Why does it always feel like deer hunting season is over with the end of the rut? I experience this phenomenon every year while hunting in Wisconsin. I feel like I missed my chance if my archery tag is still eating a whole through my pocket once gun season arrives the 3rd week of November. Perhaps, it’s because the action packed rut and oh-so-many close calls yielded just that…close calls. Then the rifle season begins and for someone who loves the challenge of bow hunting, it’s kind of a “can’t wait until it’s over” type feeling…aside from the opening weekend at deer camp. So what does a guy do when he is waiting for late-season archery to open? He plans and schemes a late-season attack until his head hurts. One minute you’re thinking you have a genius plan, and the next minute you’re tearing it apart and second guessing it. In order to be successful you have to remember the late-season basics and consciously stick to them.
1 – It’s all about the food.
In my mind, late-season is the easiest time to pattern and kill a mature buck that avoided you all season provided you have ample amounts of quality food. Sure, the rut is awesome, but you never know what you are going to get. More importantly, you have no idea where your hit list bucks are running. If they didn’t get whacked already, there is a good chance those deer you were seeing early season will return home and establish an identifiable pattern moving between food and cover during the evenings. Simply put, this is why you plant food plots, especially grain producing plots.
A food plot with standing corn will undoubtedly attract deer during the winter months. In some states it is legal to knock over or mow the standing corn which gives you better shot opportunities and is also favored by deer. Be sure to check the local regulations before knocking over the corn.
2 – Tree stand cover is severely limited.
During the late-season you have a much higher chance of being pegged by deer while up in a tree. They have been hunted all season now and are better than ever at spotting you perched up in the air. They can easily pick up on movement, now that you are silhouetted in the skyline. To combat this, I will move roughly 50% of my tree stands specifically for late season and disregard the other 50%. Stands are moved to trees that have one or preferably more of the following characteristics: a beefy tree (+20” in diameter), splits/branches around the 20 foot mark, is still holding leaves, provides good back cover, is surrounded by a cluster of other trees, and sits back in the cover at least five yards.
A ground blind placed along the edge of a major food source is a late-season slam dunk!
If that seems like a pretty particular list of requirements my tree needs to meet, that’s because it is. Not many trees in southeastern Wisconsin meet my criteria, which is why you can never underestimate the effectiveness of ground blinds. While I prefer tree stands for viewing, they simply don’t compete with a well located and brushed in ground blind sitting on the edge of corn or soybean plot once the snow starts to fall. Not to mention, the added warmth they provide by shielding the wind and the potential to use a portable heater.
3 – Snow shows the sign.
I shouldn’t have to explain much here…snow shows you where the deer are travelling, hanging out, feeding and bedding. Chances are most of the northern half of the United States will receive some amount of snow before the season ends. Snow can also be a negative, however. I have hunted properties in the past where the deer completely vacate the property as soon as snow covers the ground. Reason being, the snow covered any remaining food they had and they vacated the small property in search of foods providing more energy.
On the flip side, if you are one of the few that has quality food when snow blankets the landscape, you may and are likely to see a significant spike in the number of deer using your property.
Fun Fact: You can tell a doe bed from a buck bed in the snow by looking where the yellow (urine) spot is. If the spot appears at either end of the elongated bed, it was a doe bed. If it appears in the middle of the curve, it was a buck bed. Same can be done without snow if you feel like getting down and dirty with the sniff test. There was no urine in the deer bed pictured above.
If you are lucky enough to have snow, you may be better off giving up a day of hunting for a day of scouting.
4 – Observe, and then hunt.
It’s a natural impulse to want to set up and hunt an area littered with deer sign the very first afternoon you find it. However, unless you have hunted it during previous winters or understand how and where the deer are travelling exactly, you will be far better off if you sit back and observe from a distance before moving in. A set of binoculars will be your most valuable tool during an “observation” sit. Understanding where the deer are entering, exiting, and feeding is critical to success. Many hunters will sit along field edges and see a pile of deer every night, but will never be within bow range of a single deer! One simple night of glassing can help put you in perfect position on your very first sit.
This is the ultimate deer hunting blind that is both elevated and completely hidden. This would be a great spot to observe AND hunt from.
Observe a potential feeding area from a point where you can see the majority of the edge you intend to hunt. Once you have the entrance, exit and feeding locations pinpointed, hang a stand or place a ground blind the very next day and wait for your trophy to follow the script from the night before. Remember, anything can happen while you are in the field, so it’s still a smart decision to pack your bow along during these “observation” sits just in case.
5 – Sleep in, hunt evenings.
In much of the whitetails range, December and January are a time of year when you don’t have to feel bad about trading in a hunt for an extended stay on your mattress (Note: This is actually the peak rut for Mississippi and some of the other southern states, so I would suggest hunting the mornings there). The cold wintry days have deer back on their typical food/cover patterns, of which, the deer are typically back to their bedroom before morning light. Unless you have trail cam pictures indicating otherwise, I would avoid the increased likelihood of bumping deer in the morning and only hunt their known feeding locations during the evenings. The last two hours of daylight should be action packed.
Standing corn and bean fields are great deer hunting hot spots once the temperatures drop and the snow starts to fly. Brassica, winter wheat, and harvested fields left unplowed are also great late-season food sources for deer.
6 – Continue to strategize.
The best hunters are continually adapting their approach to stay even with the whitetail. After all, our brain is about the only thing we hold the advantage on over a deer, so we must outwit them. My brain has been firing through new potential ambush locations the entire time I have been pecking away at this keyboard and it’s just about time to put these plans into action.