A fresh blanket of snow had fallen overnight and a few sporadic flakes lingered in the calm winter air. The trek to my ridgeline stand was almost spiritual as my boots almost silently navigated the snow-covered terrain. Once situated on my perch I thought to myself there was no place I would rather be on New Year’s Eve, and I was thankful that I had held on to my buck tag in the fall because I didn’t get an opportunity for the deer I was after. Based on my latest trail camera photos I knew the deer that I called “Mr. Splits” was still out there, and my adrenaline increased simultaneously with the rising sun.
Whitetails live in a world of continual change and they naturally adjust accordingly to ensure their survival. Knowing this, it is important for hunters to be willing to change their approach throughout hunting season in order to increase the odds for success. The hunter who hunts the same way in early October, mid-November and then in January is likely to be left with the key ingredient to a bowl of tag soup by the time Super Bowl Sunday rolls around.
When it comes to filling a buck tag after the rut, it is critical that you recalibrate your approach and devise a new plan of attack. Deer will behave quite differently following the rut and firearms season as their needs for food and safety change, and it is important to review your hunting plan with a fresh set of eyes.
I start by re-scouting the property I have been hunting to get an understanding of how deer are using the areas now that their environmental factors have changed. While wearing out boot leather can help, I opt for a less intrusive approach and rely more on strategic placement of trail cameras. By this time of year, heavily-used trails are easier to identify and I simply set cameras over them to learn when deer are using the area, and how often. I try to avoid further disrupting the deer by walking into bedding areas and instead locate cameras closer to food sources. Trail cameras can also tell you which bucks survived the autumn onslaught of hunters, which is invaluable information if you are targeting a particular buck or quality of animal. I have also been amazed at how often bucks I didn’t previously know about show up after being pressured from neighboring properties.
Using the latest information I have gleaned, I set stands in areas that I anticipate the highest deer activity, and if possible, chose locations that allow me to hunt in varying wind directions. While scent control is always important, it is a must in the winter season and if you’re hunting a stand in the wrong wind I promise you it is a waste of time. Chances are you will only have so many suitable hunting opportunities to take advantage of given the unpredictable weather and busy time of year, so maximizing the experience is key. In other words, hunt smarter and not harder.
With several years of late season hunting to my credit, I have learned that evening hunts tend to be far more productive this time of year. Deer spend most of the day bedded to conserve energy and it’s not until the warmest temperatures of the day are achieved that they begin to move, which is primarily motivated by the need for food. If you have to choose between morning or evening hunts, in most cases I recommend the latter.
Contrary to what you might suspect, bucks tend to become responsive to calling again in late December and early January. I learned this almost by accident a few years ago as I began loudly blowing my grunt call in an act of desperation as daylight was fading. I was shocked when three bucks hurriedly approached my location. This response prompted me to continue the tactic on later hunts and this has allowed me to see several mature bucks late in the game that I otherwise would have likely never encountered. This is the only time of year that I am in favor of blind calling, and my typical approach is to wait for the last hour of daylight and then call in 10-15 minute intervals. I’m not shy about volume and I would argue that the louder you call the better.
In talking with other experienced late season hunters, all agree that it may be the easiest time to kill a mature buck as long as the appropriate amount of scouting work is done. Deer in general are quite vulnerable this time of year because of their need to find food, and even the smartest and biggest bucks are not exempt from this. With the possible exception of late summer, this is the easiest time of year to pattern a particular animal and it’s likely that he will be on his feet while there is still ample shooting light available. There is also the outside possibility of a doe coming into estrous late, which can create a dynamic experience that you will never forget. In other words, this is not the time to give up and resign yourself to the idea of better luck next year.
Winter Whitetail Deer Bow HuntingAfter a brief three hour sit and not seeing much activity I descended my stand, slung my bow and headed for home. I had only walked about 50 yards when I heard a commotion to my right. I hunkered down and watched as a doe with two young bucks on her tail came crashing through the thicket a mere stone’s throw away. While they stopped to catch their breath, I could hear more deer approaching and was astonished to see three additional bucks join the party. The last buck on scene was “Mr. Splits,” and I could only watch as my bow hung helplessly from my shoulder.
I never did catch up with “Mr. Splits” that winter but my pursuit of the mature buck with his signature split brow tines produced one of my more memorable hunting moments. Some of my best encounters have occurred well after Christmas making it one of my favorite times to be in the woods. If you still have a tag in your pocket, don’t despair. With smart scouting, a fresh approach and a renewed sense of hope, getting an opportunity at a trophy buck is well within the realm of possibility this time.