Focus on food and cover for late-season deer hunting success
“Oh, baby it’s cold outside”…
As hunters embark upon the winter woodlots for late-season deer, this popular holiday tune may still be on their minds — especially if their flintlock or bow of choice is frozen to their hands.
While low temperatures in late-season are never a guarantee, it’s fair to bank on cold weather; and as wet as the year has been thus far, precipitation very well may be in the mix before the season’s end, too.
Hunting after the holidays can be difficult in terms of weathering the elements, but it’s also still a decent opportunity to fill a tag for those willing to put in the extra time and effort.
Think about it – with cold weather comes the need to stay warm. That means deer will be hitting the feed heavily (wherever it is still available) and heading for winter thermal cover en masse to remain comfortable during the storm. With all that in mind, hunters should focus their efforts on hunting both food and cover to be successful in the late season.
So, which food sources are hot when the weather turns cold? High-calorie offerings typically are the best option this time of year. If you still have access to standing corn, soybeans or turnips, deer are almost certain to be hitting these crops on a daily basis.
Since the pressure of firearms season has subsided, deer will visit these fields freely and often choose to bed nearby if thermal cover is readily available. A simple observation with binoculars from afar can confirm daytime feed patterns, but if the ground is white with snow, it might be worth an early afternoon walk to confirm where the deer are entering and exiting the field. Hoof prints, digging marks and well-worn trails don’t lie.
If you haven’t been able to keep your eyes on the location prior to the season, hang a trail camera to see if the deer are visiting the field during daylight hours. If they are, hang a stand along the field edge on a downwind side of the trail and be ready for action whenever they are consistently feeding, which could be early morning, late evening, or even during mid-day when temperatures warm a bit.
If they are only emerging after sundown, consider moving further into the woods, as they may be using this block of cover as a staging area to assess the opening prior to dusk. Whatever the case, try to be as quiet as possible while hanging your stand and keep in mind that you will stand out more with no foliage on the trees. If possible, try to select a tree with multiple limbs, or even an evergreen to better conceal your human form.
If mountainous terrain is more accessible, finding the feed may be a bit less predictable. Many deer will move lower on the mountain to feed in agricultural fields during the night and can be intercepted while moving back to their bedding areas in the morning. But if acorns still remain — especially along south facing, laurel- or hemlock-lined slopes, plan to park it right where the deer most certainly will stay.
During this time of year, whitetails will nibble browse heavily, but only after they have consumed the last of the protein-rich nuts that have fallen. Since it was a bumper year for chestnut oak acorns in many areas of the state, try to seek out stands of these big, hearty oaks and search for signs of feeding activity on leftover morsels.
If hunting companions are available, a slow, meticulous sneak through laurel and evergreens might roust a few deer toward a fellow hunter positioned along an escape trail. A Christmas tree farm can be a safe haven for deer this time of year, and you’d be surprised what might be bedded in there. Remember, you’re using a bow, so the key is to bump the deer gently and not send them fleeing at full speed. No sounds need to be made, and if the “driver” is stealthy enough, he or she may even get a shot at a bedded deer.
If archery hunting, it’s also wise to practice shooting your bow in cold weather hunting garments before heading afield. While the mechanics are all the same as early season shooting, overly bulky gloves and outerwear can impede drawing, aiming and releasing a bow. Be sure to try this on the practice range to make sure everything works smoothly and without obstruction, so you know all will go well when it counts.
The same goes with flintlock or crossbow hunters. It’s important to know your sporting arm is in good working condition and you feel comfortable and confident enough to be proficient at the time of the shot.
Snow definitely helps with any tracking job after the shot, as well as the drag out, but be sure to give your deer plenty of time to expire, even if it means an extra half hour in the cold. This is especially important if the ground it dry and crunchy, as a loud, hasty follow-up can push a deer unnecessarily.
Late-season hunting certainly has its challenges, but for those who hunt the food and cover, it also comes with great rewards. Hang tough as you weather the cold, and you just might be singing, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” while proudly placing your tag on a post-holiday whitetail.