were clearly P&Y-class animals, with the larger one going somewhere in the lower-150s. Wow, what a sight. Then suddenly I realized that I couldn't shoot a buck, what a nightmare! Watching as the young doe led the procession past me at 20 yards, I melted inside. Not even having a desire to shoot the doe, I simply watched as a dream hunt unfolded before me. At one time, I had all seven of the bucks within bow range!
As the procession finally drifted into the distance, I sat dumbfounded. Later in the morning, as a few random does drifted by, I could not find it in myself to take a shot at any of them. Getting down, I hurried back to the camper to tell Peggie my story. As we reflected on my experience, we realized that Peggie still had her buck tag in possession and the stand that I'd hunted was the one that I'd offered to put her in this morning while trying to coax her to roll out of the sack! What an example of missed opportunity on an incredible late-season hunt.
Preparation Is Key
Late-season bowhunting offers rewards that a hardcore outdoorsman finds ripe for the picking. In recent years, I've found myself using an "over-body suit" that completely insulates me from the wind and cold. I can sit in relative comfort for hours in harsh conditions, while wearing only lightly insulated clothing and boots under the suit. Thus equipped, my time on stand and enjoyment while there has dramatically increased.
Also, I make sure to eat high calorie foods before I go to my tree, so that my body is making plenty of heat. Since the only part of my body that is exposed to the elements when I'm in my "cocoon" is my head and neck, it goes without saying that I wear heavy garments there. I keep a covering over my face and nose. Breathing through the covering over my nose conserves a great deal of body heat.
Be sure to hunt from an oversized, tree stand at this time of the season and practice shooting your bow from this setup, in your hunting garb. Finally, patience and perseverance are keys to success. If you've done the scouting, get out there and hang tough. Though there will be many hunts when action will be sparse, you'll occasionally find yourself in the right place, at the right time, and this is when action can be as good as it gets.