Late Season Whitetail Deer Hunting
Most whitetail deer seasons across the various states and provinces on the north American continent began during late September, and the end during the middle of January. Throughout this time period whitetail deer hunters across the nation seek out monster bucks. Some hunters fill their deer tag early season. Other hunters focus solely upon hunting during the rut. Normally whitetail deer hunters that hunt deer during the late season months fall into two categories. There are the hunters that simply did not fill their deer tag and are forced to involve themselves in late season whitetail deer hunting. The other category of whitetail deer hunters that take to the field for late season hunting are those that recognize the benefits of taking a monster buck at this time. A over the course of this article we will discuss what occurs during late season whitetail deer hunting in regard to the deerís life cycle, diet, food source availability, quality and availability of record book whitetails at this time, and whitetail deer hunting strategies during the winter months.
After being in business as a whitetail deer outfitter in the Midwestern United States for 13 years I have noted that some of the biggest bucks we have harvested have been during late season whitetail deer hunting. The key to being successful during this time is understanding what the whitetail deerís life cycle really is during the late season months.
The next several paragraphs of this article may seem somewhat generic in nature, however let us briefly review the year round life cycle of the whitetail deer. By doing so we will see the what the herd is experiencing a over the course of a year.
The lifespan of a whitetail is 11 to 12 years (17 to 20 years in captivity). But most free-roaming deer never live that long; they are hit by cars, succumb to disease, killed by predators or shot by hunters. In heavily hunted areas, many bucks live only 1Ĺ or 2 Ĺ years. Deer grow to about 6 feet long and stand 3 to 4 feet high. They are reddish or grayish in color, depending on their habitat and the time of year. The weight of whitetails varies, from 100 to more than 300 pounds.
The breeding season is the beginning of the life cycle of the white-tailed deer. Depending on where you live, this cycle may occur anywhere from Late October to early December. The peak of the breeding cycle is known as the "rut". This is the time when most of the breeding activity occurs. The length of the rut is generally determined by latitude and the length of the day. In the northern areas and the shorter days of Fall the rutting activity increases and ends within a relatively short period of time. In the southern states differences in the length of the days are not as pronounced and the breeding activity lasts for a longer period of time. When the doe fawn breeds is usually dependant o their physical condition. Large doe fawns can breed as early as 6 months old. Weather, range condition, growing season and heredity all play a roll in the overall picture of the breeding cycle. Remember although generic in nature this information is pertinent to late season whitetail deer hunting.
From the time the buck sheds it's velvet until the actual breeding takes place, he under goes a series of changes. As the buck's level of testosterone ( the principal male hormone) increases he goes through physical and behavioral changes, he becomes less wary and more vulnerable to accidents and hunters. This does not mean that he presents himself as an easy target only the chances of seeing a buck are better during times of peak rutting activity. During the rut the buck actively scent marks his area making his presence known. This is done to attract does and to warn off or challenge rival bucks.
The heat or estrus period in the doe lasts about 24 hours. If the doe is not bred during this time period the doe will come into heat again in about a month. A doe that has not bred is capable of coming into heat about 5 times during the year. The gestation period of the typical white-tailed deer is about 7 months. If a doe is giving birth for the first time she will usually have 1 fawn. Older does usually give birth to twins and when conditions are really good, triplets. Remember although generic in nature this information is pertinent to late season whitetail deer hunting.
The newborn fawn is extremely vulnerable for the first 48 hours of it's life. Fawns that survive the first two days have a good chance of making it into the deer population the following year. The fawn can weigh anywhere between 4 and 7 pounds at birth. For the first 3 to 4 weeks of it's life it will stay in one location which is determined by the doe. The doe will come to the fawn during this time so it can nurse. The fawn is completely odorless for the first few days of it's life and will lie motionless when danger is present. Other than when she returns to nurse, the doe will stay away from the fawn so her odor does not give away the fawn's location to possible predators. At around 4 weeks the fawn is now eating solid foods and is able to travel with it's mother. Fawns lose their spots at about 3 months of age when they start to take on the colors of an adult deer. Hopefully, if all goes well, the deer will be around next year when the cycle begins anew.
DIET OF THE WHITETAIL DEER
It is important if you want to be successful with late season whitetail deer hunting to fully understand the diet of the whitetail deer. The reason is because during winter months food sources have been known to be so scarce in some regions that deer starve. Thus your key to deer hunting after gun season has everything in the world to do with understanding food sources and bedding areas which whitetails are forced to utilize during winter months so you can position yourself to ambush trophy whitetail deer. As aforementioned the whitetail deer has a vast array of food sources from Spring till early Winter. The diet of the whitetail deer is one of the reasons why whitetail deer continue to thrive in almost any location they are present. The white-tailed deer is an herbivoreóit eats plants. Deer graze on tree leaves, broadleaved herbs, and berries in the summer and acorns, grass, and herbs during the fall. During the winter, deer munch on white cedar, twigs, nuts, fruits, and corn and in the spring deer eat grass, wheat, and alfalfa. Deer have a four-chambered stomach that allows them to digest these plant foods. They gobble up their food quickly and hardly even chew. Later as they are resting, they cough up their food and re-chew itóso much for table manners. The white-tailed deer is an herbivore or plant eater. It follows well-used trails to its feeding areas. It feeds in the early morning hours and in the late afternoon. A deer's diet changes depending on its habitat and the season. It eats green plants in the spring and summer. In the fall, it eats corn, acorns and other nuts. In the winter, it eats the buds and twigs of woody plants. The white-tailed deer is a ruminant. Its stomach has four chambers for digesting food. In the first two chambers, the rumen and the reticulum, food is mixed with bile to form the cud. The cud is regurgitated and re-chewed and swallowed. It passes through the rumen to the omasum where water is removed. Finally, the food enters the last chamber, the abomasum, where it is sent on to the small intestine where the nutrients in the food are absorbed. This digestive system lets the white-tailed deer eat foods like woody plants that other animals can't digest!
WINTER DIET FOR THE WHITETAIL DEER
The point to all this generic information regarding the life cycle and diet of the whitetail deer in order to be successful with late season whitetail deer hunting, is that one must understand just what deer are forced to eat, and where they must bed to survive harsh winters. During the winter months deer here in the Midwest are forced to utilize and exhaust every possible food source to maintain body fat. During the Spring, Summer, and Fall deer have access to so much food that literally in my area while planting food plots can be fun, it almost like ďPlacing a gumball machine in a candy store.Ē However harsh winter months from December through early March place whitetail deer into a situation where they no longer take food sources for granted. Suddenly a primary food source is your number one factor when considering how to be successful with late season whitetail deer hunting. If you can plant a foodplot and own your farm then these late season food plots are golden.
WINTER FOODPLOTS FOR WHITETAIL DEER
Let us visit recommendations for winter food plots in the Midwest that will pay dividends for late season deer hunting. If you have a low or moderate deer density and enough rainfall each year to support corn, split the field in half and plant clover on one half and corn on the other. Deer get great summer food from the clover and you provide a strong fall and winter attractor with the corn. Two and a half acres of corn isnít a lot so be prepared to see it disappear fast starting in November unless your deer numbers are really low. For your information: a football field is about 1.5 acres, so that should give you some idea of the size of the ground we are talking about.
Total cost for five acres: about $325 the first year and about $225 each year after until the clover thins out. At that point, you can simply rotate the two crops and start over. This assumes you pinch pennies and can borrow the equipment or get someone to put it in for nothing. This costs is well worth the money for late season whitetail deer hunting.
If you expect high deer utilization (from a high deer density or a lack of other food sources) and/or your area has insufficient rainfall to support corn, I recommend soybeans for 60% of the plot (three acres) and clover on the remaining 40%. This will assure a good deal of summer food as well as a fall and winter attractor. Also consider drilling winter wheat into the thinnest parts of the bean field once the beans have filled in and started to dry down. As long as you donít work the ground, the beans will still be available but the addition of the winter grain planting will improve the overall efficiency of the plot.
Over the course of our business we have harvested several Boone and Crockett bucks while late season whitetail deer hunting by hunting over turnip foodplots. Turnips are dependable and produce big during winter months for whitetail deer hunters. Turnips are a brassica that grow very quickly and reach their peak production in 80 to 90 days. They will grow in a variety of soil conditions and they grow well in cool northern regions. Deer eat the leaves first and will eat the roots once the leaves are gone
Planting dates for turnips
They are often planted in late summer to provide a late-fall through mid-winter food source to deer.
Varieties of turnips
Different turnip hybrids produce different proportions of leaves to roots. Some varieties produce very few leaves and large roots (15% leaves to 85% roots), while in other varieties over 90% of the production is in leaves. Choose varieties that produce a high proportion of leaves because the leaves are the most nutritious part of the plant. Varieties such as Savannah and All Top produce a greater proportion of leaves to roots. Manaroa is a variety that becomes palatable early in its growth.
WINTER FOODSOURCES IF YOU CANíT PLANT FOODPLOTS
When all else fails if you donít have the area nor resources to plant a foodplot then know that any harvested cornfield or beanfield that hasnít been disc under will produce results. Also during this time period normally hunting among the big oak colonies that produced heavy mass still have enough scraps leftover to make late season whitetail deer hunting treestand positioning a worthwhile effort. Also it is important to remember that a whitetail deer can literally and regularly eats away at over 150 different plants and vegetation. Normally the heavy trails in the snow during late winter months are a dead giveaway to successful late season whitetail deer hunting.
WINTER BEDDING AREAS FOR WHITETAIL DEER
During the winter months Iím sure you throw an extra blanket on your bed as temperatures have dropped. In fact we all ďcrankĒ up the furnace just a little donít we. Likewise whitetail deer must find refuge from the elements by bedding in the densest thickets and bedding areas available to avoid harsh temperatures, and chilling winds which rob them of body fat. I have been just as successful in locating dense bed areas to enhance my odds of success while late season whitetail deer hunting as locating a primary food source. The problem with these areas is you must know your ground and you MUST be able to get to and from stand locations in these areas undetected. These dense thickets which provide shelter for whitetail deer are often times very hard to get into without alerting whitetails to your presence. Be sure and use the wind to your advantage and utilize stealth. During the late winter months of whitetail deer hunting you must learn how to locate and approach the cover they utilize without spooking your deer off. Some hints of these types of areas include evergreen trees, logged properties that provide downed treetops as a refuge from the harsh elements, and the densest of thickets. Remember you donít need to get into the bed area with them. Stay on the outskirts and watch the activity attempting to make a kill from the outskirts. Only if forced move in on them and get in their bedroom.
HUNTING STRATEGIES FOR LATE SEASON WHITETAIL DEER HUNTING
Being successful late in the deer season takes a different approach than early-season or even midseason hunting. During early season, bucks are generally in their late-summer patterns and routines. During mid-season, they are influenced by the rut and actively search out does, which are generally found around food-producing areas. But as the season continues and the rut begins to wane and sex drives begin to greatly decrease, deer, especially mature bucks, start to do things a whole lot differently.
Only a few days before, procreation was on every buck's mind, but now with their desires and nature satiated, bucks' thoughts return to survival. Not only do they have to avoid hunters and other predators, they have to think about regaining weight lost during the lean weeks of the rut, when food took a back seat to pursuing all does in the area.
The drive for survival is an interesting one, especially in whitetails. With the rut behind him, no more will a mature buck throw caution to the wind. His movements from bedding to feeding areas generally occur under the cover of darkness. During the day bucks tend to "hole up" and rest. They're tired from chasing does day and night with little or no sleep or rest. Once the rut is over, the bucks become a bit lethargic, preferring to rest rather than travel. They are also interested in conserving energy against cold weather, and that means they spend as much time bedding and as little effort traveling as they can.
To me there is no greater challenge than trying to take a mature buck during the post-rut, which coincides with the last days of the season in many instances.
However, even during the late season, there is one thing that is of a necessity to whitetails: food. The necessity of food is a constant throughout the season, hunting or otherwise, and regardless of where you hunt. Locate a late-season food source and your chances of success are greatly increased.
By late season most of the acorns and other mast and fruits are merely a pleasant memory to deer. Now they have to rely on greenfields; food plots; evergreen browse, such as smilax (greenbrier) and honeysuckle; and possibly other local favorites. Find the deer's food sources and part of the battle is won when hunting during the late season.
I sometimes get "tickled" with some "hunters" who, if they have not taken their buck by the first few days of the season, give up the hunt for the year. Having confidence in yourself and continuing the hunt even after others have already started making plans for next year quite often leads to late-season success. I'm a firm believer in hunting until it is completely over. Winston Churchill once delivered a commencement speech at an esteemed East Coast College with a mere sentence. ďNever, ever give up.Ē Then Mr. Churchill sat back down. Don't quit until the last second of the season.
If taking note of sightings is the first step in planning your end-of-season hunting, the second is to save a few spots just for that purpose. Have some places set aside, in your mind if not on your map that you choose not to hunt during the first two-thirds or so of the open season. Save them, undisturbed, for the latter days. They can be on public land, such as in a national forest or wildlife refuge. One or two should be well away from where you see most of the hunter traffic during the early and middle parts of the season. Check a map to find tucked-away spots that others seem to overlook. Many will be near paved roads, sometimes even within 50 yards. Most, of course, will be remote. Those places are ideal spots for scouting fresh food sources and bedding areas - habitat that will attract old bucks after the stresses of the rut have passed, when their bodies are most in need of rest and recuperation.
Post-rut bucks are largely nocturnal. They have reverted to the movement patterns for which they are naturally programmed. They also prefer darkness now because they have learned that darkness brings an absence of motor noise and footfalls, of muffled voices and whiffs of sweat in the wind. Late-season hunters need to adjust their behavior patterns as well. My method is simple: to abandon the open woods, where the bucks once dogged does, and to seek out the thickets and draws in which they spend their days. This means passing up permanent stands and ladders. It means loading a light pack, strapping on a climbing stand, and spending serious time high over the thickest of thickets I know about or can find.
Brushy slopes and bottoms in cutovers are fine places to climb for big bucks. Old fields with brushy terraces, especially those with south-facing slopes, are ideal, if a hunter can find a high tree to climb safely. For obvious reasons, wintering deer like to bed down on southern exposures, out of the wind. In my area the stand trees of choice are sound, straight pines, and if it isn't too windy I usually climb to the first limbs. I go high for two reasons: to be able to see better and to take my human scent up and away from game.
Young pine forests, with trees chest high or better, are commonly full of blackberry briers, tall grasses, myrtles and other shrubby growth. The poorer soils of abandoned farms and pastures often have lots of cedars, which make good cover and windbreaks. All such places, whether remote or close to human habitation, make excellent escapes and refuges for deer. I love to hang a stand around these. After going in the dark and climbing a pre-selected tree - most often one left as a seed tree for natural regeneration - even on the coldest of days two things will warm me up: a glimpse of antler or the welcome sunlight as the rays finally fall on my back. On cloudy days, with or without misty rain, I can only hope for a buck, but that's okay. Bearable misery is part of the hunting experience.
All deer leave their beds during the day to urinate, stretch their legs, groom, and maybe browse. It's reasonable to assume that while they're up, and knowing those big acorns are just a few yards away, they'll come for a little taste, particularly if they're tired bucks in need of restoring body fat that'll be needed for surviving the stresses of January, February and miserable old March. I make it my business to find those hidden-away places just for use in the post-rut period.
If you're a late season deer hunter, particularly in the northern states and provinces, then you are probably well acquainted with hunting in extreme cold, windy and snowy conditions. To put it bluntly, waiting until the eleventh hour to shoot your deer can be like playing roulette. The later it gets, the more the odds are stacked against you. Worst case scenario - if the weather becomes too unbearable, you might get bumped out of the game altogether.
Regardless, savvy hunters know that big whitetails aren't stupid. Exceptional bucks are virtually invisible through most of the year, only becoming vulnerable when Mother Nature calls them to breed. What this means is that big bucks travel in search of hot does during and immediately following the first estrus anticipating the opportunity to service as many does as possible. It is during the two weeks following the estrus that really big deer become most visible and vulnerable. On many occasions, I've encountered world-class bucks during the last few days of hunting. Having strategically run the gauntlet of hunters and predators throughout the year, those big bucks are sometimes duped in the final days of the season.
Given that almost anything goes when you're down to the crunch, if you find yourself hunting later in the season, a few tried and true strategies will undoubtedly tip the odds in your favor. Pinpoint the highest concentration of does, where they're bedding and feeding and set up on trails to and from those areas. Recognize that survival by way of nutrition and conserving energy are fast becoming a top priority at this time of the year.
Motivation, vulnerability and inclinations evolve as deer transition from their breeding period on through to the post-rut and then as they prepare for the winter months ahead. In tough conditions, deer will minimize their movement, so setting up as close as possible to where they are bedding can be marginally more effective, but certainly much more risky. Setting up on food sources is no doubt more desirable, however shot opportunities may be severely restricted by low light conditions. During most of the deer season, we would view bedding areas as sanctuary and leave it alone to preserve the integrity of our deer hunting property. In the late season however, this is one of the most effective ways to get a shot. Deer simply don't move as much during the late season. With these things in mind, there are no set rules when the end draws near. To tag a decent buck in the late season, you've got to be patient. Sometimes this means hunting right down to the last minute.
Besides in riverbottom land, youíll find whitetails holed up in large, thick shelterbelts, out in huge fields of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land (if itís not filled in with snow), and the sure thing is usually a big cattail slough. Whitetails love to slip into a stand of cattails and snuggle up in the nearly impenetrable safety they provide. Another key thing to look for, as always, is the food source. Corn is king. Followed by volunteer winter wheat (nice, green fields that deer love) then sugar beets. I always look for corn and focus on that. Food plots are fine, but if theyíre small they were probably stripped of their cobs long before late season arrived. Large cornfields that have been picked and hold lots of waste corn will do the trick nicely. Deer will travel for a long way to get to corn, and other food sources for that matter. The next key is to figure out where they are bedding. Late season whitetails have just been hunted hard during the firearm season and are extremely spooky. They donít like exposing themselves during the day and open cornfields give them more exposure than they care for. So, theyíll bed down in heavy cover nearby and wait until the last minutes of daylight before getting up and making their move to feed. Donít underestimate how far a deer will walk from bedding to feeding grounds, a mile or even two is nothing to them.
If you still canít find late season deer, stop and talk to some landowners, call a game warden or just ask around town. The locals know where the deer are wintering, but I have a hunch finding deer will be the least of your problems this December.
By the time December arrives I usually know where to find the all-important bedding grounds. I donít hunt the food sources themselves much because it takes too long for the deer to get there in the evening and theyíre usually gone by daylight in the mornings. I much prefer bedding areas, or somewhere along the trail that leads to where the deer are feeding. In the mornings I like to slip in close to where the deer are bedding. Thatís an effort to get ahead of both the deer and daylight. Does and fawns will lollygag around for a while in the morning, but bucks waste no time getting to bed.
During December I like to have my treestands a bit higher than usual because of the lack of cover. At 6í5Ē, I stick out like a giant squirrel and skittish bucks tend to notice me if Iím not up in the air. I try to hunt the hottest trails, but itís often a game of chess trying to predict which trail the deer will take on any particular morning. I avoid setting up too close to a trail because in the cold, quiet mornings, the slightest sound can make a whitetail buck explode into flight.
My strategy doesnít change much for evening hunts. I still like to be closer to the bedding areas than the feeding areas because that puts me in a position to better intercept a buck that is taking his sweet time getting out of bed and heading to dinner.
During the latter part of the season I donít use a decoy, rattling antlers or any kind of a call. Oh, Iíll still have a grunt and a bleat call in my pocket, just in case, but most of the deer are so touchy at this time of year, those tactics only seem to alarm them. Whatever strategy I use to hunt late-season whitetails, I make sure I go every chance I get, find the deer and spend as much time as possible in their travel path waiting for something good to happen.
THE MOST IMPORTANT FACTOR TO LATE SEASON WHITETAIL DEER HUNTING IS STAYING COMFORTABLE AND WARM.
As in previous articles I have told you I hate promoting product in articles, however if I do not do so in this article I have not equipped you and provided safety precautions for whitetail deer hunters. During late season deer hunting if the hunter is not warm it can be nothing short of misery which results in low motivation, life threatening conditions, and the ability to stay alert and hunt to the best of your abilities. Thus we are forced to take a look at what products I would highly recommend for late season whitetail deer hunting. Sorry, you know I donít go this route with articles very often.
It doesnít work to just wear one thick, heavy pair of coveralls with light clothes underneath so, as youíve read for years, you have to layer. I start off with silk or polypropylene long underwear and then layer according to the temperature. Wool is excellent because it traps air, however I have found that for late season whitetail deer hunting I prefer Artic Shield, Walls, or Raven Wear Clothing. Fleece is also very effective and this past fall I wore up to three fleece pullovers underneath my coveralls and that kept me toasty warm. Itís also important to have at least one layer that will stop the wind from penetrating.
The extremities are really where you need to focus. On my feet I wear polypropylene socks under wool and then I put on pac-style boots with liners that are absolutely dry because I keep them on one of those boot dryers overnight. If itís really cold I take a pair of chemical toe-warmers with the adhesive backing and stick them on the bottom of my toes before slipping them in the boot. Since I started doing that, cold feet are a thing of the past.
For my hands I like to wear a wool military glove underneath a fleece glove you can buy at a clothing store. That combination is extremely quiet and thatís important. Iíve yet to find a decent pair of camouflage hunting gloves that keep me warm and arenít noisy. However, I donít depend on the wool/fleece combination to keep my hands warm. I keep them in the insulated pockets of my jacket, or I strap an insulated muff around my waist and keep my hands in that. Again, cold hands are a thing of the past. Those muffs can be stuffed with hot hands shake up heat warmers.
For my head, where most of my body heat can be lost, I wear a hoodie, a barclava, a knit facemask with an insulated ball cap underneath. I like to have the visor over my eyes when looking into the sun. If itís really cold Iíll wear two knit facemasks. Another option is one of those pullover neck warmer/head cover combinations. They are fleece, camouflage, adjustable and very warm. I have also heard hunters brag about the abilities of the Heater Body Suit. Itís like a sleeping bag with an interior harness. I can enclose my arms inside and when a deer comes I can quietly pull the zipper down and the harness keeps the suit up while I slip my arms out and grab my bow. It looks cumbersome, but it works. Also heaters in box blinds can assist but remember they will put forth odors that are detectable to the whitetail deer and should only be used while using firearms as when deer smell the heaters with archery hunting during late season whitetail hunting you usually get busted long before they are within archery range.
If all that is not keeping me warm, I go home and wait for nicer temperatures. I strongly recommend artic shield products along with walls. I have faced the most bitter temps in the world with these products and never even got cold. Oh yes its true.
MISC SUGGESTIONS FOR LATE SEASON WHITETAIL DEER HUNTING
By winter months, you are probably wondering where you can possibly go from here to find a nice buck. Well, here are a few late season hunting tips that may help you score big before time runs out.
Look for Quiet - Most hunters will hunt the first few days or weekends of the season and then bag their deer, simply give up, or run out of time. The places they hunted have been undisturbed for a while and the local deer know this. Look for areas that have received little disturbance since mid-season and secluded feeding areas such isolated food plots or feeders that receive little attention. Areas that have had little to no hunting pressure are prime late season hunting hot spots.
Hunt the Moon - Youíve heard this one before, but late season can be more important than ever for timing the moon phases. Deer naturally become more nocturnal during the winter in part because of the energy benefits they receive by resting during the day when itís a bit warmer and moving around to feed at night when itís colder. However, during the dark of the moon or several nights with heavy cloud cover, deer will much more active in the mornings.
Hunt the Weather - Time your hunting with not only the moon, but with cold weather and cold fronts. In the southern U.S., this can be the most important thing a hunter can do in late season. Although winter temperatures can be relatively mild by northern standards, a good cold front can drop the nightly low temperatures into the teens and keep the daily high temperatures below freezing for several days. This cold weather requires high energy consumption by smaller-bodied southern deer ó and they get hungry! Time your cold weather with the moon, and the chances of catching that hungry mature buck moving around, especially during the morning, increase significantly.
Go Untraditional Ė If you have set blinds, stands, or areas that you or others typically hunt in your area, get away from them! Deer pattern people as much or more than people pattern deer. Going untraditional may mean hunting between hunting blinds or areas where hunters are normally set up. Find un-hunted upland travel corridors as well as wooded creeks and bottomlands deer love. Mature whitetail bucks know the weak spots in your ďnormalĒ game plan. They can walk across a property without being spotted, even if it means going across a wide open field where he knows you are not. Also, consider hunting untraditional areas at untraditional times, especially during a full moon. During a full moon, deer move more during mid-day, and if you are in the ďwrongĒ place at the ďwrongĒ time, you might just surprise ole big boy!